On Shauna Niequist's Present Over Perfect

           Shauna Niequist’s exquisite, gorgeously written new book, Present Over Perfect, is out today.  It also happens to be her best.  This is a writer at the height of her powers.   Her prose feels effortless—though as usual, she is altogether honest about all the ways her life is anything but.  This paradox captures much of what is so special about Shauna as a writer.  Pavarotti singing opera, Kanye making beats, and Russell Westbrook driving the lane all feel effortless too, but genius is deceitful that way.  The fact is, Shauna is a ruthlessly smart writer and relentless reader (who seems to read and metabolizes basically every good book ever written), but isn’t pretentious about any of it.  

This at least partly accounts for why Present Over Perfect occupies such a unique space.  When you read it, you will believe she does in fact experience life in all the elementally human ways that you and I do—but she tells about it much better than any of us could.  There is a sparseness, cleanness, an economy of words in the book that especially compels me.  Present Over Perfect does not contain a wasted sentence, nor for that matter a dishonest one.  Like, Hemingway, one of her literary heroes, she does not waste space with superfluous adjectives, fluff, or really anything that doesn’t actually take you anywhere. 

Shauna is s a master storyteller who makes every chapter feel like the content of a conversation over wine after one of her famous feasts.  But as she’s sharing her stories and her wisdom, she’s taking you down into the depths of your own soul.  Her own candor about love and family and work and fear broke me open to feel the frantic, harried nature of my own still frazzled inner life, and stirred up the ache and longing for a deeper, richer way of being.  And then she takes us on the journey with her, marking the signposts on the way toward wholeness. 

I was not surprised at the wit, honesty, or grace in the telling.  I was not surprised either by the clarity with which she narrates her hopes and heartaches, nor the ways she puts me back in touch with my own.  The universality—the getting-to-the-thing-beneath-the-thing quality, is something I’ve come to expect from Shauna Niequist as a writer. 

What I was not prepared for, perhaps, was just how much Present Over Perfect made me believe that it might yet be possible to de-clutter my own life for the “simple, more soulful way of living” she describes here.  For while I admire Shauna’s brand of truth-telling, the book made me want to live these truths even more than amen them.  There are no hollow or over-simplified promises here, which is part of why Present Over Perfect transcends the Christian living genre.  This is hard fought for, experiential wisdom forged in the fire of reality.  This is an invitation not to change your mind, but to change your life—a book that almost can’t be read without prompting prayer, tears, and self-examination.

And yet, none of it feels high, lofty, or esoteric.  Present Over Perfect is a summons to attend fully to the moment you’re in—the place where God always is.  To read it, is to come awake.

            

 

God's death matters.

A series of run-on images gallop through my brain: Alton Sterling’s body twitching, as his eyes roll back. The bright red stain spreads underneath Philando Castille’s white t-shirt. A wide-eyed little girl in the back seat. A black protestor poses with two cops, one white, one black — innocent grins stretched over each of them — before the shooting of five police officers in Dallas. A broad-shouldered black cop, tears streaming, hugging a light-skinned woman, after. The reel flickers: I see a cross; the swollen eyes of God looking down at me. I cannot un-see any of these things. I do not understand the things that are tensing up inside me, like a coiled snake.

I want to detach myself from all of it, as if at least one “they” is not somehow “us,” as if I share no complicity in the world I helped create. I share the inclinations of a people still, to think I am an ahistorical man, a practitioner of an ahistorical religion, a follower of an apolitical Jesus. Yet the cross is not just where God once appeared, it is the place God is always appearing: the face of Jesus contorted by human violence performed on him— God’s own body, twitching. I stand in the crowd as guilty as anyone else, beholding my sin, and perhaps my salvation, in the murder of God.

To behold the lamb at all, is to enter into judgment. The shadow of the cross is the dark that illumines everything. The image of the crucified ones stirs some to defensiveness, to denial, to white-hot shame; some to repentance, humility and trust. The horror turns some to the modern-day Baal worship of the gun, the cult of the metal phallus — a god of our own making that cannot protect nor save. Some turn their eyes to look away. But God appears to us again, through mangled black bodies. We see the fruit of our sin in the bruises. Will we be saved or condemned, based on what we do with what we see?

The night obscures our vision, so we can see everything more clearly. We enter into the ambiguity of blindness, where every broken body is God’s. With blurred eyes we see the stranger, the other, lying naked by the side of the road, and some of us come to bring the oil and wine to nurse his wounds — only to find that God himself is the One we are attending to. Suddenly then, we see ourselves as the one beaten and battered, and we see God in the face of the stranger who comes to attend to us. The eternal One gazes at us from all sides.

Through the mirror, my glass darkly, I see both my own wounds and the wounds I have inflicted, and my sight becomes a summons. What am I going to do with what I have seen? It is not just our safety that is on the line, but our souls that are at stake. Heaven and hell started before we got here, and neither delight nor torment await on our consent to begin. Judgment, like sight, is a summons.

The bodies tell the same truth, on the wood of every lynching tree, but the faces are always changing. Business goes on as usual on the hill of the skull, and yet nothing is the same. The sellers are still selling, the gamblers are still gambling; Pontius Pilate squeezes another dollop of hand sanitizer into his palms, nervously. The cock crows. Disillusioned from it all, the disciples go back to their day jobs, staring blankly at their smart phones. A man — is it a soldier, a cop, a terrorist, an assassin? — lowers an assault rifle, singed by hot tears, and looks up into hallowed, tender eyes. The only thing clear about the man standing under the cross, is that his face is lit up with salvation. Lightning flashes in the distance. The veil is rent. Spirit hovers over the graveyard in the old city. All our hidden ghosts and buried bodies are visible now, walking around in the light of day. The time of our visitation has come.

The jury comes back from deliberating our history, and we await our sentence — while we, ourselves, debate over sentences: “black lives matter…all lives matter!” As if nothing apocalyptic has happened to us. As if we could learn to love everyone, until we’ve learned to love anyone in particular. As if it were just competing ideologies or dueling candidates, and not gods we are trying to decide between. Father forgive us, we do not know what we do.

Until black lives matter to us, God will never matter to us, either.

hey preacher!

Hey preacher!

Don’t let anybody tell you that you ought to detach yourself from the pain of the world, to get “perspective” on it.  Who told you that? You lean further in.  You let the hurt spill into the house.  Let it feed on you.  If there is to be any peace for you, it’s not from some rapture—you find the quiet center in the eye of the storm.  You don’t rise above it.  You go deeper into the black.  You transcend the moment you’re in not by escaping it, but going deeper in, still. 

Hey preacher!

You are here to speak for God and to speak for people who can't speak for themselves.  You speak for poetry and you speak for justice.  You think you get to keep your sanity?  You’re already crazy for doing this at all.  Accept it.

Hey preacher!

Do you really like playing the part of Rev. Lovejoy on The Simpsons?  The hell you do.  You think God somehow wanted you to sacrifice all your native wildness?  Do you hate yourself for denying the jazz in you, the blues in you, the shout in you, the rage in you?  Have you held the fire in for so long, that it’s hollowed you out?  Then do not hold it any longer.  You have a microphone, and you have the fire.  It’s still not too late, to burn it all down.

Hey preacher!

Be nice to the board, and listen to them.  But they don’t know anymore about preaching than you know about engineering or fixing cars, and they don’t get to tell you what to say.  Nobody owns the copyright to the fire in your belly.  Don’t cower.  Seriously. Don’t cower. 

Hey preacher!

You can weep like Jeremiah.  You can preach naked like Isaiah.  You can eat locusts and wild honey like John the Baptist.  You can talk trash like the Apostle Paul, and write in big letters.  You can get sawed in half or have your head served up on a platter.  You can climb Mt. Sinai and come back down.  But for the love of God, say something.  Say something real.  Call the fire down, preacher woman. Make me feel something, preacher man.

Hey preacher!

Go ahead and use those lovely quotes from those great theologians, but don’t hide your heart behind them.  Let them see you bleed a little, too. 

Hey preacher! 

From Herbert McCabe’s Love, Law and Language:   “The Christian minister is meant to be neither the pillar of an established quasi-feudal order, as conservative Christians are inclined to think, nor is he the democratic representative of a quasi-bourgeois society as the progressives seem to suggest; he is a revolutionary leader whose job is the subversion of the world through the preaching of the gospel.  He exercises authority amongst his people not as maintaining an established structure; he is the leader of his people in a movement towards a new community.  He is representative of his people not necessarily in the sense of being their elected spokesman; he may represent them in the way a revolutionary leader does, a way that is not obvious to them and only becomes clear when the revolution is achieved.”

Feel your blood run hot just then while you read that?  Yeah you did.  It felt good, didn’t it?  Because you were not put here to mind the store.  That’s not what you came here for, in the beginning.  You did not come to keep the peace.  You came, for the revolution. 

So go start it.

Hey preacher!

Be a fire and brimstone preacher of love. 

God outside the Stonewall Inn

The night gnaws at me from the outside like the fear does from within, the world in my stomach  is churning. I know there’s a hell because there is a place in me, where the worm dieth not. But brimstone or no brimstone, I am cold. I know the wood beneath me is hot. Seeking comfort, I stretch out my hands, hoping to be lapped gently by tongues of fire.

I’ve been marooned in this moment, a thousand times over. The wind keeps carrying me back to it. And every time, the scene ends the same: she walks over and says she knows she saw me with them. Every time, I hedge my bets, I put my hands in my pockets; I stumble. I swear.  I deny. 

But this is not the Biblical tale, and I am no poor man’s Simon Peter. In the red-soaked heartland where I live, it is okay to say you have seen Jesus. Everybody has seen the man, and everybody has a story to tell about him. People here say they have seen Jesus in thorn bushes and cloud formations and jars of mustard, at the top of the mountain and the bottom of the bottle. People say they have seen the face of Jesus appear in a caesar salad, and heard his voice somehow in the radio static; they’ve seen stars turn into crucifixes like birds in formation. In a way I believe them all, since the One for whom poetry herself dances fills all things, with or without their permission. In a way everyone who says they have seen him tells the truth, even if they don’t mean to. 

So it is not the fact that I have seen him that causes me consternationwe tell those stories with the joy of proud grandparents. It is where I have seen him, and how, and with whom I have seen him. Do I tell her I saw him last week in New York City at the vigil for Orlando, outside the Stonewall Inn? Could I explain how I felt the Spirit in the air, the same Love I felt at the tent revival? But there was no church, and there was no steeple; I was outside the gate with LGBTQ people.

It was the night after 49 sons and daughters lied down in a pool of blood, carried away from their mothers by the evening tide. They were holding onto each other in bathrooms stacked with corpses while blood filled their noses, and the floorand it was the night after. The phones were still lighting up their pockets against lifeless bodies, when the rescue workers came hours later, the sound of heaving mothers in autotune, turned into the sound of an iphone. This was the night after. The people came like Israelites, to a place they knew as a temple, to wail, to chant, to hope, to sing their songs of lament, and to beg their country to stop screwing themselves to death with their own guns. 

It was there I last saw the man from Galilee, amidst the shouts and pain, in the thick of fierce love and God-forsakeness. It was in their tears that I saw the grief of God, and in their clinging to each other I felt God clinging onto us.  Outside the gate, outside the temple, outside the city that kills her prophets and stones those who are sent to herit was there that I last saw him. God with us, the friend of sinners, stood in our midst.   

Some of the friends of Jesus would not be caught dead there. Yet in the same city this week, they took pictures with Donald Trump, with their thumbs in the air. And that day, that one day, they did in fact say but he is the friend of sinners! and they were right when they said it. It is just that their Jesus is only the friend of sinners, when the sinner in question happens to be Caesar. He’s a friend of Caesars, because they want to be friends of Caesars. The old moral majority is frail and mortal now, hoping that Trump can make America great againand Lord willing, make them great again too. Remember us when you come into your kingdom, they whispered to the man in the red ball cap, as they handed their own Iphones to their sons to take their photos.

I, like them, cannot fathom my own complicity in the Babylon I helped to build. We cannot fathom the comedy of our clown's Eucharist, breaking the bread with fingers sticky from blood and gun powder, counting money and getting off.  Preaching a gospel without justice, a God who asks nothing of us in particular toward the poor...a religion in which the cross is negotiable, but the assault rifle is not. The violence in the world exposes the darkness in us, and this is judgment. Still, the lamb standing as if slain draws near to us even now, summoning us to follow him wherever he goes, to love not our own lives even unto death. To come apart from the city of violence, to join him in making all things new. 

Something shifts in my watery stomach while I’m sitting at the fire tonight, revisiting the crime scene of my own betrayal(s). I have acted on my fears more often than on my faith, as much as anyone. But I feel truth rising from the back of me, like hunger. I know I’ve been to many temples, been on the other side of the veil, and found a little man behind a curtain more often than I’ve found some sort of wizard or some kind of ark-most especially behind the veil of my own frail heart.  Yet with relentless consistency, every time I’ve been outside the gate, I have seen the man—I have seen Jesus. But it’s really not Jesus you want me to disown now, is it?  It’s his friends you want me to deny.

Still outside the Stonewall Inn, I know I saw men of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  We hid our faces from them; we esteemed them stricken by God, afflicted.  But Christ was there, with them.  Christ is with all of those who are outside the gate.  I saw him there, in them, all over again.

This time, I will not deny. 

the hovering.

           It’s not that I don’t feel I belong in Oklahoma, but that I rarely feel I belong anywhere in particular, now.  I have no romance with any soil anywhere, anymore.  I am no longer connected to land, to place, to time.  Still I think Oklahoma might be the ideal home for the lost and the homeless: the big open space between coasts, in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everything.  It is a place for drifters shuffling across the dust bowl, Steinbeck country, wide lens sky under which I taste my own grapes of wrath. 

              While I am not intimate with the land, this night is different— feeling the faint electricity in the air still two days away from the storm, the slow early dance steps between sky and thunder.  God hangs over me, heavy-footed in the clouds, arched round like a pregnant mother.  I feel the weight of my losses and the lightness of no change in my pockets, still a long way from home, but so decisively alive.  Spirit is a wanderer and thus an unreliable lover, but I feel her attention through the balmy breeze.  I’m bone tired of turning knobs and fiddling with the antenna, trying to find the frequency where I can listen to her.  But tonight I know… she is listening to me.

            “So....” I feel a shuffling inside, a middle school boy again.  “I’m back to my old ways of talking about you, but still feeling like I don’t know how to talk to you.  I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to ask for, and I don’t know what any of this means.  I just need your help.  Please, please, please…is there some way you can still help me now?”  I don’t quite hear a reply, but I feel more in the wind than far-off thunder—the playfulness of Spirit, the belly of the pregnant mother bouncing over me, laughing.  Tenderness settles over in the cloud, and smiles.

            I feel the stillness rise in me, the quiet just before the storm comes.  The thoughts stop swirling and the voices go eerily silent in my head, the voices of the mad hatter and the old-time preacher, voices from the cell phone and from the peanut gallery.  Spirit presses down on me from the same heavy clouds, an invisible hand in the wind pressed firm against my forehead—telling me to hush.  And then its not the voice of a mother but of a son that comes tumbling from the clouds, the words come rolling through me: “Come unto me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

            This is just happening in my brain, synapses and neurons firing: “I am just telling myself things I want to hear,” I say.  Spirit presses light but firm now, and the hush returns.  The man’s voice is sweet and playful, as I hear the words again, “Come unto me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  My eyes are full now, like the belly of the mother.  The water breaks.  The words come softly, over and over, and I feel something rise inside.  Spirit still hovers in thickness of the clouds.  Then I lose the first part of the sentence, and all I hear is:

And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you…

 I will give, and I will give, and I will give, and I will give

And I’ll keep giving and I’ll keep giving and I’ll keep giving

And I will and I will and I will and I will

And I am.

            I have no words of my own; too tired now to fight with the wind.  Exhausted, I hear myself whisper “yes” into the Oklahoma sky.  Some part of me trusts that new life is being delivered.  I’ve been born more than once, and died more than once too. Yet I am startled by the newness.  Could it be quite so simple to be born again, all over, just like that?  Saying yes to the wind, and to the pregnant mother? 

            I am still in tears.  The breeze is still laughing.  

 

           

            

grace may yet make us traitors.

Most people of faith (in North America) read every line about everything that matters through the prism of conservative/liberal politics...just like everybody else. These are not theological categories, and I get tired of trying to tread softly around them.

But just this once, let me speak to them directly: the trouble with liberalism, classically defined, is the attempt to get at a just and good end (addressing issues of economic injustice, poverty, and inequality) without a clear spiritual center. It is the great mistake people make, for example, in how they use the teaching of Martin Luther King. Without King's explicit theological framework, King's vision of the beloved community is literally impossible. The kind of world King and other prophets of our time have envisioned, in which there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, is made possible "in Christ." Without the king, and the thoroughgoing transformation that the Spirit of God makes possible, such a community is simply unattainable. Attempts then to extract ideals from this vision of beloved community without a robust spiritual center are destined to fail, and they always do.

On the other hand, contemporary conservative politics often borrow the language of Christian religion explicitly, almost wholesale--and even cite Jesus as the king, without any understanding of the character of the kingdom he founded. Instead of extracting political ends of justice, peace and equality, conservatives attempt to extract some kind of moral system-a kingdom that likewise does not require the king in order to work. This is especially foolhardy, as the gospel not only does not contain a "moral system"--it fundamentally opposes and overthrows moral systems with the radical message of grace. This deception may be more dangerous than the former, precisely because it explicitly co-opts the language of the Church...thus making it even more likely to become idolatrous. The conservative folk religion we have created, unlike its liberal counterpart, uses Christian language but utterly rejects the radical self-sacrificial, enemy love of the cross. The religion of the powerless in the hands of the powerful becomes another religion altogether.

And so finally, the people of God are restless. They are intuitively suspect of liberal ideals that have no soul, and conservative ideals that have no cross. They are disenchanted, disillusioned, and disoriented with the options they have been given. And this is great grace. Where the words of the commentators fall flat, the world becomes hungry for the voice of prophets once again. In the cracks, space is developing for the voice that is altogether Other--the voice that will not be co-opted for the sake of the needs of any particular nation-state.

Where right and left are committed to the welfare of the people of a nation, perhaps the time has come again for people who pledge their allegiance to another kingdom. Over against the voices that are committed to build a better America, there are yet people who crave the peculiar treason of cross-shaped love. In being unlike the world, the Church may yet become a people truly for the world, once again.

Grace may yet make us traitors, to nearly everyone but God.

don't stand up for Jesus (revisited)

Jesus doesn't ask us to stand up FOR him. He asks us to stand WITH him.

Jesus is not in danger. The worst thing that could happen to him has already happened, and God has raised him from the dead. Jesus is not threatened by anyone, or anything.

Even when he was in "danger," he refused to resist evil with evil or to fight fire with fire. He didn't teach his disciples to protect him. He told Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world." (That's this week's lectionary text from the gospels--the Holy Spirit is an awfully wise DJ). When the soldiers came to seize him, and the zealot Peter hacked off the high priest's ear, Jesus tells him to "Put away your sword."

The trouble with so many of us is that we are living from a posture of defense, afraid somebody is going to take something away from us--be it our faith, our freedom, our money, our way of life--maybe even "OUR Jesus!" Because there is very real violence in the world, and thus very real reasons to be afraid, we begin to adapt the language and strategy of a people in retreat--conserve, protect, guard, defend. The instinct is perfectly normal, and quintessentially human. But it is at odds with the gospel of the kingdom. Like the king who inaugurated it, we are called not to self-protect or defend our lives, but to lay them down. We are called not to defend Jesus, but to bear witness to the Crucified One. In the words of Marilynne Robinson's ever wise novel, Gilead, "Nothing true about God can be said from a posture of defense."

God is not in need of our protection, because God is not in danger. And because we share in the resurrection power of Christ, we aren't in any ultimate danger, either. But there are people all around us who are, people who are living in fragile places, on the margins. These are the people Jesus is always standing for, and with. As I have found out first hand in my own shipwreck, he doesn't just stand with the innocent--he stands with the guilty. When I couldn't stand up for myself, Jesus stood up for me. That's why I love him so much more now than ever.

Now he asks us not to stand up for him, but to stand with him--to stand with the lonely, the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the hungry, the weak, the marginalized, the neglected.

"Put away your sword," Jesus would say to us. Don't stand up for yourself, or for your rights.

Don't stand up for Jesus. Stand with Jesus.

the worst case scenario.

No matter who we elect or what stance they take toward the world, it is inevitable: more terror is coming. The technology is too advanced and too accessible in a world that is already horribly broken. I have no doubts that we will live to see more apocalyptic events--not because of prophecy but arithmetic.

The unique claim of the Church, however, is that the worst thing that could ever happen has already happened: God died. We crucified the Son of love. And yet God has overcome the forces of death, with resurrection. This, and only this, is the reason we are able to live in the world without fear.

Now the worst case scenario is not something that evil men might to do us--the worst thing would be that we prove to be unfaithful to Jesus. The tragedies inflicted on us by people who have no light, no love, no gospel, and no truth pales in comparison to the tragedy of people who have the light of Christ denying the poor, the alien, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. The pain inflicted by men full of devils is far less surprising than indifference toward suffering from the people of the cross.

No violence in the world could ever be as tragic as when the Church ceases to be the Church.

a review of Sarah Bessey's new book, Out of Sorts

I'm reading a lot of solid, "good" new books these days from other spiritual writers with Pentecostal/charismatic and evangelical backgrounds. Sarah Bessey's new release, Out of Sorts, is not one of them.

Among the burgeoning crop of gifted writers coming from those worlds, there is plenty of robust theological reflection, and even increasingly artful literary construction. There is certainly extraordinary, exciting academic work out there these days. But in the broader landscape of true spiritual writing--books that speak the universal language of spirit--there just aren't that many new voices distinct or soulish enough to produce new classics. That rare air has been almost exclusively the domain of Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Christians, transcendent voices that have bypassed the evangelical book empire altogether. This is the space reserved for Henri Nouwen and his sparse, soul-bare prose, all those deceptively simple little books that translate to any earthling with a pulse. This is the space reserved for the ferociously eloquent Barbara Brown Taylor, who was kissed by all the writing gods, virtually incapable of writing an imperfect sentence. It is Thomas Merton territory, who was dropped here from another planet. It is Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Brennan Manning territory, ground where mortal spiritual writers do not trod. Even Anne Lamott, who belongs in that canon on the sheer merit that her voice has such a distinct sound. The rest of us (i.e., people like me) can play a few of their riffs, along with a few new sounds here and there, and call it a book. Many are called to cover bands, few Chris Martins are chosen (and even less Bonos).

The sound you'll hear in Out of Sorts is of Sarah Bessey moving out of the pack of good, solid, up-and-coming spiritual writers, and taking her place in the pantheon of the greats. It's a more refined, prophetic, poetic sound, a sound all her own. I loved Jesus Feminist, and I love Sarah's blogs. But the book as a whole is in a different sphere, in equal measure vulnerable and confidently written. Sarah is not just a blogger-done-good. She's cemented herself here as one of the defining spiritual voices of a generation.  I am aware that she is not looking to be knighted, and I'm in no position to confer anything, anyway. But hell...I know greatness when I see it.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this is that in terms of an overall thesis, Sarah doesn't do anything especially novel in Out of Sorts. "Making peace with an evolving faith" is the subtitle, and I can't imagine too many people who would be blown away by the notion that faith is of a transient nature, that a life of instability and constant renegotiation makes trust both possible and necessary. And it's a much more common trope now that doubt and questions, and even protest, are a normal part of the spiritual life. Her approach to Scripture and Jesus-centered faith, while decidedly fresh in its articulation, is also hardly novel; as is her general metaphor of spirituality as a rummage sale. It's deceitfully simple, see--like Henri Nouwen's books, or a Lennon/McCartney melody you felt like you knew forever the first time you heard it. It sounds like something anybody could come up with--when there aren't but a handful of people on the planet capable of channeling such a thing.

Because with Sarah Bessey, it's not what she says--it is the way she says it. She speaks with an authority foreign to the scribes and pharisees. It's not prose, it's prophecy. Perhaps I should work for something that sounds more sophisticated than "Sarah Bessey has the Holy Ghost," but it would be a, less accurate and b, not give me the opportunity for clever wordplay on the concept of "ghostwriting." (Because see, the Holy Ghost is like her "ghostwriter" and...this, this right here is why I'm staying back with the pack) In fact, I would go so far as to say the title/construct is arguably not entirely representative of what the book is about. I think Out of Sorts is really a book about the Holy Spirit. She's on nearly every page here, implicitly and explicitly. Sarah is writing about the Spirit, but more significantly, she's writing in the Spirit. "Part of my own journey has been to finally admit and embrace that I am a bit of a mystic. I'm thirsty for the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is my first language when words fail--which, in this life, happen often." You'll read that on pg. 157, but you'll know it within the first twenty pages, if you are paying attention.

In fact, this non-academic book that makes no claims whatsoever about being a work of constructive Pentecostal/charismatic theology is the brightest, most blazing thing I've read on the Spirit in ages. It's not just that Sarah talks openly and unapologetically (yet somehow without self-conscious piety) about dreams, visions, signs, wonders and tongues-though she does-but that the writing itself embodies the Spirit she bears witness to. In her cocktail of boldness and humility, and in that first-person, prophetic, talk-to-the-reader-thing that Sarah has mastered without a single false or condescending note--the Spirit is all over this book. "My words are Spirit and life," Jesus said. And such is the power in Sarah Bessey's Spirit-filled voice--the transaction with the reader is one of transformation, not of information. She isn't giving you six steps towards renewed spiritual whatever whatever; she is prophesying over a valley of dry bones. Perhaps this is why the book so easily transcends the right/left cultural divides many of us capitulate to-she's doing something more ancient, here. Sarah Bessey isn't going for "Christian living"--she's going straight Ezekiel on your ass. 

This could read pretentious, of course, if Sarah's voice was not so genuine, not so thoroughgoingly authentic. But hence my quite partial review comes full circle: Sarah Bessey has a voice unlike few others, in our time. In a world of commentators, she's a prophetess. Out of Sorts is a book that you don't read for the ideas, but for the wind beneath them. While the theme of messy, evolving faith is consistent throughout the book ("If our theology doesn't shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we're paying attention," she writes), that construct is not really the point. Put concisely, Out of Sorts is a trojan horse for resurrection; a book that doesn't convince you of anything, so much as breathe onto you, and into you.

It is not just the unique sound of Sarah Bessey you'll hear, but the sound of a rushing, mighty wind. 

(you can buy a copy here-and clearly I hope you will!)

 

 

Jacques Ellul on why the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is "against morality"

Speaking this past weekend at Sanctuary, I wondered into some of my thoughts on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. With that in view, I got to thinking about this stunning excerpt from Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity on how the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is "against morality." I've never quite got over it, and in context of some of those larger ideas, it felt worth sharing today. It is as provocative, disturbing, and undeniably, prophetically true now as it was when Ellul wrote it in 1986: 

First, in the Hebrew Bible the Torah is not a book of morality, whether as constructed by a moralist or as lived out by a group.   The Torah, as God’s Word, is God’s revelation about himself.  It lays down what separates life from death and symbolizes the total sovereignty of God.  Similarly, what Jesus says in the Gospels is not morality.  It has an existential character and rests on a radical change of being.  Again, what Paul says in the exhortations in his letters is not morality but consists of practical directions by way of example.  Second, there is no system in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  There are no moral precepts that can exist independently in some way, that can have universal validity, and that can serve the elaboration of a moral system.  Third, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality.  Not only is it honestly impossible to derive a moral system from the Gospels and Epistles, but, further, the main keys in the gospel – the proclamation of grace, the declaration of pardon, and the opening up of life to freedom – are the direct opposite of morality.  For they imply that all conduct, including that of the devout, or the most moral, is wholly engulfed in sin.

As Genesis shows us, the origin of sin in the world is not knowledge, as is often said (as though God were interdicting our intellectual development, which would be absurd); it is the knowledge of good and evil.  In the context knowledge means decision.  What is not acceptable to God is that we should decide on our own what is good and what is evil.  Biblically, the good is in fact the will of God.  That is all.  What God decides, whatever it may be, is the good.  If, then, we decide what the good is, we substitute our own will for God’s.  We construct a morality when we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners.  To elaborate a moral system is to show oneself to be a sinner before God, not because the conduct is bad, but because, even if it is good, another good is substituted for the will of God.

This is why Jesus attacks the Pharisees so severely even though they are the most moral of people, live the best lives, and are perfectly obedient and virtuous.  They have progressively substituted their own morality for the living and actual Word of God that can never be fixed in commandments.  In the Gospels Jesus constantly breaks religious precepts and moral rules.  He gives as his own commandment, “Follow me,” not a list of things to do or not to do.  He shows us fully what it means to be a free person with no morality, but simply obeying the ever-new Word of God as it flashes forth.  Similarly, Paul attacks what might seem to be morality in Judaism, rules and precepts laid down by men and not coming from God at all.  The great mutation is that we have been freed in Jesus Christ.  The primary characteristic of free people is that they are not bound to moral commandments.  “All things are lawful,” Paul twice proclaims.  “Nothing is impure,” he teaches.  We find the same message in Acts.  We are as free as the Holy Spirit, who comes and goes as he wills.  This freedom does not mean doing anything at all.  It is the freedom of love.  Love, which cannot be regulated, categorized, or analyzed into principles or commandments, takes the place of law.  The relationship with others is not one of duty but of love.

When I say that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality, I am not trying to say that it replaces one form of morality with another.  (How many times, alas, we read that Christian morality is superior to all others.  This is not even true.  We find honest and virtuous people, good husbands, fathers, and children, scrupulous and truthful people outside Christianity, and more perhaps than there are Christians.)  Revelation is an attack on all morality, as is wonderfully shown by the parables of the kingdom of heaven, that of the prodigal son, that of the talents, that of the eleventh-hour laborers, that of the unfaithful steward, and many others.  In all the parables the person who serves as an example has not lived a moral life.  The one who is rejected is the one who has lived a moral life.  Naturally this does not mean that we are counseled to become robbers, murderers, adulterers, etc.  On the contrary, the behavior to which we are summoned surpasses morality, all morality, which is shown to be an obstacle to encounter with God.

Love obeys no morality and gives birth to no morality.  None of the great categories of revealed truth is relative to morality or can give birth to it; freedom, truth, light, Word, and holiness do not belong at all to the order of morality.  What they evoke is a model of being, a model of life that is very free, that involves constant risks, that is constantly renewed.  The Christ-fixed duty has to be done no matter what course life may take.  Morality always interdicts this mode of being.  It is an obstacle to it and implicitly condemns it, just as Jesus is inevitably condemned by moral people.

the sound of being born (looking for salvation in Madison Square Garden)

I am going to take it easy for a bit on sharing book excerpts, generally. But I felt like I somehow needed to share something that actually has some joy in it--the kind of joy that ambushes you at night, like a stranger, even when you've been spending your days trying to drown out the sound of your demons. In July, I went to see U2 in New York City at Madison Square Garden. I said little about it at the time to much of anyone-the experience was too holy. It was within weeks of the deadline for How to Survive a Shipwreck. At least for a moment, it was an experience of my soul finding the shore--so at the last minute, I included it, late in the manuscript: 

I was afraid Tulsa would feel like exile.  But instead the town itself has been synonymous with the name of the Church I work for now—sanctuary.  The simple authenticity of the people here makes me feel even safer than the ingrained politeness of the South where I grew up.  I have good friends and genuine community here that help bring me back to life, slowly.  I thought that in letting go of the town where I felt called, I might be letting go of God himself.  What a surprise, to find out he has a place in Tulsa, too. 

Many days, I wake up feeling like I misplaced my whole life, and there are tears.  I still wonder how I got here, sometimes.  I feel like the new puppy, Stella, I got a few weeks after I arrived, the day I brought her home.  It was time for bed, and you could almost hear through her squealing—but where is my mom?  What happened to my family?  What am I doing here?  And yet in the softness of my new friends here, there is grace. 

 I had just been in Tulsa for a little over a month about the time that U2’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” tour was coming to an end.  I had not missed a North American U2 tour in 20 years, and was seized with the impulse that I could not bear to miss one, now.  A lifelong fan who had been to 15 shows before, I actually wasn’t sure that I was ready for the emotion I knew would be waiting at the door of the arena, if I showed up then.  But for all that had changed and was still changing, the wide open spaces of U2’s music had always felt to me like home.  So just days before the show, I splurged to make it all happen—a last minute flight to New York City to the next-to-last show of the tour, in Madison Square Garden.

I was in the city for less than 24 hours.  I had been there a number of times before, but never like this, in my discolored new skin, on these unsteady new feet, as a stranger to my new life.  It was alien; and it was magical.  Down on the floor, a few feet away from the stage, letting all of me out into the wideness of sound, I sung out my old innocence, and sung into my own songs of experience, going from the garden into the depths of hell, and came back round again.  I already had quite a soul-history with the song “Beautiful Day,” a tune about the life that begins with the sky falls.  But I had never had the sky fall in like this before.  I had never lost so much.  And thus, I had never known such skin-bursting new life, that thing that came out of my chest cavity during as I sang along with Bono at the top of my lungs: “WHAT YOU DON’T HAVE, YOU DON’T NEED IT NOW, WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU CAN FEEL, SOMEHOW!”  God, yes.   

The fleeting moments of joy I had experienced thus far—and there truthfully had not been many of them, yet—came wrapped in guilt for swaddling clothes.  It was as if any new life I experienced that brought me pleasure, was a life that did not belong to me, and thus a life I had no business enjoying.  And so during the song “City of Blinding Lights,” while Bono was singing, “some pray for, others steal, blessings not just for the ones that kneel…luckily,” I am weeping.   Because I know that whether I feel I have a proper claim on these new gifts or not, God is the one who is giving them.  And in the same way that the shipwreck taught me to open my hands, and open my life, and let the waves have their way with me; now I had to give myself over to wave of blessing sweeping over me, just as much.  Again here comes the Spirit, sweeping over the face of the waters—like she always does. 

Throughout the tour, the band had been playing a cover of Paul Simon’s beautiful “Mother and Child Reunion” during the encore:

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 

Oh, little darling of mine,

I can't for the life of me

Remember a sadder day

I know they say, "Let it be"

But it just don't work out that way

And the course of a lifetime runs

Over and over again

 

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 

Oh, little darling of mine,

I just can't believe it's so

Though it seems strange to say

I never been laid so low

In such a mysterious way and the course of a lifetime runs

Over and over again

 

But I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

When the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 It’s a song that moves me deeply, that Simon wrote after his dog died in 1971—and how I missed my sweet little dog, back in North Carolina.  How I missed, everything.  It’s a song about not giving false hope, and how unrealistic it is in grief to follow the counsel of the Beatles a few years before, and just “let it be.”  And yet there is this message embedded, too, that there is still a reunion possible, somewhere on the other side, “only a motion away.”  That maybe there is a space just beyond this one, where all the things we can’t make right on this side of veil, will be made right, still.  That there is a reunion on the other side of us, where we can be reunited with all those we feel estranged from now, in a kingdom big enough for all of them, with new hearts big enough to love and embrace them all.  And their hearts will be large enough, too, in this spaciousness of grace, to embrace us back, past all of our sins against them. 

 Since it was New York City, and the end of the tour—there was Paul Simon, just in front of the stage.  The 73-year old songwriter got up on stage to join U2, while Bono bowed, and sung it through with the band behind him.  I heard myself say, out loud, “My God.”  I felt a reunion in my own soul, with own God, with my own life.  I was not yet at home in the world, and in some ways may never be…until the day.  But I was at home inside my own skin again, at least, and in my weary bones. 

 If there was still some ambiguity, about whether or not the hoped for reunion can or will be realized, U2’s guitarist The Edge answered the question, chiming out the opening chords to the band’s most soulish anthem, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  If that is not what being born again sounds like, what is?

Then and now,  I’m as white as I ever was.  But damn if I don’t have my own shout.

the politics of demonization (demonic talk on immigration, & other things)

Nothing we can say or do can reduce the inherent dignity of another human, created in the image of God. But when we demonize an "other," we dehumanize ourselves, and turn ourselves into demons. No wonder, since accusation and blame are at the very center of what Scripture describes as "the Satan"--literally, the accuser. In the same way that love is not just something that God does, love is what God is; accusation is not what Satan does--it is what Satan is.

This is why spiritually sensitive people, whether inside or outside the church, feel a palpable, intangible soul-sickness when they engage (or even just overhear) much of our current political discourse in America. There is a real malaise, a very real and sometimes overwhelming negative energy that consumes us, when we are devouring someone else. It can feel like there are toxins in the air (note that Scripture refers to the Satan as the prince of the power of the air) that we ingest, coating our spirits the way second-hand smoke can coat our lungs. Thinking we are becoming more attuned to the darkness in someone else, the evil in our own hearts is what is actually illuminated. 

It is not overstatement to say that, in Christian terms, much of our discourse is actually demonic-for we actively and regularly engage in the politics of demonization. Especially in a dumbed-down, caricaturized two-party system, no side is left unscathed. The toxicity of the process is so terrible for my soul, I want to go to Mexico for most of 2016, just to try and save myself. Elections now are a non-stop assault on reason, a wholesale slaughter of nuance. The level of blame leveled on "the other side" of whatever side we are on, continues to hit new levels of irrationality. This is true of most any election, now. 

There may still be a deeper and saner place within us that knows that our blame is wildly out of proportion--that whatever we think ills us really can't simply be entirely the fault of illegal immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, pro-life or pro-choice people, or fundamentalist Christians. Yet blame has a uniquely energizing, galvanizing energy to it, especially in a crowd. Scapegoating is always a religious practice, a spiritual ritual that offers the community what at least feels like cleansing from their sins. If we can deport, excommunicate or marginalize the right people, we just know that our problems will go away with them. No matter how secular the language we use, there is always a savage, toxic kind of spirituality that underwrites this entire project.  No issue is ever quite as pressing for us as our own need for atonement. The trouble is, many of us are looking for someone other than Jesus to suffer for our own sins. 

Scapegoating, in general, is the devil's religion.  For a little background, let's go to Sunday School for a moment: Satan in Hebrew is not a surname, but a title, a position--literally rendered "the accuser" in the book of Job, the character's most overt appearance in the Old Testament. The Satan's entire job is to act as a kind of cosmic prosecuting attorney, bringing accusations against people before God. Again, accusation is not just what the Satan does, it is what the Satan is. Accusation is not just one of his behaviors, it is the defining one. He is not defined as the ultimate naughty angel who goes about planting naughty thoughts in the minds of humans--he is defined by accusation.  

Accusation, then, is not evil, but the spring bed of all human wickedness, the origin of all sin--connected to the Genesis narrative of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (drawing heavily from Rene Girard's vital work here). To partake of the tree is to play god, to act as if we are the ultimate arbiters who know the difference between good and evil, in and out, righteous and unrighteous. Yet God, it would seem, has endless mercy for most kinds of human misbehavior, other than playing God.  This is the most dangerous human behavior precisely because it insulates us from seeing our own brokenness. We can never need God, so long as we are still playing God. We can never need God, so long as we have someone else to blame for what's wrong with the world, other than ourselves. We become incapable of taking responsibility for our own brokenness, because we channel the energy of our guilt into demonizing someone else. We purge ourselves on another life, rather than allowing God to do the purging. 

No wonder our rhetoric gets more and more forceful, the guiltier we feel about our own inability to affect positive change in the world. No wonder the language is so quickly inflated, when we find someone to crucify for our sins. We carry a profound amount of guilt, and the corporate exorcism that happens in the demonization of the other in our politics has real religious zeal, intoxicating moral energy behind it. The fact that it is fundamentally immoral energy doesn't diminish its raw power. It's a powerful thing to cleanse yourself on a Muslim, or a fundamentalist, a liberal, a conservative, a homosexual, an immigrant. It feels like it sanctifies us, even while it damns us. It is a powerful force in an individual, but much more so in a group or political party. Us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, white hats vs. black hats--it's the collective madness that, when unleashed in a room turns a crowd into a mob. It's the force of darkness that makes the people who a week prior cried "Hosanna" while Jesus walked one street, cry out "crucify him" a week later, as he walked down another.

Accusation turns men into devils.  Demonizing turns us into demons. This is precisely why the Satan doesn't show back up in the book of Job after the prologue--he doesn't need to accuse Job anymore, after Job's human friends take over doing the Satan's job. This works in two directions, really. So long as you have an accusing mob, you don't need a devil. Conversely, so long as you have a scapegoat, you don't need a savior. You don't need God on a cross, if you have an immigrant on it instead. When we accuse, we look for someone else to shoulder the shame, that God already shouldered for us. We take over the devil's work, and simultaneously inoculate ourselves from the hope of salvation.

This is why Jesus is hard on the Pharisees, but never on ordinary sinners: because religious sin is the only truly dangerous kind, because playing God is the only way to keep God far from us. Yet when we are caught up in the power of the Satan, we like the Pharisees, strangely seem to miss this all the more even when we have our Bibles open in front of us. We not only imitate the Satan in our accusation, we also learn to interpret Scripture in devilish ways that justify our own fear-mongering; we develop acrobatic, Cirque du Soleil hermeneutics.

To be clear, it is not that I do not understand the appeal of pinning all my problems on someone (or a group of someones) other than myself. Believe me, my sins are heavy, too. It's far easier to drop them down the chute under your feet, letting them land squarely on someone else's shoulders, than to carry them into the presence of God alongside a community of other sinners. It's easier to crucify someone else for your sins, than to behold God bleeding out on a cross over your own. It's cheaper to build a wall on the border to Mexico, than to wall off the devils in your own head. I don't want to admit my complicity in systems of injustice. I don't want to own my own duplicity and double speech. I don't want to confess the darkness of my own heart. I would far rather oversimplify the problems of the world, than acknowledge the complexity of my own character.

I don't want to carry my cross anymore than anyone else. It would be easier to hire an immigrant to carry it for me.

I miss gentleness.

"By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things." --Galatians 5.22

I miss gentleness.  I am wistful for tenderness.  I grieve the loss of them, in the world generally, but more particularly in the Church.

I am weary of the politics of outrage. 

I am tired of pundits; I miss saints (even though I mimic of the behaviors of the former, exponentially more than I do the latter).

I live in a perpetual avalanche of words, with no regard for tone, a world full of sound that lost its appetite for music.

I've been eating fast food opinions three meals a day, and my soul is starving for the nutrients only found in the fruit of the Spirit.  I'm not looking for Eden, but unfortunately in this industrialized, technologized age, we have precious few gardens, at all. And where we do have them, chemicals and pesticides have mutated whatever fruit that remains, so that you often don't know what kind of fruit you bit into--until the toxins are already surging through you. 

These are the days when our technologies have made human-to-human contact easier and more numerous than ever, and have yet radically de-personalized us. We speak to avatars and to tiny images resembling persons; we interact with any and all kinds of people, in a way.  But we do not interact with them as daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. We get to each make our own public address, without addressing anyone, in particular. 

In such a de-personalized world, you can't determine fruit by whether or not people hold what you deem to be the proper idealogical or theological position, be it right or left. You have to listen a little closer, to see if there is fruit.  I watched a "debate" the other day where theological conservatives hosted gay Christians.  The gay Christians were gentle, tender, kind, courteous, and respectful in the face of a constant onslaught of condescending remarks and leading trap-door, "gotcha" questions.  On the other hand, I watched a twitter exchange the other day where younger, progressive Christians tore into a respected, mature Christian peacemaker (roughly twice the age of any of the critics) simply for participating in a panel discussion where there was not proper ethnic and gender diversity. Neither the right nor left of any side of any issue gets to hold the copyright on the fruit of the Spirit. Conversely, speaking to the Church, in particular, you can hold an awful lot of differing positions under the canopy of orthodoxy (broadly speaking, within the apostles' creed)--and still bear bad fruit. 

Pardon my language, but the capacity to be an a**hole transcends all tribal identities and ideological, theological systems. Thankfully, grace does too, even if she is currently on hiatus from life in the public square.

At worst, this might sound like a call to be polite at all costs. I appreciate politeness, but it will never change the world. Perhaps the only kind of grace that could have no chance of changing much of anything, are social graces. I am Southern enough to know how to carve anyone up, while maintaining a veneer of politeness. Being polite, on its own merit, changes next to nothing, and is not a thing worth contending for. 

Neither am I saying there is never a time nor a place for outrage. There are plenty of things that we witness that are worth being outraged by, from police brutality to African Americans, to the horrific shooting of a news reporter and cameraman on live television yesterday, to the fact that there is an appetite to watch the footage replayed online, after the fact. I would respectfully contend that not all outrage is created equal, however.  My outrage, for example, as a middle class white man, is not worth nearly as much as someone who actually lives under the thumb of any sort of real injustice (though not to brag, but in my demographic, we are positively brilliant at turning ourselves into martyrs). I would also note that outrage, as expressed by a politician, is far more likely to be a rhetorical device, than a genuine emotion. Outrage can, within the right boundaries, be an actual vehicle for social change--but it should require some sort of license to carry. 

On the other hand, real gentleness is always prophetic. Tenderness is the Spirit's work, and therefore a radical agent of social change. When everybody is shouting over each other, the sound is exactly the same, even when people hold absolutely polar positions.  You can tell the fruit of the Spirit apart, in Paul's phrase, "by contrast."

*** If you want to hear the difference prophetic tenderness makes, listen to Krista Tippet's interview with Jean Vanier, the founder of L'arche. I return to it often, when I need to come in out of the storm. How different would the world be, if more of our voices sounded like...this?

how to survive a shipwreck excerpt: survivor's guilt (hold on, let go)

“To let go is to lose your foothold temporarily.  Not to let go, is to lose your foothold forever.”

—Soren Kierkegaard

“Even as I hold you, I am letting you go.”

—Alice Walker

            When you are in a shipwreck, the first response is always to grasp desperately for someone or something to hold onto.  It is not calculated, but instinctive—a mad, almost flailing attempt to find something to grip.  There may be little left to cling to, but there has to be at least some kind of holding on—even if it is just a tacit agreement within yourself to simply keep on living.  In this case, it is not a holding on is not a metaphor or an abstraction.  It is a way of finding a reason, however strong or flimsy it might be, to survive. 

            Something inside of you wants this, even when you otherwise are altogether uncertain as to whether or not you consciously want to survive.  That part of you, that kicks and screams to still be here, is your soul.  The soul does not make a home, on the surface of things, so it has largely stayed out of sight, almost in hiding, the bowed head and quiet eyes of a nun in a convent.  You can cover up the soul under layers of duty and obligation—you can muzzle it—making only an occasional appearance in moments of joy or of ecstasy, before slinking back into the bottom of you, sleeping through her days—a creature of the shadows. 

            Until the shipwreck, when the soul reasserts itself.  You know it is there, because you can hear it scream, and because you cam feel it bleed.  You almost didn’t notice it at all, until you heard the sound of what seemed like your soul, dying.  And yet precisely because the soul bears the fingerprints of The Spirit, it does not need any reasons, to go on—it was no creature of reason, to begin with.  It needs no logic to fight back; it needs no will, in order to survive.  When everything else in and around you is dead or dying, the soul will yet not go quietly.  Your soul is not dead yet, just because it decided not to be; it claws its way back up through all the grief, without your consent, like some kind of animal. 

Survivor’s guilt

          “But why am I still here at all?” I hear you ask, somewhere in the wind between us.  The first thing overboard when your ship wrecked, were all the reasons you ever had for sailing.  And when the life you knew is a life you know no longer, and the ship that took you on a thousand adventures before can no longer even keep you afloat, you are right to wonder if there is anything left worth having.  

            There used to be so many things, that we could not live without!  How could you live, without this person?  How could you live, without this job?  How could you live, without this relationship?  How could you live, without this house?  How could you live, without your dignity?  How could you live, without your good reputation?  And then death came to someone you loved, or you lost the job, or you sabotaged the relationship or felt your love sabotaged you, or you suffered public humiliation, or you lost your all-important sense of honor.  And you thought you really would die. 

            There was a part of you, maybe even a really large part of you, that really did.  There are some losses, that in their way mark you forever, and some things you never get over.  And because you loved this person, or this life and career you built, or valued your dignity, when the bow broke, everything in you screamed.  While the sails were ripping and the boards splitting, you heard the sound of your spirit dying.  The life you had was over.  But to your own shame, you were not over, as much as you may have wanted to be.  Maybe like a proud samurai, it seemed the best thing you could do on the other side of the shipwreck was to fall on your own sword, and stage a protest against anything that you once found beautiful.  Because you were so sad.  Because you were so guilty.  Because you were so scared, that in the loss of something outside yourself, that you lost your own heart to the sea’s black rage. 

            And then came what might be the worse discovery: you didn’t die, not really.  You walked away from the accident, whether you think you or God or the devil or the fates are somehow responsible for it.  You knew that you would die, and whole chunks of you did, still tangled in the debris scattering the shore.  But not YOU.  Not all of you, anyhow.  Can you remember the first time after the funeral, after you could not bear to eat or drink, that the pangs of hunger overwhelmed you?  Did you feel incredulous at yourself, at the animal part of you, that still wanted food after such a thing?  What about when there was a particular taste you wanted, because it was a taste that on some level you actually desired?  However much fog, however much sorrow, however much grief—the experience of loss may have altered your taste buds forever.  But it hardly killed them.

            You watched dreams you cradled in your arms with the strength of all your tenderness descend into the sea.  All that animated you, all that moved you before, could move you forward in the world no longer.  The water filled your mouth and your nostrils, and you choked at the taste of them.  But when the grief or the guilt or the loss recedes into the night, and your soul sets sail again, you still dream—despite yourself.  There is still a kind of music that you will here, that stirs within you an unspeakable longing.  There is still an ache, not just for all that you lost, but to see and know and be seen and known still, to explore and imagine and create.  However much the longing for the past may assault your senses, it is not the only longing that remains.  There is still a part of you, that wants to make love, to feel yourself somehow connected.  There is still a part of you that yearns, for something outside yourself.  You felt yourself out to sea, and yet some kind of desire, for something or another, bears you along, and you find yourself still somehow here—almost against your own wishes.  And even in the moments when anything that felt like conscious desire went out with the tide, there is still some kind of near morbid curiosity, of how your life and story are going to turn out yet—even if you are lost enough to only behold what’s left of your life as a kind of bystander. 

           Somewhere between your body’s animal refusal to go down quietly, your mind’s refusal to stop imagining and your heart’s refusal to stop dreaming, in the tangled mess of synapses and memories and impulses, there lies God.  In whatever remains in you that wants to create, to make, to birth something new, in whatever corner of that longs for some kind of resurrection on the other side of death, something divine quietly snaps, fires, clicks, flickers.  This is the Spirit of God, lurking in your own broken spirit. 

           You may find that your grief and loss at the world you once knew may seem endless.  And yet there are possibilities and potentialities within you, that are more endless still.  What is this unseen force that carries you forward despite yourself?  Why can you not seem to choke, always and forever, your own irrational yearning, this buried but still breathing hope for more?

            This ache is God’s fingerprint.  The stirring to create, to love, to live, to give of yourself when there is no self left to give—this comes from the Spirit.  You were created in the image of God.  Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love.  However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved and held and known—it is still very much there.  There is a part of you that does not need anything else or anyone else in particular, to be alive.  There is a part of you that knows this—part of you that has always known this—but long since forgot. 

           The God who sustains all created things with love, sustains you.  The God who created the world not to be exploited, dominated or needed, but to love and to enjoy without clinging, is awake in your belly.  And so in you is the capacity to love and to live without needing the world to work out a certain way, in order for you to be okay.  Your life, your existence, is contingent on that Spirit.  But it is not contingent on anyone else, or anything else.

           This is the liberating, terrifying discovery of life on the other side of the shipwreck.  That while you are a creature—humble, dependent, small, in need of love and food and shelter—you didn’t need anything else as much as you thought you did.  That the things you knew would kill you don’t actually kill you.  That the fire in you the sea should have drowned out, burns within you yet, if you do not let yourself smother it (and maybe even if you do).  So much of the world you have known is no more.  But if there is any truth in any of this at all, the shipwreck that threatened to destroy you utterly may be the thing that saves you yet.  It may not drown or burn you, it may transfigure you. 

           And if there is something truthful, something larger, about this irrational lust for life that is forged in the fires of death, it says something too about the people you lost.  For if there is a God who not only creates, but sustains and resurrects, then there can yet be life on the other side of death for all things.  Then there is hope not only for the yearning in you to drive you into union with God, but to be realized in union with those others.  If death is not the final word, and chaos produces creation rather than destroys it, then many of the stories of the life you thought were long over are far from over yet. 

             Believing this won’t mean you won’t still feel the weight of deep, sharp, piercing grief, or that you should feel guilty when you do.  On the contrary, people who don’t experience deep pain have not experienced deep love, and are not to be envied.  That doesn’t mean they are shallow—all of our souls surely have something of the same depths, they just may not be aware of their own yet.  That day will come for them.  But when you feel your own deep capacity for passion, compassion, mourning, even rage, you are glimpsing something of your soul’s own infinite capacity to know, to feel, and to become.  Within the depths of all you feel the most deeply, something of the Spirit’s own immortal depths are reflected in you.  We have a capacity for love and hope and beauty seemingly too big for our heads and hearts, because we are created in the image of God. 

Cling to nothing…but hold on

            After the shipwreck, when the ship is still going down, and all you have left are bits of it still floating in the sea all around you, it’s nearly impossible to tell at first what will actually hold you up.  The ground that was once beneath your feet, is now scattered all around you; and you know instinctively that much of what has gone before, you can’t take you with now.

            So the attempt to find something to hold you up, is often a very high stakes kind of trial and error.  Some of what was holding you up was built on lies, spin, and youthful delusions.  You must let them float away.  Some of the childish notions of how the world works, the illusion that you were ever truly in control of your life to begin with—you must let it sink.  Some of them made for a helpful enough vessel, at the time, getting you from point a to point b, moving you forward.  Some of the relationships, that cannot and probably should not survive the storm, served an invaluable function for a while.  But the shipwreck has made new demands of your life, and much of what carried you before cannot carry you now—and you sure as hell are in position to carry much of anything with you now. 

            After the shipwreck, you may have little left to hold onto.  And yet, you must find a reason, to hold on.  This is much more difficult than it sounds, because surviving the shipwreck, in general, has much more to do with letting go, than it does holding on.  You are now trying to simultaneously trying to find a way to hold on, while learning to live with open hands and an open heart, to not resist the wind, or the Spirit you find in it.

            Growing up in Pentecostal churches, I spent a lot of my childhood attempting to chase down the Holy Ghost.  The preacher would give an invitation, for people to be filled with the Spirit—which we would know occurred when we let go of the ordered world of rational speech, and God moved on us to talk with unknown tongues.  Even where I parse some of these things differently now, there is still a way it makes some kind of soulish sense to me.  Aren’t we all, in some way or another, looking for an experience that will transcend the pale and paltry words we know?  Isn’t there something inside all of us that wants to howl, that wants to rumble, that wants to talk in unknown tongues?  The letting go of mind, and of ego, the sense of being acted upon by something larger, older, truer—surely there is something of this that the soul has always wanted, whether we can acknowledge it in our minds or with our words, at all.  

            I remember going down to the altar, wanting the gift of the Spirit, but being confounded by the sweet old saints who tried to help me “pray through.”  I would be down at the front of the church, my eyes squeezed tightly shut and my hands raised like awkward lightning rods, praying to receive the power.  And I’ve have some dear old sister in one ear, shouting,  “HOLD ON, BROTHER!”  And there would be some dear old sister in the other ear that would shout, “LET GO, BROTHER!”  That is the Pentecostal version of paradox.  I wasn’t ready to explore many others, but that was one I got baptized into early.  How is it possible to simultaneously hold on…and let go at the same time?  I don’t know that I can even answer that question now, but I do know that life with God exists somewhere at that intersection.  That somewhere between holding on and letting go is where you are liable to stumble into, or perhaps even collide into, resurrection.  The old-time Pentecostals may have been even more right than they knew. 

            In the shipwreck, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of having to let go of everything you thought you knew—and yet still trying to find a reason to hold on, when you don’t feel like you’ve got anything to hold onto.  

One small plank

            One simple detail of Paul’s shipwreck captured my imagination when I was trying to survive my own, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.  When the storm comes, it swallows up the ship Paul was traveling on, the same way the storm swallows up your own.  The structure that carried them from the port will now carry them no longer.  But even the old vessel is far from wasted.  All the men and women on board grab a hold to a plank of the ship, just some small piece of the wreckage that will keep them afloat until they can make it to shore.

            In the shipwreck, you may feel like you lost it all.  Everything is in pieces.  But in the fragments, there are planks that remain—pieces of desire, of dreams, of hope, of imagination, of longing, that rise to the top of you even now.  They are no longer attached neatly together, but they are still afloat in the swirling chaos of you.  You may not need all of them. Perhaps you don’t need many of them.  But you almost certainly need one of them.  Wherever and however you feel your soul still adrift, grab a hold of one of them.  Don’t cling to tightly to it, let the weight of it hold you up, rather than the other way around.  Anything that’s survived by now, surely has something of Spirit’s power in it, surely.  It may be a plank that is older than you, a plank that might outlast you. 

            It does not have to be anything big enough, or strong enough, to hold you up forever.  Just something you can reach out for, lay your head against and rest, when the night falls.  Not enough to rebuild a life, but enough to get you to shore.   You may think you will not yet survive the waves, but Spirit comes in the wind—to guide your giant soul and your tiny plank to a place called home.  

            You only need one small plank, one reason not to give up, one reason to stay alive…today.  At the very least, your life itself is a sign and a sacrament for someone else, a light in someone else’s darkness.  There is not a thing in the world wrong with staying alive—for now—for their sake, more than your own.  That was what I found going to an episcopal church in downtown Charlotte after I left the church, that largely became that small plank for me.  The simple liturgy, week-after-week, did not remove all my pain, but gave me a reason to keep going—from one Sunday to the next Sunday, until the next, sustaining me somehow then in the days between. 

            It is always good and right in a time of shipwreck, to cling to a community.  It is good to cling to friends, too, though part of what makes the shipwreck so intense it that is by nature a time when friendships are largely being renegotiated.  And of course then, it is the best possible time to cling to God. 

            And yet even that does not come quite without qualification.  It would seem like this might be the easiest, most universal statement—“well at least you can still hold on to Jesus.”  The trouble with holding onto God, is that often we cling to an old idea about God—perhaps one that we needed to let go all along, rather than God Himself. 

             Holding on to Jesus surely is always be the right thing to do…unless you are Mary Magdalene, when Jesus appears to her first just after rising from the dead.  Her world has been eclipsed by the storm.  Days before, she watched the man her heart burned for be tortured and killed.  Now, the dead man is standing before her.  Which is more disorienting?  What is for certain is that her world is topside.  Desperately, instinctively, she lunges for what is familiar—the body of Jesus, impossibly standing in front of her now, only a few feet away.  “Don’t embrace me, Mary.  I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says.  It is not that Jesus was no longer there for her.  It is that Jesus cannot be there for her in the ways that he was there for her before; she would have to come to know him in a different way.  Resurrection had not yet finished working out its terrible implications yet.  There would be no time to cling to a form of Jesus, an idea of Jesus, a vision of Jesus that she used to have.  She would have to know him now on the other side of the trauma that is resurrection, so that even “clinging to Jesus” was not going to work in the ways it had worked already. 

You can’t even cling on to the God you knew, only the God you can know now.  

My foreword to Blake Blackman's "The Journey of the Black Heart"

I'm thrilled to announce Blake Blackman's first book, "The Journey of the Black Heart." Not just because she's one of my closest friends, I really believe this is an extraordinary project. Because I literally want everybody I know to read it, I'm posting my foreword to the book below. If you like what you read, I hope you'll go purchase it right now, here

I don’t know how to prepare you for what you will experience in the pages ahead, because I’m not entirely sure how to prepare you for Blake.  The book, like her, kind of just has to happen to you

I’m struck by just how it embodies everything that she is—at high voltage.  I’m not sure how you get this much tenderness and toughness into one book, or how you wrap together this much hope and heartbreak.  I don’t know how The Journey of the Black Heart manages to be alternately as artful, earthy, funny, wise, or textured as it is. I only know that it’s a book brimming with the ache that makes us human.  It is all the things life is, simultaneously.  It is lightning in a bottle. In other words, it is very much like Blake herself.

I came to know her about mid-way through the story she tells here, when she worked the front of the Common Market Deli and I was an upstart young pastor.  The kindness of heart was so apparent even then, the purity of spirit and conviction; the earthy, profane eloquence and unforced poetry of her stories.  But those were days when she wore a lot of hurt on her sleeve, too, the hurts she writes about so eloquently here.  We liked each other instantly, which made way for the friendship she describes later in the book.  I wouldn’t want to oversimplify any of it, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that we had a tacit agreement: she taught me about the world, and I taught her about Jesus, which worked out really well for both of us.  It wasn’t too long after that Blake was playing a central role in the church we had started, and we were dreaming and scheming on how to love our city together. 

 We’ve been friends long enough now for our roles to have since reversed. When I felt like my world was crashing down, Blake was the one teaching me about Jesus—sometimes through her own stories, sometimes rehearsing back to me my own words.  She was reminding me of all the ways God had met her in her own shame and guilt and loss, like she does here.  She was the one telling me that I could and would survive.  Blake’s famous for being a big talker, but the truth of her stories are even bigger, so I believed her.  They carried me, as I trust they will carry you.

I remember distinctly in the moments when the fog was the thickest and the night the longest, just how much I just loved to hear Blake pray.  Sometimes even something simple, like the way she’d pray before a meal, was so earnest and authentic, so heavenly and yet so tethered to the ground, that it would bring my own feet back down to earth, even if just for a minute.

 I’ve now taken solace in Blake’s stories of life and loss and Jesus more times than I can remember.  I would feel stingy to keep them to myself, even though Blake’s the rare friend you get in your life you would just assume not share with anyone else.  But she’s also the best storyteller I know, and I’ve known since I met her stories had the weight of destiny on them.  I’ve always been eager for the day that, rather than keeping them at home, she would put them on the bus—like kids bundled up for the first day of school—and release them into the world.  The fact that you’re reading these stories now means they have arrived at the city of their final destination.

Last year, Blake introduced me to Patti Smith’s haunting memoir, Just Kids, and it instantly became one of my favorite books.  In the book, she asks, “why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?  That pursuit is what burns most deeply.”  I think the highest compliment I could pay Blake here now is that she has written a book would make Patti proud.  This is a book that awakens the dead. 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

building bridges to the future: prophetic speech in a violent age

           “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said in Luke 17.21.  What is within us is precisely what the world is waiting for.  When the apostle Paul describes the groaning of the creation for the world to come, he said “the creation waits with eager longing for the children of God.”  It’s an astonishing claim, really—that what the creation sighs for, but does not know how to name, is the revelation of God’s sons and daughters!  Even in John’s fantastic, apocalyptic vision, dizzying with the brilliant colors of the world to come, the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven is “the bride” of Christ, the “wife of the lamb.”  In other words, even the heavenly vision of the new Jerusalem is not of a geographical space, but of a people—of us.  Simply put, the people of God are the hope of the world.

            It’s a staggering vision, but also a responsibility beyond our reckoning, to bear Christ’s light and hope over against the darkness, violence and indifference of the world.  We are called to be God’s light-bearers, God’s hope-bearers.  Yet the tragic thing is, many of those called to bear divine hope in the world (under the influence of end-times doomsday schemes as well as unadorned cynicism) often give up on the world they are called to transfigure by their own light.  What does it mean for the world when the light-bearers lose heart?  Too many professed Christians are waiting for God to come and rescue them at the bus stop, while the world is waiting on us—waiting for the manifestation of the sons and daughters of God. 

            When confronted with the darkness of the world, it becomes far too easy to join the chorus of accusers who simply point out all that’s wrong with the world.  The truth is, anyone can point out what’s wrong with the world we’ve been given—it takes neither courage nor prophecy to see how far we are from the beauty we were intended for.  We have all too often become experts in stating the obvious.  When the Holy Spirit is given in Acts Two, the promise is that “your sons and daughters will prophesy.”  We are not called to be mere commentators, but prophets who speak God’s hope into the long night of creation’s sighing. 

            Hope, in terms of Scripture’s account, is not rhetorical, fanciful, or sentimental.  If we live long enough, we will arrive in places where optimism will get us nowhere.  But hard-edged hope in the Restorer of creation is not predicated on keeping our heads in the sand.  Hope is hard-edged.  Hope is tough.  Hope is robust.  Authentic hope is not naïve, childish optimism toward the myth of progress.  Hope remains after our own innocence, and our youthful ways of ordering the world, have long been burned away.  Real hope is as hard and lasting as God, as it is from God that it originates.

            But hope for the creation can only be incarnated when the people of God recognize the power of the Spirit within them to become agents of beauty, reconciliation and new life.  In our love and full acceptance of people’s otherness, we give the world a glimpse of the plans God has for the whole creation.  Through our prophetic witness of tenderness, the world can glimpse the beauty just ahead, within us.  This is why we can’t lose heart, even when its terribly dark out.  If Romans 8.18—25 is true, we never have a right to give up hope for the creation, because we are the very manifestation of that hope.  We can’t give up on the world because God has not.  In fact, we aren’t authorized to give up on anyone because God has not.  We don’t get to play judge.  We don’t decide anyone or anything is without hope, we simply bear it with patience.             

Speaking in hope

            There was a phase in charismatic culture when everybody was talking about “the word of faith” movement.  There was a lot of talk of “speaking things into existence.”  We used to talk about this derisively, as “name it and claim it, blab it and grab it.”  And in its worst forms, that was not an inelegant or unfair expression for it.  There actually were people teaching folks to speak their Mercedes into existence, and telling people not to ever admit out loud if they were sick, because that would be a “negative confession.”  It was the power of positive thinking on steroids.  I dismissed almost all of this, because it struck me as a way of simply living in denial of reality at best, and at worst a way to guilt Christians who were not walking in “health and wealth” for not being “positive enough.”

            There is something still about all of this that strikes me as trivial, like some kind of infantile (and unreliable) kind of magical way of understanding the Christian life.  And yet in more recent years, even for the abuses I’ve seen, I’ve come full circle to realize just how much life, hope and power is divinely mediated through human speech.  Even now, that feels odd to feel myself type.  I don’t speak new cars or jobs into existence, and I’m not going to say I’m well when I’m sick.  But I do believe there is something creative, something generative, that occurs when we speak God’s hope into the world. 

            In Genesis, it is the word of God that calls creation into existence; in Revelation it is the word of God that calls creation into account.  Jesus Himself is the “word made flesh,” the once-and-for-all definitive statement of who and what God is.  As people who have this divine word alive inside of us, we are called then to speak, not trivialities or sentimental platitudes, but hard-edged hope.

            Prophecy is not, as I once understood it, an attempt to describe the future, and it is not a gift for a small handful of people.  It is part of the birthright of the entire Church, given to us on the birthday of the entire Church, the day of Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit is poured out, the apostle Peter proclaims, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,  and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women,in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”  All of God’s son and daughters are to prophesy, to speak God’s hope into the world on His behalf.  And while this hopeful speech does not describe the future in some kind of scripted detail, it does in fact make a hopeful future possible.

            I used to be scared death of so-called “prophets” when I was a boy, because I was scared they would publicly expose my inner life when I was going through puberty based on some Holy Ghost insider trading.  But I’ve learned that while God certainly can speak words of judgment, that is rarely how the gift of prophecy actually works.  Speaking on God’s behalf always entails speaking the love of God, and almost always is hopeful in orientation.  God always speaks a better word over us, than whatever it is we think we might deserve. 

            If you want to know just how powerful prophetic speech, look no further than the American civil rights movement.  My favorite book on Martin Luther King Jr. is Richard Lischer’s Preacher King: MLK and the Word that Moved America.  Lischer had me at the title, because it was in fact the word of God as was enacted through the speech and even death of Martin Luther King that turned the world upside down.  King himself evoked the biblical prophets often, passages like Amos 5.24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  This kind of prophetic speech does not make calculations for the future, but is the harbinger of new creation.  Prophetic speech brings the life that is yet to come into the present. 

         The world needs less idle speculation about the future from us, & more prophetic speech like Ezekiel's, that brings dry bones to life.  Consider this extraordinary text, Ezekiel 37: 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Ezekiel is able to speak honestly about what he sees: a valley of very, very dry bones.  He sees the valley of dry bones with terrible clarity. Hope and denial are very different in that way. We cannot speak of God's hope authentically so long as our heads are buried in the sand. Prophetic speech is equal parts honest about the world as it is and yet full of hard-edged hope for the world as it could (and must) become.  

            The temptation, though, is for us is to speak ABOUT the valley of dry bones rather than speaking life, hope and breath INTO them.  God's people are called to speak to, not speak about.  The sons and daughters of God are called to prophesy.  Dead religion calls people to give color commentary on the valley of dry bones, to merely describe them.  We become experts in stating the obvious. "Your sons & daughters shall prophesy,"not become mere commentators.  Only someone given over to the Holy Spirit of God can see a situation in all of its starkness and impossibility, and speak a work of authentic hope into it.    

          When God calls Ezekiel to "prophecy to the breath," He is asking Him to do the same thing God Himself did in Genesis 1-2 in the creation story when He breathed into the first humans.  As those called to co-create with God, we are able to speak that kind of life and breath into others. There is no distinction in Hebrew between "breath" and "spirit."  We are literally filled with the "Holy Breath" of God, and can now breathe life into others because of the life now in us.  We can speak life where there has only been death, streams of living water where there has only been dryness.

            This idea is trivialized when people treat it like some kind of cheap parlor trick.  We are not given the breath of God to somehow speak all of our whims and fleeting desires into existence.  We can't call cars and jewelry out of thin air.  This is not some kind of superstition or folk magic--it is much more powerful.  This is power to raise the dead to life through our own life-giving, hope-dealing speech.  It is not to talk, but to prophesy.  It is to call the very breath of God, the Spirit of God, into places where death has reigned.  

            Our words do not conjure new life out of nowhere, but summon God's breath into those who could not breathe before.  It is not our breath that we offer, but God's breath that we extend. It is never power given to us to destroy or tear down--only to create.  We have the unique capacity to speak life/to prophesy into forgotten people, in forgotten places—to speak life into that which is already dead.  The Spirit of the future breaks into the present in that which may appear to us to be long gone and “not worth saving.” 

            We must take the risk to prophesy.  We must dare to speak the words that are so powerful, that Spirit is housed within them—words like: “I’m not going to give up on you, no matter what.”  Words like, “You will always be welcome here.”  Words like “I’m never going to stop loving you.”  Words of condemnation and judgment, even when spoken from a sincere desire to help or correct, almost never work to bring meaningful change.  They simply do not have divine life surging through them.  We are rarely able to “set people straight” with our speech.  But through our prophetic words, we may in fact set whole new paths ahead of those we love.  Hopeful speech, animated by the Spirit of life and love Herself, builds bridges into the future.  Hopeful speech creates new possibilities; hopeful words make God’s future possible in lives where there was not possibility before.  This doesn’t give us a magic formula for healing or financial prosperity, nor work as some kind of voodoo.  But the word of faith folks were right about this part: the power of life and death is in fact invested in human speech. 

            That doesn’t mean that hope talk is the only way we serve the world.  But in a violent age, where words are so often wielded like weapons, and words are mediated through wifi and cell signals with the negative energy of the prince of the power of the air, the power of such speech cannot be overstated.  Entering into God’s future for the creation does not end with hope-filled speech, but it may at least begin there, and in any case the bridges we need into such a future can’t be built without words.  We keep speaking God’s relentless love, the terrible tenderness of Spirit, way past the point where hope seems reasonable.  We continue speaking hope when all options have been exhausted, and we speak them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And sometime, somewhere, someday, in some place—they are remembered.  They are activated.  

            Violent speech is the primary vehicle of hate and animosity in a world with unprecedented connectivity, and prophetic speech may yet be our best defense against such powers.  However realistic we must speak about the challenges at hand, our speech must yet be more descriptive of God’s transforming love than of human weakness. 

            This means we must take the risk to be awkward, take the risk to get beyond chit-chat, small talk, and banter.  It takes a lot of toughness to be sincere and vulnerable, to live with our defenses down, especially when it can feel that everyone around us has built up such impenetrable walls and fences.  But love alone can tear those walls down; love alone can penetrate the thickness of the night with divine hope.  Love alone, mediated through the fragility of human speech, builds bridges into God’s good future for the world.  

Don't stand up for Jesus, pt 2: Advocacy vs accusation

            It is strange indeed that those who bear the name of the Christ in the world can sometimes seem to be among the most likely to adapt the ways of “the Satan.”  And yet so much of this behavior seems to come from an utterly sincere but sincerely dangerous assumption on our behalf that God is somehow under threat, and that we are somehow responsible for defending Him. 

             It’s the same well-intentioned mistake the apostle Peter makes, when the angry crowd comes with swords and spears to capture Jesus.  Just betrayed by Judas, the man himself offers no resistance to his captors: “Friend, do what you came here to do,” Jesus says to Judas, with that same characteristically terrible tenderness that splits your heart in two.  Leaping to his defense, Peter unsheathes his sword, and quickly hacks off the ear of the high priest’s servant.  Jesus says to him what he would say to us when we feel God is somehow under threat and in need of our protection: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish 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?”

            Jesus is not in need of our defense.  He is not in danger—he has already risen from the dead!  Even before his crucifixion, Jesus refused to defend himself.  He insisted on not standing up for Himself, insisting that God would vindicate, God would justify.  Inevitably, whenever we speak or act from a place of defense, we too often veer from the constructive agenda of God’s radical love.  In the words of Marilynne Robinson’s wise novel Gilead, “Nothing true about God can be said from a posture of defense.”  Cross-shaped love speaks for itself, but does not need to defend itself.  The unique claim of the Church is that the worst thing that could happen in the world has already happened through our violent murder of God, but God has already overcome through resurrection!  So for us, there is never reason to feel afraid or threatened by outsiders or antagonists.  We are enabled through the cross of Jesus to speak and act in the confidence/assurance of love. 

           It sounds pious to “stand up for Jesus.”  But the reality is that Jesus does not ask for us to stand up for him—Jesus asks us to stand up with him.  Jesus is not in danger, but so many people around us are—in danger from sickness, terror, the broken systems of the world, even the consequence of their own choices.  The Jesus depicted in the gospels was not standing up for Himself, but for the broken people around him.  Jesus stands up for the woman caught in adultery, standing between the accused and her accusers.  That’s where Jesus was standing then, that’s where Jesus is standing now.  If we are truly serious about standing for him, then we will stand with him.  But if we, in a desire to protect Jesus from the world, attempt to leap to his defense, his message will be the same to us as it was for Peter—“put away your sword.” 

When we don’t what we are for

           For a moment, I want to return to the scene of the denominational meeting I described in the last post.  As I have many times before or sense, there was a deep queasiness, that I can only describe as a kind of spiritual unease, at the “spirit” (that is tone, disposition) of the meeting.  It felt like there was something like glee in the air at all the ways we felt different from the people we denounced.  But I didn’t know precisely how to name all of that at the time, until one particular moment when it all crystalized for me: just after the declaration on marriage with the pep rally atmosphere and the long ovation, another resolution was read—this one regarding caring for immigrants in the US.  It was beautifully written, and unlike the one against gay marriage, chock full of Scripture, chapter and verse—Old Testament and New.  It felt reverent, liturgical, full of light and love and truth.  The ultimate aim of the resolution was quite simple: that those within our denomination would not treat any persons as political issues, but would rather adopt a simple, gospel-shaped posture: no matter who came to our churches or how they got here, it is the role of God’s people to care for the alien, the stranger, the immigrant.  It was elegantly simple, and robustly Scripture-formed in its conception.  I had tears in my eyes.

        Yet when it was time for us to affirm the resolution, unlike the one on traditional marriage, it was if all the energy in the room had siphoned out.  There was a kind of corporate sigh.  We generally don’t debate resolutions, but a number of people around me shouted “no” to it.  Those who affirmed did so softly, and cautiously. The collective discomfort with the resolution was palpable.   And yet, when we stated what we were against, the ovation had been thunderous. 

        That was when I realized just how far off we really were.  The intoxication of defining ourselves over against a people group was drug-like.  The room seemed all too clear about what to be against, but we had no idea what we for—even with an avalanche of beautiful Scripture to guide us, as opposed to the handful of proof texts that accompanied the prior resolution.  For human groups, especially religious ones, accusation comes far more naturally to us than advocacy.  It is much more natural for us to stand up against than to stand up for. 

Advocates or accusers

            While “the Satan” is presented to us from the beginning as “the accuser,” the Son of Love occupies a very different role in Christian Scripture.  Jesus is, according to I John, “our advocate with the Father.”  In the words of the apostle Paul, he “ever lives to make intercession for us.”  While Jesus does not defend himself or plead his own case, he does plead ours.  If the very definition of demonic or Satanic behavior is to imitate the accuser, imitation of God is conversely a life lived following the advocate. 

            The weight ascribed to this role for Jesus simply cannot be overstated.  This priestly function is not just a part of what Jesus does, but the central definition of his work after the resurrection.  Even on the cross, Jesus is pleading for us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Those who would take Jesus seriously simply have to accept this as the definitive portrait of God.  It is precisely at this point where I find Christians are most confused about the nature of their own vocation in the world.  They see the love and mercy on display in Jesus as intercessor and advocate to be just one dimension of who (and what) God is.  We often cannot truly embrace the bold, simple claim of the apostle John, that “God is love.”

       Love is thought to be just one aspect of God, which then must be put on a seesaw with wrath in order to have some kind of “balance.”  No wonder we are unclear as to whether or not love should ultimately be our only posture to the world—we are not yet clear as to whether or not is God’s only posture toward us. So long as we understand God to be capricious toward humanity, we will be capricious in our judgments of fellow humans.  We will be unclear as to whether or not our role is to play the role of advocate rather than accuser, in all times and all places, if we are not certain whether or not we have a God in Jesus who always advocates for us.  The scandalous thing about Jesus, of course, is that he advocates not only for the innocent, but for the guilty.  “But God demonstrates His own love for us,” the apostle Paul writes, “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” 

            I am aware that for many Christians, who like Peter when he drew his sword, have the best of intentions—there is tension within the Biblical witness itself about these matters.  It’s why it becomes nearly impossible for a lot of contemporary Christians to come to any consensus as to whether or not God really looks like Jesus: “yes, I know Jesus said to turn the other cheek and bless your enemies in the Sermon on the Mount.  But God told His people to wipe out all the bad guys in the book of Judges.”  I will see your Jesus as presented in the gospels, and I will raise you the God of Leviticus.  Because we see this as some sort of unsolvable mystery, in the name of holding the tension between these kinds of texts, we maintain absolute ambiguity about the God presented in them.  This is useful when we are in some kind of conflict with outsiders, because if we deem an individual or group to be awful enough, we do not necessarily have to follow the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount with regards to them.  The people we don’t like are on the wrong side of God, like the bad guys in Judges, and will have to be dealt with as such.  Because see there is all this tension

            I would be the first to say that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures comprise a mysterious book, that is indeed fraught with tensions of all sorts that cannot be prematurely resolved.  But I frankly think its lazy and intellectually dishonest to refuse to come to some basic conclusions about what we believe about who God is.  It is a calculated laziness too, because so long as the God we serve picks and chooses who He will show mercy toward, we feel that we are entitled to pick and choose, too.  There is a broad consensus of course among Christians (theoretically) that the central point of Scripture is to teach us to follow Jesus, but which Jesus do we follow?  Which God are we called to imitate?   How we read these complex texts makes all the difference in the world in how we approach these issues.

            I have written recently (and at length) about how we interpret Scripture in light of the revelation of Jesus here.  Rather than recapping or recasting all of that, I’ll refer you to that piece here for more.  But the heart of the argument for me is that Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is the definitive revelation of God to humanity.  The image of the crucified God is the definitive portrait of the heart of God for the world.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the “image of the invisible God,” transforms everything we thought we understood, and demands that we radically reinterpret all that came before Jesus through the lens of his story. 

            Far too many of us still cling to an image of God that is not yet Christlike.  Or we buy into distorted theological systems that somehow sets the Father against the Son into some kind of good cop/bad cop relationship.  But Jesus is not the foil to God the Father, but the revelation of His heart for us all along.  I remember being shaken to my core when I read the New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s work, and he gave this simple rubric to understand God’s activity in the book of Revelation: “Whatever you see the lamb doing, that’s what God is doing.”  I believe that to be true not only for Revelation, but for all of Scripture—whatever you see the lamb doing, you see God doing. 

            The God revealed in Jesus is the one who cries out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” while being tortured to death on the cross.  He is the advocate and intercessor, even now, pleading our case, arguing on our behalf, taking up our cause.  He is the one who stood up for us, and He is standing for us even now.  When we become like him, we do not adopt a posture of judgment—we allow God to the job that God alone is qualified to do.  But unlike judgment, the work of advocacy, of intercession—of prayer—is the work all of God’s sons and daughters are called to imitate.  Being formed into the character and image of the Christ is to imitate the advocate, and rejecting the blaming, condemning, scapegoating way of the accuser—to reject the ways of the world.

            Rather than living from the ego, which always tries to differentiate from others based on some sense of superior judgment against another, the trappings of ego and image management are being upended and uprooted by divine love.  We are no longer looking to establish ourselves or our identities by being over against, but are becoming secure in the ways only God’s love can ground us. 

            This does not mean that those who follow Jesus are not called to a life of consecration, to a kind of set-apartness (again, I hope you’ll read this piece on Scripture interpretation as a companion here, where I explore this notion more at length).  But in the biblical narrative, the call of God to His sons and daughters is not against the world, but for the world.  Abraham is called by God so that through him, all the families of the earth will one day be blessed (through Jesus of Nazareth).  Jesus is set apart/consecrated for the sake of the world.  The elect are chosen for the sake of the non-elect.  Jesus Himself, as the chosen one, identifies with us in our weakness, and according to Hebrews, is crucified “outside the gate” of the city on our behalf.  He comes for us and to us, He comes to where we are.  This is not just something Jesus did for us in history, it is very trajectory of a life with God—to follow the advocate to the fringes of the world, for the sake of the world. 

       The more deeply we plunge into the life of advocacy, intercession, prayer, compassion—the more we live this kind of consecrated life for the world—the more the world is transfigured.  Hence in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, the best way the church serves the world is simply to be the church.  This community of love and compassion is in fact a radical alternative to the world, but it’s witness is for the world, not against it.  The systems of the world—the us vs. them spirit, the ego-building project I described earlier—is the world we are called to reject.  The world as defined as people is the world for whom the lovesick Christ lived, suffered and died, and the world we are now called to love. 

But what about injustice? 

       When you understand the gospel in this way, it’s easy to see just how much it really is “good news” to all humans, in all times and all places.  The good news is that God is for us, not against us; that the Son of Love is ever making our case to a Father who is already heartsick for us.  The Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Love, conspires for our good, even in our most broken places.  What’s not to love about a God like that, and a gospel like that?!

      If we believe that God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ the advocate, then simply put, we are never more like Christ than when we advocate.  Conversely, we are never more like Satan than when we accuse.  In one way, this simplifies life considerably.  Growing in our awareness of this God means we must devote our lives to coming alongside more so than siding against—coming alongside those who are poor, broken, marginalized, abused, and in need.  We have to be suspicious of our native inclination to find our life and our identity by naming who or what we are against.  We have to align our lives broadly to hard-edged hope, rather than cynicism.  This is what it means to be formed into the character of Christ. 

         But on the other hand, this only seems to complicate matters more, when we consider the amount of injustice and abuse at work in the world.  What about those who abuse children and batter spouses?  What about ISIS killing Christians in the middle east, and children being born into brothels in India?  There is real injustice to the world, and an enormous part of how the kingdom of God comes to earth is through the writing of such wrongs.  So yes, we need organizations like the International Justice Mission to kick down the door of brothels and rescue children, and seek prosecution for those who exploit them.  No, an abused spouse should not stay in an unsafe relationship in the name of Christlikeness.  People who are on the wrong side of these and other injustices need advocates who will stand with Jesus between the abused and the abuser!

      There is a real, prophetic calling that will not ask but demand, at times, that God’s people stand against worldly systems of injustice that exploit the powerless.  But—and this is an awfully big but here—this prophetic call always, always, always has to do with standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves.  That is the very heart of what it is to “stand with” Jesus, the place that Christ is already standing and waiting for us to join him.  It is not a way of taking a stand for ourselves, taking a stand for our easily damaged egos, or taking a stand for our wounded feelings.  When it comes right down to it, most of what happens in the name of “standing up for Jesus” in North America amounts to little more than privileged people protecting their own egos.  Our “culture wars” are often little more than over-pietized, self-righteous attempts to impose our beliefs and values on the rest of the world.  That is hardly standing against injustice.

       I don’t think there is a more important calling in the world than the call to “prophesy,” to bear witness to God’s love in solidarity with those that suffer.  It’s a universal call of the Spirit to all of God’s son and daughters, and there is more on that in the chapters to come.  But it is precisely because the gift of prophecy is so powerful and dynamic that it can so easily be abused and perverted.  All who would dare to prophesy, to speak on behalf of God and the marginalized, have to carefully guard their spirit from the unholy, blaming spirit at loose in the world.  I think this is precisely what Paul has in view when he describes “the spirit of the age.”  It is easy to say the “right thing” from the wrong posture, from a poisoned spirit.  It is easy to allow a sincere desire to prophesy to turn into self-righteousness and a masturbatory love of being right. 

        Moral indignation, outrage, are spiritually nuclear emotions that must be handled with great care.  There is a time and place for them, especially when the powerful are exploiting the powerless (even more so when it happens in the name of religion!).  We have no examples in the gospels of Jesus being outraged or indignant, mind you, because someone was “naughty” or broke some kind of purity code.  The only example we have of Jesus expressing something like outrage was when he cleansed the temple of the moneychangers, who were exploiting those who came to God’s house for mercy for financial gain—once again, the powerful exploiting the powerless. 

       This is, of course, the favorite proof text for those who live in a constant state of “how dare they?!”  As a general rule, “righteous” indignation is frankly, a fairly uncommon emotion.  Most all our indignation of any sort is based in some kind of personal offense; the “injustices” we are most aware of are the ones where we feel slighted or that we didn’t get something we deserved.  These so-called injustices don’t need to be resisted or balked against, but internalized so our monstrous egos can be whittled down to size.  Do not place to much stock in your own indignation.  The obvious but most often overlooked contrast with our often petty outrage and Jesus’ display of anger in the temple is that WE ARE NOT JESUS.  If we are honest with ourselves, our inclination to turn over the tables in someone else’s temple is little more than a diversionary tactic to keep Jesus from turning over the necessary tables in our own lives.  Given how slippery all of our egos really are, we should not be so quick to aggrandize ourselves as “prophets.” 

       The Christian position is not that there is no judgment, but that only God is good enough, holy enough, wise enough, and informed enough to execute judgment.  God will let us occupy most any job except his own.  Because sin is self-destructive by nature, there is no reason for us to fear that anyone is not going to “get what they deserve.”  But beyond the ways we reap the natural consequences of our own actions, any further verdicts on human behavior must be rendered by God and God alone.  Being aware of our own capacity for self-deception and allowing others to see and know us in our own broken places in the context of Christian community is the best way to protect ourselves from the ever present threat of self-righteousness.          Even when we are called to some kind of prophetic task, the goal must be always and only be safety and protection for those who are hurt or exploited, not making sure somebody else gets what we think they have coming.  This is why any and all kinds of prophetic work in the world are so radically contingent on prayer in order to be healthy—“prophets” whose hearts are not kept tender through prayer become angry, petty, self-involved, and generally just burn themselves out (along with the people who work alongside them). 

 

 

 

Don't Stand Up for Jesus, part one: the accuser

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.”

--The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil"

              I grew up in a world where we took the devil very seriously.  The grid was simple: we are all players in an intergalactic war between God and Satan, and there is no neutral ground.  Behind the curtain of human activity, angels and demons are sparring for the souls of women and men.  The devil, it seemed, was everywhere—sometimes causing mundane mischief evidently, like causing the sound system to crackle and pop in a worship service—in which case the worship leader “would rebuke the devil in Jesus’ name.”  He was lurking in the shadows when certain guitar power chords were hit, invoked by the likes of AC/DC and Megadeth.  He was busy making Madonna grind onstage and in music videos, and trying to get me to watch Madonna grind in the music videos (“Get behind me, Satan!”).  I didn’t listen to the Rolling Stones then, but I could have had “sympathy for the devil” just for his truly fiendish work schedule.  How did he have time to do all of that, and run the Democratic party too?!  The devil wasn’t just in the details; he was in the air all around us.  He was in our lungs--and in our loins. 

            In my circles then, we spent a tremendous amount of time and attention trying to do battle with the Devil and his hordes.  “Spiritual warfare” was all the rage, via books like Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness, which showed me the real battle going on between angels and demons behind the scenes.  I devoured the Peretti books, and took the worldview in them more seriously than anything I ever learned in history class.  I listened to all kinds of music that encouraged me to stay strong in the war against Satan, albums like Petra’s “This Means War!,” songs like Carman’s “Satan, Bite the Dust.”  I especially loved Christian rap that sounded like secular gangsta rap, but talked about shooting up devils instead of shooting up the police.  One of my first hip hop CD’s was by a guy named T-Bone, who had lyrics like, “I’m the lyrical assassin/my lyrics go buck-buck-buck/yeah, another demon gets struck.” 

            The world has changed for me since those days.  I no longer attribute flat tires or Victoria’s Secret ads to the devil, though I am tempted at times to hold him responsible for FOX news, the DMV, and low-carb diets, respectively.  I’ve lived long enough now to know that human beings are not cartoon characters, that there are no white hats and black hats, that life is not a childish game of cowboys and Indians.  I have had to deal much more closely now with my own ambiguity, and the ambiguities of the people around me.  As we attend honestly to the world around us, and most especially if we attend honestly to our own souls, we develop a much higher capacity for grey.

            For many people, the idea that there is an actual sentient force of malevolence called Satan seems tribalistic and primitive.  And yet there are indications, perhaps, that there is a force of evil in the world that may be greater than the sum of its parts.  We see it most of all in the violence human beings are able to inflict on each other.  Even acts of hatred don’t fully account for this phenomenon though, which is why we still return to spirituality for some kind of explanation for it.  You don’t need the framework of the Frank Peretti novels to taste something off in the atmosphere—there are times and places where the air itself feels charged with rage and blame.  Whatever it is, and wherever comes from, there is a kind of spiritual energy to hate.  It can be felt at a political rally or a water cooler conversation, it translates through Facebook and cable news. 

            This spiritual dynamic, or disposition, whatever you want to call it, is uniquely powerful but dangerous.  It is tangible whenever there is an “us” and a “them.”  It is palpable whenever a person or group has been labeled as a threat to a community’s well being, and becomes the object of the community’s scorn.  When we find someone else to blame for whatever ails us, there is a strong group/mob instinct to cleanse ourselves on that person (drawing from Rene Girard's important work).  We identify them as the contagion, the problem.  If we can get rid of them, our problems will go away.  It’s a powerful mythology across human cultures.  In its most extreme forms—Hitler’s attempt to eliminate Jews, racial injustice in North America before the civil rights movement, such evil manifests in ways that are self-evident. 

            But there are much more subtle forms of this dynamic, equally powerful in any and all kind of grouping, religious or irreligious, conservative or progressive.  It is not partisan, it has no brand.  It is spiritual in nature, organic, living and dynamic.  No wonder the apostle Paul refers to Satan as “the prince of the power of the air,” and no wonder it’s at its most dangerous when a group of people get worked up about something.  It feels good to be worked up; “against” energy is intrinsically powerful.  If you are quiet and still enough, you won’t hear the devil crackling in a bad sound system—but there is a dark crackle in the air at times, a force that can be felt.

           There is an ancient practice in the church, popularized by the monk Ignatius of Loyola, called “the discernment of spirits.”  It is not for super-spiritual/hyper spiritual people.  It  requires an open person who is willing to have their antenna up to the world around them.  Discernment is not a practice for the mind, so much as from the stomach—it’s a way of life lived from the guts of us.  The next time you are a group of friends, co-workers, whatever tribe you are part of, regardless of political ideology, note the shift in the air/atmosphere whenever there is a strong “against” energy.  When one person begins to speak harshly about someone else, and other people jump into the conversation—what kind of spiritual dynamic is at work around you?  To be sure, there is a powerful kind of human solidarity that comes out of such settings—we are never more united than we share a common “them;” it’s how we most often know we have an “us.”  And yet there is something about this than seems to conspire against gentleness, tenderness, openness and compassion.  It is a way of building human community, but when identity is established on excluding the “right” people, it is at the cost of the community’s soul. 

Cleansing ourselves on Pecola

            The ego’s search for salvation is the quest to find the right person to blame, the right person to scapegoat.  Rene Girard identifies this universal mechanism throughout cultures and mythologies throughout antiquity.  But the truth of it stares us down daily, if we attend closely enough to our own hearts, in their tremendous capacity to judge, label, and finally to purge ourselves on another human being.  Tony Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye is especially haunting in its depiction of this phenomenon (note: I'm forever grateful to my former professor Amy Laura Hall for introducing me to this book-it changed my life).  The protagonist is a girl named Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who prays every day for beauty.  Mocked by her other children for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes, and sexually abused by her father, she longs for the normalcy she dreams would come if she had blond hair and blue eyes.  Maybe then, she could fit in.  Yet all the while, we watch Pecola slowly disintegrate before us, leading to this stunning final section:

And the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs.  Sammy left town long ago; Cholly died in the workhouse; Mrs. Breedlove still does housework.  And Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved into on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while. 

The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world--which is what she herself was.  All of our waste which we dumped on her she absorbed.  And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.  All of us--all who knew her--felt so wholesome after we cleansed ourselves on her.  Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor.  Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent.   Her poverty kept us generous.  Even her waking dreams we used--to silence our own nightmares. 

And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.  We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength…And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely liscensed; were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved.  We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.  We substituted good grammar for intellect, we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.

Morrison’s language lingers, not only in my darkest dreams, but in my most honest waking moments of self-reflection.  How often have I made myself beautiful by dumping my waste onto someone else?  How often have I felt wholesome from cleansing myself on another life?  “Her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor.”  For Morrison, it is not only those who have directly abused her that are responsible for her breakdown—all who watched and “padded their egos” from her brokenness are complicit. 

           To feel stronger, wiser, or braver because of the perceived weakness or sin of someone else we judge seems like the most casual, normative human behavior imaginable.  And yet in terms of Scripture, scapegoating is the most sub-human, even demonic, activity we engage in.  I’m aware this all sounds very dramatic.  There aren’t much stronger negative adjectives we might use than “Satanic” or “demonic.”  Even if one were to use such terms, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to reserve them for cases of extreme evil—maybe those who participate in some cultic practice of ritual abuse? 

Will the real Satan please stand up?

           And yet in the story told in the ancient texts, “Satan” appears first in what would seem to be a much more pedestrian way.  The Old Testament has no developed theology of the devil or of demons—even the appearance of the serpent in Genesis will not be linked to the figure Christians call “Satan” until much, much later.  The first appearance of this character is in the book of Job, and in this early Hebrew book, Satan is not a surname, but a job description.  In Hebrew his title is translated “the Satan,” meaning “the accuser.”  Accusation is his job, his reason for being.  It drives him, animates him, consumes him.  As much as God “is love” according to the New Testament epistle of I John, Satan is accusation.

          We get our first glimpse of “the Satan” as he accuses the righteous character of Job before God, charging that He only worships God because the divine one won’t let anything bad happen to him.  What would it mean for us to take seriously the idea that evil, in its most pure, original form, always draws its energy from accusation?  Or to come to believe that to blame, condemn or scapegoat another person, even and perhaps especially in the name of religion, is nothing less than the imitation of Satan? 

           While “the Satan” is not introduced until the book of Job, the dark, blaming energy this figure embodies runs through the entire ancient story: from Cain murdering his brother Abel (the world will be right if I can just get rid of him), to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ Himself by an angry mob.  While the broad story of Scripture has much to say about the native beauty of the human condition—the story begins with “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin"—it is also forward in its assessment of our shared complicity in the violence of the world.  

Looking for God in all the wrong places

            The most insidious thing about accusation, which is by nature a spiritual force (especially in context of any corporate human gathering) is that it has a powerful shared spiritual energy; it just feels so right.  We never feel more righteous—more holy, more pious—than when we collectively cleanse ourselves on someone else.  There is a sparkle, again a crackle in the air, an almost inhuman, otherworldly strength we feel when we participate in the spirit of us and them.  It is a force that can take hold quickly in a room.  It is a force of darkness that can be manifest through people who otherwise may seem kind, caring, reasonable or gentle—through “good” people.  I find it fascinating, for example, that when Peter attempts to talk Jesus out of the necessity of suffering (the path of all true spiritual or social change), Jesus exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Of course Peter had not suddenly somehow actually transformed into some kind of mythological creature with horns and a tail.  But for a moment, this well-intentioned, “good” man embodied the destructive force of “the Satan.” 

            I will never forget the first time I felt this in an overwhelming way.  It seems truthful to say I was “overwhelmed,” but the occasion was not dramatic at all—in fact I’ve borne witness to far greater displays of negative corporate spiritual power and scapegoating, both before and since.  I think that week, for some reason, I was more engaged, more in tune with the spiritual dynamic somehow.  The occasion was our bi-annual denominational General Assembly.  This was when all we ordained ministers would come together to deliberate issues of ecclesial polity, sometimes to discuss pressing matters of church and culture.

          That week there just seemed to be a pandemic of “against energy.”  Whenever any of the speakers tried to constructively engage us on issues of mission or vision, the response was lethargic at best.  But whenever a speaker said anything with a kind of edge—toward women, toward younger ministers, whoever—the whole place was energized quickly.  And that week, there just seemed to be a lot of that.  There were a lot of speeches expressing concern over some kind of outsider, some kind of perceived threat to the institution, that seemed to almost always be met with the crowd’s general approval and applause.  Even now, I have to be careful about this dynamic in my own speaking/preaching—against energy is powerful and dynamic, and especially in my native Pentecostal tradition, being frankly kind of pissed off can often pass for “the anointing”—some sense of divine life and energy.  And yet the energy that motivates in those kinds of settings is often anything but divine. 

           Given the culture of my tradition, even among what I would in fact perceive as deeply good, genuinely caring men, most of the “positions” staked out that week were not particularly surprising.  But what did surprise me was just how unsettling the week was to me on a soul level.  I didn’t know how to fully account for that.  It came to a head at the end of the week, when the resolutions adapted that week were being read—statements drafted by the body to speak to various cultural issues.  My native denomination is culturally conservative, and that year there had been a lot of political debate over gay marriage.  So there was an aggressively worded resolution re-affirming the denomination’s stance against gay marriage (which mind you, from where I sit never seemed to be in question within that culture to begin with).  And when the resolution was read, the response was absolutely thunderous.  There was a long, rapturous standing ovation, people shouting praises to God.  Within my tradition, we have as much ambiguity in matters of our own sexuality as anyone else.  But dear Lord, does it feel good to make a loud, unambiguous statement that no matter what else might be wrong with us, hallelujah, at least we aren’t LIKE THEM!  It is a powerful form of collective scapegoating, a kind of corporate exorcism of our demons (at someone else’s expense). 

        I was still the pastor of a local church then, and that happened to be the same week that a tremendous controversy ignited, especially through social media, that I dubbed “Chic-fil-a gate.”  Having been lost in the ecclesial forest of the general assembly all week, I had paid little attention to what was happening outside the convention center where preachers in suits and ties and women in ornate dresses took air-conditioned refuge from the summer Orlando heat.  By the time I discovered the controversy—wherein there was a massive political backlash to the founder of Chic-fil-A’s vocal opposition to gay marriage, there were bodies all over the digital battlefield.  Chic-fil-A had long been famous for its openly evangelical stance, closing on Sundays out of religious principle and playing Christian music in its restaurants.  I am as grateful as anyone that I can hear Michael W. Smith’s classic “Friends” when I go to the bathroom at Chic-fil-A, or that someone can take my order in tongues (okay that part never happened, but wouldn’t be it awesome if it had?).  I have more ambiguity about their conviction about closing on Sundays, as I often speak then and find myself craving a chicken sandwich when I’m done.  I would prefer they be bought out by Seventh Day Adventists, or better yet Jewish folks, so they could close on Saturdays instead.  I would say “Shabbat Shalom” when I drive by on Saturdays, and get my fried chicken fix on Sundays.  I digress.  But the tone and tenor of the dispute on social media was so volatile, so angry, that alongside all I saw and felt at the assembly, the sum total of against energy just felt ridiculous.  Even my favorite chicken sandwich had become politicized! 

         This section may be an especially fun read for Christian progressives who share my concern that much of what happens under the banner of evangelical culture wars is angry, destructive, and ultimately opposite of the message of Jesus.  The trouble is, I have felt that exact same, identical spirit when I’ve been wound up talking about the ills of culturally conservative Christianity among more progressive friends (and in myself).  I’ve felt the same smugness, the same condescension, the same judging, blaming, condemning spirit among the people who would profess to be the most unlike those Christians.  It just feels so good to be right.  In fact, I think “being right” is the most dangerous drug there is.  Who needs meth when you can have the high that comes from being right all the time, from feeling the rightness of your tribal identity over and against all the stupid people out there?

        This is why so many people ending up trading up one kind of fundamentalism for another, even if they leave organized religion altogether.  (For a case study on this sense of indulgent "rightness", read some of the major books by so-called “new atheists” in the last 15 years or so)  Progressive ideology, even progressive Christian ideology, is no less exempt from this universal human propensity toward white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, us vs. them.  I recognize this when I visit the occasional theology blog that I know in advance I’m going to have serious disagreement with.  I go for the high of being right, and feeling righteous.  I go to be on the right side of us vs. them, to bring some order again to the chaos and ambiguity of the world as it is. 

        I realized the power of this same negative, blaming spiritual energy a few years ago, when I wrote an online essay critiquing a then-popular Christian figure’s stance on women in ministry.  The leader in question had made remarks that were flagrantly sexist and mean-spirited.  Having been very much shaped by women in ministry who have taught me much of what I’ve come to know about God, I took the comments rather personally.  I didn’t feel like I was wrong to write the piece—I was taking on the ideas, not the character of the person, and I didn’t feel like anything I wrote was violent or reactionary.  But what was fascinating was how quickly the piece caught on.  I had not written a book or had a lot of serious attention for my writing generally in those days, despite putting out stuff that I thought was quality. 

         But tapping into the power of against energy, all of the sudden things were starting to blow up online.  And I knew instantly, as I watched the clicks continue to pile on, that I would never be able in good conscience to critique this leader again.  I said my peace once on matters I deeply believe in, but in reality no one who knew anything about me would ever dream I was on the same page with this person’s ideas to begin with.  Anything beyond that, at least for me, would have been about my own ego and about blame, finding my identity in what I was against rather than what I was for.  And that’s always a dangerous combination.  After that, when someone else, say a Pat Robertson, said something in the media I thought was crazy, I stopped swinging at it every time.  Every family has a crazy uncle who says things at thanksgiving, but they are still your family, and they still have a place at the table.  I decided the best way to respond to such things most of the time was to speak grace and blessing, not to call attention to it, delight in it, revel in being more enlightened or more cultured somehow.  (For those of you that have further questions about the time and place for prophetic critique, how to know when to speak out "against" principalities and powers, or how this principle does or does not apply to more extreme cases, such as abuse...there is much more to come, this is only part one!)

        Accusation, simply put, is the devil’s tool, and it can’t be used to build the kingdom of God.  We cannot revel in blaming, us vs. them energy or rhetoric if we are going to build alternative communities rooted in the prophetic witness of gentleness.  All that is of God is tender, loving, and non-coercive.  It is that kind, sweet, enemy loving and blessing goodness that makes the message of God and of God’s people so different from the machinations of the world.  

a short excerpt from Songs of Descent

 

Friends: I'm writing a lot these days, working on a few different projects including a few (I hope happy) surprises.  In the meantime, it's been a while since I've shared anything I've got cooking...so today I wanted to share a short excerpt from my (sometime) forthcoming book, Songs of Descent. I would rather you not be drowning--but if your life is currently under water, I hope this speaks to where you are, somehow.

-JM

This book is about trying to find life in and through the flood, letting the waters lead us where they will, even if they take us where we do not wish to go—straight into the heart of darkness, into the thick of what we fear the most. From the swamps of the bayou to the tidal waves of the Indian Ocean, we instinctively know all the mysteries come from the water. In Hebrew mythology, the sea is the place of chaos, the place where the sea monsters live off the far end of the map. All the things we are most afraid of lurk at the bottom.

This is a book about descent, about diving—or more often being pushed—into the sea where we contend with all the mysteries. While there is grace in the falling, we rarely fall in gracefully. In fact, losing control is at the very heart of descent. I’m defining descent in the broadest possible terms. The descent, in my vernacular, encompasses any and all downward movement. It doesn’t really matter much what takes you down. It can be an unexpected illness or simply the consequence of our own bad choices; it runs the gamut from traumatic death to fairly pedestrian rejection at the hands of another human being. There is no context in which descent is not possible—vocational, relational, spiritual; there are so many ways of going down.

Descent, by nature, is often a slow unraveling. “I saw Satan fall like lightning,” Jesus said. This is apparently one advantage of being Satan, because most of us fall much more slowly, hitting every step on the way down. The descent, even if we are more or less responsible for our falling, is rarely quite exactly of our choosing—at least not consciously.

Above all else, the path of descent is scary. It involves a journey into the unknown, an exploration of everything we are most natively afraid of. Surprisingly, the descent into the depths of our fears, the descent into our own souls, the descent into the mysteries of life, and the descent into the mystery of God are precisely the same journey. Surprisingly, the path of descent is the spiritual journey— perhaps the only spiritual journey. In the same way that the path of superficial success always corresponds with the road of upward mobility, the spiritual life nearly always entails the path of downward mobility. There is no other way into the mysteries of God, life, or our true selves that is not a pilgrimage down. There is no other way to move from living out of our heads into living from our hearts.

It’s the open secret of spirituality that we have so many reasons to ignore and resist, no matter how hard it stares us down. We resist the necessity of the downward spiral, and for that matter the reality of it. When we are on the slide, everything in us screams, at first, “This is not happening. This is not happening.” Though the more we resist the reality of our descent, the more painful it becomes. Whatever we resist, and whatever we fear, we empower.

For me, the genius of Christian spirituality is that it puts this path boldly front and center, by placing the death and resurrection of Jesus at its core. By making the suffering of Jesus so central to the mystery, the clear message is that the path of suffering and death is the journey into God, into freedom, and into life. It’s where the story was moving all along, really—Moses and the Israelites crossing the red sea, Jonah descending into the belly of the whale, and finally Jesus “descending into hell” in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And yet even so, this kind of wisdom is so inaccessible to our minds, so terribly experiential to its core, that we are generally not able to see it until after our own descent begins.

So much contemporary religion is propositional—finding its center in belief rather than practice and experience. In historic Christian faith, both in its eastern and western expressions, the shared experience of the Eucharist was the practice that bound the Church together—the taste of bread and wine, the bittersweet meal that takes us into the mystery of Christ’s suffering. But the more pursuit of faith becomes chiefly about doctrine, about having “right belief,” the more distance we create from the mysteries in which the experiential reality of God may be found. For those raised on a steady diet of propositional “truth,” this may sound a bit shocking; but the truth is, when you are on the descent, beliefs actually don’t matter much anymore.

I feel vaguely sacrilegious to write that, because I, like many of you, grew up in a world where beliefs (defined as what you think) were everything. There are no questions nearly as urgent as those of what you think about God, whether or not you got the doctrine right, whether or not you prayed the right prayer in church. But I don’t say that out of a desire for novelty or controversy, but more as a statement of cool fact—a statement of what is: when you go deep enough, beliefs will simply not keep you warm. Belief alone will not save you from drowning. Ideas will not put breath back into your lungs. The overwhelming, pervasive reality is that the world has gone topside, reality has shifted, and life as you knew it is now underwater. The experience of drowning is more profound than any ideas you had about God, life, or the world before. It is excruciating. It is unbearable. It is an experience that took you under. Is there anything but experience that could lead you out? What you think about God, life, or the world doesn’t mean much anymore.

As a Christian, I place confidence in the particular story of the death and resurrection of Jesus; it’s the lens through which I understand the world. But I do not believe that the central goal of faith is to believe the death and resurrection as a kind of religious idea. The life of faith is the invitation to follow Jesus into the depths of hell for ourselves, that we might be joined in the hope of resurrection. It is not theoretical, but experiential. It is not a matter of believing that Jesus has done this for us, but of a fragile trust that Jesus will go down into our darkness with us now. The death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean we do not have to enter into its mystery for ourselves, only that we can follow him into it without utter terror. Once we become awakened to it, the message of death and resurrection seems to be encrypted into every facet of the universe itself. The way of death and resurrection is not only the path of Jesus, but of all created things.

If you are not on, or have not yet been on, the path of descent, feel free to put this book down. It cannot do you any good, because we are talking about things that can only be revealed, not taught. When the time comes that you are ready for it, you will know. But if you have already been on the dark path, you know there is nothing theoretical or romantic about any of this. When water fills your lungs and you feel yourself sinking, the experience is not poetic, but primal. There are no words for it but Oh God. you don’t know if you will survive it, or how. Life is reduced to its most basic colors, and now even the most basic of tasks like eating and drinking and sleeping do not seem so simple anymore. The world moves in slow motion when you feel like you are drowning; now you are conscious of every breath, every sound, every movement, and each and every movement feels labored, slow and difficult.

When you are on the path of descent, you will not likely trust any explanations of it, nor care about them even if you did—because there is nothing you can “know” in your head that will make it feel any better. The only thing we can hope for is not that some sort of existential “meaning” can be found in the descent, but that there can be some kind of revelation, some excavation, of the God at the bottom of the sea. It will not likely make the journey less painful. But it can make the journey more hopeful. The simple contention of this book is that love is the mystery at the bottom of all the others, and if we let ourselves be carried down deep enough into the depths, love is what we will find down here. Life is what we will find down here.

I do not claim to have any great wisdom into this. I have not lived long enough nor suffered enough to have the necessary credibility. In a way, I write about descent the same way I always preached—as a way of “whistling in the dark,” in Frederick Buechner’s phrase—a way of keeping my own spirits up. I write, brazenly, as a way to make sense of my own life, my own journey, my own descent. I write to find my own way down, and out. But I write with a sincere conviction that "the only way out is the way through." That is the genius embodied in the very body of Jesus of Nazareth—authentic spirituality is always death and resurrection; it is the religion of in-through-and-never-around.

TOO DEEP FOR WORDS

There are some places we can go that are too deep for words. We don’t have the words to really speak about these places, to speak about ourselves, nor are there words powerful enough to get beneath the dirt floor experience of life now underwater. These are places too deep for propositions, philosophizing, intellectual ideas, or even syllables. These are depths where only the Spirit can live: “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God,” the Apostle Paul says. Or, in the book of Romans, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8.26)

Souls are deep as oceans, just as beautiful, just as dark and dangerous. There are places of hurt and pain, of loss and longing, that we simply do not have the vocabulary for. There are places beneath articulation, beneath sea level, beneath soul level. We do not know how to pray for ourselves, or for anyone else, from this place. My prayer for you is not made of words but groans, with sighs too deep for words: that the Spirit who knows your depths, the depths of pain and longing—even the depths of God—would search you, reach into you, dive into you. That the Spirit would gently descend into the places so sacred, and so tender, that words would not dare be so blasphemous as to enter them.

There is no easy way out. There is only the way that leads deeper in. We cannot overcome the tides that drag us into the ocean, so there is no point pounding at the water, resisting. Somehow, we have to find a way to open up our hands, our hearts, and finally our lives, to let go into the descent.

If you are in such a place—however you got here—I am so, so very sorry. I can’t say a lot to you in confidence, but I can tell you this: you are not alone. And somehow, someway . . . you are going to be okay.

Please don’t lose heart. 

Does "war with Islam" rhetoric help Christians in the Middle East?

Who exactly are we fighting? 

 That is the question that dominates our political discourse these days.  ISIS continues to perpetrate vile, reprehensible acts of violence in the name of religion.  They name it a jihad, a holy war against the west under the banner of Islam.  So now, what will we call it?  A lot of the conversation about these matters within western Christianity is ostensibly motivated by a desire to protect Christians in the Middle East. 

The question is not an abstract one for me.  Because of my many Christian friends in the Palestinian west bank, Lebanon and Egypt, I have skin in this game.  I have very particular names, faces, stories and places in my mind when people talk about these “issues.”  It is hard to find a silver lining in the atrocities committed against Egyptian Coptic Christians in recent days.  But I am at least glad, for the first time in my adult life, there seems to be some broad acknowledgment that Christians exist in the Middle East at all—not just Christians, but saints of whom the world is not worthy.  It is wonderful to see American Christians in particular all of the sudden express such broad support for their brothers and sisters there. 

This is especially heartening since much of what I’ve witnessed from the evangelical church in America has been a catastrophic, deviant preoccupation with violence in the Middle East that expresses no concern for the Church on the ground there at all.  So-called “prophecy teachers” have built large political machines in the US, and have poured a tremendous amount of capital into funding self-fulfilling “prophecies” that seem to aim toward war more so than peace.  This generally takes place in the name of love for Jews in Israel, but is actually indicative of a narcissistic desire to expedite “rapture” from any worldly suffering of our own.  The theology of fundamentalist dispensationalism gives me a small scale of reference for peaceful Muslims who feel that their religion is being hijacked. 

But yes, American Church: We do have family in the Middle East who has been begging for our attention and support for years.  But we did not acknowledge them, because the presence of the Church in these nations did not fit our end-times charts and graphs or our games of cowboys and Indians.  We did not listen when they opened their mouths.  It took images of their severed heads for us to pay attention to them at all.

Now that these people who we have otherwise pretended did not exist do have a role to play in our high stakes game of Battleship, we talk with noble, righteous indignation.  I hear the tremble in the voices of those who insist that we name this a war against Islam—they feel they are somehow standing up for the persecuted church.  I do not want to interrupt display of piety toward Christians we have otherwise ignored for generations, but it is precisely because I know many of these believers personally that I get so squeamish about our rhetoric.

In a longer essay, I could tell you story after story of Christians I know living in the Middle East who have, for the most part, got along beautifully with their Muslim neighbors for decades.  Going back further, I could tell you beautiful stories of where we have seen Christians and Muslims co-exist in peace historically.  I sat with my missionary “grandmother” Sister Margaret Gaines a few weeks ago weeping as she shared many of these stories with me.  I have seen these stories lived out on the ground.  But these stories are not broadly publicized among Western Christians, and these are not the sorts of stories that get reported in the apocalyptic snuff porn we call “news.”  To not pay attention to the ways and places that Christians and Muslims have already in fact found ways to live and work alongside each other, and to allow ourselves to be caught up in the rhetoric of holy war, does not help the cause of actual Christians who actually live in the Middle East.

I do want the world to be attentive to the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. I do want the world to be attentive to the horrors of ISIS.   But it is again precisely because I fear for the lives of my brothers and sisters there that I get so uncomfortable with the push among conservative Christians to label this broadly a war against Islam, and why I was frustrated, for example, when Franklin Graham suggested that Islam was at its core a violent religion.

I frankly have little interest, in terms of a historical project, to argue whether or not the violence of extremist groups like ISIS is a deviation from Islam, or is representative of something intrinsic to the belief system in some core form.  My concerns here are more utilitarian than ideological.  This kind of rhetorical sparring is simply unhelpful with regard to the people we allegedly care to protect. But while I don’t agree with Graham’s premise, I am willing to work from it for a moment:  So we get on TV and say that those who have perpetuated violence in the name of Christianity are not real Christians, but all those who are true to the teachings of Mohammed are violent, because their founder was violent.  We suggest that Islam in its pure form is evil, malevolent.  So then for a week, the news that dominated the Middle East was that a prominent American Christian is promoting Islamophobia.  And whether fair or not, that story was in fact linked with that of that of the Chapel Hill shooting of three young Muslim students.  In the name of care for Christians in the region, we claim that people need to broadly “wake up to the dangers of Islam.” This approach is not a way of playing Oskar Schindler to the Church in the Middle East.  It will not save more lives. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that raises the temperature of the global conversation in ways that cause further harm to the body of Christ there.

I would think the best thing we could do for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East is to tone down/temper the reactionary rhetoric against Islam as a whole.  Telling an entire religion that they are evil and violent at their core does nothing but encourage radicalization—and also cause Christians in the US and Europe to become more suspicious of peaceful Muslim neighbors.  This will inevitably lead people among us to provoke unnecessary individual conflicts with Muslims in western countries that will only feed the constant cycle of propaganda, and start the mechanisms of violence all over again. 

The most baffling thing for me is that those who claim to be the most spiritual refuse to consider the basic claim of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”  The language of principalities and powers is loaded.  It cannot be reduced to a kind of sentimentalized, black and white world in which every inch of the cosmos is directly ruled by angels or demons.  There is much room in the witness of Scripture for chaos and for grey.  We can’t just cast out devils to rid the world of all its injustice—real world problems are more complex than that.  And we certainly don’t solve anything by embracing a dualistic folk religion in which we give every human being a white hat or black hat. 

But on the other hand, the phrase suggests that there is very much a force of evil in the world that is greater than the sum of its parts.  There is a spiritual darkness, a toxic spiritual energy, that is unleashed through our hatred and violence.  While this toxicity is inclusive of earthly systems and structures of injustice and oppression, those systems cannot fully account for this spiritual contagion.  There is in fact a soul malaise, a demonic deception, that is embodied through humans in the harm we inflict on one another.  And because the disease is spiritual, the cure cannot be (in the Christian understanding) a simple matter of “taking out the bad guys.”  From the cross of Jesus to the tale of the two witnesses in Revelation, to the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., the message is the same: sacrificial, self-giving love is the only way forces of evil can be conquered.  Thus, to Paul again, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds.” 

This is the unique claim and perspective of the Church.  It must inform the way we view this conflict, and all others: as people who do not rely on the wisdom of this present age, but operate from a deep grounding in the ancient story of how God conquers evil with divine love.  It is from this centered perspective that the Body of Christ must speak and act in times like these, not in the reactionary rhetoric of a world that does not know the Prince of Peace.  We must speak and act with wisdom, precision, and deep love.  We cannot be party to the forces that would use our religion only as a pawn for a broader ideological project that is something less than “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

I understand that these are complicated matters, and that these few words do not begin to sort them out.  They are not intended to, but only to remind us again of our vocation.  We are the ones who are called to remember, when the world is reduced to war between one people group and another, that the ultimate conflict is never with flesh and blood.  Whether or not we embrace the toxic spirit/energy of the world around us, or whether we resist that violent spirit altogether with radical enemy-love, makes all the difference in the world we will create.  And God does in fact call us to co-create the world with Him.  We are, after all, agents and ambassadors of God’s shalom in the world, of God’s peace.  We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the narratives of kingdoms other than that of the peaceable kingdom of Christ. 

The ways we address these matters ultimately must certainly go beyond speech.  Speaking the right words, cultivating the right kind of heart, will not solve any of these problems automatically.  But they provide a good place to start.  Language matters.  Rather than engage in name-calling and labeling, we speak with perspective of those who recognize the battle is not with flesh and blood.  In our time, sometimes I think we might add that the battle is not between conservatives and liberals, nor Christians and Muslims.  The battle these days, it seems, is between literacy and spectacle, between crass labels and nuanced speech.   Perhaps we find it unfortunate that these matters require the work of deep, sustained, prayerful reflection from the people of God, in ways that resist the unspiritual, violent speech of the world.  But to live out our vocation as ambassadors of God’s peace, such depth of prayer, conversation and listening is the only we can take our vocation seriously.  If we are called to be ambassadors of another kingdom in a violent age, at the very least we are called to think and pray hard, then speak and act carefully.