Archive for March 2016

Want to Change the World?

Want to Change the World?

It’s amazing how inspiration can come in the most ordinary moments. Most recently for me, it was during my morning commute into downtown Washington, DC. As I watched the US Capitol Building gleaming in the morning sunlight, a powerful sense of peace and calm covered me like a blanket. Without warning, I found myself seated in the presence of God.

It was a quiet, hidden glory. Sitting next to several dozen other commuters checking their cell phones and going about their morning routine, I was experiencing a moment of clarity. Nothing around me had changed, but something inside me did. My eyes were opened. Everything seemed bathed in a new light.

And as silly as it sounds, a melody from the original Willy Wonka movie came into my mind. I began to sing the words to myself:

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”

In that moment, the song was no longer just a charming melody from a motion picture. It was a personal message spoken to my heart. I was getting a glimpse of beauty. I didn’t go looking for it; paradise found me. What might life be like if I practiced this kind of awareness always? What hidden love and freedom would I experience?

There is a life and power that lies behind every ordinary moment. Far too often, I trample it in my rush to get to whatever’s coming next. I walk right through the oasis, ignoring the springs of water, instead chasing a mirage on the horizon. And I imagine myself daring!

Want to change the world? Yes, I do. And like Wonka says, “There’s nothing to it.” It’s not about me at all. If I’ll just let go and allow the Holy Spirit to transform my vision, everything will change.

Has your life been touched by an unexpected change in perspective? Have you encountered this hidden beauty in the ordinary? How would it feel to live in this awareness, to have your world changed by it?

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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Let’s get this out of the way: The story of Jesus being raised from the dead is totally nuts. The idea that for two nights Jesus would lie dead in a tomb – probably beginning to smell a little funny – and then on Sunday morning would be up and about, visiting his friends, strains credulity to the breaking point.

Even those who saw it first-hand were slow to believe it. Mary assumed he was a gardener. The male disciples dismissed the women who told them what they had seen. And the apostle Thomas said he wouldn’t believe in the resurrection unless he personally put his hand into Jesus’ pierced side.

Eventually, Thomas did see and touch Jesus in his resurrection. And he recognized in Jesus all the power and majesty that he failed to comprehend during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry, crying out: “My Lord and my God!”

Today, there are billions of people who say they believe in the resurrection. Countless men and women throughout the centuries have believed, despite not having the benefit of touching Jesus’ wounds or having breakfast with him by the Sea of Galilee.

To any rational outsider, the resurrection faith of the Christian community must seem inexplicable. How do so many otherwise reasonable people come to put their faith in an event that none of us have personally witnessed, and which all our scientific knowledge tells us is not possible?

I had the same reaction during my first visit to a Quaker church on Easter Sunday. Everyone around me was saying, “He is risen!” and I could only look at them with startled curiosity. On what basis were these intelligent, highly-educated people saying something so preposterous? Did they have special knowledge that I didn’t? I asked some of them directly: Have you seen Jesus yourself?

I remember being less than satisfied with their answers. How could faith in something as crucial as the resurrection rely solely on church tradition or the words of an ancient book? Surely we should demand more proof than that. If Jesus showed himself to the first disciples, why shouldn’t we expect the same today?

According to John, Jesus says those who have not seen but believe anyway are blessed. But I’ve never been very interested in that kind of blessing. I’m more of a Thomas. I want to see Jesus with my eyes and touch him with my hands. If Jesus and his resurrection are going to be at the center of my faith, I want to know the reality of it for myself. I don’t want any second-hand religion. I want to be a witness to the resurrection.

And in many ways, I have been. In the years since my first, skeptical Easter, I have had my own Thomas moments. I have seen the presence of Jesus shining through in the lives of those around me, in acts of courage and love, and in totally unexpected encounters that are hard to explain. I have come face to face with Jesus, the one who was dead but now has been raised to life.

To my skeptical self of a decade ago, I know this would sound like a pious sleight of hand, a cop out. “You still haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. How can you believe in a bodily resurrection based on your subjective feelings?”

I acknowledge that to many my faith might seem to stand on a weak foundation. But I have seen Jesus in the flesh. I have seen him in the flesh of men and women who are serving him, many times without even being aware of it. I have seen how he lives in the most broken of us, even in me. He is alive. His amazing presence fills the cosmos, and this silly little world we share. If that’s not bodily resurrection, I don’t know what is.

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This Cross is for You

This Cross is for You

I celebrated Good Friday for the first time in the spring of 2007. I went with a few friends over to the Salvation Army where they were showing The Passion of the Christ, the ultra-gory Mel Gibson movie that depicts the last 24 hours or so of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was a brutal film, delighting a bit too much in blood, I thought.

Despite the shortcomings of the film, I was deeply moved by the experience of remembering Christ’s death on the cross. Since then, Good Friday has become an important holiday for me. It’s a time to put my life in perspective and ask some hard questions: How do I demonstrate the kind of commitment and endurance that Jesus showed? Is my lifestyle different enough from the unjust status quo that I can even imagine being persecuted for it? Am I able to drink the cup that Jesus did?

Most days, I find my answers to these questions unsatisfying. Far too often, I allowed myself to get lost in the weeds – fretting about what others think about me, about money, or my own personal achievements. So much of my anxiety comes from focusing on my own desires – pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Jesus didn’t live his life that way; the crucifixion leaves no doubt.

What Jesus experienced on the cross was terrible. Crucifixion was one of the most brutal ways that the Roman Empire dominated its subjects, making it very clear who was in charge. We get some sense of this brutality from the Bible. The gospels describe how the soldiers tortured Jesus, mocked him, and humiliated him in front of the crowds. They nailed him to a cross, to await death by suffocation. The sheer physical horror of crucifixion is almost beyond my comprehension.

Jesus’ suffering went far beyond the physical. The psychological and spiritual distress he experienced were equally severe. During his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus stood completely alone. One of his closest confidants had sold him out, and all the rest of his friends ran away when faced with a physical threat. His most loyal follower, Peter, denied him three times before sunrise. Jesus experienced abandonment by his community at precisely the moment he most needed them. And after all of the beatings and torture, he was left to hang naked – completely alone and exposed.

At the height of his agony, Jesus didn’t even have the felt presence of God to cling to. Crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus’ desolation was total. Even his Father seemed nowhere to be found.

This terrible day two thousand years ago puts my life in perspective. Am I experiencing darkness, loss, despair? Jesus is no stranger to the depths. He stands at the bottom of the well, looking up at me with compassion. He knows the deepest reaches of suffering. He reminds me that resurrection is real, and that we only get their through the way of the cross.

Far too often, we Christians make the mistake of viewing Jesus’ death on the cross as a one-time gift from God to humanity. We like to imagine that Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to. The reality could not be farther from the truth. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, we find an invitation to join him on the cross, whatever that cross might look like in our own lives. We are invited to sit at his side as he comes into a kingdom established by love and self-sacrifice.

How are you experiencing the cross in your life right now? What does it mean for our suffering to be redemptive? Rather than allowing hatred and death to conquer us, what does it look like for love to have the victory?

I’m scared. But I want to find out.

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What Did Jesus See?

What Did Jesus See?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was a big deal. The city was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. The occupying Roman army was on high alert, well-aware that insurrection was common during the days of the festival. The air was electric as devout Jews from across the diaspora gathered together in the city of David to remember their liberation from Egypt, and to wait for God to send another leader like Moses, one who would free them from the Roman yoke.

There was revolutionary expectation as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a victorious messiah-king who would free Israel from foreign domination. People waved palm branches and threw down their coats in front of Jesus, reenacting the anointing of Jewish kings. They shouted praise: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” All of Jerusalem was abuzz with the question: Could this Jesus be the one? Could he be the promised savior who would defeat the Romans and establish an independent Jewish state?

Jesus didn’t seem to deny that interpretation. When some of the Pharisees in the crowd demanded that he calm his disciples, Jesus only replied: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Yet Jesus saw something that no one else did. All the crowds around him were imagining what the future might hold for Israel. But Jesus didn’t imagine – he knew. With the eyes of a prophet, Jesus could see what was on the horizon. And all he saw was terror and bloodshed.

Looking down from the Mount of Olives at the holy city, he cried out, weeping: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus could see what the crowds, the Pharisees, and even his own disciples could not: Jerusalem would be besieged, burned, destroyed. The people within it would be annihilated. The dream of violent revolution would become a nightmare. The myth of a Davidic kingdom and a holy Temple would be replaced by utter destruction.

Jesus’ followers had no idea what kind of king they were dealing with. His coronation would take place while hanging from a Roman cross. His crown would be made of thorns. His triumph would be total defeat in the eyes of the world.

In Jesus we discover a ruler whose power comes not from terror and violence, but from self-sacrifice and love. His is a kingdom where the highest ranking people are the outcasts and misfits – the lowest rungs of Caesar’s order. Jesus brings a peace that relies not on legions and imperial occupation, but on radical acts of truth-telling and compassion.

But no one could see that then. Even for Jesus’ closest friends, the kind of leadership that he offered was literally unimaginable. 

For most of us, most of the time, it still is. As those of us in the United States find ourselves in the midst of the most contentious, disturbing political season in at least a generation, it’s easy to get scared. It’s tempting to place our hopes in the Caesars and Davids of our time, rather than in the humble way of Jesus that overcomes the politics of Empire. It’s easier to seek comfort from the power of political victory in the world’s terms, rather than entrusting our lives to the lordship of Jesus.

Precisely in times like these, we are invited to stand with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the holy city. With the Spirit he gives to us, we can see what he sees. We can perceive the destruction that is coming – and also the transformation and redemption that is possible, even in the face of so much brokenness, violence, and despair. And we can weep with him. Sometimes, tears are the right response.

For all of us who choose to walk in the way of Jesus, we know that crucifixion is coming, but there’s also resurrection. There is darkness all around us, but we have been given power to be the light. We live in a time of confusion, fear, and hatred, but the Spirit of Jesus has given us a bold love to stand in. It’s there waiting for each of us. Will we recognize our time of visitation from God?

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The Gospel Isn’t Zen

The Gospel Isn't Zen

One of the most popular images of spirituality and enlightenment is that of the zen practitioner, sitting calmly in the lotus position. Deep breaths. Long silences. Peaceful surroundings.

Zen meditation is useful. I’ve practiced it many times, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Recollecting the mind and body to this present moment is a valuable skill. The rested calm and equanimity associated with meditation is laudable.

Yet, for those of us who seek to follow the God of Israel, we cannot be satisfied with inner peace. While there’s no doubt that Jesus spent a lot of time in quiet meditation, his path is not one of silent retreat and self-improvement. Jesus reveals a God who both rejoices and cries, who demonstrates great tenderness and furious anger. This is a God revealed not in stoic calm, but in passionate engagement with everyone around us.

The way of discipleship is not a race to become “perfect” by human measures. A cheerful disposition is not a requirement to follow Jesus. The saints of God can be – and are! – just as grouchy, introverted, or melancholy as anyone else. In fact, many of the most faithful servants of God have been among the most afflicted, emotionally unstable people in their societies.

The gospel isn’t about having good manners or being easy to get along with. Friendship with Jesus isn’t about taking deep breaths and smiling. The way of the Holy Spirit is a life of love, expressed through compassion and justice. If that comes across as cranky, so be it. If your disposition is a shy one, God will work through that, too. God is ready to use each of us, just as we are. You don’t have to be a polished image of enlightenment to be a saint.

Have confidence that God created you with a purpose. Even your flaws are there for a reason. Embrace yourself, as God has already embraced you. If you’re stubborn, angry, or cry easily – remember that we follow a savior who demonstrated all of these traits in the course of his ministry. Jesus lost his composure on a regular basis; certainly we can, too!

Zen is great. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is love – real love that flips over tables, stands with the powerless, cries for the dead, and fights like hell for the living.

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What Is Christianity?

What Is Christianity?

What Is Christianity?

What is Christianity? Is it a collection of individuals, each following Jesus? Is it a type of culture, a philosophy that can govern courts, legislatures, and armies? Is it a radical fringe movement, at odds with mainstream culture, or is it a faith that is central to what it means to be American?

Throughout history, different Christians have answered these questions in several different ways. Some – particularly the liturgical churches – view their faith as being interwoven with the entire society. While personal conviction is important, faith is ultimately not a matter of the individual, but rather a corporate faith and practice that permeates the whole culture. In this worldview, it makes perfect sense to have a Christian president, generals, judges, CEOs, and police officers. Christianity isn’t a radical ideology; it’s the glue that holds our society together.

Another view is that Christianity is first and foremost about the individual’s relationship with God. This is the perspective that gave birth to the Evangelical commitment to Jesus as “personal Lord and Savior” – “personal” being the key word. In the most extreme versions of this viewpoint, nothing matters at all except the personal decision to believe in Jesus. Participation in any particular community, society, or even code of conduct, is secondary to the personal choice to accept his sacrifice on the cross.

Finally, there is the perspective of the dissenting church – groups like Quakers, Anabaptists, and others who have been violently persecuted for their counter-cultural beliefs. According to this viewpoint, the Christian faith is not primarily about individual conviction, nor is it a question of conformity to a large-scale, mainstream culture of Christendom. Instead, Christian discipleship takes place within a context of radical community, a community that stands outside the bourgeois assumptions of the mainstream and the violent logic of Empire.

For the dissenting church, the way of Jesus is a path of building a new society in the shell of the old. Rejecting both individualist faith and conformity to the wider culture, this perspective holds that Jesus is most authentically followed in a community that rejects common wisdom and joins Jesus on the margins of society.

Key to this understanding of the church is the lived experience of solidarity. The way of Jesus is not one that we can walk alone. In the radical community we rely on one another to find our way as disciples of Jesus. This kind of solidarity must go beyond shared identity and group membership. It has to extend into our intimate life choices: Our money, our living situations, our family. In the radical community gathered by Jesus, we don’t get to hold anything back from one another. We own nothing, not even our lives. Everything belongs to Christ, and we belong to one another.

Most of us today – including those of us in the historic dissenting churches – don’t really have the stomach for this kind of total submission to Christ in community. So we’ve ended up gravitating towards a more individualistic ethos. We value each person’s preferences and experience, preferring it to the discernment and cohesion of the group. Each one of us can live our lives our own way, and if the community has misgivings, it’s ultimately none of their business.

Given how privileged most of us are, we can get away with this. We’ve got the material resources that allow us to rely primarily on mainstream consumer culture, rather than the support of the believing community. We don’t really need each other. If we can pay rent, groceries, and Netflix, we’re good. And so we drift apart. Nothing binds us together that we can’t find somewhere else. If not at church, then maybe the yoga studio or spin class.

Is it any wonder that Christianity is disintegrating in the West? We’re just too rich and self-satisfied to prioritize one another over ourselves. By choosing individualism, we are ultimately captured by the most powerful voices of the mainstream culture – unchecked consumerism, militarism, greed, and fear. Without a community of solidarity that we truly lean on because we have no other alternative, we fall prey to whatever the imperial culture throws our way.

At this point, it’s a huge challenge to choose anything besides conformist individualism. It’s in the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the media we consume. We’ve been atomized for so long, our communities of solidarity have been relegated to mere clubs and interest groups. And we’ve come to think of this feeble state of affairs as normal.

We’ve got a choice to make:

What is the story we want to live? Who do we want to live it with? And what are we willing to give up in order to be part of a community that distinguishes itself from the dying, violent order that we’re living in today?

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The Water is for the Flowers

When I first became a Quaker, I thought that the point of my faith was to experience God’s presence. If I wasn’t experiencing regular encounters with the Holy Spirit, something was wrong.

More recently, such experience – the sense of spiritual ecstasy and mystical states of consciousness – has become much less central to my faith. Instead, I’m increasingly convinced that my relationship with God is validated less by my spiritual experiences than by the extent to which my life reflects the character of Jesus.

In my experience, most religion is primarily about experiencing a sense of God’s presence and comfort. That’s something we all want. Even those of us who aren’t keen on the idea of a personal God would like to feel more present, more connected, more grounded in a sense of something beyond ourselves. Religion in this sense comes naturally to us.

Discipleship is something different. While discipleship is not opposed to the religion of comfort, devotion, and self-improvement, it goes far beyond it. I not sure I ever would have become a follower of Jesus without the religious experiences of my early twenties, yet I know that those experiences alone are not enough to make me a disciple.

Feeling spiritual warm fuzzies – a sense of religious connection with God – is desirable, but it falls far short of the gospel of Jesus. The life of ecstatic, “peak experiences” is one that satisfies the thirsty soul, but Jesus’ way of discipleship leads us through the waterless wilderness and to the cross. I can never truly know what it means to walk in the way of Christ’s living water until I am ready to endure the desert.

I recently read a book called When The Well Runs Dry, by Thomas Green, which discusses what it means to pray and live a Christ-centered life even when life is painful and God seems distant. Green encourages us to think about the spiritual life as a garden. He says that the “water” of the Spirit’s felt presence is intended for the “flowers” of virtue and righteous living. It’s so easy to get stuck pursuing the water of religious experience, but the goal is not water, but flowers!

Sometimes I feel like I’m going backwards in my spiritual journey. As time goes on, my religious experiences seem less frequent and less dazzling. At the same time, I am increasingly aware of how often my life fails to reflect Jesus’ character. I’m like Peter, who thought that he was a great disciple, ready to go to the death with Jesus – but who soon found out that he was a coward, fleeing the cross even as his master was facing torture and death.

I want to be more like Jesus, and I know that all of my religion, self-discipline, and spiritual experiences won’t get me there. There’s nothing I can do, nothing I can give to bridge the gap between the person I am and the person that God desires me to be. Yet I also know that Jesus would not have called me to this way if he were not prepared to provide the strength, courage, and resources I need to walk it.

Give me this day my daily bread, Lord Jesus. Pour your living water on the stunted flowers of my heart. Teach me to be your friend, to take up your call, your cause, your cross.

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