Archive for April 2015

Church? You Get What You Pay For

Early Church Martyrs
The early church didn’t play around. The apostles and all the other friends of Jesus threw their whole lives into experiencing and sharing the reign of God in community. For that first band of Jesus-followers, discipleship cost everything: Home, family, career, security, and personal safety were all on the table. The new life and community they experienced in Jesus was worth dying for. 

And they often did.

Can we say the same today? In that early, radical movement, the followers of Jesus pooled their resources, time, and energy. The good news of the kingdom was everything to them. Church wasn’t a hobby or Sunday-morning activity. It was the fullness of their lives.

Today, a church might be considered healthy if most of its members show up every week for an hour of worship and give a small percentage of their money to the work of the Jesus community. Our expectations have changed so completely, it’s hard to even imagine what things would be like if the mission of the church came first, and all other concerns second.

We modern Christians have to ask ourselves the question: Is this real for us? Is the gospel real? Is our experience of Jesus Christ real? Are our relationships as part of the local Christian fellowship real?

Or is it just a hobby? 

Most of us spend 40+ hours a week doing the work that the world pays us for. Is that the work that God is calling you to? Is your livelihood an organic part of the upside-down kingdom that Jesus calls us to?

If not, what are you going to do about it?

If there’s anything that God can’t stand, it’s half-hearted, lukewarm faith. I pray that together we’ll find a way to break into the whole-grain bread of life that we’re called to, and not be satisfied with the thin gruel of hobby Christianity.

It’s hard to imagine the power that would be unleashed if we were to choose life, full life in Jesus. Do we dare? 

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Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more

Yes, but I'd trade it all for a little more

Did you ever watch The Simpsons? I’ve got most of the first seven seasons memorized, seared into my brain from repetitive viewing on VHS tapes. Along with the Star Wars trilogy, The Simpsons are part of my personal canon.

My favorite character is, by far, Mr. Burns. Montgomery Burns is so absurdly callous and evil; he’s hilarious in his lack of humanity. He is a caricature of what it means to be so given over to Mammon that he thinks of little else. All his pleasure and ambitions, all his thoughts and relationships revolve around one thing: money.

I love Mr. Burns, because he shows me so much of myself. He cartoonishly reveals the many ways that I cling to my own desire for control, security and prosperity, rather than allowing God to be in the driver’s seat. By being so completely over the top, Mr. Burns is able to say some pretty profound things. He teaches by counter-example, showing which way not to go.

There’s one scene, an exchange between Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns, that I find particularly revealing:

Homer says, You’re the richest guy I know! And Burns replies, Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more.

Wouldn’t we all? There’s something about human nature – or, at least, my own human nature – that is never fully satisfied. No matter how awesome my life is, I can always imagine something that would make it better.

At first glance, this impulse to more and better seems great. After all, it’s this kind of endless ambition that built America, isn’t it?

But, for me at least, I’m noticing that this insatiable hunger for more is often the enemy of gratitude. If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to miss how beautiful my life is, because I’d trade it all for a little more.

How would it feel to be completely satisfied, to not feel a need anything more? What would it be like to rest in gratitude and trust?

As I sit with these questions, I’m reminded of a quote from an early Quaker, Isaac Pennington:

Give over thine own willing. Give over thine own running. Give over thine own desiring to know or be anything. And sink down to the seed that God sows in thy heart. And let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee. And thou wilt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.

Even if you’re Mr. Burns.

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Humble Me, Lord

Feeling Impatient?

I Used to Be a Contemplative

I Used to Be a Contemplative

I haven’t been getting a lot of down time lately. In the last few weeks I’ve started a new full-time job, and we’ve welcomed our son George into the world.

It’s a lot. This is probably the most intense and full my life has ever been. My days are full of wonderful work out in the city, and my nights are packed with family. Everything is exciting and new right now, though I sort of wish we could have spaced all of this excitement out over a few months rather than a couple of weeks!

This experience has me thinking about what it means to live a life of prayer. You see, despite my penchant for action and activity, I’ve lived a pretty contemplative life so far. I’m used to spending a dedicated portion of my day in prayer, religious study, and generally focused on ministry.

All of a sudden, though, all of my routines have gone out the window. I’m scrambling to adapt to a whole new rhythm of life. These days, I’m mumbling a prayer over my breakfast cereal as I get ready for work. I’m listening to Christian rock (God help me) on the commute across town. I’m making sure I show up at New Community Church on Sunday mornings, just so there’s somewhere I’ve got a spiritual anchor during the week.

I know things won’t be like this forever. I’ll settle into my new job. We’ll eventually be able to sleep through the night as our boy grows a little older. I’ll find my prayerful routines again. But right now, I can barely see straight.

All this makes me wonder, what was the basis of my contemplative lifestyle all this time? Is time for prayer a monastic privilege? Does attentiveness to God require some sort of special circumstance, beyond the reach of most ordinary mortals who have to balance work and family? 

I’ve never believed that before, and I don’t believe it now. But I’m getting a new perspective on how truly challenging it can be to stay focused on God in the midst of full-time life. It’s no coincidence that Jesus called his disciples away from their families and 9-to-5 routines when he invited them to become his friends and confidants.

But I’m clear that’s not the path I’m being called to right now. On the contrary, at this stage in my life, I believe God is inviting me into the full-time experience of being a father, husband, and working professional. 

I know that so many of you have the experience of walking this path. How did you do it? Have you been able to maintain a life of prayer and attention to God in the midst of all of your work and family responsibilities? What does it look like to be a disciple and a worker, a parent and a friend of Jesus?

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Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

The kingdom of God isn’t what you think. It isn’t at all compatible with the lifestyle that most of us are living. It’s not just about thinking the right thoughts or feeling the right feelings; it involves a total life change – including our economics. The way of Jesus is dangerous, because the kingdom of God and the wealth-driven, capitalist system we live in simply aren’t compatible.

Capitalism, for all its tremendous achievements, is not based in Christian values. Love? Mercy? Release for the captive and oppressed? Sight for the blind? All of these go out the window in the capitalist system, because love and justice are not the primary values for capitalism – capital is. Capitalism operates to benefit those who have capital. Those who don’t have money are basically irrelevant.

That’s not to say that our capitalist society is completely heartless. In the midst of capitalism, there’s a huge amount of philanthropy going on. Rich people (and not-so-rich people) give their resources to benefit the poor all the time. They can even get a tax break for it! But even in these cases, the logic of capitalism remains. The power dynamic is the same: The rich give and are thanked; the poor receive and are grateful.

The Golden Rule of Capitalism

The kingdom of God could not be more different. In the Book of Acts, it says that the early Christians held all things in common. Folks who were rich sold all their belongings and gave the money to the community. Everyone received whatever they needed on a day-to-day basis. Whether you used to be rich or poor didn’t matter anymore. Everyone was equal in the radical life of God’s community.

To be honest, there’s a part of me that finds this horrifying. I’ve worked really hard and have forgone a lot of luxuries in order to get the measure of economic security that I have today. I’m supposed to just give that away and live an equally precarious existence with a bunch of folks who never saved for a rainy day? That’s not fair!

But it’s a central theme of the New Testament.

John the Baptist made it pretty clear: If you and I want to be the people of God together, there’s going to be some repentance required. Repentance doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for bad things we did or naughty things we said – it’s about righting the wrongs in our society. It’s about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and looking out for those who’ve been left behind in the capitalist race to the top.

Jesus took this message even further. He told stories about everyone being paid equally, even when they didn’t earn it. He asked his followers to abandon their professions and follow him into an entirely different kind of economy. Whether or not every follower of Jesus is required to sell everything they own and give the money to the poor is a matter of debate, but it is clear that true repentance involves economic redistribution. There’s no doubt that Jesus is calling every one of us into a radical practice of financial reconciliation. In the kingdom of God, those who have more give freely to those who are in need.

This isn’t philanthropy. This isn’t about rich people being charitable to those in need. It’s about each of us treating our brothers and sisters as Jesus commands us to – not gloating, not feeling superior, but giving our all and saying, We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!

The kingdom of God is a direct challenge to our society’s economic and social order. Jesus takes the side of those who are the least successful in the eyes of the market. The God of the Bible is one who releases captives and restores sight to the blind. The presence of the Holy Spirit disrupts the lives of those who have the most, and lifts up those who have nothing.

This is enormously challenging for me. I want to be part of that egalitarian community of believers, living out the kingdom of God in joy and amazement. Most days, though, I’m nowhere close. I still carry a lot of fear, and the assumptions of the capitalist system we live in. Considering how much of my lifestyle depends on this very system, it’s hard to accept that the kingdom of God and our economic order are mutually incompatible.

But they are. And if I think I want to follow Jesus, I had better count the cost. Because the kingdom of God asks everything of us, especially our money, security, and sense of control.

What about you? How does your walk with Jesus and the Christian community challenge the economic basis of your lifestyle? Are there ways that your relationship to money might need to change in order to be part of the egalitarian kingdom of God? What would it take for you to embrace the startlingly anti-capitalist way of Jesus?

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How I Became a Swaddle Ninja

Observant readers of this blog might have noticed that I didn’t release a post on Monday. Sorry about that. My wife and I were busy welcoming our baby boy into the world. We just brought little George home today, and I have a few minutes to type this out while Mama and Grandma are spending some quality time together.

I’ve got so much exciting news to share! This week, in addition to becoming the proud father of a beautiful baby boy, I’ve also managed to become a certified swaddle ninja.

Micah and Baby

OK… I might have made that up. But the nurses did teach me how to do a very snug swaddle-job on George here, and as someone who didn’t even really know what swaddling was a few days ago, I’m really excited about this.

Swaddling isn’t complicated; it’s just a matter of folding a little blanket in such a way that it tightly wraps the child into what Valerie Hurwitz likes to call a baby burrito.

Baby Burrito

Adorable.

Anyway, the reason swaddling is so worthwhile is that it holds the baby firmly in place and gives them the sensation of being held, even when they’re lying in the cradle. This feeling of embrace is powerful stuff. As long as babies feel this way, they’re much less likely to cry or be fussy. This is a win/win for parents and child.

Our boy loves being swaddled. Unfortunately, he also hates it. He really likes to have his arms and legs free, and so after a little while basking in burrito nirvana, he inevitably starts squirming and kicking, worming his hands and feet out of the swaddle. With all this swaddling going on, I have my eye on a Munchkin Jelly Bean Reversible Sling, I cannot wait to take him on walks in the park in that!

His victory is short-lived. Once he’s free of his oppressive swaddling overlords, he quickly realizes that he’s no longer feeling held. Crying ensues. Nobody is happy.

I’m realizing that this newborn child isn’t really much different from me. I watch him, snuggled up in his swaddle, briefly enjoying the feeling of being held and comforted. And then I observe as he struggles and kicks until he’s free of the very source of his comfort. This process repeats itself: he gets what he wants, and then he struggles to be free of it, until he’s finally held and swaddled again.

Just like me. God has swaddled me so beautifully, so many times. God places me in situations where I’m held, protected, guided. Even if I don’t understand it, God has placed me where I’m meant to be. And I love it.

Faith and Baby

I also hate it. I want freedom, I want control, I want to kick away the blanket and move my hands and feet wherever I please. I’ve done this so many times, and every time, when I finally get the freedom I thought I wanted, I’m just left crying, waiting for Daddy to swaddle me back up.

So maybe I’m not a swaddle ninja just quite yet. But I’m going to keep working on it. Because I want to learn the wisdom and patience to recognize how God is doing great things in my life. Even when I feel constrained. Despite my desire to kick against the goads.

How is God swaddling you? What are the places, relationships, situations where God has placed you, even if you love it and hate it at the same time? What would it look like to wait in patience, trusting the one who wraps you up and cares for you?

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The Holy Small

Why the Church Should Have More Sex

Let's Talk About Sex

Church would be a lot more interesting if there were more intercourse going on.

OK, I know this sounds crazy. Just hear me out.

We’ve resisted it for centuries, but I think it’s finally time for us to give into temptation. After all, God created sexual reproduction as the primary way that life happens; why wouldn’t we want to get in on that action? Sure, there are species that reproduce through fission, but that’s boring. Asexual reproduction is just another word for cloning, which is about as creative as a widget factory churning out thousands of toasters and electric alarm clocks.

Sex is where it’s at. It’s when we come together, in all our difference, and agree to make something totally new. Not quite me, not quite you, but a new creation that defies all prediction and human control.

For centuries, most Christian communities have taken a strictly celibate approach to our faith. We’ve walled ourselves off from each other, seeking to grow only through mechanistic cloning. For so long, Episcopalians have been busy preserving their liturgy, while Quakers carefully guard their distinctives, and Presbyterians maintain good order. So many of us have been convinced that our little tribe has the one and only genuine article; we’ve rarely been willing to learn and grow, to adapt and co-create with others.

After all, sex is messy. Sex is vulnerable. It’s unpredictable, with consequences that are totally out of our control. It results in progeny that will have totally different thoughts, feelings, reactions, and dreams than its parents do.

And that’s exactly what we need.

Look around you. Look at all those clone churches. Struggling. Shriveling. Dying. The spiritual sterility of much of the established church in North America is no accident. Our long history of chaste cloning is coming to its natural conclusion. What we need at this point aren’t more replicas of 1950s church culture; we need fresh expressions of the kingdom of God, living out a unique mission in a rapidly changing culture.

That requires us Christians to get together. To know and love each other. To trust and work alongside one another.

It’s a radical idea, I know.

What if we Quakers stopped trying to clone our pristine Quaker past and instead partnered with Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Brethren to give birth to something entirely new? What if we had the courage to let the living power of Jesus Christ relativize our dogmatic traditions, rituals, processes, and documents? What would it look like for the Holy Spirit to play jazz with all the raw materials that each of our traditions bring to the table?

This doesn’t mean throwing tradition out, any more than parents throw their genes out when they conceive a child together. It’s about allowing everything about us to become the raw material for something new, something wonderful. It’s about re-mixing, re-combining, daring to face the unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit who inspired our traditions in the first place!

I have no idea what would happen if we truly broke down those barriers and got that intimate with one another. There’s no way to predict what kind of spiritual progeny might emerge from such a union. Fortunately, we don’t have to. If we’ll get out of the cloning business and start focusing on loving one another, all sorts of crazy, delightful things can happen.

What do you think? Could you use a little bit more love in your life? Would your tradition benefit from a deeper partnership with others? How can we grow deeper and stronger through risky co-creation together, leaving behind the cloning impulse that has predominated for so long?

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Resurrection is Not a Happy Ending

Empty Tomb

Can you imagine what Easter would look like if Hollywood got to write the story?  It’d be like the end of every action movie ever. The disciples would arrive cheering, carrying the resurrected Jesus on their shoulders right up to the Temple. The chief priests would be humiliated. Pontius Pilate would beg for forgiveness. You were right all along, Jesus. You really are the king of kings!

But that’s not how it happened.

The authentic gospel story ends with the disciples in hiding, fearing for their lives. The women fled in terror from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone. The authentic resurrected Jesus doesn’t show up, Rambo style to confront his persecutors. He reveals himself secretly to those who are mourning him. He comforts his beloved friends, and invites them to continue following him, despite his apparent failure and death.

The resurrection isn’t the kind of cheap happy ending that movies and fairy tales specialize in. Rather, it’s an invitation to double down on trust, defying a world that tells us that love is crushed and evil triumphant. The resurrection is the story of losers and nobodies, cast aside on the margins while the somebodies of the world continue on with business as usual.

The hope of the resurrection challenges us to the core. It’s not any kind of ending – happy, or otherwise. It’s a beginning, an invitation into the hard work of a lifetime, walking the road of discipleship with Jesus. No wonder we get scared. We already saw what they did to him! Like the women on that first Easter morning so long ago, we are seized by trembling and amazement.

We know the resurrection is real because he doesn’t let us off the hook. The angel doesn’t say, Rejoice, Jesus died for your sins, so go home and have some Easter ham with your families. Instead, he invites us to continue on trusting and struggling. Jesus has gone ahead of us to Galilee; will we follow him yet again, knowing what it might cost us to love as fiercely as he has?

The resurrection isn’t happy in the way the world measures such things, but it leads to joy. It leads to life of the deepest kind. In the resurrection of Jesus we discover a way that leads us again into the fray of human frustration and suffering. We find the boldness to come out of hiding and embrace his earth-shaking, cross-carrying ministry together.

So don’t let anyone sell you a chocolate Easter bunny version of the resurrection. Don’t trust any so-called Easter story that isn’t accompanied by fear and trembling. Because the authentic resurrection of Jesus Christ requires that we die, and God knows that’s scary.

But in Jesus we come through the fear. We come to the other side of it, past the terror and into a promised land of love and peace, where not even the whips and nails and nooses can reach us. Living in the resurrection, laying aside all the happy endings that the world pulls over our eyes, we see the truth, and it sets us free.

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 Following Jesus is Quite a Work Out

Video: Terminator Jesus