Archive for February 2017

What If This Is the End of the World?

What If This Is the End of the World?
Pretty much every generation has thought theirs might be the last.

We’ve had different reasons. The early Christians thought that Jesus was going to come back and wrap up history. During the Middle Ages, the Black Death gave people reason to think that the world was ending. In my parents’ lifetime, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. American school children cowered under their school desks for fear of the Bomb. The idea that the world might end at any moment was reasonable.

For my generation, the possibility of nuclear war has receded, psychologically if not in reality. Instead, we witness the real-time destruction of our natural environment. Erosion blows away our precious topsoil. Fracking fouls our drinking water and shakes our earth. Hundreds of species go extinct every day. Our climate is entering a terrifying death spiral.

Many of us wonder whether we are witnessing the end. What happens when the reefs and oceans die? What will we do when the arctic tundra thaws, releasing so much methane that the impact becomes completely unpredictable? How will we survive the radical transformation of our planet, the loss of uncountable plant and animal species? What kind of world will we bequeath to our children?

I recently re-watched a film called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It’s a movie about the destruction of all life on earth, and how all sorts of different people react to it. Some start rioting, others throw orgies and do drugs. Some seek out lost love or spend time with family. For a few, the end of the world confirms their deepest commitments and priorities. For many others, it is a shocking revelation that they have wasted their entire lives.

This film got me to thinking about what the real source of meaning in my life is. If I knew for sure that everything was going to end soon, what difference would that make for how I live?

Mortality clarifies. It challenges me to consider whether there is any meaning beyond my own life, and the lives of those around me. What if this is the end? Does that mean everything was pointless?

Times like these force me to dig deeper, to seek out a sense of purpose that goes beyond survival. I must discover power, beauty, and significance in the present moment. Even if we are hurtling towards annihilation.

There is a dignity, presence, and love that is stronger than death. There is hope beyond the grave – even a mass grave. There is an assurance that, no matter what happens to us, this time together is real. It matters. It is beautiful. Let’s give thanks for this time, and bless one another with it. And maybe we’ll find that this isn’t the end, after all.

Related Posts:

What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?

Can I Be Happy Without Progress?

How Can I Love You When You’re So Wrong?

How Can I Love You When You're So Wrong?
This week I spent a couple of days driving across the Heartland, from Kansas City back to my home in Washington, DC. I hadn’t packed any music to listen to, so I ended up listening to about 16 hours of radio.

I don’t normally listen to much radio, and I’m a terribly fickle listener. I hate commercials, and I’ll change the station whenever I start getting bored. In the course of an hour, I probably listened to at least half a dozen stations.

Making my way through the Midwest, I discovered that a huge number of these radio stations are home to far-right talk shows. I listened in astonishment as men in studios spouted racist vitriol against Muslims, calling them rapists, murderers, savages. I learned that white civilization is being overrun by barbarous Arabs and Africans. It was almost hypnotizing. As if I had been transported back to the 1930s, I was listening to real, home-grown American fascism.

At first, I thought that these guys were probably local radio personalities, going to extremes to boost their ratings. But soon I realized that these are major, syndicated radio hosts. Sean Hannity of FOX News. Rush Limbaugh. These men have enormous platforms. For many Americans, they are a primary news source.

And it got me to thinking. How different am I, really, from those millions who listen to far-right radio? I tried to imagine a world in which FOX News was the most progressive source of news that I regularly consumed, and extreme right outlets like Breitbart and Sean Hannity were main ingredients in my intellectual diet. What would my worldview be like? Would I be any different from the millions of other Americans that watch MSNBC as their primary source of truth, supplementing it with Huffington Post and TruthOut?

Most of us are locked into a very narrow worldview that refuses to listen to the concerns of those beyond our ideological tribe. We accept information from our preferred sources, and we shut it out from sources that have a different ideological take. While some of us work very hard to vet our information and seek the truth, most folks on both sides are generally content to accept whatever the current talking points are for their side in the culture wars.

This is the part of the essay where you might expect me to start making an appeal for “civility” – and maybe that is what we need. But “civility” feels like too dainty of a word for the kind of challenge we are facing at this point. We are in a spiritual warfare, and none of the major ideological camps seem to realize that we’ve been captured by the forces of deception and division. Truth exists, but it’s mostly absent from the outrage industrial complex of cable news and agenda-driven blog sites.

What does it look like to be followers of the Lamb in a society that is engaged in such spiritual, emotional, and physical violence? What does it mean for us to be publishers of truth in a world where “truth” is often code for fundamentalist dogma (right-wing or left wing) that is used to bludgeon people – often the most vulnerable?

It’s disturbing and humbling to admit it, but we have all been captured to some extent by the forces of confusion, hatred, and self-righteousness. Regardless of how correct our analysis is, we have all fallen short of the Holy-Spirit-filled love, justice, and compassion that Jesus calls us to. I know that I have.

What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus in the midst of all this mess? What does it look like to lead a life full of hope, tenderness, and mercy? How can we truly love the people around us, especially those who believe all the wrong things?

Our struggle is not with human beings, but with the hatred, fear, and alienation that has so thoroughly insinuated itself into our public life. As followers of Jesus, we are called to enter into this struggle as loving agents of reconciliation. In the midst of a culture war, we have an opportunity to engage in a deeper battle of meaning, healing, and restoration.

We’re all so broken, this kind of transformation seems impossible right now. Yet in Jesus, we encounter hope that extends beyond the present moment. It’s a hope that points us to struggle nonviolently for a restored creation. It’s hope that enables us to reach out to others, beyond our ideological camps, trusting that Jesus will be present among us.

Whoever you are, whatever you believe, and whatever ideologies you’re invested in right now: I love you. We may need to struggle with one another. And maybe that’s OK. While we do, let’s pray for one another. May God show each of us how to live more deeply rooted in love, truth, and compassion. May God use each of us as instruments of healing and reconciliation in a dark and broken world.

Related Posts:

What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up With Trump?

What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?

What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 36 & Matthew 6:19-34

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud!

Good morning.

I’m going to start with the heresy and work back to the gospel this morning. Because reading on the sermon on the mount reminds me of what a tough time I have with the Bible. The Bible, for me, is pretty uneven in terms of how it impacts me. So this morning I want to talk a little bit about three broad categories of scripture and how they impact my life.

The Bible has a lot of rough parts to it. There are the parts that make me uncomfortable because they don’t seem to reflect the character of the God I know. I’m thinking of the genocide passages in Joshua and Chronicles, for example. Or the parts of the New Testament where Paul seems to be getting pretty negative towards women. These sections of the Bible are difficult for me. As a Christian, I want to trust the text, but some of these texts seem to run against the grain of what I know from the life of Jesus, the great cloud of witnesses, and my own lived experience with the Holy Spirit.

So there’s this other category of scripture, that hits me in a different way. One way of naming it might be the “warm fuzzy scriptures.” Now, we all have our own warm fuzzy scriptures – they’re not all the same for different people. A great example might be 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul writes about love. This passage is so beautiful and moving that it’s commonly read at weddings, even though Paul is speaking about God’s agape love, rather than human romantic love. Another scripture that comes to mind is John’s first letter, in which he writes about the tangible reality of God’s light and love.

With these passages, and many others, I’m ready to shout “Amen!” They affirm who I know God to be, and they encourage me to more fully live into the radically open, deeply loving presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are some parts of the Bible that don’t fit into either one of these categories. It’s a kind of scripture that I find deeply disturbing. It’s not like those uncomfortable passages from Joshua or Paul’s letters, that I can simply dismiss or bracket as not meaningful for me.

When I read about God ordering the destruction of whole cities in the Old Testament, or when I find passages where Paul seems to deny women equal dignity before God, I feel a basic wrongness with these writings. They don’t line up with who I know God to be.

But then there are passages like the ones we’ve heard this morning. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are truly startling. I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t worry. Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” I know that Jesus’ words are true, but I can’t quite accept the teaching. Something within me resists.

With scriptures in this third category, like the ones we’ve heard this morning, any resistance, any dissonance, any sense of wrongness that I feel is rooted in myself. It’s not a problem with the text. It’s not a problem with Jesus. It’s a problem with me. I’m drawn to the teachings of Jesus. I can feel their truthfulness. Yet I hesitate to fully embrace his teaching. It seems impossible. I’m afraid that if I were to follow him completely, it would destroy my life.

So I’m caught in this strange place. Not brave enough to fully embrace Jesus’ teaching, but also unable to walk away. This feeling reminds me of what the first disciples experienced. There was a time when Jesus said some really crazy things and many of his friends were abandoning him. And Jesus asked the twelve, “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?” Peter responded this way: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

That’s my feeling when I encounter Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t really like what he’s saying. His teaching threatens my whole way of life, and part of me would rather run away. I’m tempted to avoid this wild-eyed teacher who wants to turn my whole world upside down.

But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His words simultaneously disrupt my life and heal me. I can’t escape his message. Even if I were to flee across the sea like Jonah, I know that his words would find me. They’d swallow me up like the fish and spit me onto the dry land, and I’d have to go to Nineveh anyway.

Jesus has the words of eternal life. We heard in our psalm this morning, “With you is the fountain of life. In your light we see light.” Through the words that Jesus speaks to us this morning, he is en-light-ening me. He’s shining light into places that I’d rather not see. His light shows me places I’d rather not go. He’s calling me.

Jesus is inviting us into a life free from worry and fear. Casting aside all the wealth, status, and possessions that we spend our lives accumulating. Jesus calls us into a life that refuses to defend itself. Right now we’re trapped in a death spiral of anxiety, consumerism, and self-defense. But Jesus illuminates a whole different path we can walk.

Jesus reveals a way of joyful abandon, one in which we can live freely and simply. Like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to burden ourselves with guilt and worry. We can abandon the fiction of self-sufficiency. That’s what it means to accept the bounty and goodness of our Creator.

This whole Sermon on the Mount pushes me really hard. From chapter 5 to chapter 7, Jesus is laying down a heaping mess of truth. No one can hear his words from start to finish, take them seriously, and not be moved to repentance and action.

In the passages we’ve heard this morning, I think Jesus’ message is for the most part very clear. He tells us that we’re going to have to make a choice between God and wealth. We can’t serve both of them. We’re going to have to pick sides. Will we seek after God and the web of loving relationships that he wants to establish? Or will we choose the way of clutching anxiety that accompanies our obsession with wealth, possessions, and status?

We cling to these things because they provide us with an illusion of control. An illusion that, somehow, we can cheat death altogether.

There’s a movie I really love. I’ve watched it many times. I’m willing to admit it’s a Tom Cruise movie. It’s called Vanilla Sky. Have any of you seen it?

In Vanilla Sky, the main character, played by Tom Cruise, is a man who has everything. He’s ridiculously wealthy. He’s powerful. He can have any woman he wants. As much as any human being can, he lives with the illusion of complete control and freedom. Yet, as we come to find out, he’s a deeply unhappy person.

Cruise’s character lives in an illusion of youthful immortality. In the opening scene of the film, he finds a gray hair and plucks it out. He refuses to grow old. He will not acknowledge his own mortality. Later in the movie, during a moment of introspection, he says: “Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?”

Despite all his power, wealth, and fame, Tom Cruise’s character is living a lie. He can’t see what’s right in front of him. He’s living in darkness, and he doesn’t even realize it.

That’s the part of our scripture reading today that is really intriguing to me. Jesus’ clear commands about what our relationship to wealth needs to be – I get it. It’s incredibly challenging and I don’t live up to it, but I get it. I understand, at least conceptually, how the life of freedom Jesus promises us can work. When we let go of our need to be in charge, be in control – when we become simply flowers in the field of God – things change. The world opens up. We don’t have to hold onto our anxiety and dread anymore. We can live in joy.

But Jesus also talks about the light and darkness. And these words of Jesus have always struck me as enigmatic. Not just challenging, not merely convicting, but mysterious. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

So. The eye is the lamp of the body. If it’s healthy, we’re full of light. But if not, the whole body is full of darkness. And if the light within us is darkness, how great is that darkness!

This takes me back to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. This man is trapped. He’s living in a miserable, isolated, narcissistic fantasy world. The light within him is darkness. He is so deeply invested in his own illusions – his power games and toys – that he’s lost track of what reality consists of. For him, darkness really is light. How great that darkness!

And I wonder about myself. I like to think I’ve got a solid grip on reality. I want to imagine that what I value really is worthy of my time and energy. That my relationships are real and meaningful. That my love and care for others is genuine. But what if the light in me is darkness? What if my eye is unhealthy. What if I’ve become so used to my deformed condition that now darkness looks like light to me, and real light is a terror?

How great the darkness!

I’m in need of a regular reality check. That’s probably the biggest reason I keep coming back to the Bible, to this community, to our Christian tradition. My own perceptions of the world are so subjective. I need a regular dose of reality to make sure that the light in me isn’t actually darkness.

Each one of us alone is in real danger of developing unhealthy eyes and losing track of what’s true and important in our lives. As a community gathered by the Holy Spirit around the person of Jesus, we have a better chance of keeping our eyes open and alive to the light of God. When we gather together. When we hold one another accountable. When we read the Bible together and weigh what’s being said. When we come closer to Jesus together.

For with him is the fountain of life. In his light we see light.

So I want to leave us with a few queries, a few spiritual questions to consider:

What are the ways that we hold one another accountable as a community? How do we encourage one another to have healthy eyes, so that the whole body is full of light? What does it mean for us to live into the radical, fearless, joyful life that Jesus offers us? And what will it cost us?

Related Posts:

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up With Trump?

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up with Trump?

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up with Trump?
When I first became a Quaker, I assumed that the Friends tradition endorsed my existing liberal, secular worldview. I believed that all human beings were basically good. All of us want to do the right thing, after all. We just need resources, love, and support to grow in a healthy direction.

The more I learned about the theological underpinnings of the original Quaker movement, however, the more uncomfortable I became. It seems that, when George Fox spoke of “that of God in everyone,” he wasn’t referring to a divine spark innate to each person. He was speaking of the imprisoned presence of God within the heart of a depraved humanity.

Depravity. It turns out that the early Quaker movement had a lot more in common with Calvinist Puritanism than it did with modern theological liberalism. Rather than viewing humanity as basically good, but in need of a little bit of TLC, the early Quakers taught that humanity is fundamentally selfish, broken, and in active rebellion against God’s love.

The place where Quakers parted ways with the Puritan doctrine of “total depravity” wasn’t the “depravity” part. Quakers took issue with the idea of “total.” For George Fox and the fiery preachers of the early movement, it was axiomatic that humanity is lost in darkness and separated from God. It’s obvious that human beings often choose our own selfish desires over love for others. Anyone who is paying attention knows there is something terribly wrong with us.

What set Quaker teaching apart was its emphasis on the inward Light of Christ. Quakers preached the saving power of God, present in/with the Creation. This loving presence can redeem even the most wicked and hateful person. Calvinists argued that God sovereignly redeems only some people, and predestines the rest to damnation. Quakers insisted that all people receive an actionable offer of salvation through the indwelling presence of Jesus in their lives.

Why does all this matter? Why am I dredging up centuries-old theological debates, using language that is, at best, opaque to many readers?

Strange as it may seem, I believe that the concept of depravity is vital to the experience of the church in the West today. Much of the progressive Christian community – along with our liberal secular counterparts – has held to teachings about human beings that are just plain wrong.

Just as I once believed that human beings were “basically good” and that we just needed a little extra support to reach our potential, much of the western church has imagined that human thriving was just a matter of technique. With enough education, technology, and economic justice, we could achieve the kingdom of God. The moral arc of the universe would bend its way towards justice.

This faith must now be irrevocably shattered. Many of us closed our eyes to the violent injustice of the United States under the Obama administration. Almost all of us fought less urgently for justice than we feel compelled to now, in the wake of the 2016 election. With the rise of a proto-fascist, white supremacist regime, it’s harder than ever to maintain the fiction of a “basically good” humanity that just needs a little bit of encouragement.

It’s time to reclaim a recognition of human brokenness, sin, and separation from God. We can’t ignore it any longer. It is manifestly evident that we are not what we ought to be. Neither technological prowess nor economic gains seem likely to alter that equation any time soon. Something is wrong here, and we must look deeper than ever before if we are to come to terms with it.

Self-examination is in order. It would be easy to take the idea of human sin and selfishness and merely apply it to others. There is a temptation to take all of our fear, fury, and disappointment and project it onto those who supported Donald Trump in his bid for the presidency. It would be all too easy to scapegoat them, allowing them to absorb all of our culpability.

But a recognition of human depravity is no cheap trick we can use to absolve ourselves of guilt. Any attempt to turn ourselves into heroes and others into villains would be a lie. If we are to live in the truth, we must begin with the devastating realization: You and I are ourselves depraved. We are liars, self-seeking, potential murderers. We are dishonest with ourselves and others.

None of us is exempt from the reality of human depravity. You and I engage in the very same kind of tribalism that we recognize in others. Most of us were quite willing to overlook the sins of the Obama administration. We have been complicit in the war machine and surveillance state that Mr. Obama helped to perpetuate. In the same way, most of Trump’s supporters are prepared to ignore the dishonesty, violence, and outright narcissism of their chosen leader.

I am not better than Trump’s supporters. It may be that the policies and philosophies that I advocate would have a better effect on the world if enacted. But my fundamental motivations for advocating them are not so different from the motivations of my enemies.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is in no way an excuse or apology for the truly evil regime that is now in power in the United States. God judges wickedness, and this is almost certainly the most wicked administration in living memory.

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

So where do we go from here? How do we emerge from this pit of depravity and engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it were?

When I first became a Quaker, I thought we were an optimistic faith tradition. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between optimism and hope. We can no longer indulge in the cheap optimism that tells us that we’re good people and everything is going to be alright. Our need for hope has never been greater. As friends of Jesus, we are called to live in the hope of redemption. As lost and depraved as we are, there is a life, power, and presence among us that can restore us. Heal us. Bring peace where now there is only struggle.

This peaceable kingdom is real. We are called to it, and with divine assistance we can inhabit it together. But we can only enter this kingdom once we have shed the illusion of our own goodness, piety, and self-sufficiency. There will be no “good people” in this kingdom – only repentant sons and daughters who have come home once again, having squandered our inheritance. The kingdom of God is gentle, a place of thanksgiving and joyful tears.

I want to join you there. To do that, I need to recognize my own brokenness. I need to acknowledge all the ways I’ve prioritized myself over others, all the ways I have been dishonest in pursuit of my own desires and objectives. I want to meet you in the kingdom where the last is first, and the first last. Even if that means that I end up being at the end of the line.

Related Posts:

Is the Church Strong Enough to Resist Trump?

We’re All in the Wilderness Now. What Comes Next?