Why yes...I DO pray for President Trump (on hoping for his salvation...& my own)

"But do you PRAY for President Trump?” As a church leader who has been outspoken about the Trump phenomenon, that is the first question offended evangelicals ask me. Usually, it’s with a mixture of outrage and triumph, a sense that they have just played the trump card…”I just Jesus-juked a pastor!” Well, since you asked…yes, as a matter of fact, I really DO pray for President Trump. No, I do not find this to be mutually exclusive with strong opposition to ideas and rhetoric that threatens our most vulnerable. I pray for President Trump; I resist his ideology, and both praying for him and resisting his ways, is changing me. That is one of the things I like best about attempting to submit my life to the discipline of the Book of Common Prayer — it ensures that I pray for the President regularly, no matter who he/she is, whether I feel inclined to or not. The slow rhythm of those prayers, works on me…works in me.

I started praying for President Trump even before he won the Republican primary, because of the way I felt like the Lord dealt with me then. It was fairly early in the primary, & I had traveled to Ireland and Australia within a few months. Everywhere I went, Christians from other parts of the world were asking me the same question regarding the rising evangelical support of Trump: “What the hell are you guys thinking? Have you all lost your minds?” I was as troubled by all of it as anyone else. From the beginning, the entire Trump phenomenon oozed darkness me — crass, with no coherent ideology apart from a consistent demonization of anyone deemed as an other; playing off thinly veiled racial anxieties, and often not bothering with the veil. Trump’s very entrance into presidential politics, furthering the “birther” charge that could only be played against a black President with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, was explicitly racist.

I felt outraged. I felt angry. As I felt the storm around me going deeper into my own soul, my travels abroad gave me space to be reflective; and I took all of this to prayer. To whatever extent you believe people may or may not hear God in prayer, I can tell you what I “heard”…characteristic of the Holy Spirit, spoken with tenderness, yet cutting me open: “You can’t hate Donald Trump. You ARE Donald Trump!” Um — come again? Of course, I felt resistance to this word. But the longer I sat with it, the more sense it made to me. In the grand scheme of the world we live in, this white son of a preacher man has more in common with a white real estate mogul, than say…someone from Haiti. And further, I felt like the Lord was pressing this point: “if you think what this man is doing is divisive, what precisely are you doing that brings healing, that brings hope?” From that moment forward, I felt myself being called to a complicated task: to both prophetically resist the principalities and powers Trump embodied, and yet pray for the man…ultimately, to lead Christian communities that I serve through my own repentance.

Let’s fast forward through the less interesting parts from there: While still prayerful, I’ve spoken out plenty. There have been considerable consequences within some of my circles, losing finances and losing “friends,” etc…but no opposition I’ll ever get will compare to the threat Trumpism to people on the margins of our society — so there is nothing noble in that. I had a run-in with Jerry Falwell, Jr. last Fall that made the news. Blah-blah-blah. While it’s all been happening the way I felt like it had to, I keep on praying for President Trump. I keep on going deeper into what I felt like God gave me on that day.

The truth at the rock bottom is that — and this is not some sanctified, pioutized way of putting President Trump down: the more I pray for him, the more I see myself in him. The thin skin. The frail ego. The need to be approved, and approved of some more…no adoration ever enough, to fill the hole in me. The tendency to want to hit back harder when I feel struck by some enemy. The need to look strong and powerful, to mask insecurities and fears I carry as secret scars, all over my chest. President Trump, yes…but Donald. Without a trace of anything condescending — I need him to be salvageable, because I need to be salvageable. Donald J. Trump: if there is no hope of salvation for him, there is no hope of salvation for me.

As vehemently as I oppose some of the things he has stood for, I don’t think he is a uniquely evil man. I think he’s more garden variety evil, really. There are no deep mysteries beneath his rage, arrogance and paranoia…just fear, fear, and more layers of fear, like peeling back the skin of an onion — the further you go, you just get more of the same.

I remember standing slack-jawed in the Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa, reading the lyrics to Guthrie’s scathing protest song against the overt racism of Trump’s famous father, “Old Man Trump” — a folk song that hit you in the mouth, like a Kendrick Lamar song does. Is “Old Man’s Trump’s” son a brazen racist? His speech and actions would say yes (even if he has three black friends, plus Ben Carson). He appointed an Attorney General in Jeff Sessions who has rolled back significant civil rights legislation, and both dog-whistled sometimes and broad daylight human whistled other times to white supremacists, mobilizing the darkest element of his base. But is he especially racist? Probably not. Like all of us to a point, Trump is doubtless a product of his environment. He probably has more of his father in him than he would want to admit…like most of us do.

The truth is, I’ve never felt like Trump was especially anything. He’s not an ideological purist about anything in particular, but a pragmatist and an opportunistic. The fact that he has no real ideology, of course, puts him at the mercy of people with extreme ideologies, and that is what DOES make him uniquely dangerous. Some from my native world of Charismatic Christianity have furthered the idea of Trump as a modern incarnation of the the Old Testament King Cyrus — an outsider to Israel’s ethnically and spiritually who nonetheless showed mercy to the people of God. This Bible deep cut is a bizarre parallel for more reasons than I can explain here. If you were to look for a parallel to Trump in the story of Scripture, I’d contend more for Pontius Pilate — a man who is remembered mostly for being a weather vane with no particular convictions of his own, who thus moved with the mob (though perhaps Pilate in the text seems more self-aware, more reflective?).

His capacity to cause destruction is horrifying, but so is my own. His ego seems boundless at times…but so does my own. The man needs Jesus…and so do I. Look, I don’t care if the man has prayed some private “sinner’s prayer” or not; I don’t even know what that would mean. Whatever he says about his faith, he walks around like the damned — so much internal torment, so much pride, so much offense and resentment. Living in that kind of prison is a whole lot more like hell than the version of Dante’s inferno that many of us were given. He needs freedom. That’s one of the reasons I most grieve over the so-called “court evangelicals” who slither in his ear, feeding his ego, telling him what he wants to hear — they not only betray the churches they represent, they betray the President they claim to serve! If they loved him, if they cared for his soul — they would speak words of liberating truth to him, not participate in his ego games.

So…I do pray for him. I pray for the man as he is now, and for the child he once was, and could become again. I pray for the man I am also called to resist, and hope to God that somehow my prayers for him will weaken my own defenses against the One who saved and called me. I pray for Donald J. Trump, because I have it on higher authority — that me and him are an awful lot a like.

Scene two:

In light of all of this, and as a product of my hoping, praying, and my imagination, I offer this kind of vision from a few nights ago: I sit in the dark outside William Faulkner’s old house, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, I calmly acknowledged the ghosts as they pass. Even though the breeze is still, if you listen close enough you can still hear the trees, conferring. This part of Mississippi is an enchanted and a haunted place, two sides of the same reality: the natural beauty, and the desecrated body of Emmit Till; the blues as the defiant, enduring hymnody of the bruised that floats through the Delta, still. History here is not hidden, so neither are Mississippi’s ghosts.

We visit some ghosts to get away from others, and I haven’t mind the break from my familiar haunts. Yet though I haven’t turn on a television since I arrive, I’ve seen the face of a specter that mostly lives inside the television — the face of President Trump. I see his face and hear his voice inside my head, and am surprised by my own cocktail of tenderness and heartbreak. I feel no pity, for pity is condescending, and I do not feel myself above him, or at least not this night.

I see him walking past me, into the wood — at the age he most likes to remember himself. He looks as he did the first time I saw him on tv, at Wrestlemania, when I was nine. His jaw is strong, his eyes folded into a small glint, a face impossibly confident. He looks trim in his black topcoat; his orange hair is full. Instinctively and surprisingly, I reach out for him — but my hand passes through him. He has no matter, no mass. When the light moves, the image of him flickers.

He is post-person, the residue of a soul — a disembodied ego. He does not have “thoughts,” only instincts, of self-preservation and ambition and scores to settle. Slights enrage him, and keep him alive. He is everywhere, but never present where he is. The grass is too hard for him, but he does not break stride…he walks on, back arched and head high. For a second, his vacant eyes register uncertainty as to where he is or why he is here, but then he steels himself again, and settles into his old reliable defenses — posturing. He does not have to know where he is, to know he’s king over all he surveys. He doesn’t have to know what his reasons are; he is no creature of reason to begin with. Are any of us?

He strides through the woods like he owns them, walking tall — until a figure appears in front of him. I saw him, but to see him was to forget him…a man so ordinary, you couldn’t describe his face moments after you met. He is nondescript, open, gentle; I vaguely remember that he was small. And yet as quickly as I forgot his features, even now I can feel the heavy weight of his presence — the gravity and softness of him.

I cannot see his face for the silhouette of Trump in his black coat. I see Trump put out his hand, and hear him ask gregariously, “Nice to meet you sir. You look familiar. Am I supposed to know…” Something stops him cold. The stranger does not speak, he just stares at him. It was then, and only then, that I caught a glimpse of his eyes. And while I cannot tell you the color of them, I can tell you the tenderness in them nearly knocked me to the ground. His gaze though, was not on me…only on Donald Trump. I could not see all that he knew of him in his eyes, but I could tell that he knew all of him there was to know.

He just stood there, beholding him, drinking him up, like a son. Delight danced across those unbearably tender eyes, his whole face a song. Transfixed, I almost forgot about the man in the black topcoat. I looked back, to see his own face struck with awe and terror, his body tense — and then — the shift. As the stranger looked into the President, waves of knowing came washing over him. Knowing, knowing, knowing. Every nook and cranny of him, seen. The man for whom there could never be a crowd large enough nor ratings high enough to soothe his seasick soul, seemed to collapse into an unwelcome contentment. His shoulders fell, his chin seemed softer — his eyes were bright with tears. I could have swore I saw his lips quiver, as the stranger bathed him in light, illuminating him.

For a moment, I felt something triumphant rise up in me. The man who famously said he saw no need for forgiveness, was about to finally ask for it, and somehow I was selected to overhear him mutter the words, “I’m sorry.” While I feel no hate for him here, I simply stepped into something like an old habit, waiting for vindication. He opens his mouth to speak his words of repentance, and I am high with anticipation.

But the stranger puts his finger to his lips, and will not let him speak. He places his hands on each side of his head, mussing his hair, slightly. The sheer delight the stranger took in him shattered me. When the stranger opened his mouth, he spoke to him in a tongue I did not understand, in a dialect I had not heard. I had no idea what the words signified, but Donald, whose face somehow seemed lighter and younger, clearly somehow understood every word. I leaned in hungry to see something more of his reaction, but the stranger’s hands protected his face from my greedy eyes.

Trump’s body had substance now, and his skin had color. He was as vivid and alive as the haunted woods that surround us, and synchronized with their voices of praise. The dance I saw in the eyes of the stranger, was now somehow inside of him, too. The quiet reverence of created things was broken by loud, bellowing laughter — absurd, convulsing, belly laughter, tumbling out of both men. The ground was hallowed by both their laughter and their tears, and this time, I could not even hold my gaze for the holiness nor the loveliness of it. I lowered my eyes, unable to bear the purity of their joy.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the stranger’s hands were no longer on Trump’s head. He was embracing him now, his strong hand cradling the back of his head. The words he spoke this time, I heard all too clearly,

“DONALD…you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”


Men at 40, learn to close doors softly (or, on Annihilation & bunnies)

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

— Donald Justice

I am neither especially threatened nor particularly drawn to the idea of “milestone birthdays.” And yet just around the corner from turning a certain age later this month, I find myself unable to avoid being reflective about the shape of my story, thus far.

My friend Aaron Niequist shared the above poem with me, & I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. On the one hand, as life expectancy gets longer, the notion of having mortality dawn on you at 40 may seem almost quaint, especially for people well past that threshold. And yet, there is something about it that rings deeply true, somehow: that 40 is, if nothing else, about the time that you realize that you actually can’t just decide to be whatever you want you to be when you grow up. Constraints settle in. Don’t get me wrong — some of our finest actors and writers didn’t start their respective new careers until their 40’s and 50's. People reinvent themselves at any and all ages…to a point. But there is also a way in which the lane narrows. There are still possibilites, yes — but it’s not precisely an open table, anymore. I still think I could become, say, a novelist if I worked hard at it. I now have a 0% chance of, say, becoming an astronaut.

By 40, you’ve made just enough choices in your past, to already be heading in some very particular directions, and moving far, far away from some others. There is room for improvisation, but you find yourself increasingly beholden to a certain sense of inevitability. You learn to close softly/the doors to rooms you will not be/coming back to.This narrowing is by no means a bad thing. Knowing who you are, having some borders and boundaries and parameters, is good and right. All adventures are not born out of wanderlust. Sometimes, you actually do have some idea of where you are going, and where you ought to go, and that is not wrong.

With all of this in view, I’m sliding into the impending birthday from an odd place. Yes, I have and am closing some doors softly that I will not re-enter. Yet, my world is still considerably more open-ended that what I wanted or conceived it to be. Part of that for me is just the realilty of life after divorce. I still don’t feel comfortable getting those words out of my mouth. I was married for 16 years to my best friend, a good & lovely person I still think the world of. For all of our struggles. I miss so much of the life I once had. For whatever ways this wild journey with God has named me these last few years, I will forever limp from it, too. Some things about me that are the same — but God knows, so much has changed.

People who are tethered down tightly to their lives tend to envy those who have a certain kind of freedom. So perhaps it is fitting then that those that have a certain kind of freedom, envy those who are so tethered. I have never been a biological father. I wonder about the experience on its own terms, but I frankly envy most the way the experience has changed my friends. It is as if fathering someone gave them a sense of overarching purpose and meaning, that their lives are now inextricably bound to another creature in a way that transcends the self. I don’t know if I long for children or not. I know I long for that kind of transcendence, to be lost in some mystery big enough to escape from me.

But I do have a self, however much I might want to escape it, and have a tenuous relationship with it. The poem speaks achingly of “closing doors softly.” Of course in a way, the phrase intentionally conjures the sadness of missed opportunites. But if I’m honest, I kind of like the idea of closing doors softly. I like the idea of doing anything softly! I just don’t know how. When I try to close a door softly, I’m pretty sure it always sounds like a door being slammed to the people around me.

larger than life

Let me put it this way: however my friends might describe me, I doubt :”being at home in his skin” is something they would ever say, at least not historically. I’ve never felt particularly at home inside my body. You know those men who have delicate, willowy features — agile, thin, svelte, almost beautiful? I am the opposite of all of those things. I am 6'5" and 235, so I don’t do dainty, svelte or quiet, nor do I really get to sneak anywhere.

I always feel oversized. For people my size and larger, the world seems to be made by and for hobbits. Public transportation — flying in particular — is perpetually uncomfortable. The headrest is too low for my head, if I want to lean back. At my church, I can barely use the kneelers, because my size 14 shoes won’t fit under the seat behind me when I kneel. I would have to do extensive yoga training during the week in order to use them on Sundays.

When I fly, which is often now, I usually choose exit row or bulkhead. Or at least I did — I travel so much these days for work that I often now get upgraded to first class, though I’ve never once paid for a first class ticket. I’m not a high roller — I’m coming off the hardest year of my life financially, which is saying a hell of a lot considering the years prior. But when you are an itinerant speaker, the one currency in which you have no deficit is frequent flyer miles. I bring this up, because I’ve found that when I’m in first, I wear it like an apology. I feel the need to explain myself — even though in truth I am thrilled to have a little bit more room, and not feel quite as constricted in that seat as I do in all the others. (feeling the need to defend free upgrades to first class is very much a first world problem, I know)

But honestly, I have always felt the need to explain myself, no matter where I was sitting. I’m a product of a holiness Pentecostal tradition, but since I was very young (early 20’s) have ALWAYS had a theology that was too big and too inclusive for most of my peers. It was not because I wanted to rebel; in fact, I tried very hard to be respectful of the customs of the people around me. But I saw and grasped something of the wide mercy and unconditional love of God, and you can’t make yourself un-see such a thing. In the same spirit, I now seem to be the person who is too “Jesus-y” among more liberal friends, too fixed on the particularity of Christ and on the power of the resurrection. I do not feel especially smart or enlightned, nor claim access to any special revelation. I just see what I see — and even in that, can feel like another way of standing out, even when I’m trying to sit down.

It is hard to learn how to be at home yourself in the right ways, and yet stay open, teachable and changeable in others. We mostly want to be something other than what we are. I know a lot of smaller men who desperately wish they were bigger; I’ve spent much of my life wishing I could be a little bit smaller, a little bit less conspicuous. I love to read novels about quiet humble men who become local parish priests in a tiny town somewhere, and I romanticize the lives of writers who live in old houses in the northeastern quadrant of BFE. I would like to be quiet, reflective, literary, elegant; and wonder around a big writer’s house in a professorial brown sport coat that feels effortless, unpretentious.

But alas, none of that is meant to be. Sometimes I do want to sit comfortably in a normal chair. Somtimes I don’t want people to ask how tall I am. I want to be able to slide in, on the back row. Except, of course, when I don’t, which does happen from time to time. Either way, there is much I can’t help. My father and grandfather were both preachers with built-in microphones — men who never needed a PA system to be heard. My voice isn’t quite as big as theirs, but it is still pretty big. People tell me I don’t need to yell, or at least not talk so loud. What do you mean? This is my normal voice!

I’m not yelling. This is just what it sounds like when I talk.

I wish I could be cool, but my default is sweaty. I wish I could make jazz music, but I live my like an opera no matter what other sound I try to make. My hands and feet and heart and voice are all big, and when I try to pretend that they are smaller, I’m still just as oversized — only more awkward.

And then there are the people who are conscious of such things, that feel like it is their spiritual gift to make me smaller, to whittle me down to size. If they only knew just how much I want to live in the village with the hobbits — keeping the big feet, but scaling the rest down. To stand out, even when you don’t want to, is often to feel left out. Why can’t I be the little country priest, at home in his books and NPR and his small village? Even everything I FEEL seems so oversized. I don’t want to always live at a high volume, but my “normal” seems to be a lot of people’s loud.

The Human Torch

Earlier in my marriage, Amanda and I went out to eat with two of our friends. The other man is a great speaker/storyteller, and literally the biggest personality that I know. Endearing, to be sure, but like me…a lot. That night at dinner, he told what may well be to this day the funniest story I’ve ever heard. It was uncomfortable, uproarious, off-color, and also happened to be entirely true. I laughed myself nearly under the table. When things calmed down a bit, his wife said something off hand that I’ve never forgot. She said, “I wish that story would have happened to you, Jonathan, just because I’d love to hear him tell it.”

This one small remark landed like a revelation. For one small moment, I caught a glimpse of how people experience me from the outside, and it horrified me: this man has the biggest personality of anyone that I know, and his wife says I WISH THIS HAD HAPPENED TO YOU SO I COULD HEAR HOW YOU WOULD TELL IT? Yikes. I am so big, too big. Bigger than I want to be. Clumsy, noisy, inelegant…not at all cool.

I hug people often. As a big person, I try to err on the side of big and friendly. But the rage in me is strong, too, and only grows hotter not cooler with age, somehow. If I’m honest, I think trying to play small, smaller than I really am — trying to conform to outside expectations, is part of why I unintentionally blew my life up before. There is no passing the buck, here…it was nobody else’s fault but my own that I internalized everything I felt like people wanted from me, and couldn’t stop myself from bending and contorting to try to be things I could not be. That is a commentary on my insecurity, not anybody else’s pressure. I have just often had an uneasy relationship with the fire in me.

There is a flame inside I cannot keep down, at least not for long. I don’t think I’m a particularly angry person, but I have a way of turning into a thunderstorm before I realize it. When I was 28 and just ordained as a bishop in our denomination, I was on the floor with the bishops for our bi-annual general assembly for the first time. That day, they were debating about the role of women in ministry in the local church. Many of the things the men were saying about women were derogative and incendiary, and I sat and listened, I seethed. I was hearing people dismiss the contributions of women in ministry in the crassest of terms, as a person who has been largely shaped by women in ministry, such as my recently departed spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines.

Like the Human Torch of Marvel Comics lore, I finally burst into flame. I went to a microphone, and pulled the little light on over the lectern. The General Overseer acknowledged me, and I started speaking…calmly. Slowly. Clearly. Intelligibly. I started with sincere self-deprication about my status as one of the youngest, most junior bishops on the floor. But as I began narrating all the things that women like Sister Margaret had done — like how she served as the Regional Overseer for the Church of God in the Middle East, because there was not a“qualified man” deemed worthy to do it — in contrast to the inane arguments I just heard about how women shouldn’t be allowed to serve on their local church councils?! I got hotter. The Pentecostal preacher in me started to take over. I felt myself building to a crescendo. At the end — THWACK! — I pounded the podium with my fist and said, “BROTHERS…THIS…IS…HYPOCRISY!!!”

And when I did, all hell broke loose. The men on the floor started shouting. One man a few rows away said, “SOMEBODY NEEDS TO HIT THAT GUY WITH A CHAIR!” Another preacher got up and interrupted my speech with a point of order. The Overseer acknowledged him, so he spoke: “Mister moderator, this young man has no right to impugn the character of this body by calling us hypocrites. It is not proper, and he owes this body an apology.” The General Overseer looked back at me, and gave me a chance to respond. The room fell quiet, and all of the sudden, I was living in slow motion — feeling the gravity of the moment, and the combustion happening in the room. I had pushed the argument, perhaps too hard.

Now I had a chance to be reasoned, calm, and conciliatory; maintain my position of course, but perhaps bring the temperature down in the room. I knew the right to say. In my brain I heard, “It was not my intention, Mr. Moderator. to call any of my esteemed elders here hypocrites — only to demonstrate why I believe this to be a hypocritical positon.” I collected myself, took a breath, and leaned back into the microphone, and what actually came out of my mouth was: “My brothers: lest there be any ambiguity whatsoever in what I said, or how I said it, let me be clear…BROTHERS! THIS! IS! HYPOCRISY!!!” And the room burst into flame, the biggest melee in modern times on that floor. A point of order was called again, and this time the moderator ruled that I should speak more respectfully. I took my seat, and when the session ended, had a line of angry preachers surrounding me before I got back to my feet, waiting to confront me.

I have stories like this for days. I won’t recount again here — because it has certainly been written about more than enough elsewhere — but what started off late last Fall as a little rant on twitter about Jerry Falwell Jr., quickly turned into me getting banned from the campus of Liberty University for life. I was in the center of the ring with Falwell Jr. for about a week, duking it out in the public square. When I am most myself, that is what happens, for better or worse. I get into these things, then remember that I am mostly Clark Kent and think to myself — how exactly did I get here?

In some ways, it is an odd dynamic. If I’m a little bit of a giant, I’m mostly a jolly one — but have a gift that goes crossways with my own nature. I see things I don’t necessarily want to see, and feel compelled to say things I don’t necessarily want to say. I know a lot of people this way, that know the blessing and the curse of having any sort of prophetic impulse. I’m still Pentecostal enough to believe that there are some things that just grab a hold of you, with or without your consent — what in my tradition we call, “the anointing.” The trouble is, as I told my friend Abner Ramirez the other day — the anointing can run off and kill you.

Annihilation and bunnies

To return to where I started: I am reflecting on all these things, soon before turning the corner at 40. In some ways, it can feel embarrassing not to have some of the things many of my friends have by this age: stability, security, a 401k, 2.5 kids, a life settled comfortably into some well-worn grooves. I am everywhere but nowhere in particular these days, unsure of where I belong in the world.

If there is any consolation, there is a sense that I do belong to the world, in the sense of my vocation. My life is not my own, but an offering meant to be poured out, as all of our lives are. I cannot make myself smaller, but if anything, I am perhaps lighter than I used to be — more flexible, more adaptable, less encumbered by the expectations of myself and others. I travel lighter than I used to. I can go almost anywhere, so it seems — except perhaps, backward.

New life is always equal parts giving birth and dying. Something is always going down into the grave, and something new is always rising up. This is the way of created things. I was confronted with this mystery again last night watching the film Annihilation alone in the theater: how things die and how people self-destruct, and in the reckoning, wild and terrible new things come into being. Some of them, beautiful, some of them frightening — with no rhyme nor reason to this primal rhythm. Things keep coming and going and shifting and colliding in the chaos — and out of the give and take of this, comes new possibilites. We rarely know what to make of it at the time, because it is all still happening to and through us.

Driving away from the theater, I felt the storm in me. The cocktail of aching and yearning and dying, the clearing space for something new; the yearning to make, to create, to become. I felt the familiar terror again of letting go of the old, and the seasick anticipation of what may yet come into being. I have, more than once, truly wanted to be over. I have, more than once, found myself being made new despite myself, largely against my own wishes. Because that is what God or the cosmos (or both) does, depending on your vantage point — always pulling us along, dragging something new out of the death of a thousand stars.

Driving back to my temporary perch at 1 in the morning, I saw a bunny start to run onto the road ahead of me. If a hillbilly Pentecostal is allowed to have a totem, bunnies are mine — I find them superflously, unnecessarily beautiful and a gift of grace; I mysteriously seem to start seeing them everywhere whenever there’s a major shift or transition in my life. The bunny ran into the road, but then ran off to safety just in time. She avoided doom, last night. Maybe I’ll make it yet, I thought.

I pulled into the driveway minutes later, and another bunny came running from the front yard, almost to my car, then froze in front of me. I stayed in my seat, very still, searching the rabbit’s face for answers, for meaning. I saw nothing in particular in his big black eyes. The bunny was just…there, which for me is a way of saying, there is grace here. I bit deeply into all my fear of more dying, and into my unintended hope for more living, and let the tears roll down.

I don’t know exactly where I am, or exactly where I’m going; or what it means for some doors to shut, and other doors to open.

The only thing I know, is that there is grace here.

As the bunny dove back into the night, I got out and closed the driver’s side door of my car, softly.

a review of U2's Songs of Experience

Having been to 23 shows—and with a tattoo of a heart in a suitcase on my forearm—I can feign no objectivity when it comes to U2. Yet as fan, I take the U2 canon too seriously to fawn over every album uncritically. Yes, I would contend that in 13 previous studio albums, they have yet to have a real embarrassment. But I would also concede that U2’s albums in the 2000’s (post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind) have fallen just short of greatness. Granted, the standards set by the back catalogue are impossibly high: the towering genius of consecutive rock classics in Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, were followed by the apocalyptic Zooropa and the horrifically underrated Pop, both of which pulsed with brilliance in their own way. When U2 stopped trying to chop down The Joshua Tree and came to the new construction on the other side of the deconstruction, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the sound of a band that had mastered the art of fully being themselves. 

Since then, vultures gather upon every release for signs of the band’s descent into irrelevance. But the restlessness at the center of U2 has remained in tact, and the albums that followed have still had the ache of a band straining for great songs, not infrequently finding them.  How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, No Line on the Horizon, and Songs of Innocence in fact contain some of their finest work—tracks like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,”  “City of Blinding Lights,” “Moment of Surrender,” and “Iris.” But in Bono’s own words on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “It’s the best collection of songs we’ve put together, but as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of the parts, and it f*^#ing annoys me.” The collective, widescreen ambition of a truly great start-to-finish album has been more elusive.

But then comes Songs of Experience.

This album did the one thing I wasn’t sure if the veteran band could still do, especially after already hearing 4 pre-released tracks—it surprised me.  The first full-listen was a little dizzying, because I felt the same sense of heights I did listening to Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind for the first time. That seemed a bit too lofty, so I listened again—and thought it might actually bump ATYCLB. 

Lyrically, Songs of Experience is Bono at his fragile best (and his bravest). It is an album soaked in mortality, music that faces death straight on—but with fearlessness.  “Love is All We Have Left” is a disarming left hook of an opener, lush and gorgeous, a little bit into outer space.  “Lights of Home” is more earth-bound, grittier and groovier, a track that reminds you this is not a band that has not yet given up on rock and roll. The lighter “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” captures the zest, vitality, and boyish energy of their early work. “Get Out of Your Own Way” is audaciously sincere and pastoral in the way only U2 can be, a summons to the foolishness of love in a time where pragmatism or cynicism make much more sense. Kendrick Lamar’s inverse beatitudes bridging into “American Soul” brings a prophetic edge into the center of the album, and “American Soul” itself, a protest song, is the world’s most mainstream rock act tapping into the authentic rage of the punk rock that first grabbed a hold of them, for love’s sake.

The trinity of “Summer of Love,” “Red Flag Day,” and “The Showman” incorporates the sonic sense of mischief, slyness, and the lighter touch U2 honed in the 90’s, even while “Summer of Love” invokes images of Aleppo. “The Little Things That Give You Away,” my current favorite track of the album, is U2 at their most unabashedly U2—like “Beautiful Day,” a return to the sonic landscape they mastered, dragging me helplessly to euphoria (Bono’s vocal delivery on “Sometimes, the end is not coming…the end is already here” is the most devastating single moment on the album). 

Indeed, it is in the thick of these tracks that Songs of Experience proves that it belongs in the top-tier of U2’s canon—it is the first time since Achtung Baby that the second half of an album has been better than the first.  Whereas, “The Little Things That Give You Away” takes us to the heights we partly always want U2 to take us, “The Landlady,” an exquisite love song to Bono’s wife Ali, embodies a beautiful restraint. “The Blackout” is a straight rocker with pop sensibilities, like many U2 songs, destined to be defined live. “Love is Stronger than Anything in It’s Way” takes a record swaddled in mortality into a defiant sendoff, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of the unknown.  In experiencing the death of my most significant mentor last week, it has been the hymn that has carried me along.  Finally, “13 (There is a Light)” both completes the album thematically and brings it full circle to where it began—to a place of meditation.  It also bookends Songs of Experience perfectly with Songs of Innocence, both calling back to it’s predecessor, and transcending it.  Songs of Experience is the sonic equivalent for me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2—in that the second act both surpasses the first and elevates it, perhaps demands it to be reevaluated differently. 

U2 has always swung for the high places, and yet existed as a high wire act—walking a tightrope of vulnerability and swagger, artistic soul music aspirations with stadium rock ambition.  Theirs is a big an open sound, but a very delicate business that thrives off of contradiction.  U2’s heart has always been on the sleeve, even when it was buried in irony. The irrepressible earnestness of spirit that underwrites the entire project walks a thin line between being too cool, and too awkward.  And yet there are moments when they walk this thin line into a thin place, where the glory touches the ground.  The singer becomes a shaman, Adam Clayton’s groove takes hold of your body, Larry Mullen kicks open the door to your soul, and The Edge takes us all the way through the portal.  In that place, we are exposed, vulnerable, human…and somehow, something more.

This is the magic U2 has always aspired to. When it works, there is nothing else like it.


remembering Sister Margaret Gaines, Part 2: Pastoring a Peace Church (from Pentecostals & nonviolence)

In 2008, I wrote this chapter for a book called Pentecostals & Nonviolence: Reclaiming a Heritage. I talked about Sister Margaret at length in it. I was just going to post the part of the chapter that talks about her explicitly, but the upon re-reading....she's really the through line for all of it, my primary influence in how I understand the vocation of Christian peacemaking (among many other things). So I'm posting it in its entirety, even a little bit self-conscious that my writing was not so refined back in 2008 :) 

Pastoring a Peace Church

By Jonathan Martin

I will never forget the Saturday afternoon last fall when I heard horrible screaming coming from our front yard.  I walked out to see Dennis and Elizabeth Donahue, a leadership couple in our church, in a tense confrontation with a man and woman in our driveway.  A founding partner of a Charlotte real estate business, Dennis is known for his jovial demeanor and disarming wit, so he was about the last person I would have expected to see in a heated showdown outside my front door.  The last person except for Elizabeth, who spent years as the public relations director at Sea World—the picture of cordiality and restraint.  On a grass roots level, Dennis and Elizabeth have spearheaded the effort for several years to help a friend in our church community named Diane.  A neighbor of the Donahues, Diane lived in poverty and an abusive relationship with her boyfriend for much of her life.  Now well into her 50’s, she was kicked out by her landlord (really more a slumlord), Dennis and Elizabeth felt God calling them to help get her into an apartment across the street from my house.  To this day, there is a group within our church that works together to make sure all of her physical needs are provided for.  When they helped get her out of the abuse, they met the wrath of her ex-boyfriend, himself with a violent temper and a host of addictions.  That day, him and his mother had followed Dennis and Elizabeth from Diane’s apartment until they got them to pull over in front of our house.  As I stepped out on the porch, I heard the man, Randy, hurling every filthy epithet imaginable to Dennis and Elizabeth.  As he directed crude, sexually explicit insults at Elizabeth, I watched a flushed Dennis (who, like me, is about 6’5”) about to lose his cool.  In a moment of fury, he actually threw down his glasses and started to walk past me, saying “I don’t care if you are here Pastor…”  I simply put my hand on his chest and said “We aren’t going to do that, Dennis.”  Though every impulse in him was screaming to fight for his wife, he didn’t resort to violence.  After some calming words from us (and some even raunchier responses from Randy), he finally sped off, all the while shouting “I know where you live Donahue…and I’ll be back!!!” 

The Donahues were shook up from the experience.  They had been brave enough to bring peace to a woman in need, and both human and demonic principalities and powers had been threatened by their presence.  The powers came back roaring—and they were resisted.  They were not resisted with violence or force.  But they did come eyeball to eyeball with a Christian couple who were not going to stand idly by while their sister in Christ was abused, willing to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed without fear.  Such is the toughness that is demanded by those courageous enough to endure the gaze of violence in Jesus’ name.

Ironically, those who embrace the call to Christian peacemaking are often stigmatized as being “passive” or unwilling to confront unjust principalities and powers as they are revealed. But our congregation has learned this is far from the truth.  This is especially strange given the reality that those most committed to Christ’s peace are often more likely, not less, to face down the powers of darkness. 


The Donahues’ story is just one example in our community of a people attempting to bring the peace of Christ in Charlotte, NC.  As a product and now a preacher of “the Christ-haunted” American South, I am learning along with my congregation something of how challenging it is to witness for the peaceable kingdom.[1]   In the south, we have always been good at naming our enemies.  It somehow doesn’t seem responsible much less realistic to talk about making peace when the world seems too be full of enemies of the cross.  At its worst, talk of peacemaking may degenerate into bland accounts of tolerance and acceptance.  Christian peacemakers seem to be in denial, unwilling or unable to take seriously either the reality or the challenge of hostile times.  We may be seen as wishful thinking hippies who lack the courage to acknowledge the violent milieu in which we live.  Given the near giddiness within our church culture towards apocalyptic signs, even worse we might be seen as impediments to fulfilling prophecy, those who would try to turn back the clock on events that must occur in order for Christ to return.  In the face of cataclysmic events to come and in light of our own inner violence, is there any real reason to be hopeful towards kingdom peace in apocalyptic times? 

Indeed it would seem that critics of our mission are not entirely wrong, if Christian peacemaking were defined as simply playing down our differences and looking on the sunny side of life.  I am neither particularly inclined to be optimistic about human progress in matters of war and peace nor am I inclined to suggest that the church does not have real enemies in the world.  As the saying goes, it is not paranoia when they really are out to get you.  Thankfully, a Pentecostal vision for peacemaking is by no means contingent on naïve optimism nor pretending that there is no such thing as enemies of the cross.  On the contrary, we are given the resources and the language with which to recognize our enemies.  Yet the only reason we have for naming our enemies is to identify who it is that Jesus has called us to bless.   We are not optimistic about human nature, the myth of progress, the economy, or the future of American politics.  And there is nothing remotely sentimental about looking deeply into the eyes of those who would do us harm and, as Jesus did with Judas, speak the word “friend” to our enemies. 

Even so, to speak with pastoral boldness a word of kingdom peace in a violent world is to invite suspicion and even pity from sincere people of God who assume that we have just not adequately understood the charts and graphs supplied by popular end-times enthusiasts.  Dispensational theology assumes very particular outcomes, and gives us the comfort of knowing what’s ahead (however dark or inevitable the future might be).  Given such inevitabilities, why fight the future—especially if it is God’s future?  A steady diet of such teaching has not only bred a passivity among Pentecostal Christians towards issues of peace, but even a hostility towards those who would hope not accept it.  In the face of such prophetic certainty, to take anything less than a defensive posture towards our enemies seems not only irresponsible, but even treasonous. 

My story

            Yet I am by no means unsympathetic to those in my pastoral care who are fraught with tension and ambiguities towards the Christian vocation of peacemaking.  As a fifth generation Pentecostal, I am all too aware of how much I embody those tensions myself.  Shaped as I am by a high appraisal of testimony within my tradition, I know of no other way to share my pastoral strategy for peacemaking apart from my story. 

            Growing up Pentecostal in the South, I was entirely unaware of the roots of the movement as a peace church.  The Church of God, Cleveland, TN was birthed in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee by tough people in tough times.  It struck me as almost comic in reading Charles Conn’s Like a Mighty Army, amidst a fairly straightforward account of the early history of the Church of God to come across nicknames like “old rough and ready J.F. Buckalew”.  It is difficult to imagine a Presbyterian pastor named “old rough and ready.”  To say that they were tough is not to imply that they were violent.  The toughest Pentecostal pioneers I was privileged enough to be around in their later years were the most profoundly gentle men and women I have ever known.  Their years of hard living were etched into the lines on their faces, which made the tenderness of their eyes both more haunting and more lovely. 

            I was raised by the Bible stories they told and the Bible stories they lived.  There was something roguish about these men who had known what it was to fight and scrap but had been more shaped by the terror of God.  They were products of violence to be certain, but it was the violence of the terror and lightning of Sinai that had baptized them in tenderness.  They weren’t people who were spoiling for a fight.  That’s not to say they were always people who would have run from one, either.  One of our best-loved pioneers in my region famously was shot at while living in his parsonage.  He loaded up his shotgun…and fired back. 

My grandfather on my Mother’s side was a local church clerk for most of his adult life.  One night he and another brother in the church were counting the money after church.  The other man had a series of escalating confrontations with their pastor that finally erupted that night.  The pastor walked in the room, and the man told him he was a “yellow-bellied coward.”  The pastor left the little office, went to his parsonage next door, and walked right back.  This time, he was brandishing a pistol by his side.  He asked, “Would you like to come outside and call me that again?” The man didn’t take the pastor up on his offer, so thankfully his resolve wasn’t tested. Many of these tales strike me even today as wonderful raw material for gothic Southern short stories in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. 

Conversely, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my other grandfather, a hard, tough man who served as a police officer before a dramatic conversion at the nearby 15th Street Church of God, was then a conscientious objector during World War II.  He surrendered his badge when he accepted the call to preach, and he never took them up again.  He died when I was only three.  I heard this part of his story at thirty. 

            Now as a Pentecostal pastor, I am aware my life is a product of all the ambiguities and tensions that characterize the movement in general and this region in particular.   While the overwhelming legacy of the men and women who have come before me is that of peace, I am also aware of the ways I embody at times conflicting narratives.  I suspect my struggle to appropriate my roots is not an uncommon one.  Not unlike many other Pentecostals in the South, I still find myself trying to sort out my heritage from intertwined strands of Southern fundamentalism embedded in my story. One way to illustrate both the plight and the prescription could be framed in context of the narrative of Joseph, Rachel and Leah.[2]  In the Genesis story, Jacob falls in love with Laban’s youngest daughter Rachel while in Haran.  He strikes a deal with Laban to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel.  At the end of the time, Laban makes a feast where he was to give his daughter to Jacob.  Laban instead tricked Jacob and gave him Leah.  That night, Jacob has sex with Leah, only to discover in the morning that it was not Rachel, and that Laban had dealt treacherously with him.  Finally, he has to complete seven more years of service to Laban before he was able to marry his first love Rachel.  For Pentecostals, the romance with Wesleyan spirituality, with its characteristic concerns for mercy and justice in explicitly Christological terms, is natural and comes first.  By an accident of circumstance and social location, those of us in the North American tradition found ourselves in the tent with Leah.  It has taken us more than seven years to discover that we have the wrong partner, but there is still hope that we can be surprised (and a little frustrated) by the strangeness of the arrangement and recapture our rightful partner.  For me, discovering the roots of Pentecostalism as a peace church has been part and parcel of “finding Rachel.” 

Sometimes I feel like I’m still working to find her.  Loving my tradition and yet unsure of how to appropriate it, I read Steven J. Land’s classic Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom in my early 20’s and it was as if I had found some exotic new continent.  I recognized much of what I saw in his constructive revision but some of it was entirely new to me.  I remember particularly being struck by his claim that “Pentecostal liberation brings great joy because peace, not violent coercive manipulation, is the means and the goal of the fruit and gift of the Spirit, respectively.  The early Pentecostal pacifism, in a nuclear age of extensive poverty, is the best strategy for the church today.”[3]  Reading John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus was equally devastating, especially since by that time I was able to recognize that Yoder’s Anabaptist roots were more directly parallel to the concerns of early Pentecostals than that of the magisterial reformation.  And of course my roots made me distrustful of any philosophical arguments that weren’t fully grounded in Scripture, and no one was as capable of painting an explicitly text-shaped portrait of the peaceable kingdom as Yoder. 

Along came Margaret Gaines

            But ultimately, what shaped my life most determinatively with regard to these issues was neither a better historical understanding of the early history of the Pentecostal movement nor the powerful Christological vision of peace of Yoder.  It was the life of my spiritual grandmother, Margaret Gaines.  Now in her late 70’s, Margaret was raised in the Church of God in Pell City, Alabama steeped both in the stories of the American South and the Pentecostal movement.  When she was a 19 year-old student at then Lee College in Cleveland, TN, she accepted the call to become a full-time Christian missionary in a chapel service.  Margaret would never marry, giving her life entirely over toward the call.  As she has often remarked to us, “How can I give my life to a man when I had already given it completely to Jesus?  It wouldn’t be fair to the poor man or to Jesus.”  Without support of Church of God World Missions, who felt it was too dangerous for a young single woman to travel the world, Margaret moved to Tunisia for 9 years. 

But it was her next assignment that would determine the rest of her adult life and ministry, when she agreed to go to a small Palestinian village called Aboud on the occupied west bank of Israel.  Called the city of flowers because of its charming landscape, the mountainous village is known for its olive trees.  Known as one of the most beautiful of the Palestinian villages, Aboud is a peaceful village where it is easy to forget the years of poverty and outright oppression of its people since the Ottoman empire.[4] 

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

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

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

Small enough to stop the violence

For most of her adult life, Margaret watched her poor but peaceful village live through the tremors of violence around them.  Having lived in Jerusalem during the 6-day war of 1967, Margaret and Arlene Miller were in Aboud as the only Church of God missionaries in the Occupied West Bank when the Gulf War broke out in 1991.  She tells of the inaccessibility of basic needs for Arabs during the war such as gas masks, ample supply of food and water, and resources substantial enough to seal what little resources they had.  While a strict curfew was imposed, Margaret was nearly unable to get a new mother suffering with complications from giving birth to twins through a military post to get to medical care, despite her then 30 years as a missionary in the Bel Zeit district.  Margaret’s life among the Palestinians gave her unique perspective on the cycle of violence there: 

The world knows that Arabs defy tanks, machine guns and rifle fire with the act of throwing stones.  Television cameras have caught this irrational act in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus and everywhere in between.  What the media would not film are the retaliatory raids the Jewish settlers would make.  They would come to Aboud about 10 at night and stay until 2 in the morning.  There would be an organized party of many cars, including an ambulance just in case anyone of them was seriously hurt.  They would bring chain saws to cut down the olive trees.  They would line up their cars and turn on their lights and dance the hora in the street, they sang loudly and shouted, ‘Come out, you dogs.  Face us, you cowards.’  Then they would hurl stones and break out windows of every house lining the street.  Also, the bus and exposed cars would get stoned.  My car window was smashed in two separate raids.  To finish their party, the would cut down many olive trees. 

Haunted by these scenes, Margaret has seen the western church continue to neglect the plight of the Arabs.  She became increasingly incredulous at the lack of basic necessities  in Aboud—at times with little access even to clean water.  “Perhaps for the price of all the Scuds and Patriots, every suffering village in the West Bank could have their basic needs met, their hope restored, and opportunities to work,” she mused.[5]  For a village like Aboud, the resources to build a maternity clinic or nursing home would make a tremendous difference. 

            So in 1991, Margaret sent copies of a video and written report of such “confidence building projects” that could be undertaken to bring relief.  “Did those who received copies think or do anything at all?, she asked.[6] 

I do not know.  I do know that children who attended our school grew up with a vision.  They are still young and do not have lots of capital, but they and others are making a difference.  With little or no help from outside, they have set up their own businesses.  They are working, and their goods and services encourage their people and keep many working.  Maybe that is why Arab violence has been practically unknown in Aboud.[7] 

From the leaven of Sister Margaret’s life, the kingdom of God has come to the Arabs.  During Margaret’s time in Aboud, the villagers eventually stopped keeping rocks on the roofs of their houses, the old way of settling differences when conflict would come. 

While Sister Margaret faithfully served her people, she became convinced that the “incredible, meddlesome zealotry of the church unwittingly and constantly adds to the cause of violence in the land.”[8]  Though her own life became a testimony to the powerful vocation of Christian peacemaking simply by sharing her life in this Arab village, she watched the western church become more and more preoccupied with seeing a certain apocalyptic timetable be played out in Israel.  The plight of her people garnered little response from many North American Pentecostals, preoccupied as we were with more pressing matters in the Middle East—like the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem as a prophetic marker of Christ’s return.  Herself anticipating the return of Christ with characteristic Pentecostal passion, Margaret yet fears that:

The church, instead of fulfilling the Lord’s last will and testament (which is to go tell every nation, tongue and people the Good News that God loves them and wants to restore them) is misappropriating their God-given health, knowledge, and wealth to try and force the end before the time.  Jesus indicated that when the church finishes this missionary assignment then end will come.  Maybe the church should get on with the assignment and leave the matters of the Temple to the Messiah of Israel, the singular son of Abraham and son of David (Matt.1.1), who is the rightful heir to the promises, even our own Lord Jesus Christ. For do we even realize what effect the end-time zealotry of the church is having on current events, even on the level of violence? [9]

Hoping for the end of the world, Christians in the west became less concerned with peace and more consumed with being on the right side of Armageddon, where we will have ringside seats.   Never a political activist, Margaret nonetheless became increasingly incredulous as she saw the one-sided nature of Western media coverage of her people.  Observing the reactions of American news to the outbreak of violence precipitated by Ariel Sharon’s intrusion on the Temple Mount, she wrote:

The numerous scenes of violence in Israel and the West Bank…shocked every American.  Any kind of war insults this nation’s comfortable peace.  All anyone knows how to say is ‘Stop the violence.’  The people who say they want the violence to stop just want the disturbance to go away. The stone throwers are seen as inhuman, ruthless, out-of-control thugs who need to settle down so peace talks can resume…No one seems to care that the revolt is nothing les than the death struggle of a despairing people.  The whole convulsing calamity has brought me to respond with the question, ‘Is there anyone small enough to stop the violence?”  Many of the ‘big,’ most powerful men of recent decades have tried to find a way to stop it.  Actual peace negotiations have been going on longer than most thoughtful men believed would be necessary.  What caused the stalemate?  Who is responsible for the gridlock?  …All I hear are commands and questions.  Nothing is new.  No one reaches down to the core of the issues.  Who can descend into the realities, and what can be done once they reach the bottom?  Certainly the big political, religious and cultural giants are too bloated by their knowledge, achievement and position to fit into the narrow shaft of descent into the depths.  It would take someone small enough to go through the “needle’s eye,” someone who has nothing to lose, someone not afraid to be counted as nothing, taking the risk and assuming the responsibilities of collective errors and admitting them, if not apologizing.  Is there such a one? 

Margaret’s phrase, small enough to stop the violence, arrested me.  For Margaret, the task of Christian peacemaking is bound up in the embrace of seemingly miniscule acts of faithfulness. In her own words, “God says my kingdom won’t come about with a lot of noise…it comes gently like the leaven.”

In 2006, I had the life-altering opportunity to see Aboud for myself—with Margaret.  As we walked through the streets of the village and talked and played with the children at the Aboud school, I was struck by the love and mutual respect between this Church of God lady from Alabama and her Muslim neighbors.  Margaret’s own life is a testimony of one “small enough to stop the violence,” of the possibilities of Christian peacemaking in a region of the world thought to be hopelessly volatile. 

Taking responsibility for God (the problem with “Don’t look at me, just look at Jesus.”)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in teaching congregations the Christian vocation of peacemaking is our unwillingness to become “small enough.”  It is not that our congregations do not believe Jesus when he says he blesses the peacemakers, so much as it difficult to imagine that kingdom leaven could possibly make a difference in the world. 

That’s why it becomes necessary as pastors to bring before our congregations lives that exemplify the “smallness” necessary to bear witness to the peace of the cross.  In Pentecostal tradition, we do not formally name “saints.”  But we certainly name them informally—not as objects of prayer or worship, but as exemplars whose practices we emulate.  Repeatedly emphasizing her own weaknesses in her autobiography Of Like Passions, Margaret fears that “In my experience, I have found too much made of the ‘instruments’ and too little made of the Master.”[10]  We have certainly recognized that the source of Margaret’s unique presence is not of herself but rather the sweetness of Christ.  Yet given my understanding of saints as faithful exemplars of a Spirit-led life, she has certainly been such a “saint” for the Renovatus community.  My congregation knows that my most primal theological education came not from the Church of God Theological Seminary nor Duke University, but from the University of Margaret Gaines.  It was she who taught me that the teachings of Jesus are not glassy-eyed idealism (and certainly not instructions for the distant millennial reign, as many dispensationalists have asserted), but are intended to be lived, and in fact can be lived, in real-life.  She is the person who taught me that peacemakers are still blessed, that there is still a real vocation of ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. 

While she lives far from us, she has been adopted as a grandmother in the Lord for our entire church.  She was the first guest speaker we ever hosted, only 4 months into our existence.  During her last visit a few months ago, I interviewed her on stage as part of a series we did on “The Politics of Jesus” (not based directly on Yoder’s book, but a broad survey of the political implications of following Jesus where we live).  I have understood much of my own pastoral vocation simply to draw attention to the lives that have formed me, especially Margaret’s.  So I share her stories, and I bring her to our people so that they can experience her directly. 

It is crucial to embed these stories into our community well, as discipleship requires imitation—as we are so often prone to forget in a culture obsessed with originality. The idea of imitation is scandalous to us because of our narcissistic focus on individuality. Yet if we are reflective about the shape of our lives, we know that we are always imitating others.  Societies are ordered around imitation.  There is no other way to account for how we dress, what we drive and how we act.  We learn to desire the same objects as our neighbors and thus imitate them to acquire the same objects. It is not a question of whether we will imitate but rather who we will imitate.

So discipleship is not about originality, it is all about imitation.  There is no short cut around the ancient task of disciple-making, whereby one life is shaped and formed by a master who is skilled in the practices of Christian faith.  Thus church becomes a stage for us to display the lives of saints who can make intelligible for us the witness of the apostle Paul, who brazenly challenges the Philippians to “join in imitating me.”  Or as he puts it to the Corinthians, “follow me as I follow Christ.”  These are not the words of an egomaniac, nor should they be unique to the apostolic witness of Paul.  All in the body of Christ must learn the craft of mimicking saints—men and women whose authentic walk with God is worthy of our imitation. We observe their practices and learn to imitate their habits.  It is as we learn to faithfully imitate the lives of faithful men and women that we eventually have the freedom to improvise.[11]  While none of us are original, we are able to find our unique expression within the body of Christ once we have become habituated.

Margaret has lived the kind of life that has, like Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman eventually killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, dared to“take responsibility for God.”  Commenting on the power of lives like Etty’s to shape our own, Rowan Williams says that belief in God

starts from a sense that we ‘believe in,’ we trust some kinds of people.  We have confidence in the way they live, the way they live is the way I want to live, perhaps can imagine myself living in my better or more mature moments.  The world they inhabit is one I’d like to live in.  Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in. [12]   

What a wonderful description of Margaret’s influence on our community, seeing in her story “ a world we’d like to live in.”  As Paul’s life was to those early churches, Margaret’s example has taught our church that it is impossible to abdicate our responsibility by glibly telling our neighbors “Don’t look at me, just look at Jesus.”  We have used many variations of that phrase before.  It sounds humble, even pious--certainly said with the utmost sincerity.  But Margaret’s life revealed to us the futility of such notions.  How exactly do we get someone to “not look at us, and just look at Jesus”?  Do we draw them a picture to carry in their wallets?  Do we give them a statue (i.e. a little song that says “I don’t care if it rains or freezes/long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus/sitting on the dashboard of my car!”)?  As good as such language sounds to us, it also has the affect of absolving us from any real expectation of living a Christ-like life.  Against such sentimentality, Margaret’s life bears witness to our church that most Pentecostal message-- that the Spirit of God that anointed Jesus of Nazareth as He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil still wants to make Himself known through real bodies. 

On the road to becoming small enough

Inspired by the narrative of Sister Gaines, our young church we have begun to accumulate our own communal stories of peacemaking, stories of sons and daughters willing to be “small enough.”  This year, our church took the leap to adopt one of Charlotte’s more fragile, violent neighborhoods, Reid Park.  As part of a prayer and service initiative called the Justice Project, our community life groups have each adopted two families in the neighborhood.  They serve their adopted families in whatever areas they have need—everything from painting to fixing roofs and leaking faucets to simply going over and spending a Friday night or a meal together.  Additionally, we have larger scale projects (painting days, a mini-extreme home makeovers, free yard sales) where we call on the entire body to participate.  Along with these individual acts of service, we are keeping in view the larger project to bring God’s peace to an entire neighborhood known for its violence.  So we devoted an entire week of 24/7 prayer, where we have a different individual in our church pray every hour of the week at our local prayer center with the focus of “praying down the stats.”  None of the projects in Reid Park have been especially large—we simply do not have the resources for that.  Rather it has been a series of small acts of a small enough people who believe that in these acts the peace of God is announced and established. 

Yet as it is for all Christian peacemakers, compassionate service is sometimes met with resistance.  This brings me back to the scene in our driveway with Dennis and Elizabeth, a couple who was small enough to stop the violence in the life of their friend at their own peril.  Like Margaret in the village, bearing gentle witness to the Spirit of Christ in the face of violent opposition, such conflicts afford crucial opportunities for the gospel to be preached.  Her story gives us the discernment necessary to understand our own confrontations with forces of terror and violence, a narrative resource from which to learn her disciplined tenderness.  Because of Sister Margaret’s faithful witness, we are able to see these conflicts as opportunities to “preach my gospel by demonstrating my Spirit,” in the words God spoke after her confrontation in the village. 

From Margaret’s vision of Pentecostal peacemaking, so resonant for our Christian community, I am watching the stories of saints within our own fellowship begin to take shape.  Their lives, like Margaret’s hold the promise of “taking responsibility for God” in our own city.  I have seen in this congregation people learning to lives worthy of imitation, faithful witnesses whose example demands that we “follow them as they follow Christ.”  As it was for Margaret, our anticipation of Jesus’ return gives both clarity and passion to our call as peacemakers.  Rejecting the Gnostic distortion of apocalyptic expectation into a perverse, other-worldly escapism, we are rediscovering Pentecostal urgency as a mandate to bring the peace of Christ to our community.  Instead of using “the blessed hope” of His appearing as an excuse for laziness, apathy and indifference towards a violent world, North American Pentecostals are awakening to the unique opportunities to bear witness to God’s shalom. 

I am very much aware that there are great differences of opinion in our community over the morality of war, with some strongly committed to absolute nonviolence and others who would defend some variation of just war.  Yet despite these differences, we have attempted to make the conversation less about exceptions and more about norms, challenging each other to work for God’s shalom in our community.  Margaret has taught us well that the stakes of being a peaceable witness to the kingdom of God in our village are indeed high. 




[1] A phrase from Flannery O’Connor, who claimed “It is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”


[3] Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p.207.

[4] Margaret Gaines, Small Enough to Stop the Violence, Unpublished, p.4. 

[5] Ibid., p.48. 

[6] Ibid., p.51. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.32. 

[9] Ibid., p.33. 

[10] Gaines, Of Like Passions (Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 2000), p.13.

[11] A central idea in Sam Wells’s account of ethics.  See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004). 

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

Remembering Sister Margaret Gaines

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In garbled speech, she speaks in new tongues. 

Her groans are rife, with praise.


a buried treasure of mine from Stanley Hauerwas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    An Introduction to Stanley Hauerwas

By Jonathan Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


a charge for the sons & daughters of the Charismatic movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cussed in my head again.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.  

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our resistance, must be repentance. 

in case you spot the laughter in my eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

intuition in preaching: more animal than artful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my only die hard rules for preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

Wednesdays at 7pm

First Lutheran Church

1244 S. Utica Ave.

Tulsa, OK 74104


What can I expect from THE TABLE?

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


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

Why Wednesdays?  

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

What is your denominational affiliation?

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

What sort of programs/ministries do you offer?

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

Is childcare provided?

Not yet, but children are welcome. 

Who exactly is welcome at THE TABLE?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you guys believe, exactly? 

See the Apostles’ Creed.

The creed.  Cool.  But more specifically…?

That’s all we’ve got.  Seriously. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From professional wrestling, to reality television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    high stakes performance art

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

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

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

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

The protest movement that almost was…and yet could be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 4:35-41

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

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't you care?

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

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

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


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

Ephesians 5.18-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Isaiah 45.20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

daily office meditation, January 13th: burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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