Archive for January 2015

The Great Evangelical Break-Up

TL;DR: Post-Evangelicals are one of the most important religious groups that are shaping America today. In many ways, I wish I was one, because I’d like to take part in the conversation. In this piece, I explain my experience as a child of some very early post-Evangelicals who got pushed out of the Evangelical Quaker church. I explore how these experiences might be relevant to the important conversations that post-Evangelicals are currently having about their faith. To all my post-Evangelical peers, I ask: How can I support you in the struggle you’re experiencing?

(Don’t know what post-Evangelicalism is? Check out this interview with Michael Spencer where he explains his view on it, and this blog post by Rachel Held Evans on why it’s so important.)

The Great Evangelical Break-Up

Dear Post-Evangelicals,

This may sound a kinda weird, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m a little jealous of you.

Let me explain.

There’s a really vibrant conversation happening right now among those who have grown up in Evangelical churches but who, for a variety of reasons, are distancing themselves from that tradition as they seek a deeper, more authentic walk with Jesus. I believe that this is one of the most important conversations happening in the United States today, one which has the potential to profoundly shape the future of the church. Yet, as much as I want to be part of this mix, I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Why?

This requires some background. I hope you’ll bear with me as I share a bit of my life with you.

Not Quite Evangelical

I don’t really qualify as post-Evangelical, because I was never an Evangelical to begin with. For most of my youth, I didn’t sing the music. I didn’t hear the sermons. I wasn’t immersed in the camps and the culture of mainstream evangelicalism.

This wasn’t on accident. You see, my parents used to be Evangelicals. My parents were Evangelical pastors. My dad grew up in a Quaker denomination that was, at that time, steeped in fundamentalism. When he decided to attend the shockingly liberal seminary, Earlham School of Religion, he was warned that he might not be able to minister in his home region. He would be tainted.

My mom grew up Baptist and attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Apparently, it wasn’t a fundamentalist institution at that time, but it became one shortly after she graduated. Along with many other Southern Baptists, my mom watched her childhood denomination take a hard turn into into rigid legalism. A culture of theological cleansing left the Southern Baptist Convention a much more sterile – and neo-Calvinist – place.

My parents eventually found a home in the more liberal wing of the Evangelical Friends Church. During my early childhood, they served as pastors in Wichita, Kansas. Our church was very chill, and relatively mainline by Evangelical Quaker standards. I think a lot of my post-Evangelical friends would feel comfortable worshiping there.

But by the time I was in grade school, my parents were becoming increasingly convinced that Sunday-morning Evangelicalism just wasn’t enough. No matter how nice the community was, they yearned to be part of a radical fellowship of Christ-followers, learning how to be disciples in their everyday lives. They wanted to live in solidarity with those who are most marginalized in our society. With increasing urgency, they felt that God was calling them to be in relationship with those whom the mainstream culture had taught them to fear.

In a move that surprised many and troubled some in our church, my family joined several other households in starting the Friends of Jesus intentional community. We relocated into what was then considered a rough area of Wichita, where some of our friends were afraid to visit us. It also happened to be where most of the residents were black. Funny how that works.

Dynamic Tension

My parents had hoped to continue serving as pastors. They were both part-time, and they didn’t see any necessary conflict between this new ministry and their work as pastors. But not everyone felt that way. It soon became clear that this new community project made some folks in our church deeply uncomfortable. When we moved, my parents stepped down as pastors.

I know that was really disappointing for my parents, but we made the best of it. The new community met together for worship, house-church style. It was a good experience for me, a lot more participatory than worship with the larger congregation. I liked playing the drum and singing songs out of our community song book.

For a while, we stayed connected to Evangelical Friends. We were still members of our old church, even though in some ways it didn’t feel like home anymore. We didn’t want to burn bridges; we just had a different mission. Few were ready to embrace what the New Monastic movement would later call relocation to the abandoned places of Empire, but that’s what we felt called to.

The Cold Shoulder

Our decision to move into what was then called urban ministry was off-putting, but nobody stopped us. Folks in the wider Quaker community had concerns, but they were whispered. Aren’t you afraid for your children? Do you really want them to grow up in that neighborhood? I lost a lot of friends; their parents wouldn’t let them come over to play anymore. It just wasn’t safe.

I think that’s a fair summary of how the Friends of Jesus intentional community was regarded by most folks: Unsafe. We were headed in an increasingly radical direction, understanding Jesus’ message as having profound, real-life applications that go far beyond the personal savior theologies of mainstream Evangelicalism. We wanted to do more than invite Jesus into our hearts. We wanted to invite him into every aspect of our lives.

The straw that really broke the camel’s back was when a lesbian couple began participating in the community. We didn’t realize they were gay at first. We were Evangelicals in the early 90s, after all. Our gay-dar wasn’t very good. We didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter. We were friends.

But, as we got to know one another better, it did come up. Again, we were Evangelicals in the early 90s, so our new friendship raised some real theological questions for the community. This couple seemed healthy, happy, and filled with the Holy Spirit. And they were gay. This was challenging for many of us.

So, the community took a time out. The adults did an extended study of Scripture, to really consider what the Bible actually says about mutually-committed, gay romantic relationships (spoiler alert: not much!). By the time they were done, they had become convinced that God called us to welcome and affirm our lesbian friends, and other gay people, too. They published a white paper, explaining their conclusions for those who cared to read it.

All Hell Breaks Loose

You can probably already see where this is going. Soon, people back at our old church were hearing that we were promoting homosexuality. Scandalous stuff. Before long, concerned church members reported us to the denomination.

The process of being disciplined by the Evangelical Friends Church was a lot more efficient than you’d think. There was no need for a lot of drawn out meetings, or discussion, or prayer. The elders of the Yearly Meeting (the denomination) met with a few of us. Concerns were expressed. A few days later, they sent us a letter, informing us of their decision: Heresy denounced. Ministerial credentials revoked. Crisis averted. The Friends of Jesus community was cut loose.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Cast Out

On that day, my whole community became post-Evangelical. I was too young to really understand what was going on at the time, but I could tell that my family was experiencing a lot of trauma. It’s hard to be told by your faith community that you’re a heretic. It had to hurt, being cast off, renounced, revoked, with hardly a conversation. I know that this experience profoundly wounded people in my community, and we’re still doing the work of un-twisting ourselves today.

For the children of our community (or at least for me), the effects of this break were perhaps even more profound. My parents were post-Evangelicals, but what did that make us kids? Post-post-Evangelical?

I love you, post-Evangelicals, because I love my parents. I’ve watched as they’ve struggled with the mainstream Evangelical church. I know how much pain is there, how bad it hurt them to lose fellowship in the search for spiritual integrity and a deeper relationship with God. I know that being post-Evangelical comes at a very real cost.

A Whole New Ball Game

My family and my community was marginalized from Evangelical Quakerism when I was still in grade school. Though they handled it with about as much maturity as I think anyone could muster, there’s no doubt that this was a wounding experience. The generation above me will probably be wrestling with what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

It was different for me. As a grade schooler, I couldn’t help but feel the emotional impact of what my elders were going through, but it wasn’t direct. These were adult struggles, and they spared us kids the worst of it.

Still, the effects of these experiences were profound. I ended up receiving a formation very different from the one that my parents experienced. No more Sunday-morning-as-usual for me. I grew up in a household where a radical critique of mainstream Christianity was everyday conversation. I experienced my parent’s faith as being profoundly rooted in the struggle for peace and economic justice. I experienced first-hand the relocation to the abandoned places of Empire that the new monastics would name as crucial some twenty years later.

Instead of mission trips to foreign countries, I was enlisted in practical work for justice and reconciliation in the neighborhoods of my city where most middle class people were afraid to venture. Rather than the altar call, my spiritual proving ground was the pledge of allegiance. By refusing to stand for it, I learned important lessons in how both peers and authority respond when someone questions the religion of nationalism. While most Christians around me were primarily concerned with personal salvation, I was being trained to participate in the present-tense healing of the nations.

If You’re Skimming, Read This Part

So why did I just tell you all of this? I think it’s easy for any of us to imagine that we are unique, and that we are having our experiences for the first time, ever. But what strikes most me about the post-Evangelical phenomenon is how I’ve seen this before.

I’m really excited about this. It’s a movement whose time has finally come. Back in the 90s, when my parents were being cast out of the Evangelical fold, they were considered extremely radical. Yet today, the ideas and lifestyle that they were exploring is becoming, if not normal, at least increasingly well-known in (post-)Evangelical circles. Radical discipleship is becoming far less alien to the imagination of the mainstream church. It may not be a common choice, but for many it is a live option in a way that it simply wasn’t a mere generation ago.

This is important. We’re in the midst of a tidal wave of change that is fundamentally re-shaping the character of the North American church. Millions of us are discovering the ideas of the radical discipleship movement, and a surprising number are embracing the call to abandon all – our comfort, our wealth, and even the Evangelical subculture – in order to follow Jesus.

I share my story in part because I want you to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a coherent life, community, and shared theology that is available when we come through the ferment of the great Evangelical break-up. The post-Evangelical experience isn’t simply about rejecting the unhealthy aspects of the Evangelical church; it can be a gateway into a much deeper engagement with the profoundly counter-cultural way of Jesus.

The travail that so many of us are experiencing right now isn’t the end, any more than the Protestant Reformation was. We’re at the beginning of something beautiful. We are invited to participate in a raw and vital movement of the Spirit in our own time and place. I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it happen to my parents and our community. It can happen to us, too. Are we ready?

Forward Together

I have a request for those of you who identify as (post-)Evangelical:

I want to be part of this moment with you.

I don’t know quite how I fit in. I didn’t go to the camps or the colleges. I didn’t grow up singing the songs or reading the books. I don’t speak the language. And, to be really honest, I can’t always relate to your experience. I want to, but it’s not always authentic for me.

Still, I hope that I can contribute to this conversation. I want to bring the experience of my community, my family, to this pivotal moment we’re facing. We learned a lot when I was a kid. We had some amazing successes, and some devastating failures. Some of this experience might come in handy today, as many thousands of us are struggling to discover what lies beyond the Sunday morning show.

I want to struggle together with you, despite all the ways that I’m a little bit out of sync. What could this look like? How can we strengthen one another, discovering the ancient-yet-new way of Jesus in our time and generation?

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How Can I Tell If I’m Codependent?

How Can I Tell If I'm Codependent

Donald Miller over at Storyline Blog put out a video the other day, in which he talks about the moment he realized he was codependent in his romantic relationships. Here’s how it happened: A counselor leading a small group session laid out three pillows on the floor. She had Don stand on one of these pillows, while a second participant stood on another. The pillow in the middle was left open.

Once these two – probably slightly confused – individuals were standing on their respective cushions, she explained: This is how healthy relationships work. This is Don’s pillow, this is her pillow, and the pillow in the middle is the relationship. The only two things that you have influence on are your pillow, and the relationship pillow.

Not the other person’s pillow.

Watching Don explain this, I had a knee-jerk negative reaction. This is dumb, I thought. Are you really going to explain to me how human relationships work with a set of pillows on the floor?

Then I realized, it’s not the metaphor that’s silly; it’s me. How often do I try to mess with other people’s pillows? How common is it for me to try to change other people, rather than focusing on those things that I do have some legitimate influence over – my own self, and my part in the relationship?

It’s humbling to get schooled by somebody using floor pillows as a metaphor, but that’s where I’m at. This is a message that I needed.

Don talks about codependency in terms of romantic relationships, but my own experience of codependency is far broader than that. It can extend to friendships and the workplace, to community and family. For me, it has often extended into my ministry. Rather than staying focused on those things that I can control, I’ve often worried too much about the reactions and choices of others.

When I focus on the other person’s (or community’s) pillow, it doesn’t end well for anybody. I end up judging my failure or success in terms of the choices other people make, rather than focusing on those things I have influence over. It’s easy to get bogged down in lamenting the shortcomings of others rather than taking a hard look at my own attitudes and actions, and the part that I play in my relationships.

Scariest of all, maintaining these healthy boundaries means that sometimes I have to walk away from relationship. There are moments when it becomes clear that there’s nothing more that I can do to improve that middle pillow. Sometimes, the most loving choice is to say no to a dysfunctional situation – whether with another individual, a faith community, or a work environment.

As painful as it is to lose these troubled relationships, it can be even worse to stay. It’s possible to spend years hoping against hope that things might get better someday if only that other person or community would change. But the longer I allow myself to measure my happiness by others’ reactions, the more warped my own will become.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to disengage from a toxic relationship. It requires great strength and love to value the well-being of the relationship more than the absence of interpersonal conflict. And sometimes the healthiest relationship is the one that ends. When I know who I am and what my purpose is, nobody and no situation is going to shake me off my foundation.

That’s the life of humble power that I want to live into this year. Rather than re-making the world in my own image, can I submit myself to the truth of who others are? What would it be like to value the depth of my own integrity over the accolades of those around me? What in my life will change when I know who I am and allow others to be who they are, even if it costs me the illusion of relationship that I have clung to so tightly?

Does any of this ring true for you? Where are the places of codependency in your own life? What is the next step you can take towards more fully embracing your own role in your relationships, and leaving the rest to God?

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The State of the Union is Empire

State of the Union 2015

We have a national religion in a America, and it’s not Christianity. We saw it on display Tuesday night, when all three branches of government gathered together for the greatest annual act of public liturgy that exists in our society. The State of the Union address is a high holy day of the American state, a touchstone for reaffirming the ideals and values of the Empire. We who seek to follow in the nonviolent way of Jesus must open our eyes to the fact that the liturgy of state power is at odds with the claims and commitments of the kingdom of God.

Against my better judgment, I tuned in for President Obama’s speech on Tuesday. As part of a community that seeks to be a prophetic voice in our culture, it seems important to stay connected with the pulse of our political arena. It’s hard to speak a message of peace while blissfully unaware of the rhetoric of war.

I’m glad I did. Thanks to the power of Twitter, the State of the Union is a far more interactive and dynamic event than it used to be. Even as the president was speaking, I felt that I was able to engage in a meaningful conversation with my fellow citizens about what God might be calling us to value as a nation. For some of us, social media became the site of an alternative liturgy of questioning, doubt, and repentance.

Without a cultivated awareness of who I am as a disciple of Jesus, it would be easy for me to become absorbed in the powerful symbols and logic of Empire. Unless we are rooted in an alternative story, it is almost inevitable that we will breathe in the assumptions and values of an imperial order.

The governing narrative of the imperial state is deeply woven into the fabric of public events like the State of the Union. The president received thunderous applause as he spoke of the importance of American military might in providing peace and security for the whole world. He spoke of the exceptional nature of the United States, legitimizing our military, cultural, and economic dominance of most of the globe. Barack Obama called upon the nation to live up to the ideal of the Pax Americana; he never questioned the underlying rightness of an imperial orientation.

None of this is surprising. I don’t think anyone was expecting the president of the United States to deliver a radical critique of the military industrial complex, drone warfare, and our increasingly unlimited surveillance state. It would have been unrealistic for me to expect the president to seriously address the obscenity of a world in which 1% of the population controls 50% of the wealth. That’s not what he’s there for. The president of the United States is elected to embody and reinforce the power and privilege of the imperial state, not to undermine it.

As followers of the crucified President Jesus, we have a different mandate. Our purpose is to lay bare the unjust foundations of that power. We can call our people into a more loving, peaceful, and merciful order – a world that is literally unimaginable for those who are immersed in the story of Empire.

As friends of Jesus, we are being baptized into a different narrative: the upside-down kingdom of God. We are heralds of a peaceable kingdom where the strongest humble themselves and the weakest are lifted up. In the face of a national mythology that glorifies the brute strength of military might, we hold out the possibility that love can triumph over hate, and that true strength is known in weakness.

What does it look like for our communities to become places where we can experience an alternative liturgy, defying the power gods of Empire? How will we defy the assumptions of human kingdoms, lifting up the life-giving possibilities of the reign of God? How can we stay rooted in God’s story of compassion, justice, and love? What does the State of the Union look like if Jesus is the one addressing us?

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Love Beats Tradition Every Time

Sacred Cows - Love Beats Tradition Every Time

I had a friend contact me recently, asking me some tough questions. He wanted to know why I am preaching a message of radically following Jesus, while at the same time authoring an ebook about traditional Quaker worship. Isn’t this a contradiction? Why am I promoting a particular denominational heritage when my core message is profoundly challenging to any sectarian tradition?

That’s a fair question. I guess it would be a contradiction if our only possible responses to tradition were slavish adherence or insurgent defiance. If tradition is the same thing as dogmatism, then by all means we should abandon tradition, lock, stock, and barrel!

That’s not my experience of tradition, though. It’s certainly true that our rules, rituals, and distinctive forms can be a stumbling block to faith. They can become idols, worshiped in their own right instead of God. But this is a distortion of the true intention of genuine tradition.

At best, our Christian traditions are useful tools, passed along from our spiritual ancestors, that help us learn how to follow Jesus in our own time and place.

I need this kind of tradition. I rely on the help and guidance of my spiritual ancestors to know which paths are best for walking, and which are just going to lead me into the bushes. It’s when I truly understand the tradition of my particular community (Quakers) that I am best equipped to bring a Spirit-led critique to the many ways we’re off track.

Can tradition be abused? Of course. Anything that’s beautiful can be turned into an idol. But, to me, that’s not a convincing argument for ditching the tradition altogether. I need these tools, even if they’re dangerous.

For me, the real question isn’t whether to throw out all the guidance our spiritual ancestors have left us. The deeper challenge is figuring what we’re going to do about it. What does it mean to connect with the life and power that gave rise to the tradition in the first place?

At times, that’s going to mean laying aside some of the religious ways that I consider most precious. There are moments in life when throwing out the rule book is an appropriate response to God’s love and power. As Jesus himself demonstrated, sometimes radical change is the only way to be faithful.

Our traditional faith and practice is meant to guide us to Christ, not replace him. Unless we’re willing to send our sacred cows out to pasture, we’ll never have room in our barns for the humble manger of Jesus. Tweet this!

So, I hope that my use of traditional Quaker practices doesn’t get in your way as you seek to know Christ better. If Quaker peculiarities are a stumbling block between you and following Jesus, then by all means leave them behind!

For many, however, I suspect that the Quaker tradition will be valuable. I hope that these resources will help you connect more deeply with the Holy Spirit, the radical fire that has ignited countless generations in loving community.

What do you think? Is all this tradition a waste of time, distracting us from the real work that God has for us? Or maybe you think I should be much more respectful of tradition than I am. Is tradition too often discarded in the name of the next big thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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Un-Stuck America

Car stuck in the ice
Last winter, I was spinning my wheels. Literally. Our little ’97 Toyota Corolla was trapped in an ice-covered ditch, just outside our house in Washington, DC. No matter how I tried to time it, I just couldn’t get traction; all four wheels spun uselessly on the ice. I was stuck, and I had no idea what to do about it.

It was a bad feeling. The same kind of feeling I have when I think about where we’re at as a country. We’re stuck pretty bad. No matter what we do, the wheels just keep spinning. It’s left vs. right; white vs. black; young vs. old; 1% vs. 99%. Everybody vs. everybody.

We’re immobilized with fear and defensiveness.

This isn’t just political. We’re stuck at a cultural level. Our collective creativity is at a low ebb. Right now, it’s hard to even imagine a future that is different from the past. And, for most of us, the present is just too angst-ridden and painful to live in. We numb ourselves with Netflix and Facebook. We’re waiting for something, though it’s hard to describe just what.

Occupy: Just the Beginning

What happened to us?

Things haven’t always been this way. Back in 2011, we had a sense of forward motion. Something had shaken loose, and there was a broad social movement calling for change throughout the developed world. Inspired by the movements for liberation that we saw erupting in the Arab Spring that same year, it felt like the world really might make a turn for the better.

And in a sense, it did. The conversation around income inequality is alive in the United States in a way it hasn’t been in generations. Our class consciousness has been awakened, with 99% and 1% as universally recognized categories that are routinely used in public discourse. Slowly, belatedly, tentatively, we are beginning to learn how to talk about class in America.

But the Occupy movement was limited in its accomplishments. The conversation moved, but the reality on the ground still hasn’t changed much. For those of us who were hoping for a tectonic shift in our priorities as a society, the past few years have been disappointing. Occupy was more of a foreshock – a taste of things to come – rather than the main event. For those of us who are looking for substantial change in the way our society does business, we’re still waiting for the real transformation.

After a brief period of momentum in 2011, it feels like we’re back spinning our wheels again. The media busily churns out uncritical discussion of the latest political horse races. Many non-profits, after a brief attempt to capitalize on the energy of Occupy, are mostly back in maintenance mode. The US government is entrenched in gridlock, and the political class just seems to be waiting for the 2016 elections to sort out the mess.

Get Moving Again

For those of us who resonated with the Occupy movement, this is a wilderness time. An in-between time. A season that tests our patience and commitment to long-term transformation in our country. How will we use this time of cultural suffocation, the angsty waiting that precedes whatever movement might be coming?

How are we going to get out of this ditch?

I haven’t got an easy answer to that. I don’t think there is an easy answer. The right answer is going to be a hard one. It’s going to involve patient endurance. It’ll involve building real community with others who are seeking concrete change in the here-and-now. It’s about planting seeds, not knowing when, whether, or how they’ll sprout. It’s about continuing to work, even through we’re not sure we’ll ever enjoy the fruits of our labor.

One thing is for sure: We’re not going to get out of this stuckness by waiting passively in front of the screen. All our entertainments and obsessions, workaholism and causes, aren’t going to make this go away. We have the power to transform our lives and communities, but some assembly is required.

That’s something we learned from Occupy.

Prophetic Action

Andrew McLeod and I met several years ago during the early days of the Occupy movement. Occupy DC had just gotten started, and I was working with a few other folks to help pull together an initiative that we were calling Occupy Church. Our goal was to help amplify the prophetic voice of the Christian tradition, bringing biblical witness into confrontation with our present-day principalities and powers.

This led to actions like our delivering a golden calf to Capitol Hill. We invited Congress to repent of their addiction to corporate largesse, and to remember Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve two masters: If we choose to prioritize wealth, we can’t truly love God – or people!

Tending the Horses

In the waiting season where we find ourselves right now, our actions are probably going to look different. For example, today Andrew is working to promote cooperative enterprises that allow communities to develop robust local economies. He’s sowing seeds, laying a framework for the world after the earthquake. Along with many others, he’s helping to build a new world in the shell of the old.

That’s the kind of work I want to be a part of. What does it look like here in my neighborhood? What will it look like in yours?

This November, I attended the annual meeting of Friends Committee on National Legislation, and during one of the meetings I heard someone quote Cecil Hinshaw, an Iowa farmer and Quaker, who apparently said: Someday, people will jump on the bandwagon. Until then, we’ll be tending the horses.

That’s an image for our moment. Things may not feel like they’re moving right now, but the horses still need fed. We are in between euphoric movements right now, but the outcomes of the next big jolt forward are going to depend utterly on the work that we choose to do right now, in the silent space between the headlines.

One thing is for sure: We can’t do this work alone. If the Occupy movement taught us anything, it’s that our voices are amplified when we speak together. Our efforts have greater impact when we cooperate. So, if the car won’t budge, it may be time to go knock on our neighbor’s door and ask for help!

What’s your part in this? What gifts has God given you that you can put to good use right now, despite all the feelings of stuckness? What practices are you engaged in to resist feeling overwhelmed? How do you remember what is really important, and what is specifically yours to do? Where is the community that will accompany you for the long haul?

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How an Atheist brought me to God

How an Atheist brought me to God

Would it surprise you to know that it took an atheist to help me encounter God?

Albert Camus was a self-described unbeliever, yet his philosophy is profoundly apocalyptic. His writing seeks to remove the veil from our sleepy, everyday lives, exposing the unspoken anxiety that lies beneath.

Camus’ philosophy centers around the idea of the absurd – the realization that, when we really get down to it, our lives make no sense. At any given moment, everything we do is on some level ridiculous and inexplicable. We become aware of the absurd when we choose to encounter life as it truly is, not merely as we wish it to be.

For most of us, this simple act of seeing is tremendously difficult. We carry so much fear inside. It’s possible to live our entire lives without ever really dropping our psychological defenses enough to examine our visceral terror of death, the possibility that this whole life is meaningless after all. To honestly reflect on life is to sit with the emptiness of it all.

This emptiness is where real growth begins. Instead of suppressing my fear of death and meaninglessness, I can welcome it as a sign of my growing desire for truth. What once passed for happiness in my life was a pale imitation of the real thing.

True joy can be found on the other side of despair. I find peace and wholeness when I embrace life’s terrifying mystery. When I am truly honest with myself, I realize I have no ability to control, explain, or predict anything. My only choice is in how I will respond to the amazing and disturbing series of events and relationships that I am immersed in every day. In the midst of confusion and pain, I can choose hope.

That’s absurd.

Then again, what could be more absurd than the fact that Camus – an avowed and committed atheist – has helped to lead me to Christ? His apocalyptic absurdity challenges me to live a life without safety blankets, to face my own death a little bit each day. As I witness the collapse of my selfish hopes and dreams, I find God.

This is a God who doesn’t offer explanations. To all my whys and wherefores, God responds with the burning bush in the desert. He speaks to me from the whirlwind: Where were you when I created the universe? He challenges me to put a leash on Leviathan, the primordial chaos-monster that I discover in the depths of my doubt. And of course, I can’t.

The God of my experience, the God I read about in the Bible, meets me in the unknowing. This wild God takes absurdity as a starting place. His interest is not in satisfying the demands of my curiosity, my need for control, or even my petty human concepts of justice. I find him alone, forsaken in a wilderness of my own broken dreams. With all my hopes and expectations deflated, there is finally space for Christ to enter in.

In a culture that so often looks to God for certainty, I find the Holy Spirit in the midst of doubt. When all the rational explanations fail to yield a source of meaning and life beyond myself, I find peace in the absurd voice of God within me saying simply, I AM!

What’s your experience? Have you found God in unexpected places? Does God give you answers? More questions? What does it mean to trust in the absurd God of the desert?

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Touchdown Jesus

Does Christian language make you uncomfortable? It probably should. In the early days, the Christian community used starkly imperial metaphors to talk about Jesus. They called him messiah, king, savior of the world, and a host of other names that were almost smirking in their irony. These were titles for the Emperor, not a man who was tortured and executed as an insurrectionist – the ultimate defeat!

Yet, the first Christians insisted that this shameful death was in fact God’s gospel the victory announcement sent out after the king has conquered in battle. The Romans mocked Jesus as the king of the Jews, and the early community embraced that title. The disciples came to know Jesus as their loving ruler, whose power is grounded in humility and weakness.

In the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos describes Jesus as the lamb who was slain, a wounded and defenseless leader who guides us through the final battle between good and evil. In cooperation with him, the people of God triumph over Empire through our willingness to suffer and die for love.

And that’s how it happened. The message of Jesus’ love and transforming power spread throughout the ancient world, thanks to the suffering witness of the martyrs. Christians were persecuted, dispossessed, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed in gruesome ways. Yet with every death in the Coliseum, the movement only grew. We discovered that the kingdom of God comes to fullness in our weakness. Human fear and violence is overcome by God’s love and healing.

In the centuries since Constantine, however, many in the church have lost sight of our prophetic mission. With the support and encouragement of Empire, much of Christianity has been transformed into a religion that upholds Empire rather than challenging it. Christian leaders have become chaplains to the imperial system, rather than prophetic witnesses against oppression.

This new relationship with power has profoundly warped our understanding of the Bible. When we were persecuted and on the margins, our imperial titles for Jesus were deeply subversive. To acknowledge Christ as our lord and savior represented an implicit rebuke to the imperial lords and saviors who claim to have dominion over us. The lamb who was slain came to redeem us out of the hands of the domination state. Jesus stands as prophetic challenge to the spirit of Pharaoh that lives and breathes in every human social order, ancient and contemporary.

In the face of overwhelming, violent opposition, our story announces: The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.

This doesn’t sound like good news to those who benefit from the kingdoms of this world. As much as they may pay lip service to God’s power and sovereignty, our rulers aren’t terribly interested in having God take the wheel. We want to reign forever and ever, thank you very much. With the help of the official Christian authorities, the powers that be have cast themselves as regents of the Christ child. God is far off in his heaven, and he’ll return some day. But until then, have no doubt: We’re in charge.

To our shame, the church has not only accepted this wrongful claim, we have helped to perpetuate it. For countless generations, the institutional church structures have dutifully enabled the rulers of this world in their fantasy of divine mandate. Popes have crowned princes, and kings have wielded the sword under the supposed authority of Christ.

The mainstream church has become an adjunct to Empire, and in the process, so has our understanding of the Bible. Our traditional imagery for God has been subverted, turned on its head to justify human systems of power. Jesus has become a king just like any other, blessing the kings of this world from his high heaven.

Yet, in all times and places God has kept a remnant who do not bend the knee to the false gods of Empire. Even while mainstream Christianity weaves a comfortable narrative that upholds the status quo, the radical church continues to seek after the Lamb who was slain. We can be part of this movement. In the face of imperial religion, we can choose to venture out beyond the city gates and take our chances with the crucified messiah.

What does this look like for you? How do you make sense of the subversive imagery of the biblical tradition? What are ways that you might participate in the radical way of Jesus, who challenges injustice and finds strength in weakness?

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