Archive for March 2017

Is America Headed Towards Theocracy?

Is the United States Headed Towards Theocracy?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known that some Christians want the United States to become a theocracy. I was surrounded by this kind of Christian in middle school.

Many of them were lovely people; others were not. What they all had in common was this: They believed that America could – and should – become a “Christian nation.” They believed in a society where our leaders held the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. They had faith that “godly men” in positions of power and influence could bring about the salvation of our nation.

These friends, teachers, and classmates were part of a very powerful movement. Since the 1980s, this ideological force – the Religious Right – has gained enormous power. At the heart of this movement is the ideology of dominionism, the idea that Christian leaders should dominate all areas of society.

Dominionism identifies seven spheres in our nation’s culture: religion, government, business, the arts, education, family, and the media. To bring about the kingdom of God, each of these must be captured by godly leaders.

From my childhood experiences among the Religious Right, I know that this movement runs deep. An extensive network of preachers, politicians, congregations, and think tanks are working nonstop to transform our country into a place where godly men rule and everyone else obeys. Yet I have often underestimated how widespread and powerful this movement actually is.

This article from Salon.com – “How a Christian Movement is Growing Rapidly in the Midst of Religious Decline.” – helped remind me. It details a powerful dominionist network, rooted in the charismatic movement, that is intent on transforming American society. It differentiates itself from more traditional Christian movements in the following ways:

  • Rather than focusing on building congregations, it puts its energy into spreading beliefs and practices through conferences, ministry schools, and the media.
  • It focuses less on proselytizing non-believers and more on transforming society by placing like-minded leaders in powerful positions.
  • Rather than formally organized denominations, the movement is a network of independent leaders.

Reading this article my first thought was: “Hey, this sounds a lot like the Friends of Jesus Fellowship!” While Friends of Jesus does have a leadership core, we have a lot of freedom in how we organize ourselves. We don’t have a top-down structure. Instead, we encourage one another to explore what bold faithfulness looks like. When we take action, it is because the Holy Spirit directs us, not because a human leader ordered it.

We’re also not locked into building new congregations. Most of us attend a variety of churches – both Quaker and non-Quaker – that we did not start. We have gravitated towards building momentum through gatherings, teaching, and internet outreach.

And, like the dominionists, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship has not primarily aimed our message at non-believers. We’ve had a lot more success in energizing and encouraging folks who are already on the path.

So is Friends of Jesus a dominionist movement? No way! Here’s why:

Dominionism is obsessed with placing its leaders at the top of the pyramid. Friends of Jesus’ mission is to follow the homeless Messiah, the outcast, the forgotten one. We want to be friends of the Jesus, who became a slave and served others rather than placing himself over others.

Friends of Jesus is the complete opposite of dominionism. We’re a bottom-up community. We seek to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying love.

The kingdom of God isn’t a domination system. It doesn’t look like our present world, except with better overlords. The way of Jesus doesn’t replace the rich, powerful people at the top with new elites. The Holy Spirit turns the whole social pyramid upside down!

It’s a huge challenge to think about what Jesus means when he says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Because this isn’t a mysterious metaphor. It’s economic, social, and political reality. The kingdom of God is about the presence of real love and justice, not the authority of human rulers. The only “dominion” in God’s new order is that of a servant, a lover, a friend.

Many Christians are chasing after political, social, and economic dominance. But we Friends of Jesus have another calling. To a more beautiful, joyful life. A life rooted in love, relationship, and reliance on God. An existence so free of anxiety that we are unafraid to lower ourselves and lift others up.

There’s room for you here. In the midst of all the confusion and hatred, come find the humble way of Jesus with us. Like any good network, we have a gathering coming up.

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The Parable of the Two Investors

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The Parable of the Two Investors

The Parable of the Two Investors
There were once two investors. One was wise, another was foolish.

One day, the stock market plummeted. For the next few weeks, prices were in free fall. Many were panicking. What if this was another Great Depression?

Early on in this crisis, each investor met with his financial advisor. Each received the same advice:

“Things look bad right now. Stocks are falling, and we don’t know when prices will stabilize. But don’t let fear get the best of you. The markets cycle. Prices will rise again. Hold onto what you have, and you’ll be OK.”

After the foolish investor heard this advice, he was calm for a day or two. But another week passed and the market was still falling fast. He was losing so much money, he couldn’t stand it any longer! The foolish investor sold his shares at a much reduced value and placed the money into a savings account.

The wise investor had a different reaction. He kept the stocks he already owned, but he didn’t stop there. He also immediately withdrew his savings and bought more stocks.

As the prices continued to fall, the wise investor continued to pour money into the market. The lower the prices fell, the more he invested. He risked everything. He even sold his house and his car so that he could buy more shares.

The stock market collapse was very severe. It was several years before the markets began to recover. During these terrible years, the wise investor had hardly anything to live on. It was hard times for everyone.

Finally, the words of the financial advisor did come true. The market began to inch back upwards. Within a few years it was stronger than ever. Unfortunately, the foolish investor didn’t gain from the rising stock market. All his money was still in the bank. He bought high and sold low. He risked little. He was left with little.

The wise investor saw a very different outcome. His investments did more than rebound. All the cheap stocks he bought during the crash multiplied several times. By the time the economy was strong again, he had become a rich man.

The kingdom of God is something like this.

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What Is the Life of the Spirit?

What Is the Life of the Spirit?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 & John 3:1-17 You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of a mystery that can only be described in parables and metaphor. We heard a lot of these last month as we went through the Sermon on the Mount together. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp that lights up the whole house.

Jesus’ central message is about what he calls the “reign” or the “kingdom” or the “empire” of God. He describes this hidden empire as a treasure buried in a field. It’s a pearl of great price. A seed being sown. Yeast causing bread to rise. A tiny mustard seed growing into “the greatest of shrubs.”

What is this leaven Jesus is talking about? What is the light he says shines in us? What is the pearl of great price, that we should be ready to sell everything we have to acquire it? What is Jesus pointing to when he speaks to us in these mysterious terms?

In our scripture readings this morning, I believe we’re pointed towards an answer. Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus has a middle-of-the-night encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a well-respected religious leader among the Jews. He’s an elder of the people. A teacher. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which makes him one of the most powerful religious judges in the entire Jewish world. This is a man who knows God’s law backwards and forwards, and teaches it to others.

And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Despite all his wisdom and experience, Nicodemus can sense that Jesus has something unique to offer. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond anything in Nicodemus’ experience. Nicodemus just can’t look away.

When Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ house in the middle of the night, he tells Jesus that he’s a fan. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Anyone who can perform the signs that Jesus has must be on God’s side. Nicodemus wants to learn more.

Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus in the way I would expect. I would have thought that maybe Jesus would tell Nicodemus to quit flattering him. Or maybe he’d push back on Nicodemus’ idea that signs and wonders can prove God’s presence. To be honest, I kind of expect Jesus to be tough on old Nicodemus. After all, he’s probably visiting in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want to be seen associating with this rabble rouser, Jesus. Why all the secrecy?

Here’s the most interesting part of this dialogue for me: When Nicodemus speaks, Jesus seems to hear a question. Now, looking at the text, Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question yet. He’s just getting started, letting Jesus know that he respects his ministry. But Jesus understands that Nicodemus didn’t come out to visit him at two in the morning just to pay his respects. Nicodemus wants to know what lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He wants to discover the mystery.

Sensing this, Jesus dispenses with the pleasantries. He hears Nicodemus’ silent question. And he tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

This throws Nicodemus for a loop. What is Jesus talking about, being born from above? Nicodemus came out to get some straight answers from Jesus, but here he is, still talking in metaphors. And a ridiculous metaphor at that! “What?” says Nicodemus. “You want me to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

If Nicodemus expected Jesus to cut it out with the metaphors at this point, he must have been disappointed. Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with even more mysterious language: Nobody can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Jesus says, “You can’t just be born of flesh and blood. You’ve got to be born of the Spirit, too. That’s what you came looking for, Nicodemus. That’s my secret.”

Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And at first glance, it doesn’t seem immediately related to this mid-night episode between Jesus and Nicodemus. Paul spends a lot of time talking about the story of Abraham, and what it says about the relationship of faith and the law. Is following all the rules enough to bring us into right relationship with God? Paul says no.

If following the law can’t produce righteousness, what will? What was it that allowed Abraham to have such an amazing relationship with God? Paul insists that is purely through faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God, and in response God drew him into right relationship.

The whole story of God is built on faith like this. When we are able to trust God, when we give our lives over to him, he draws us into relationship with him. He makes us holy. He calls us sons and daughters.

Through faith, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. The Jewish people had always interpreted this to mean that Abraham’s biological descendents – particularly the Jewish people – would be blessed with a special relationship with God. If you shared Abraham’s DNA, you had a share in the kingdom of God.

The Jesus movement brought a radical new interpretation to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul writes about this interpretation in his letters, and Jesus points to it at various times during his ministry. Jesus and Paul and the disciple community all tell us that the true children of Abraham are not those who are biologically related to Abraham; it’s those who share the faith of Abraham.

Can you trace your geneology back to Abraham? Good. So could Paul, and all of the Twelve Apostles. But that’s not enough to qualify a person for the kingdom of God. After all, the religious leaders who persecuted and murdered Jesus – the Pharisees and the Saduccees – were also biologically related to Abraham. They could claim him as father. And yet their lives were alienated from the faith of Abraham. They trusted their Abrahamic DNA. They trusted the laws and ordinances that Moses and the elders had passed down to them. But they did not trust God.

God showed up in their midst. Jesus was standing before them, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. But the best and brightest of Abraham’s biological children were unmoved. They preferred ancient rituals, legalistic rules, and holier-than-thou games to the fiery presence of God in the burning bush.

Clearly, though, not all of the religious teachers were so hard-hearted. Nicodemus didn’t come out to see Jesus in order to undermine or refute him. Nicodemus was part of the “frozen chosen” of the Jewish religious establishment. Yet despite all that heavy tradition and social obligation, he was able to sense something in Jesus. Something alive, active, and powerful. Something fresh and new. Something that made all of Nicodemus’ religious titles and authority seem worthless by comparison.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus wasn’t concerned with how pure Nicodemus’ ancestry was. All that DNA tracing is according the flesh. It’s essential – life is impossible without our biological natures. But it’s also insufficient. Without the life of the Spirit, a purely “biological life” is without meaning or purpose.

My wife, Faith, and I have an ongoing debate. I believe that animals, and all living things, have spirits. She thinks that only humans have what you might call a “soul.” Me? I see the spirit of life everywhere. Animals breathe. Plants breathe. Some living things are more complex than others, but we all have a spiritual dimension, a life that goes beyond mere survival.

Still, I can also see things from Faith’s perspective. Take our dog, Austin, for example. He spends most of his time acting out of compulsion. He is a biological being running on autopilot. For Austin, most of life is about when he can eat, when he can drink, when he can go outside and relieve himself. It’s about warmth, and comfort, and safety. It’s about who will be kind to him, and who he should stay away from.

But every once in a while, I see something deeper come out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Austin experience joy. We were back in Kansas, visiting my family, and we all decided to go on a nature hike. At a certain point in our walk, we crested a ridge, and we discovered an open field with a large group of geese.

When the geese saw us, they all started to take off. They rushed into the air, leaving us behind. This was a good move on their part. We learned that day that Austin is a bird dog. He was in a state of total alertness. He was ready to chase those geese down.

That was the first time we had ever seen Austin smile. Austin came from an abusive background. Before that moment, he was really a very somber dog. But when he saw those geese, he was fully present. There was no fear in him. He had found himself.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I saw the Spirit-born part of Austin that day. It’s that animating presence that transcends our compulsive biological impulses. It’s this Spirit that gives us the capacity to be more than mere animals. The Spirit of life makes joy possible. It makes faith possible.

Jesus says that this Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it will, and we can’t control it. This was a major discovery of the early church. Jesus teaches us that God is perfectly capable of raising up children of Abraham from the stones, if necessary. Paul writes that we are all Abraham’s children when we share the faith of Abraham. This faith, this joy, this kingdom, comes from the Spirit.

This is why Jesus says that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” God loves all of us so much. And he has power to make us children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but through the power of the Spirit.

Through the faith of Abraham, God empowers us to transcend our biological compulsions. Just like Austin the dog, we can discover joy in moments of unity with our world and our God. We can be freed from lives that revolve around reflexive tasks, unspoken anxiety, and the struggle to survive. We can be truly free.

We can only see this kingdom when we are born from above. When we receive that gift of spiritual life and awareness that makes all of our biological life worth living. When we discover the purpose that we were created for. To show love to others. To speak the truth. To become agents of beauty.

In this Spirit, this power, this kingdom, we encounter the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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