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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.

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Is the Church Strong Enough to Resist Trump?

Is the Church Strong Enough to Resist Trump?
After preaching my sermon this week at Washington City Church of the Brethren, I had a conversation with another attender about what it means to be followers of Jesus in the midst of an unjust system. We sadly reflected on the fact that, most of the time, most Christians have not been interested in disrupting the status quo. In most times and circumstances, the body of the Christian community has been a neutral, ineffective presence at best – and sometimes has even lent energy and enthusiasm to evil causes. 

With the rise of Trump and his proto-fascist movement, I and many other followers of Jesus are asking: What does it look like for the church to become mobilized in the struggle for justice – not just as individuals, but as whole communities? How do we muster the courage and energy to live in solidarity with the many people who may be marginalized, ostracized, and terrorized under this new administration?

Can we sustain the call to nonviolent non-cooperation with evil – not just as individual prophets and “voices in the wilderness,” but as whole communities gathered together in the power and presence of Jesus?

We have both positive and negative examples to draw on. There have been times when portions of the church – whole communities in the body of Christ – have taken effective stands for justice. During the civil rights movement, entire congregations were mobilized for direct action. The Quaker church was able to abolish slavery within their denomination 100 years before the rest of the country would fight a bloody civil war to settle the matter. There’s no doubt that the followers of Jesus are capable of mass mobilization for justice, even under great social and economic pressure.

But even when we have hungered and thirsted for righteousness, our Christian ideals have not always been enough. During the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, only a tiny portion of the Protestant Church resisted the blasphemous, genocidal violence of Hitler. And of those few communities that resisted, most did not dare go beyond advocating for religious freedom within their own churches. It was only a precious few individual leaders – most famous among them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who were willing to actively resist the fascist regime, despite the very real threat of torture and death. The failure of the German church in the face of Nazism was so devastating that, following the second world war, some Christians in Germany felt compelled to formally apologize for their lack of faithfulness.

Faithfulness unto death is not something that comes naturally for any of us. It is a way we must be taught by the Holy Spirit and the gathered community. It is a path that requires a lifetime of prayerful preparation and real-world training. Are our churches today providing this kind of training? As the time of trial looms before us, are we being prepared to meet it?

What is it that allows whole communities to come together and be willing to face suffering in the face of injustice? What kind of leadership is required to train and prepare communities to stand as one body in times of deepest darkness? Is the path of discipleship and courageous witness one that is ultimately individual, or can whole communities walk together in the way of Jesus, even to the cross?

If you are reading this essay, you exercise an important role in the body of Christ. You have a part to play in how we train and prepare the friends of Jesus to be faithful, loving, and courageous in the face of hatred and violence. It remains to be seen whether the church in our generation will be equipped and prepared to bear witness to the truth in the midst of a “post-truth” culture. How will you and I help to provide that leadership, training, and support in the days ahead?

The alternative would be to go with the flow of the culture, lose our witness and – if we survive at all – find ourselves expressing our regret in coming generations. Explaining to our children and grandchildren why we were not willing to stand up for those who were crushed by the rise of white nationalist tyranny. Why we chose our comfort and privilege over fidelity to Jesus and his upside-down kingdom. Why the gospel wasn’t powerful enough to make us different from the world around us.

The good news is that this does not have to be our future. We still have time to invest in one another, build communities that can stand in the face of oppression, and lend our hands to help those most impacted by the rise of the Trump regime. 

Let’s work together while there is still light.

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

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

We're All in the Wilderness Now. What Comes Next?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (1/15/17), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 40:1-12 & John 1:29-42

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

Welcome to the wilderness.

The wilderness beyond the Jordan river is where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years after their escape from Egypt. In this same wilderness, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God.

The wilderness is a place free of human habitation and interference. It’s far away from the noise, busyness, and worries of everyday life. It’s a space in which the cultivated concerns of civilization – wealth, power, politics, and honor – fall away.

When human beings venture out into these wild places, we’re stripped down. We’re left with the more basic questions of life. We enter into a realm of raw survival and sense experience. We ask ourselves: “What will I eat and drink? What lies ahead, beyond that ridge? How will I defend myself against wild animals?” Life becomes very real, very challenging, and very simple.

You might think that this journey into a life of such basic thoughts of food, shelter, and warmth would be a brute existence. After a few days in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were transformed into thoughtless animals, concerned only with the next meal. And that is indeed one possible outcome of the wilderness journey. Yet paradoxically, throughout the history of God’s people, we’ve repeatedly seen the opposite. The Holy Spirit draws us out into the desert to experience the most transcendent, majestic, and holy things in the midst of the struggle to survive.

For us here who live in the heart of civilization, our highly cultivated lives have become a distraction. The machinery of civilization, the mighty works of human beings, are enough to consume all of our attention. Presidents and pontiffs, roads and sewer systems, rent to pay and jobs to get done. Our lives are very busy, very full of important matters that demand our attention. There’s very little room for the holy silence of the desert. Little attention for the howling animals of the forest. Our eyes have become so fixated on the glowing screen that we’re incapable of perceiving the burning bush.

We like think that we’re in control. That’s what life in civilization is all about. We’ve come to believe that we can direct the flow of history. That we are the authors of the story, rather than minor characters carried along by the plot written by Another. With all our science and industry, we can fly to the moon, shape the human genome, and finally, just maybe, brew the perfect cup of coffee. The dream and driving myth of civilization is that we can fix the world. We can make everything work correctly. We just have to put our minds to it.

The wilderness isn’t interested in what we put our minds to. It doesn’t really care about how smart we are, or how hard we work. The wilderness is a place of waiting. It’s a place to listen. It’s a parallel dimension in which human beings are still utterly dependent on the forces of nature. When we’re in the wilderness, we belong to this world – not vice versa. We become desert creatures.

John the Baptist was a desert creature. He was a man drawn into the wilderness by God. He was emptied out by it. He was a young man, an ambitious man – full of drive, dreams, and passion. God called him into a wilderness life, into a journey that stripped away every ambition but one: To preach the message.

The message that God gave John wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t the basis for a mass organization that could throw out the Romans, purify the Temple, or even reform the Pharisee’s brand of Judaism. John’s message was a wilderness message, a message that was fundamentally incomprehensible to those who still lived in civilization. John’s message wasn’t about the power of good people to change the world. It wasn’t about incremental progress through human effort. John’s message was simply and solely about the power of God to intervene in history and establish his direct rule.

John’s message was simple, but no one understood it – probably not even his own disciples. Everyone expected God to come out of the wilderness and enter into the history of civilization. To become a civilized God. For almost everyone, the hope of Messiah was that God would establish a great king on the throne, in the line of David. To establish a political dynasty that was like all the other kingdoms of the earth – but better.

But John knew that God couldn’t be domesticated. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the wilderness. He can’t be contained in temple, a government, or a throne. Despite all our efforts to create a place for God in the midst of our civilization, God was never interested in that. The God of John the Baptist didn’t come to reside in cities and high towers. Instead, he brought his people out of the bondage of civilization and into the wilderness. With the coming of the Messiah, God would go a step further. He would bring the wilderness into the midst of the city.

When Jesus came out to the edge of the wilderness, John and his disciples were baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptizers were practicing the ancient Jewish purification rite of mikveh – a ritual washing with water for purification. For John’s people, immersion in water signified repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s reign.

But even as they prepared themselves in this way, John was always clear: This outward cleansing with water was just a shadow of what the Messiah would bring. John baptized with water, but Jesus was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John baptized for preparation and repentance. Jesus would bring about the healing and transformation of the whole cosmos.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what John said when he took his first look at Jesus down by the banks of the Jordan. The Holy Spirit had come down and rested on Jesus, and in that instant John knew that his ministry was complete. His own eyes had seen the promised savior.

John’s ministry was never about himself. He was always focused beyond himself, on the Messiah. There were lots of people who wanted to make John the Messiah, but John was crystal clear from the very beginning. He was just a messenger. When the people pressed him to identify himself – maybe he was the reappearance of Elijah? – John identified himself with the words of Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. That’s who John was. That’s who we are. That’s our job, too.

Have any of you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? The new one, not the 1970s version. It’s an amazing show. I won’t go into all the details right now, but for those of you who have seen it, there’s a phrase that is repeated over and over through the four seasons of the show: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Well, it’s happening again. We’re being called again into this wilderness journey. We are being invited to become desert creatures. Like John, we are called to become voices in the wilderness, crying out and making straight the way of the Lord.

The people of God have been called into the wilderness many times. We were called out into the Sinai when Moses led us out of Egypt. We went out to see the wild man John the Baptist, out beyond the Jordan. We returned again to the wilderness, when the church became the official religion of the Empire and it seemed like the only authentic faith was to be found in the desert. As the followers of the risen and living Jesus, we return to the wilderness again and again as he calls us.

Moving out into the wilderness is always a challenge. It pushes us out of our comfort zone spiritually, psychologically, and physically. The wilderness journey is one of loss and grief. We’re forced to let go of the life we thought we knew, the world we believed existed. We must face the reality of our own complicity with evil – and what it will cost us to turn towards the light.

And as if all of that weren’t enough – as if it weren’t sufficiently challenging to embrace our grief, face our shadow, and suffer the loss of comfort and stability – we’re asked to do more. Like John, we are challenged to acknowledge, freely and immediately, that we are not the Messiah. We are not the Messiah. We are not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s one savior, and he’s not us.

Of course, you knew that, right? So did I – intellectually. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I act as if everything depended on me. I’ve spent most of my life under the delusion that my life could drive history. Both popular culture and religion have encouraged this in me. “Make a difference! Let your life speak! Be the change you wish to see! You are somebody!”

I’ve been told my whole life that I have personal responsibility for the way that history turns out. Since I was a little boy, it’s been implied that I’m supposed to be the hero of the story, the person driving the plot to a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m not that person, if I’m not the protagonist of history, then I’ve basically failed as a human being.

So for me, it’s a revolutionary thing to truly understand and accept that I have found the Messiah. Because if I’ve found him, he’s not me. If I’ve found the ultimate Protagonist of history, that means that I’m out of a job. I’m stripped of the illusion that my life, my effort, my intelligence, my faith, is the most important thing I can offer humanity and the universe. When I find the Messiah, I learn that the most important thing I can do is to be human, love boldly, and accept the reality that I flow in history – I don’t direct it.

This has always been hard for me. It’s even harder now that I see history flowing in such a dark direction. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether maybe these days we’re living are actually an alternate timeline – and maybe I could fix it by going back in time and changing some tiny thing. There we go again – control!

It’s hard to let go of control when the stream we’re caught up in seems so odious, so opposite to that moral arc that we’ve been taught history is bending towards. It’s hard to embrace a savior who is not us, when we want more than anything to take matters into our own hands and influence the course of history. It’s hard to admit that we’re so small, so weak, so marginal to the flow of events in our generation.

But maybe this turn of events in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental state of our country is the only thing that could have woken us up. Maybe we needed this to hit rock bottom, to realize that trying to be in control of history is just too painful. More than ever before in living memory, our country really needs a savior. And it sure as heck isn’t me.

So what do we do in times like these? When our culture seems so dark, and it’s clearer than ever that we can’t solve the many injustices and pathologies of our nation? What is our role to play as friends of Jesus?

Our reading from Psalm 40 gives us a good example to live by. It says, “I waited patiently upon the LORD, he stooped to me and heard my cry.” There are two pieces here, right? The psalmist “waited patiently upon the Lord” – repentance – and God “stooped to me and heard my cry” – redemption.

This is the pattern we see in John’s life and ministry, too. John and his followers waited patiently upon the Lord. They waited out in the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan. They waited patiently as the thick darkness of Roman occupation suffocated their nation. They waited patiently while the collaborators – military and civil authorities – got rich off of the exploitation of their people. They waited patiently in poverty and humility, knowing that they were not the Messiah, but that God would send one. They waited patiently upon the Lord.

Our minds resist the way of John, the way of the wilderness. They insist that we need to fight, that we have a responsibility to overcome the darkness and restore justice to our community. This temptation is seductive, because it’s partially true. We do have a responsibility to work for justice in our society. We do have a role to play in the struggle to birth the reign of God into the world. John and his followers weren’t irrelevant to the affairs of the world. There’s a reason John was murdered by Herod. In a broken world, obedience to God always challenges the status quo. John was a desert creature, and the world could not comprehend him. And that’s why he had to die.

We are called to be desert creatures in the midst of this city. We are followers of Jesus. That means we stand in the prophetic heritage of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful heritage, one that brings down Empires and changes the course of history. But if we’re to stay sane, healthy, and centered in the Spirit – if we’re to overcome the world just like Jesus did – we have to stay grounded in that wilderness mindset. We have to remember who we belong to. And who the Lord of history is.

The power of the Holy Spirit that is at work in us has the power to change the world. We have a responsibility to be faithful in the struggle, to make ourselves proactively available for God’s work in the world. But we can’t make it happen. The Author of history will be its perfecter. We are called to be friends of Jesus, who lend a hand as we’re led by him.

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Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

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

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.
I like to think of myself as a man of action. Pressure brings out the best in me, and I’m good at responding to crisis. In times of confusion, I get organized.

So of course that’s how I responded when Donald Trump claimed victory in the election last month. I held meetings. I spoke out – on my blog and from the pulpit. I encrypted my whole digital life, and encouraged others to do the same. I changed my media consumption habits. I prayed.

I’ve done everything I know to do. My rapid response is complete. Now all I’m left with is the slow work of movement-building. Fostering community. Helping to lay an intellectual and spiritual groundwork for resistance to tyranny.

I’m finding that this work is a lot harder. I am quickly reaching the limits of my own knowledge. I don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s not clear what the game plan is. How do I continue to make a difference in a sustainable way?

As a husband, father, and worker, my responsibility isn’t simple. I don’t feel like it would be faithful for me to abandon my daily work, despite the urgency of the situation. And even if I did, it’s not clear to me where I would be most useful. That’s probably because, in many ways, I’m already doing what I need to be doing. I’m working for justice and peace in the context of my family, work, and the organic communities I’ve helped to grow over the past several years.

I’m reminded that Jesus lived – and died – in the midst of crisis. His homeland was ruled by a dictator on the payroll of a foreign power. There were constant rebellions and intrigue. Protest movements were put down with violence. It’s not surprising that many, including some of Jesus’ closest friends, expected him to confront the Roman Empire on its own terms – with military force.

What’s amazing about Jesus is that he was never reactive. His ministry was not determined by the plots and provocations of the Pharisees, the violence of Herod, or the cruelty of the Roman occupiers. God gave Jesus a unique ministry to carry out, independent of the schemes and expectations of the powers that be. In spite of great temptation to fight the powers on their own terms, Jesus was faithful in gathering a community whose frame of reference was God, not Caesar.

I believe that Jesus is calling me to this same type of ministry. Do you hear him calling you?

The kingdom of God is not merely another historical event. It does not arrive as a response to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or any other Caesar stand-in. Rather, the reign of God is a decisive intervention in history to heal the world. Everything else has just been a distraction.

More than any nation or ruler, Jesus is sovereign because he depends on nothing – and all things depend on him. Jesus isn’t in a hurry, and he’s not dismayed by the thrashing evil of the rulers. As his friends, we don’t need to be, either.

Stay awake. This is one of the most important commands that Jesus gives us. We need to hear and obey this command. Because the reign of God is coming like a thief in the night. It will surprise us all. There is only one way to prepare for it: Stay awake.

The good news is this: Staying awake abolishes the fear and confusion that so many of us are feeling right now. To stay awake is to maintain a clear mind and a hopeful heart. Staying awake doesn’t mean we have the solution to this mess. It just means that we are willing to wait on God to show us how to act faithfully.

Jesus asks us to stay awake – to remain attentive, available, and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit that is coming. We don’t have to force it. We can trust that God is at work, and will show us how to move and act for justice. Our task is to respond in courage when the way becomes clear.

It helps to be in community. Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering as friends of Jesus to support one another in staying awake. We share food and prayer. We support one another in seeking the way of Jesus in the midst of these confusing times. If you’re in our region, I invite you to reach out and join us.

Wherever you are, what are the ways that you can gather in supportive community with other friends of Jesus? What does it mean for you to stay awake, and to invite others to keep watch with you?

Related Posts:

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light
It’s a dark time right now. Literally. We’re approaching the shortest day of the year. The sunshine is dimmer. These late fall days can make it really hard to keep moving.

It’s a spiritually dark time, too. I don’t have to repeat all the reasons. You know. With so much evil at work in the world, it’s hard to stay healthy and focused.

In the weeks following the election, my own health has suffered. I spent way too much time interacting on social media and reading articles about things I already knew – things I couldn’t change. Just like so many of us were glued to cable news in the days following the 9/11 attacks, I was transfixed by social media and a wide variety of news outlets.

Eventually I was able to take a step back. I recognized the death-spiral I was caught in. Social media chatter. Nonstop news consumption. An irrational compulsion to somehow “fix” this situation. It was torturing my heart and distorting my spirit.

In a moment of clarity, I disengaged from social media entirely. I knew I didn’t want to stay away forever. But my relationship to social media had to change. At this point, I’m limiting myself to about 10 minutes a day. The ideological environment out there is simply too toxic for me to spend much more time.

I also made the decision to cut off corporate media indefinitely. We have a subscription to the Washington Post, but I’ve been recycling it without reading it. This has been a big change for me. For years, the Post has been a companion with me at breakfast and lunchtime. But I’ve realized that my relationship with the corporate press is no longer healthy. Probably never was. It was long past time to break up.

I’ve learned that bad habits can’t simply be discontinued; they must be replaced with a different habit. Now, every time that I would normally read the corporate media, I instead choose to pick up a book. At first, I was reading Chinese science fiction. Then Bernie Sanders’ new book. Now I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism. I hadn’t fully realized how much of my time I had been giving to consuming corporate propaganda. Now, all that time is available to read works of substance. It’s truly refreshing.

I believe that we are entering into a time of crisis, beyond the memory of almost anyone alive today. I intend to be fully engaged. This is not a moment for retreat into fantasy or isolation. Yet I am also aware that we are already in midst of a spiritual, psychological, and ideological warfare. It makes sense for us to engage this fight on our own terms. Rather than be bombarded by falsehood, distortion, and scare tactics, we can choose another story.

Jesus commands his friends – you and me – to stay awake. Part of staying awake is filling our minds, bodies, and spirits with wholesome things. Now is a time to be discerning about what news sources, ideologies, slogans, and entertainment we take into our lives.

In these days of stress and urgency, I feel called to focus on real relationships with the people around me – all those people of good will who can sense that something is not right. Now is the moment to come together, to support one another in creating alternative communities of meaning. Our homes, offices, and church buildings can become places where the love and light of Jesus Christ is truly alive – not just in words, but through daily actions of mercy and resistance in the face of evil.

I know that many of my brothers and sisters are way ahead of me on the realizations I’ve just expressed. Maybe you’re one of them. Yet even if you are, I feel compelled to share, if only to encourage you. No matter how wise someone is, we all need encouragement. We all need to know that we are a part of a broader community that is living in faith.

Together, we are refusing to imbibe the gathering darkness. We are creating light-filled spaces where the hurt, hungry, and broken can gather. We are a city on a hill, which can’t be hidden – knowing full well the danger and joy this vulnerability brings.

I want to join you in these spaces. Create these spaces. Gather others into communities of trust, love, and firm prophetic witness. God is giving us a message to share. Jesus is here to teach us himself. In the midst of so much falsehood, the truth is speaking within us. Listen together with me. Pray with me. Act with me. In the name of Jesus.

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Jesus is Lord. Trump is Not.

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?
Denial is giving way to harsh reality. This is really happening. Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States for the next four years. A Trump presidency threatens the safety and well-being of women, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and the poor. With its belligerent denial of climate change, the Trump regime represents a potentially catastrophic threat to the future of all life. Thanks to the increasing militarization and surveillance of our society under presidents Bush and Obama, this new administration is positioned to carry out a reign of fear and oppression.

When I contemplate where we’re at as a country, and what is likely to come in the months ahead, it’s hard to avoid the twin opiates of panic and denial. Each of us has our own personal favorite, but both of these reactions are a dodge from the hard work of looking reality square in the face. We are soon to be living under a Trump presidency. The level of brutality and injustice in our country, already at danger levels, are about to soar.

The reasonable, respectable voices of denial assure us that “everything will be alright.” But we know that’s not true. Things never were alright, and this election has made this reality plain for anyone with eyes to see. We have the dubious fortune to be alive in a moment of national and planetary crisis. We have every reason to be alarmed.

There are other voices – those of panic and despair –  that are ready to insist that Trump is already virtually invincible. Fascism is ascendent, they say, and the only way to defeat it is with a show of brute force. Few are making overt calls for revolutionary violence yet, but the dog whistles are already blaring on social media. Many on the Left and the Right are gearing up for armed conflict. Their caustic rhetoric ramps up a sense of dread and terror. It prepares us for violence.

This road is a tempting one for me. When I am pushed, I naturally want to push back. And the proto-fascist supporters of Trumpism are pushing very hard right now.

As a follower of Jesus, however, I am committed to a path of nonviolent resistance to evil. God has given us the example of the suffering servant Jesus, who faced humiliation and death at the hands of Empire. He spoke the truth fiercely. Jesus stood with the weak, the outsider, the poor. But when it came time to choose the manner of his revolution, Jesus renounced the sword and took up the cross. Through his death and resurrection, God reveals his power to redeem the evil of this world. Through the cross of Jesus, we discover a path that transforms enemies. God heals the world through the blood of the martyrs.

The way of Jesus is not merely one of embracing unjust suffering. In a way, that would be easy. We could accept the blows of evildoers, all the while feeling ourselves superior. We would not physically attack our enemies, but spiritually we would murder them.

The way of Jesus is so much more powerful than a smug pacifism that judges enemies while refusing to dirty its hands with fighting them. The way of Jesus is a struggle; it’s a very real warfare. It’s a war for our own hearts, and the hearts of those who oppress us. As insane as it may sound – as much as it goes against my own natural tendencies – we are called into a path that seeks the redemption and wholeness of our enemies. That includes Donald Trump, his evil counselors, and his millions of deceived followers.

The way of Jesus never cedes ground to evil. Just as Christ openly defied the Pharisees and the priestly rulers, you and I are called to put our lives on the line. We’re called to disrupt the systems of oppression that hold back grace and healing from the “least of these” in our society. We are also called to pray for those who persecute us. We are tasked not only with justice for the poor, but simultaneously with steadfast prayer and supplication for the salvation of oppressors.

Maybe this sounded like a more “realistic” path a few months ago, back when many of us assumed that Donald Trump could never actually become president. Maybe loving our enemies seems more palatable when our enemies are already defeated. But that’s a cheap gospel of personal convenience and comfort. It is precisely in this moment, as evil rises and our freedom and safety come under threat, that it is most critical that we obey Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies.

We have real enemies now. We know who they are, and their evil plans are clearer than ever. And we must love them. Even as we hold them accountable. Even as we stand against their brazen attacks on our liberty and safety, we are commanded to love them. This means speaking to the inward witness of Christ within Donald Trump, his regime, and the millions of ordinary Americans who have put their trust in him. We are called to love them, even as they mock us, hurl insults, and threaten us.

We are called to love our enemies as we resist them. In Christ the aim of resistance is to bring about healing and redemption for the whole of the creation. This creation includes even those who are most visibly twisted by evil. Our warfare – the Lamb’s War – takes no prisoners. Each and every one of us is to be redeemed and restored in the light and power of Jesus.

This is a challenging path, to put it mildly! The most difficult part for me at this moment is discerning what specific, concrete actions God is calling me to take to resist the spread of white supremacy, misogyny, and destruction of the earth. How do I work against the spread of this culture of death, while never allowing myself to use death’s own weapons? How do I fight fire – not with fire, but with the cleansing water of Christ’s love?

These are no longer theoretical questions, if they ever were. The time has come for us to make the reign of God visible in bold, radical, faithful ways that shake us out of the stupor of panic and denial. What does it look like to invite others into the fiery, prophetic, and loving way of Jesus?

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Trump Will Be President. We Must Resist.