Archive for January 2014

The State of the Communion

Tuesday was a big day here in Washington, DC. The President of the United States addressed both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, laying out his State of the Union. In this annual speech, the President lays out his vision of where the country is at, and where we are headed. With great pomp and circumstance, the Commander-in-Chief delivers a message for the whole nation.

Tuesday night was a big moment for my community, too. The DC small group of Friends of Jesus gathered for our first small group meeting of 2014. We caught up with one another after many weeks apart. We experienced the story of Acts 2 in the form of a bibliodrama that we acted out together. We shared a time of deep worship and prayer.

As we sat in the silence, waiting on God, I remembered that the State of the Union address was taking place at that very moment. We hadn’t consciously planned it this way, but I was struck by the feeling that we were attending an alternative State of the Union, one presided over not by any earthly leader, but by Jesus himself.

While millions around us were gathered in homes, bars and other public places to watch the State of the Union of the United States, we were together receiving the State of the Communion of the Kingdom of God. In our own simple, gentle way, we were exercising our citizenship in that alternative social order – a reign not of human wisdom or military might, but of the living Spirit of God and of his son, Jesus.

I was reminded again in this moment that it is Jesus, the living and reigning President of presidents, who is my Commander-in-Chief. I was humbled to realize that our little fellowship, meeting in a home in eastern DC, is vitally important in God’s eyes. Gathered around the throne of Jesus, we were present with him as he addressed his holy nation, the people of God.

The reign of God is not something that we can point to and say, Look, there it is! Yet, in moments of silent waiting on the Spirit, we discover this new order right here in our midst. In the simple communion of food, silence, Scripture, and prayer, we are encountering the living power of Jesus – a leader who truly cares for his people and knows our pain. In the amazing and undeserved love that he shows us, we find strength to love others. The state of the Communion is strong.

Getting My Priorities Straight

What are your top priorities? On most people’s list would be family and friends. You might also include your professional life and financial security. In my case, I’d probably list free time, which allows me to make myself available to others and undertake creative pursuits (such as writing this blog). The details differ from individual to individual, but we all want those things that make for the good life, in every sense.

As I seek to follow Jesus, however, even these good things cannot be my highest concern. There is a purpose to my life that goes deeper than enjoyment, security, or even the comforts of human affection and family ties. In Jesus, I meet a God who refuses to be set alongside other priorities. I cannot serve God and wealth; or family; or even happiness. I must serve God alone, and let all the other aspects of my life fall into place around that Holy Center.

It’s easy to lose sight of this. I have a tendency to center my life around whatever project seems most exciting or urgent at the moment. Whether it’s my job, home renovation, or an upcoming trip, I can get pretty fixated on the task at hand. I often lose myself in these activities. All these good things become ends in and of themselves, rather than an expression of obedience to my creator.

Ironically, when I become activity-focused rather than God-focused, the joy I experience in my various projects is greatly diminished. The more I place a project, goal or object in the center of my life, the more stressed out I tend to become. When I try to accomplish my own purposes using my own strength, I become exhausted and demoralized. My own efforts never quite bring fulfillment. There is always something else that needs done.

Life is different when my sole priority is to faithfully follow Jesus and live in obedience to God. My activities may be very similar, but my perspective has changed. Now, rather than running myself ragged with the insatiable need to achieve, I can rest in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world. Instead of measuring my life by what I can accomplish, my life is accounted for in the unconditional love and faithfulness of God. This is the easy yoke Jesus offers.

How about you? What are the activities, goals, relationships and possessions that are most central to your life? Are they your top priority, or do you allow God to be the center and orderer of your days? When you get distracted and absorbed in tasks and goals, how do you find your way back to Jesus, to the path of peace and obedience that he shows us? How do you get your priorities straight?

Living Deep

One of the most profoundly meaningful periods of my life was my second semester at Earlham School of Religion, when I was living as part of a radical Christian community called Renaissance House, in an impoverished neighborhood in Richmond, Indiana.

Renaissance House drew all sorts of people. Young and old; middle class and poor; highly educated and barely literate; and people in various states of distress, whether immediately visible or not. We were together almost constantly. Several times each day, a few of us would gather for a simple liturgy. And three times a week, we would host a public dinner, inviting all our neighbors. Gathered around the table were the mentally ill and homeless, local businesspeople and families with children, seminarians and professors. We were a motley crew.

This was one of the most joyful times of my life. It was also one of the hardest. The intensity of living in that kind of community, and the level of honesty and reevaluation that God was calling me to, was almost overwhelming. This kind of Kingdom life was ferociously challenging. I was confronted in so many ways, inside and out. In an amazingly short period of time, I was changed dramatically.

In my life today, the pace of transformation is a little more gradual. I am learning to be in relationship with God through the long seasons of daylight and darkness, comfort and pain, joy and sorrow. Yet, I don’t want to lose sight of the amazing power and purpose that is possible when my life is given over completely to the experience of following Jesus in community. What does it take to stay connected to that life of wonder, adventure and exploration? Is there anything that I am holding onto that keeps me from that life of surrender to Christ?

Can you remember a time when your life felt truly aligned with God’s purposes for you? Do you recall moments in which you were filled with love, joy, and peace? What were your relationships like at these times? What was the focus of your life: your work, play, and rest? Are you living in that state of joy and power today? If not, what’s holding you back?

Boundary Issues

What is the basic message of the gospel? Is there a core essence that can be extracted from all the stories, traditions, rituals, and writings of our faith? To ask the question another way: How can we know which of our practices and beliefs are truly essential to who we are as followers of Jesus, and which can be safely let go of in order to make faith more accessible to everyone?

This question is explored throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews learn what it means to be God’s people. God gives them very clear boundaries, a set of rules to live by. At the same time, God also expresses an intention to bless the whole world through an obedient, holy Israel. The Hebrews are called to a special way of life as a people, yet through the prophets they are also taught that God has a plan that embraces all of humanity.

In the New Testament, we see this plan coming to fruition in the person of Jesus Christ. Through his obedient life, selfless death, and amazing resurrection, Jesus breaks down the dividing wall between the holy people of Israel and the rest of the peoples who do not live under the strictures of Torah.

Almost immediately, early Christian community is confronted with questions about what rules, if any, non-Jewish Christians must conform to in order to be acceptable to God and the community. Must all followers of Jesus keep kosher, be circumcised, and observe the many other laws of rabbinic Judaism? Or has Jesus revealed an even deeper, broader source of salvation that transcends the traditional boundaries of Jewish regulations?

Over time, the early followers of Jesus came to understand that the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Through the continuing guidance of this Spirit, the Christian community diverged from traditional Judaism by accepting uncircumcised believers who did not stay within the boundaries of ethnic Judaism. For untold billions of non-Jewish Christians, this new understanding has been an immense blessing, removing stumbling blocks that might have held us back from the salvation that we find in Jesus.

Nevertheless, we continue to wrestle with boundaries, and with what the essential message of the gospel is for us today. For example, the early Church, Anabaptists, Quakers, and early Pentecostals, among others, have held that war-making is incompatible with Christian discipleship, yet many other Christians believe that military service can be reconciled with our faith. Is these Christians’ openness to war-making an example of an appropriate broadening of the faith, or does it represent an unfaithful dilution of gospel boundaries?

There are plenty of other examples. Do we recognize the ministry of women? Do we permit national flags and other state symbols in our worship spaces? Do we embrace LGBT brothers and sisters, and their marriages? Do we condone divorce?

Different churches and denominations take different stances – or allow freedom of conscience – on these kinds of questions. Regardless of the particular issue, however, the broader question is always one of where the essential boundaries of our faith must lie. Which questions are a matter of personal interpretation, and which are matters of our shared commitment to the gospel?

How does your community discern which beliefs, practices and boundaries are essential to your shared faith, and which are ultimately optional? Can you think of question of faith and practice where disagreement could prevent a person from being invited into membership? How do you find clarity in what is essential, while seeking to put no stumbling blocks in the way of those who are seeking to serve God and follow Jesus?

The End of History?

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I am a child of the environmental movement. Most of the adults in my life taught me that the primary challenge of the future was not doing new things, but mitigating the damage done by a civilization that was already more or less finished. The world I was born into was one with virtually no more geographical frontiers to conquer and a standard of living higher than previous generations had ever imagined possible.

I was raised with a focus on curbing the pollution of spaceship earth, worrying about whether continued population growth or nuclear war would make the planet uninhabitable. As a child, I was surrounded by an ideology of conservation rather than exploration. No wonder my boyhood was filled with dreams of becoming an astronaut, most of my imaginative energy focused on outer space. It was hard for me to imagine doing anything truly new here on earth. Cleaning and caring for the earth sounded important, but I hungered to be part of something groundbreaking and daring.

Every generation seeks to leave its mark on the world. Here in the United States, many generations have had the experience of shaping their environment. During the 19th and 20th centuries, men and women saw themselves as conquering the western frontier, founding new cities and building civilization from the ground up. For every person who went West, there was the possibility of actively participating in the creation of a whole new order, both physical and social.

This was a time of growth, enthusiasm and courage. It was also a period of greed, cruelty and genocide. Above all, it was an era in which there was a very real sense that history was going somewhere. Progress was possible. Even if in retrospect we can see that this progress was definitely a mixed blessing, American society had a sense of forward momentum.

By the mid-20th century, however, physical frontiers were largely gone. Civilization had mostly completed its conquest of the planet, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the immoral and unsustainable dynamics that fuel industrial society. Around this time, a variety of movements came together to perfect the progress already achieved. The civil rights movement called for full inclusion in the benefits of civilization, regardless of ancestry. Feminism insisted that women should be full partners in society. As the century wore on, many more movements – from gay rights to anti-abortion activism – sprung up, seeking to optimize the established order.

At the same time, the politics of revolution seemed to vanish. Serious alternatives to global capitalism had been largely discredited by the time I was born. During my first conscious decade, people were writing about how we were living in the end of history. There was nothing left to do, they said, but to enjoy the benefits of a fait accompli civilization.

As a child of this end of history period, it can be challenging to locate a sense of historical agency. In so many ways, everything seems done, or at least so out of control that trying to change things won’t have much effect. It seems like every week, I read another attack piece on my generation. We are accused of being infantile, irresponsible, narcissistic. While of course I react negatively to these kinds of blanket condemnations of my generation, no doubt there’s some truth to the criticism. My generation is different.

We are the ones who have been told from infancy that our job is to change the world, when the reality is that the world has no intention of being changed. In this historical era, one that is so doggedly resistant to revolutionary change, how are we to regain (or find for the first time) our sense of agency? How can we come to feel that we are capable of making a real difference in the world, not just cosmetic adjustments – personal choices about what products to consume or what causes to support as quasi fashion statements?

I don’t have easy answers for these questions. The present is a time of great confusion and frustration. Though unforeseen events could change all this tomorrow, it’s hard to know what those events might be. What does it look like to live in hope, preparing ourselves for the revolutionary times ahead that today seem so impossible?

Putting It All In Perspective

It can be humbling for me to realize how limited my understanding is. Sometimes I think I’m seeing things clearly, that I really have a grip on what’s happening in my life. There are those moments when everything seems to be flowing smoothly, and I’m advancing toward my goals. At other times, I feel lost and confused, uncertain about where to go next. In the face of life’s obstacles, I often question whether I’m on the right track after all.

It is comforting to realize that I am not the only one who feels this way. We are all bound up in our own human limitations. Sometimes we get it wrong. And even when we are on the right track, our vision is still only partial. Nobody has a “God’s-eye view” on life. Each time I pass through these ups and downs, I feel less certain that I can rely on my personal perceptions to guide me in life. My understanding in any particular moment is so colored by my own limitations; it’s hard to know whether I’m seeing things as they truly are.

Despite our limited understanding, we can gain broader perspective if we’re willing to wait and listen. One way to do this is by slowing down, paying attention to the rhythms and patterns of our own lives. When we’re euphoric, we can remember that excitement doesn’t last forever. In the same way, our periods of darkness are ultimately fleeting, too.

We can also gain perspective by opening our lives to one another. I can share with my friends about the way I am viewing the world right now, and they can tell me what they see. This process is especially powerful if my friends are also committed to seeking the truth. Together, we can evaluate a situation from many more vantage points than we could ever do by ourselves. Best of all, we can engage in shared listening to the Holy Spirit. No one has seen God, but when we love one another, he dwells among us and helps us to be faithful.

Another helpful tool in finding truth beyond our momentary highs and lows is to seek the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors. The beloved community of past generations has left us a legacy of rich, spirit-inspired writings that we can draw on today. The Bible is chief among these writings, bearing as it does the authentic witness of ancient Israel and the early Church. By immersing ourselves in the testimony of those faithful men and women who have gone before, we hedge against the pitfalls of more time-bound thinking.

What are ways that you have found to broaden your perspective and get a better understanding of God’s work in your life? How do you navigate the emotional highs and lows of daily living, avoiding both mania and despair? How have you been humbled, encouraged to seek the perspective of others as you seek to encounter life as it really is?

Marks of the Resurrection

We live in a world that values the appearance of strength, health, and invulnerability. Most of us do our best to present ourselves as successful people, whether through job resumés or Facebook profiles. Sometimes, the pressure to seem successful can feel almost overwhelming.

Even when we put forward a positive image, we can’t escape from reality. No matter what anyone else thinks, we still have to live with the ways in which we are broken, unhappy, and unsuccessful. Whether or not we choose to be honest about it, each of us carries our own set of burdens.

As long as we try to meet the world’s expectations, we are trapped in our own secret experience of grief and despair. To live up to the demands of success, we must suppress and deny the reality of our own failure and pain. We are left alone with our own doubts and fears, prisoners of our own image of happiness and success.

There is a way out of this hidden bondage. In Jesus, we encounter a God who mourns; suffers shame and a painful death; and comes face to face with what it means to be a failure in the eyes of the world. When Jesus cried out in agony on the cross, he was not putting on some sort of a show for our benefit. He really meant it. He felt the full blunt force trauma of failure and a sense of abandonment by God. Not only did Jesus experience these things, he allowed us to see it happen. God did not hide his pain and weakness from us, but rather put it on display as an act of vulnerability and love.

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, our God will always be one who bears our wounds. Even after the triumph of the resurrection, he bears the marks of his suffering. Jesus forever demonstrates God’s power through his willingness to be weak, wounded, broken for us.

The risen Jesus is marked with wounds on his hands, feet and side. In the same way, as we embrace his resurrection life, our bodies must display the marks of our own trials. Are we willing to let others see us as we really are, even inviting them to touch our wounds? For those of us who choose to follow the Lamb who was slain, what does it look like to imitate the fearless weakness and vulnerability of our savior? Rather than suffering in isolation, hiding behind a false veneer of success, are we ready to bring our pain out into the light?