We’re Finding More Than Gold in Rio

The lead up to the 2016 Games in Rio was a hot mess. It was a hot, stinky mess.  Whether it was the backdrop the Brazil’s political coup and economic fiasco, its tainted and literally foul water supply, its embarrassingly behind schedule and over budget building and infrastructure projects, or the public health crisis of the  mosquito born Zika virus, many countries were not sure if they could safely travel to, let alone compete in Rio.  Compound that with Russia being excluded from the games under a cloud of doping allegations and you had the perfect storm for an Olympic debacle of epic proportions for all the world to watch on their television screens and Twitter feeds from home.

Then, about a week into the games, the unthinkable happened. We loved it. We really, really loved it.

From the brutally honest telling of Brazil’s tragic legacy of colonization and slavery in the opening ceremony, to Simone Biles leading her phenomenal team of gymnasts to all around gold, to Michael Phelps shattering a record held for over 2000 years and earning the gold for the fourth straight time, to the electric moment when Simone Manuel celebrated with Canadian teen sensation Penny Oleksiak as she tied with her become the first African American to win gold in the woman’s 100 meter freestyle, we just cannot get enough.

It is as if only for a moment, we are just one people. For the blink of an eye, we are Americans, and maybe even global citizens, as we show grace, dignity and respect to each of our worthy competitors.  For just about a week so far, we have let some – just some –  of the divisive rhetoric of the political stage and even an iota of the legitimate pain and angst we personally feel become white noise and just fade into the background as we cheer for complete and total strangers.  Of course, many of them wear our country’s colors, but so many of the other global competitors whose heart and sportsmanship have so far dazzled and amazed us are from places that if you asked us a week ago, we either hadn’t heard of,  may have dismissed, or even maligned.

Some may look at the Olympics as nothing more than the world’s re-enactment of the bread and circus of the Roman Empire. Nothing better suits the fanciful whims of the empire than putting the gladiators in the ring to distract us from the systemic oppression and pain of our real lives. To be honest, this is an argument that I am pretty sympathetic to, at least  some of the time. It’s true. If you think long and hard about the atrocities that many nations have done in their history, including and especially our own, the idea of athletes literally wrapping themselves in their country’s flag can turn your stomach.

But then there is the sheer magic of it all.  There is something about the Olympics that brings many of us  the closest to witnessing an actual real life miracle than almost any other sporting event that I have ever seen. Beyond the pageantry of it all, being able to witness another human being push themselves to and  maybe even beyond edge of their God given potential in so many different events is as humbling as it is awe inspiring. I am a grown man who is not really a crier (okay, definitely sometimes), but I cannot tell you how many times I found myself just welling up with tears of complete joy this week.  And when I have talked to my friends the next day or see comments on social media, these were tears that we all shed together and this is a joy that we are all experiencing together.

When we see these Olympians, we gaze upon the ineffable splendor and glory of God in each of them and see the best of ourselves. And as God says in Genesis,  “It was good. It was very good.”

And yes, people were flipping out because Gabby Douglas was so happy after winning gold with her team that she forgot to put her hand over her heart during the national anthem, and the internet exploded over Michael Phelps’ mean mug and his weird cupping spots, but these are precisely the flashes of momentary insanity that we have grown to expect from the interweb. And yes, Donald Trump did actually say that President Obama “founded ISIS”. But, what else is new? No surprises here. We are, after all, a nation seemingly addicted racial bias and reality T.V.

What I think is surprising us though is how much we missed just being together, even if we are glued to our television screens, just so we can see the very best of who are and can be as a people when we actually chose to love and support one another, and give it our all.  Rio only qualifies as bread and circus if it’s purpose is to distract us from the reality of our lives. There’s no denying that this is still a huge part of what is going on here. But I see happening on a deeper level is that seeing these outstanding human beings at their absolute personal best may not cause us to avoid reality, but may inspire us to confront our own.

We live in a world where words like grit, resilience and perseverance are increasingly thrown around more and more each day.  But the grit that we are witnessing each night is more than the grit of individual performance. I think that the Olympics inspire us all to remember what we are actually capable of, not in service of some empire, or even just of ourselves, but of each other.  To me the most beautiful sports in the Olympics are not the individual sports at all, but the team sports where we are reminded that we are only as strong as our love, support, and encouragement of one another.

So, thanks Rio.  This first week has not been bad. Not bad at all.

Of course, we can do without Zika and some of the other drama you brought us, but I think that what we are finding in Rio is something that is more precious than all of the gold medals (though they are great) and even  more than the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance.   We are discovering in Rio something that we yearn for more than all of our  our gadgets, our guns, or the fancy new gizmos of our increasingly interconnected but ever more isolated world.  We have come to Rio to discover that there just might even be more to us than the political, ethnic, religious or even nationalistic fault lines of our time.  In the tears of joy and the cheers for complete strangers both from home and abroad, we have come to Rio  find each other.

 

 

 

 

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We Have Always Been This Mean: Our History of Political Violence and the Only Way Out

This week marks that it has been 160 years since Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the chamber of the United States Senate with his gold tipped cane, walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner, who was working at his desk, and relentlessly beat him to a pulp until he lay unconscious in a pool of blood.  Days before, Senator Sumner, a vocal abolitionist from Massachusetts, had railed against Congressman Brooks’ cousin, who was a slave holding state senator from South Carolina and a man consumed with racial animus. The bloody beating of Charles Sumner is viewed today by historians as a key catalyst that further divided the nation over race and led us down the path to an even bloodier Civil War.

A lot has changed in 160 years. A whole lot. Slavery was abolished and slaves were given voting rights. Women earned the right to vote. Civil Rights legislation was passed.   The list is of accomplishments we have achieved together as a nation is truly nothing short of miraculous.

But if you look at the last 60 years in particular, we still witnessed a persistent level of violence in our politics, particularly when it comes to race. It is a violence that we must face if we are to move forward well together for the next 160 years. We saw entire communities terrorized through voter suppression strategies throughout the country and see remnants of this now. We have seen both parties use race as a political wedge to invoke more hatred than love,  more anxiety than peace, and more despair than hope.

As it is often pointed out, we do now have  a black man in the White House, and black men and women in Congress, but like Charles Sumner, even one of them, Congressman John Lewis, shared Sumner’s fate as he was beat in the head on the Edmond Pettus Bridge for taking the same stand  Sumner did against racism and systemic injustice.

We don’t have to go back 160 years, or even 60 years to see how entrenched our political practice and discourse has been in  nastiness and violence. Even an honest assessment of the political primaries within the last six months has shown deeply alarming steps backward. You have one party that has rallied around a man that specifically incites violence by proudly flaunting a politics of hatred, exclusion, and bigotry (even offering to pay legal fees for people who get into fights), while another party gives plenty of lip service to equality, but while no one is looking has engendered decades of tokenism, systemic inequality, dependency, and benign neglect. Both camps of liberals and conservatives have abided a deep level of cold-hearted, cynical rancor that is toxic not only to our politics but also to our culture at large.

However, while there has been a lot of shock expressed at the vile and divisive the rhetoric and mob mentality we have seen emerge in our politics of late, none of this should really come to us as a huge surprise. For all of our talk of greatness and nobility, and even for all of the progress we have made, so much of our history has shown just how brutish, nasty, and downright mean our nation can truly be.

But here’s the thing. We already know where all of this hatred leads. There is hatred, unforgiveness and self-righteousness on both sides of any issue that we will ever face. And the truth is that our sense of how “right” we are will nearly always make us blind to the fact that there are actually human beings on the other side of our argument, our cause, our “gospel”, our protest, or our agenda. And in our collective gut we know that the bloodshed only leads to more bloodshed. In our hearts we know that the only way the bleeding will  end is when we find a way to truly see, hear, and love one another as human beings made in the image of a holy, loving, and gracious God. And when we fail to do that, we descend into the very worst of who we are and can become.

So yes. We must stand for what is right and just. But we must also do the important work of making true peace, even with our enemies.  It is during the times when we prioritize the work of justice over the work of forgiveness and peace making that we all find ourselves locked in echo chambers of our own belief systems, but ultimately wounded, frayed, and starving for hope. As a pastor and a follower of Christ, I believe that his ways are the path of both justice and peace. But in the ways of Christ, sacrificial love is the only way to justice and peace.

After the nation tore itself in two and endured a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln called the nation both to justice and to sacrificial love and peace. His words ring as true today as they ever have:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 3
  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 4

Rest is Resistance, Too

Working for peace and justice is hard. It is grueling. It is relentless. It can often feel like as soon as you are finished celebrating one win, there is a seemingly never ending black hole of need, pain, and injustice into which your efforts can seem to be almost endlessly engaged.  In the midst of a culture that rewards people who work themselves to the bone “saving the world” can we ever give ourselves permission to rest? Is it betraying the “movement” or the cause to make sure we eat right, sleep well, and actually take a break?

Over the last 15 years I have floated in and out of communities in church life, politics, policy, business, direct service and community advocacy. I have been led to these communities as an expression of my faith as a committed follower of Jesus. And in each of these communities I have seen the heart and the hand of Christ in the tireless advocacy, in extremely hard working and ethical business leaders, and in pastors, policy makers, and direct service providers who work around the clock to respond to texts and emails, to organize for change, to go the last mile for their clients, or their community. I have seen all of these men and women work, strive, push, and burn both ends of the wick to truly do their best to make the world a better place not just in the hereafter but in our lifetime.

However, I have also witnessed more blow ups, breakdowns, affairs, indictments, moral failures, scandals, bouts of depression, and relapses than I care to admit. I have seen leaders frayed, fried, and burned out with everyone around them being able to see it but them.  I have seen men and women live as though they actually think that they are invincible only to wake up in a hospital room or on an operating table because after saving everyone else, they forget about taking care of themselves.

In his work Sabbath as Resistance Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman reminds us that there is something about taking the time to rest that stands as an act of protest to a world that praises workaholics, that tells us that our value is in how much we can produce, buy, trade, or own. If we are honest, working for positive change in the world does not make us any less vulnerable to the temptations of the merciless demands of the “gods” of this world. The gods of this world say you’re worthless if your calendar isn’t full, you’re a loser if you don’t have enough “likes” or “followers” on social media, you’re inadequate if you aren’t constantly giving, striving, struggling, and pushing. We lie to ourselves if we don’t think that this way of thinking isn’t especially prevalent in our churches, our nonprofits, and in our social enterprises.

In the midst of all of these demands to prove your worth Sabbath simply says, STOP. REST. RESIST. Sometimes the biggest cause you can ever advocate for is your own health and well-being. Sometimes the greatest peace we should be pursing is inner peace. Sometimes the justice we need to be fight for is to be just and fair to ourselves. This is not selfishness.  This is the path to selflessness. By resting we allow ourselves to be human. By resting we restore our reservoir so that we have something to give from. By resting, we remember that we are not God. Scriptures teach that even God rested on the 7th day to enjoy the work from the previous 6 days.

So, particularly, if you are the kind of person that justifies your workaholism, your unhealthy eating habits, and your moral failures because you’re “being the change you want to see in the world”, “spreading the gospel” or any other way to make a difference, STOP. REST. RESIST.  Turn your phone off. Go for a run. Make a dental appointment. Take a 10 minute nap in the middle of the day. Schedule a day off of social media each week (No cheating). Go for a hike. Call your mom. Call your dad. Get your hair cut. Make a home cooked meal. Share intimate sex with your partner. Pray. Meditate. Play with your kids. Text your sister. Have a meal with your brother. Read a devotional before you check your phone in the morning. Make an appointment with a therapist. STOP. REST. RESIST.

The work that we are charged to do is too important for us to poison it with our own toxicity.

So this past week, before I went to a protest with friends to advocate for housing for the homeless here in Los Angeles, you know what I did? I went on a breakfast retreat in the mountains and got my very first facial. And you know what? It won’t be my last.  Sure. You can judge me for not being “down” if you want. But I refuse to be defined by the values of this world that tell us only certain kind of people get to take care of themselves. We can’t give anybody else a love that we aren’t willing to receive for ourselves.

So yes, keep up the great work you’re doing. But remember that rest is resistance, too.

 

 

 

 

 

The Radical Politics of Palm Sunday

We are in the midst of one of the most nasty and divisive political campaign seasons we have witnessed in decades.  Yet, in ways that are almost eerily poetic, it is precisely in this environment rife with anger,  name-calling, scapegoating, sucker punching, mob-justice, lying, betrayal,  greed, pandering, and pride that Christians around the world are remembering the season of Lent and are preparing to celebrate Holy Week.

Holy week is a time when Christians remember that Jesus, the Son of God, took on flesh, lived among us, and at the hands of an angry mob and a wealthy nation suffered name-calling, sucker punches, lying, betrayal, greed, and pride to ultimately be crucified, becoming the ultimate scapegoat for the evil and ugliness of the world.  When you think about it a lot of what Holy Week seeks to remember does not seem to be very  holy at all. What Jesus endured was ugly. It was cruel. It was violent. It was bloody. It was humanity at its worst. It was mob rule at its best. It was unholy indeed.

Palm Sunday, as the beginning of Holy Week, looks at a political system whose highest ideals seem to be unraveling tragically before our eyes, and proclaims that the failed and broken powers of our world are not all there is.  Palm Sunday points powerfully to a radically different political ethic: the ethics of Jesus and his kingdom.

When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem that day on a donkey, people layed out palm branches before him and cried out to him, “Hosannah”, which in Hebrew means “save us, please!”  Tired of being heavily taxed and treated as second class citizens, they looked to Jesus, whose name “Yeshua” means “the one who saves”, to be the one to liberate them from their oppression.  Yet when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he did not come riding in a chariot. He did not come with a retinue of soldiers to fight violence with violence.

In Holy Week, it is important to remember that when Jesus came, it was indeed political, but not in the ways of the Romans. He came as the kind of king  who had already redefined holiness by touching, healing, and eating with people who, by the laws and mores of his day, were unholy. Holiness for Jesus was not about avoiding the mess to remain pure, but about stepping and living into the mess of our lives.  In Palm Sunday, the politics of Jesus redefines holiness from who should be kept out, to who should be radically included.  After showing the kind of king he was, people who were broken, people who were diseased, and people who were wealthy but who knew their own poverty of spirit all came to Jesus saying “save us, please!”. These are the people who lined the street with palm branches that day. Tragically, many of these same people would call for his crucifixion, for even after witnessing the ways of Jesus many still  clung  to their secretly held hopes of brute power and violent aggression. And those who did not affirmed the will of the mob through their silence.

Today, we also have many people who for years have put their faith and hope in an American political system.  In many ways, this is a system that has propelled many from rags to riches, from slavery to freedom, and from outcast to in-crowd.  Yet many who initially laid down palm branches have also become an unruly and blood thirsty mob. Still others affirm the will of the mob through their silence or by opting out.

We have poor and working class people who are still reeling from the pain of economic and workforce realignment in the last 20 years and they are crying to someone, to anyone who will hear them, “save us, please”. We have communities of color who have endured decades of failed policies and programs, and a militarized police state that has been overly zealous in its incarceration of our men and women, and they too are crying ” save us, please!”. We have middle class and even wealthy families whose kids  are addicted to  online gaming, and prescription drugs, and are suffering from depression and committing suicide at alarming rates. And they too are in their own way crying out, “save us, please!” The list goes on and one from women being abused, to the LGBTQ community being bullied and harassed, to the widows and moms of unarmed black males who are all in their own way suffering under the cruelty of a system whose “peace” has come at far too costly a price.

And it is into this cacophonous mess, loss, and brokenness that Jesus comes. Yet he does not come riding on a tank, for he rejects fighting violence with violence. He does not come riding in a Bentley, because he warns against the slow death of loving wealth and material possessions.  He comes riding on a donkey, a lowly beast of burden, because he knows that the only way that we are going to see true healing and restoration is if we each swallow our pride, check our agendas at the door, and serve each other lovingly and humbly. In Christ we do not find our salvation in seeking power, but in giving it away. In Christ we do not find our salvation in perpetuating cycles of retaliation and pain, but in forging new cycles of forgiveness, peace, and humble service.  In Christ, holiness is not defined by how many are kept out or put out, but by how many who we least expect are welcomed in and embraced.

This is the radical politics of Jesus. This is the radical politics of Palm Sunday and it is also the call of the church that today bears the name of Christ. And unless and until the church as the people of God stand as an agent of this kind of radical Palm Sunday politics, the world around us will continue to cry out for salvation elsewhere.  So here we stand, in the midst of the rancor, confusion, and division of our day.  May we find a way to see the ways of Jesus and cry out, “Hosannah”. “Save us, please!”.

 

 

 

Donald Trump, Evangelicalism and the American Prosperity Gospel

The polls are now closed and the results from Super Tuesday are now in. After already decisive wins in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, Donald Trump has been declared the winner of the Republican primaries in the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Alabama,  Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Senator Ted Cruz claimed Oklahoma and his home state of Texas. Kasich and Rubio showed respectable finishes with Carson hoping for a VP nomination to show for his effort. Political pundits are reporting that no Republican candidate in the history of the Republican Party has won as many state primaries across the board. Both New England moderates and Southern conservatives cast their votes for Trump. If historic trends are accurate, we can be all but assured that the brash, flamboyant, special needs mocking, xenophobic, and openly misogynistic real estate mogul that America loves to hate, Donald Trump, will be the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States of America.

In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, and of  Twitter and You-Tube overnight celebrity, in some ways the political ascendancy of a media savvy celebrity like Donald Trump should come as no surprise. What may be surprising to many, however, is just how much support Trump has among evangelical Christians.

Despite Trump’s financially flashy lifestyle, his biblical illiteracy, and his morally objectionable past, his early wins in Nevada and South Carolina showed significant support from evangelical Christians. He was even able to secure the highly coveted endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr. the President of Liberty University.  His Super Tuesday wins in Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee have shown his dominance in the “Bible Belt” even over candidates like Senators Cruz and Rubio who come with more tried and true evangelical bona fides.  What is behind this evangelical support?

Simply put, evangelicals are tired of losing and they want to win. They don’t care about his values. They don’t care about his qualifications. They don’t care about whether he has a personal relationship with Jesus. They just want to win. And this dogged thirst for winning, blessing, prosperity and power is completely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

Embedded in the theology of many evangelicals is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It is more than the hackneyed image of a televangelist sweating on the television screen asking old ladies to phone or mail ins their last dime on a prayer cloth or the latest anointing oil. It is a way of thinking that is actually more fundamentally and inextricably intertwined with the American dream than we may think. Tied up in what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic, it comes out of a belief that is actually tied to notions of white supremacy, the assimilation and annihilation of Native Americans, and enslavement of Africans. It has been called many things in our history; from “manifest destiny” to “American exceptionalism”. I call it the “American prosperity gospel”.

Simply put, the American prosperity gospel preaches that God has chosen and ordained us to win. So as long as we work hard, we deserve, or are essentially owed a blessing from God. Donald Trump would probably say it like this, “We’re winners”.  Drenched in a uniquely American brand of Christian theology, if God has chosen and ordained us to be the most prosperous nation on earth, anyone or anything that stands in our way must be jettisoned, assimilated, or destroyed.

Until the last 50 years, this “chosen” group was much more overt and explicit in the ways they amassed their wealth, built their universities, constructed their neighborhoods with race based covenants, erected their walls around their country clubs, and built their country on the backs of Native Americans , indentured whites, and ultimately African Slaves and their descendants.  Nearly every wave of immigrants in this country’s history competed with one another to be more “American” than the last, pledging their allegiance to success and the idea of “whiteness”, vying for their place among the chosen.

But what happens when the blessings you have been promised do not materialize? What do you do with the people  who own your jobs- people like Trump no less – have shipped your jobs oversees? What do you do when it seems that only a few are blessed from your hard work, while others who you view as undeserving begin to prosper?  Where do you turn when it seems you have been chosen for hardship and suffering rather than for blessings and prosperity?

First, you get very, very angry.  Next throw any of your espoused “values” to the wind and you starting looking for what you believe your god has promised you: a winner. In Donald Trump, Americans who have suffered most under the global skills and jobs realignment in the last 35 years, see something that they have always wished they could be: rich and powerful.  The secret promise of the American prosperity gospel is that once you have become rich enough and highly connected enough to the people that “matter” you can basically do, or say, whatever you want to, whenever you want to. And this is the altar at which far too many Americans worship. It is also an altar at which many evangelical Christians are increasingly tempted to worship.

Moses was only gone for a day to receive the ten commandments, but by the time he returned, he found the Israelites dancing around a god they had made of gold. It seems that God’s people have always had a penchant for what is flashy, shiny and new. Indeed, strange things start to happen when impatience results in idolatry.

So when it comes to evangelicals and Donald Trump, let’s be clear. It is not about the God of the Bible at all. It is not about values. It is about winning. And it is about a uniquely American understanding of God-ordained winning that I can only describe as the American prosperity gospel.

It matters not that his main character attributes seem to revolve around coarse talk, pride, the love of money, fear, or the suspicion of neighbor rather than the love of neighbor. It matters not that he stokes anger and hatred. It matters not that Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors, to be peacemakers, and to even love their enemies. It matters not that Jesus actually calls upon his followers to expect hardship, suffering, persecution, poverty and pain and to do so with humility and grace. It matters not that the abundant life Jesus teaches about is the abundant life found only in him and not in the gods of this world.

No. What matters most is that Donald Trump promises prosperity to a group who believe that they are chosen for prosperity. This is a group that increasingly believes that the American gospel of prosperity has left them out and they are willing to do anything to get the blessing they have been promised. Out of their ire, fear, and impatience, they are willing to do anything to win. Anything.  Maybe even worship an idol.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grace and Peace: For the Sea that Stands Between Us

Grace and peace. These two words can be found at the beginning of each and every letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to all of the churches in his care. Grace and peace. They are two words that are so common to the Christian that their meaning is often easily overlooked. Grace: translated literally as a “gift” of undeserved and completely unmerited favor.  Peace: understood theologically in the Jewish concept of shalom as more than the mere absence of discord or violence but as the complete and total interconnected flourishing of God, creation, and humanity.

Yet for all of the sound doctrine, theology, and Spirit led inspiration for life and witness found in Paul’s letters, these two words, grace and peace, are so important that he does not even address a body of believers without mentioning them first.  You will scarcely even find a letter in which Paul does not only begin but also end with some mention of grace, peace, or both terms. Sandwiched between grace and peace, it is almost as though Paul believes Christians should be defined by them, shaped by them, reminded of them and somehow ever pointed to their meaning.

Yet, are the words grace and peace what we would readily use to describe the way Christians communicate today? Are these the words that would aptly describe the way that prominent Christian leaders address other leaders or other believers in Christ from their pulpits, on their blogs, or on their Facebook and Twitter feeds?  Would grace and peace describe even how Christians address and engage the world beyond the four walls of the church?

2015 was a year in which believers in Christ saw no lack of things upon which to disagree. From SCOTUS, to Trump, to BLM, to the Syrian refugee crisis there has been more than enough fodder for discord.  With a gun control debate mounting, a militant  militia occupation in Oregon, Dr. Laycia Hawkins engulfed in controversy at Wheaton College, and a Presidential election it looks like 2016 will also see its fair share of polarizing debates within the body of Christ and with its engagement with the world.

Yet, what about prophecy? Is there no place to speak the truth in love? Yes. There is surely a place for the prophetic. I believe we are living in times that require the conviction and the truth telling of the prophetic voices among us. Yet, let us always be reminded that the truth of all prophecy is fulfilled in a repentance that leads ultimately to the person of Jesus Christ. Any prophecy that does not lift up or somehow point to Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection and his return is no prophecy at all. It was of course also Paul who reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that “as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”

And that end, the end of all of our efforts of teaching, preaching, living, discipleship, evangelism and the prophetic work of justice is Christ. Let us never, ever lose sight of that. 

 

So, my simple encouragement to you this year comes from a man who was a vicious and blood thirsty terrorist turned evangelist, a Pharisee turned peacemaker, a Sanhedrin turned Saint.  And the only thing that changed this man named Saul to the man we know as Paul is his encounter with Jesus Christ.

We are going to disagree. We are going to see things differently. Yet, might we never forget the one who lived laying hands on, healing, and blessing his enemies.  How much more should we extend grace and peace to those who are in the household of faith? Might we never forget the one who never allowed his deep love for the law and doctrine he learned in the synagogue to mute his defense of those whom the law cast out, marginalized or excluded (Mark 3:1, Luke 13:14). Might we never forget the one who lived to expose and uphold the humanity of everyone from Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, to Mary Magdalene and a woman from Canaan. Might we never forget that it was the story of a woman from Bethany whom the religious wanted to exclude that he said must be included in the story of the gospel whenever it is told (Matthew 26: 6-13,  Mark 14: 3-9,  Luke 7: 36-50). Might we never forget the one who lived and died even for the inclusion of the Centurion so long as he saw and followed him (Matthew 8: 5-13, Mark 15: 39, Acts  10:1-44).

For the sea of theological and political disagreements that billow and toss between us, may we remember a man named Jesus who stands with the authority and power to speak “peace” to calm  even this raging sea. And may this be a year where in our discourse and even in our disagreements, Christians are finally known for being the embodiment of grace and peace.

 

Materialism: The Real “War on Christmas”

Fox News and those Starbucks Christmas cups fanatics are right about one thing. There is indeed a “war on Christmas”. Except this war has less than we think to do with removing nativity scenes from public spaces, or the unforgivable “crime” of saying “Happy Holidays” out of respect for people that celebrate Hanukkah, Diwali, or Kwanzaa, instead of “Merry Christmas”. No, if there is indeed a “war on Christmas” it has to do with that fact that a holy day (which is where we get the word “holiday”) inspired by middle eastern baby who was born in a manger into poverty under the real threat of state sponsored terror has become little more than another excuse for us to go shopping. There is indeed a war on Christmas, but it was waged and won in the board rooms of Madison Avenue marketing executives 60 years ago. That’s why I received the ad featured in my cover photo instructing me to “find my joy” in $100 of savings at the mall. Oh, the mall. The perfect place for Americans to find our joy at Christmas. More than anything else, its unbridled coveting and unchecked greed that’s killing the true spirit of Christmas.

Christmas is the season where we are called to remember Christ as the incarnation of God Himself and as the Prince of Peace. Do you feel at peace where you’re hustling from store to store to spend money that you know that you don’t have? Do you feel at peace when you have to tell your children, yet again, that they can’t have all of what is on their wishlist? Or perhaps you have the means. Do you feel at peace when you buy that “it” Christmas item only to find that your kids are essentially “over it” in four hours? Or does peace come with a price tag in America?

One thing that is clear about Isaiah 9 is that the rod of oppression and the yoke of the burden that was on the shoulders of the people of Israel by the Assyrian empire was prophesied to be placed upon the shoulders of the Messiah. That is to say, whether you are rich or poor, working class or middle class, if you are feeling the weight and a burden that comes from proving yourself to your kids or your family, the weight that comes from having to prove your worth to your colleagues, or a weight that comes from trying to fit in and be accepted then you have to reject this outright as having absolutely nothing to do with the spirit of Christ or or Christmas. Christ the Messiah was foretold to be the kind of king that would remove any of these kinds of burdens from your shoulders, placing them upon himself instead.

So if you feel that burden this Christmas, I want to invite you to let God carry it. If you feel your identity being wrapped up in what you can or cannot provide, I want to invite you to let God carry it. His shoulders are broad enough. His love is wide enough. He came to carry the weight upon his shoulders so that you and your family can experience true peace. But this is not the kind of peace that you can buy through your own goodness or effort.  It’s not the kind of joy that can be cleaned up when you put away the lights and the Christmas tree. It is the kind of peace that, like a seed that, though wrapped in an outer shell, once planted in your heart, will continue to grow forever. That’s my prayer for each of you this Christmas.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.

 

The Calling of Ananias and the Conversion of Paul: A Christian Response to Persecution and Terrorism

Persecution against religious minorities is on the rise across the globe unlike any time in recent history. In the face of increasing persecution against Christians, who now find adherents to their faith waning in the West while flourishing in the global south, many followers of Jesus now find themselves praying for what has become known as “the persecuted church”. Indeed, in 2014, the number of Christians who were killed, imprisoned, caned, or otherwise disciplined for practicing their faith doubled, according to the World Watchlist published by Open Door, a nonprofit watchdog of anti-Christian persecution.  While the persecution of Christians is something that is as old as the church itself,  a snapshot of recent events highlight that it now occurs with  alarming frequency and cruelty. For example:

In many ways, the persecution of Christians is as old as Christianity itself, dating back to the Roman Empire. Yet, how should Christians respond in a new age of terror and persecution?  I believe the answer to this question can be found by taking a closer look into the narrative of our own tradition:  the conversion of the Apostle Paul and the call of Ananias.

Speaking as a “front pew” church kid turned pastor and theologian, sometimes I think we as Christians can become so accustomed to the insular echo chamber of our own narratives that we can easily gloss over the scandalous message that is shouting back at us from the pages of our holy texts. But look; there is no way to sugarcoat this. The Apostle Paul was a Middle Eastern terrorist who had a Roman passport and could move freely from city to city kidnapping Christian men, women, and children to send them to a sure and bloody death.  Acts chapter 9 is clear that while Paul (then known as Saul) was “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” and was heading to Damascus to find others to persecute he had an encounter with Jesus that changed his life and his story forever.

There are two key lessons from Paul’s story that I find relevant to a Christian response to persecution and terrorism.  First, we have to hold out the possibility that God could be working in our enemies in a way we could never imagine. Second, in the face of even certain evil and terror we have to allow God to speak to and work through us.

1. God could be working in our enemies in ways we could never imagine.  When looking at the hard facts there is no good, logical, natural reason why any and every Christian should not be at least somewhat afraid of the possibility of facing serious, life-threatening persecution in their lifetime. At this point, we all understand that the threat of terror is real. Yet is there anything in our theology that would lead us to believe that all hope is lost? Is there anything in our faith tradition that would lead us to think that there is anyone who is incapable of being redeemed by the love and sacrifice of Christ?

The times when we are most tempted by fear and condemnation are the very times when we must look deeply at the power of the gospel and of the radical nature of the narrative that we profess.  Absolutely no one expected that a terrorist named Paul would ever have a Damascus road experience. I mean, he was on his way to round up even more Christians to be slaughtered! Is it possible that in this day and age God could move on the hearts even of terrorists and draw them closer to the truth of their evil ways?

Already we have seen multiple reports of Muslims who say they have seen Isa (Arabic for Jesus) in a dream or vision.   The Christian Post reported that a former ISIS soldier who enjoyed killing Christians also had a vision of Isa come to him in a dream.  In resounding similarity to the Apostle Paul’s experience in Acts 9: 4, this former ISIS fighter says that Isa came to him in a dream saying, “you are killing my people”.  Regardless of whether you are an evangelical Christian for whom conversion to Christianity is central to evangelism, a mainline or progressive Christian for whom conversion is not as emphasized, or merely a third party observer, this story is nothing short of remarkable.

For Christians in particular, however, this is the kind of story that only points us back to the reality that even in our own narrative, a man who many of us believe to be the greatest evangelist, church planter, and theologian that  ever lived started off as a terrorist and persecutor of Christians! Should not this fact alone open our hearts to the possibility that God might be able to be somehow at work, even in our age? Even in the people and in the places where we would least expect?

2. We have to allow God to speak to and work through us. When we read Acts 9 with fresh eyes, we can find the basis for a Christian response to terror and persecution in our age. You see, God did not just speak to the heart of Paul. He spoke to the heart of Christians as well, even those who had heard about his reign of terror and persecution.  And when God spoke, the message was one of embrace, transformation, and inclusion. Although the emphasis is so frequently placed on the conversion of Paul, we cannot overlook the calling of Ananias.   

Paul was not the only one to have a vision from the Lordd. Acts 9: 10 says “now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias” whom the Lord spoke to in a vision and told him to find Paul there waiting for him. He was told that Paul would have seen a vision also and would be expecting him. Ananias was terrified. He told God, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem,; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” Yet, like Abraham, Isaiah, and many before him, when God spoke, in Acts 9: 10, even though he was afraid he simply said, “Here I am, Lord.”

Think about this for a second. Paul is on his way to Damascus to hunt down Christians that he would kidnap and return to Jerusalem to be beaten, stoned, or killed.  And God speaks to a man in Damascus, the very place where he is heading, and tells him to find Paul and to lay hands on him so he can recover his sight. Yet, when God speaks, his response is ” Here I am, Lord.”

To put it in our context, it would be as though God would give a Christian a vision in Nigeria to go find the leader of the Boko Haram, lay hands on him, and consider him a brother! How completely bananas is that?! Yet, essentially, this is exactly what we find in the Acts narrative.  And if God had not moved in such a way, both in the heart of Paul and of Ananias, the faith that we now know as Christianity very well may have faded into obscurity long before it ever began.

This story of the conversion of Paul and the ministry of Ananias goes to the very heart of the story of the gospel of Christ.  This is why we believe  Paul could be an “instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel”. And for Christians today to think seriously about how to respond to the terror and persecution that we now face, we need to look long and hard at the way that Jesus called both Paul and Ananias.

I am convinced that the Jesus that Paul and Ananias heard and followed calls for the radical love of our enemies, even those who persecute us. The Jesus that Paul and Ananias heard and followed calls for scandalous embrace and transformation. And especially in a new age of persecution and terror,  the Jesus that Paul and Ananias heard and followed is the one that I believe we should hear and follow too. Jesus is still calling if we’re willing to listen to his voice and to reject the voice of fear and terror. And if he calls us, even to go and lay hands on our enemies, might we, like Ananias be able to say, “Here I am, Lord”.

 

 

The Lone Wolf or the Wolf Pack? Personal Responsibility in a New Age of Mass Terrorism

On Wednesday morning at 11am,  Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik left a Christmas party for the San Bernadino Health Department, where Farook worked, in San Bernadino, California. Three hours later, at 2pm, they returned, dressed in black military grade gear, armed with automatic rifles, and fired 76 rounds on the 80 people gathered at the party, killing 14 of them and wounding 21 others.  A U.S. citizen, Farook had worked there as an environmental health specialist for five years.

The names of the deceased have now been released and made available to the public. These 14 names have now been added to an unexpected and hallowed roll call of lives taken by gun violence:

• Robert Adams, 40

• Isaac Amanios, 60

• Bennetta Bet-Badal, 46

• Harry Bowman, 46

• Sierra Clayborn, 27

• Juan Espinoza, 50

• Aurora Godoy, 26

• Shannon Johnson, 45

• Larry Kaufman, 42

• Damian Meins, 58

• Tin Nguyen, 31

• Nicholas Thalasinos, 52

• Michael Wetzel, 37

• Yvette Velasco, 27

As we set our hearts once again to mourn the horrific and terrible loss of innocent life at the hands of the newest band of crazed killers, who in this case appear to have embraced a radicalized version of Islam, I cannot help but question how routine and almost mundane this particular ritual of mourning has all become.  We have seen a list of names like this printed in our newspapers and flooding our social media feeds more times than we care to admit. In fact, here in America, there have been more mass shootings than there have been days in the year thus far. In the wake of such profound tragedy, there is certainly no absence of finger pointing and blame shifting. Notwithstanding the wide spectrum of viewpoints on gun control, one thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that when it comes to gun violence something has gone terribly, awfully, and tragically wrong.

This latest rash of politically and religiously motivated terrorism we are witnessing throughout the country is disturbing on more levels than I even know how to express. Like many people, I move from anger to disbelief, from shock to horror, and from despair to utter exhaustion with it all. In some ways I have never felt so small, so powerless, and so utterly insignificant in the face of such great darkness, such massive evil. Living here in Southern California, I cannot help but feel a unique connection to the pain of my neighbors in San Bernadino.  And from that connection stems a feeble but sure sense of responsibility to do something about it.

Yet there is something almost spurious and incomplete about the narrative that I see posted, tweeted and recirculated in the wake of each of these incidents. That narrative revolves around the language and ethics of personal responsibility. We cannot seem to help but hold an individual responsible. They were a “lone wolf” we like to say. Or they were a “deranged individual”. Or, if we can bring ourselves to extend extend the narrative much beyond just a single individual, we will associate them with this community or with those people, almost reflexively repelling even the faintest hint of responsibility from ourselves. Even when extended to groups, such as Christian extremists, Islamic extremists, black people in the inner city, white males, or whatever the group may be, as long as they are some kind of deviant, or some kind of “other” that is  not “us”,  it seems to make the almost routine nature of these heinous acts palatable for the rest of us.

Now, before I go any further, let me be very clear. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik are the ones who are responsible for this week’s act of terror in San Bernadino.  I firmly believe that we are each responsible for our own actions and should be held accountable for them. Our lives would be rife with even more chaos and anarchy if we were not each held individually and personal liable for breaking the law, especially when it comes to doing the unthinkable and taking another human being’s life.

Yet there is something about our responses to these horrific tragedies that is really bothering me. I cannot seem to quite put my finger on it but it involves the ways in which we seem to ironically use a narrative of personal responsibility to actually absolve ourselves of any personal responsibility.

Again and again, in various ways the narrative of personal responsibility is one of the central moral lenses that we use to evaluate traumatic events that really impact us all as a community. And what I’m saying is that while we are certainly all personally responsible, I’m finding this narrative to be simply worn and increasingly inadequate for the nature of the problems that we now face.

Sure. There’s no question that we could all just go down to our local gun shop and get strapped. In fact, all of us getting a gun to protect ourselves is probably the most natural response. And who knows? Maybe it is just that simple. But what if there’s something deeper going on here?

One of the things that is striking to me in this latest incident here in California is that the San Bernadino community has actually been struggling with gun violence in their community for decades, but little attention has been brought to this community’s problem because it is a predominantly brown community.  The message could not be more clear. It’s tragic that those people have to deal with those problems, but again, it’s “those people” who have to deal with those problems.  I have to deal with my problems, so you need to deal with yours. Again, the message of personal responsibility.

As once sporadic episodes of mass terror have quickly become a new norm, is it enough to continue to turn to the comforting narrative of personal responsibility? Is it enough to say that “those people need to get their act together”? I don’t think so. The reality is that the problem of gun violence, and even of the kind of domestic and global terrorism we are now witnessing is not someone else’s problem. It’s our problem. It’s not just an individual’s problem. It’s a social problem. What if our new normal of mass terror is not just a problem of a “lone wolf”?  What if it’s a problem with the whole pack of wolves?

I actually believe that one of the single largest contributors to the specific kind of mass violence that we are seeing in our world today is that more people than we would like to think are actually crushing under the cruel and oppressive weight of personal responsibility. The upside of the personal responsibility, rugged individualistic, “pull yourself up from your bootstraps ” narrative is that if you have enough grit and work hard enough then the sky’s the limit. However, the  downside of the message of personal responsibility is a nefarious little lie that if you find yourself on the losing side, or if you fall off of the horse and you cannot seem to dust yourself off and get back on again, then you’re on your own. You’re on your own.

Isolation, hopelessness, and loss. Isolation, hopelessness, and loss are the downside of personal responsibility. And there are few things that contribute to someone being vulnerable to hate-filled rhetoric or radical extremism than the feeling  of being hopeless and alone.  Couple loneliness with loss and loss with hopelessness and you have the perfect recipe for mass terror.

We saw it on a social scale in the rise of anti-semitism and Nazism in Germany after World War I, when they felt utterly isolated and defeated in the world. We saw it in Rwanda when for years a Hutu majority had been told their loss and oppression was their own fault. We see it in our inner cities, as young men who are faced with declining job prospects turn again and again to drugs and gang violence. We see it in America with a rash of white American male domestic terrorists from Timothy McVeigh to Dylan Roof who vow to take “their country back”, all seeming to attribute their extremism to a sense of isolation, hopelessness, and loss.

Yes, these people were sick, demented, and callous killers. There is no excuse for their psychotic embrace of hatred and terror. Yet, we can no longer so quickly evade or ignore the social dimensions of these acts,  and miss the possibility of a shared sickness, a shared dementia, or a social phenomenon.

The truth is that for all of our new “followers” on Twitter, and for all of our “likes” on Facebook, we are living lives that are increasingly more isolated than ever before. And in the midst of a world where the divide between those who “have” and those who “have not” seems to increase faster than the speed of light how are we wired to understand our losses in this age?

Well, the only answer of the narrative of personal responsibility is that you’re to blame. It’s you. It’s your fault that you didn’t succeed. It’s your fault that you’ve been left out. It’s your fault that you’re alone.

My concern is that when this message is mixed in a dangerous cocktail of extreme political or religious rhetoric, it is a sure recipe for human beings to reach a breaking point and just snap.  Whether that breaking point looks like mental illness or the equally dangerous weaponization of group think, human beings are extremely vulnerable to mass acts of terror when they are isolated, when they are hopeless, or when they do not properly process their pain and loss.

The place where we find ourselves in America, and indeed in the world today is something that I fear we cannot simply legislate, bomb, shoot, or even simply pray our way out of.  It is going to require that we actually find practical ways to get to know and love our neighbors. The battle that must be waged is one for  our hearts, minds and souls. It is a battle that cannot be won with any amount of brute force. As banal as it may sound to the postmodern ear, it is a battle that can only be won with pure and unrelenting love.

So yes. I believe in personal responsibility. I believe that we are all personally responsible for reaching out to love the people among us who we may think are impossible to love. We are personally responsible to love the people who are not even worthy of love. We are personally responsible to love the isolated and alone among us. We are personally responsible. Indeed, we have to reach deep within ourselves and find the capacity, the personal responsibility even, to love ourselves.  Because our problem is personal. It’s deeply personal. It’s so personal that we can’t leave anyone out.

The lone wolf is a projection of our worst selves. And if we are able to hear his tortured call the lone wolf is a reminder that it’s time for us to tend to the whole pack. Our survival just might depend on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

thanksgiving: a table for our enemies

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.  Psalm 29:5

What if there is a relationship between the blessings you have been given and the challenge to share it with the very people that despise you, and that you despise?  What if the same table that has been prepared before you is the same table that has been set before your enemies to see if you will be forced to see that your blessings and your enemy’s blessings are somehow linked in a cosmic challenge to share what we have been given with those with whom we would least expect?  What if your blessings were not to gloat in front of your enemies, but to thank them for being an opposing force that pushed you towards your current path, forced you down your new place at the table?

What if your head was anointed so that your cup would overflow and you could share your anointing with the very folks society says don’t deserve it? Is your anointing just reserved for people who look like you, think like you,  or that you want to bless? Or is your anointing something that like the table is meant to overflow out of your life so you can share it?

Do you remember a story in the Bible where there was a woman who was known as a prostitute who came to the table where Jesus was eating?  She came and brought precious oil and poured it on the feet of Jesus. Everyone who was with him, especially those closest to him were shocked!  “What a waste of such precious oil!”they thought.  But even though as a “sinner” she was unclean, and even am enemy of God, her gift was so precious that he said her story should be told whenever the gospel story is told (Matthew 26:6-13). Jesus, like David before him, seemed to see anointing and blessings, though something we naturally view as precious and only to be shared with “deserving” and “worthy” people as being something that us precisely to be shared with those who we may think actually deserve it least. The gospel story is that we were the ones who were the enemy,  we were the ones who were undeserving,  but that the love of God was so generous that it was poured out to overflow, even to us.

With all that is happening in our world, from Paris to Joss, from Beirut to Chicago, this Thanksgiving I find myself reflecting on what it really means to be challenged to share our most precious blessings. And one of the challenges of Thanksgiving is that it has become a day where many of us may go to a soup kitchen,  or hand out a turkey, but when it comes to who we actually invite, accept,  and embrace at our table,  our table is usually reserved only for our family,  only for our friends. I love this part about Thanksgiving.  I love being able to eat my mom’s macaroni and cheese, her greens, her dressing, and mannnn, that sweet potato pie is to die for! But as I have been away from my immediate family for Thanksgiving for several years now, and now find myself preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time in my life on the other side of the world from my family and my closest friends,  I have to ask myself,  what is this day really about?

And I woke up this morning in Malawi, Africa,  physically one of the poorest nations in the world,  but socially and culturally one of the richest, I found myself really reflecting on the possibility of what if Thanksgiving was never about just sharing your blessings with your innermost circle?  What if it has always been about realizing our need to be grateful for and share with people who are actually extremely different from us, or that maybe even frighten us on some level deep down. What did the Pilgrims really learn about those people they had called “savages” on the first Thanksgiving? I think they learned that those ‘savages” were human beings,  and that they were bound and tied to them for their own survival.  I think that the very people they initially considered the ‘other’ and the ‘enemy’ were the very people that ultimately had to depend on for their own survival.  Oh how tragically soon they forgot that. How quickly we all forget that.

This Thanksgiving,  I think that my challenge to myself and to all of us is to realize the ways in which we could all benefit from radically expanding our inner circle,  or radically re-orienting our definition of family.  I believe that our table was created for sharing. Our anointing was given to overflow.  So let it overflow.