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Who Are the Heroes of Faith?

Who Are the Heroes of Faith?
Today is Memorial Day, a holiday of rest and celebration. It’s a day when we in the United States remember those who have suffered and sacrificed so that we might enjoy freedom and wholeness. Memorial Day is often given over to displays of nationalism and militarism, but for those following in the way of The Lamb Who Was Slain, there is another story to tell.

This Memorial Day, I’m calling to remembrance that faithful cloud of witnesses whom the author of Hebrews points me to. I’m giving thanks for the women and men who provide me with examples of courage and faith. I’m honoring those who have shown me how to walk in the challenging and beautiful way of Jesus.

Today I’m invited to examine my own life. Do I have the courage to follow the example of those heroes of faith who have passed before me on this journey? Everything I have that is of any value, I’ve received it from the hands of these faithful witnesses of the Lamb. Am I willing to pay it forward? Am I prepared to take up the cross of Jesus, to bless the lives of others just as his love has transformed my own?

This holiday presents an opportunity to pay special attention to the trail that has been blazed by our mothers and fathers in the faith. We remember their lives, their deeds, their love – not for the purpose of deadening nostalgia, but as an invitation into bold action. Participating in the life they have shown us, we find a faith that transforms us into the image of Jesus.

How are you celebrating this Memorial Day? Who are you remembering? How will those you remember shape your life in the days to come?

Thank God for the lives of the faithful and true witnesses, who have inspired and nurtured us thus far. Let’s re-commit ourselves to embodying the love, power, and compassion that God has already poured out on us through his saints. In the name of Jesus. Amen!

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I Will Remember

Why is Church so Hard?

For the last couple of years, this blog’s tagline has been: “Religion is easy; discipleship is hard.” I’m starting to think that perhaps this slogan is only half right. Discipleship certainly is hard, but religion doesn’t seem to be such a piece of cake, either.

I recently read a really tender, honest post from my friend Hye Sung, in which he wrestles with the fact that he rarely attends church, despite his strong faith in Jesus and his belief that Christian community is very important. What does it mean for him, and the millions of others like him, that faith in Jesus should be so compelling and yet finding healthy, life-giving Christian community is so hard? What does it mean for me that after spending years in seminary and nearly a decade in Christian ministry, I find myself resonating with Hye Sung’s dilemma, too?

Why is church so hard? For hundreds of years, the Sunday-morning congregation has filled a vital role in the life of God’s people. Yet in my generation, it may be that there are more Christians living their lives outside of the traditional congregation than those who remain within it. And many of those who remain are struggling.

We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the life of the church, one that is just as significant as the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Our entire culture is changing, and all of our legacy institutions – government, media, business, and the church – are straining under the pressure. We’ve set out on a new sea, but instead of oars, we have shovels. How long will it take for us to craft the tools we need to thrive in this new environment? So much hangs in the balance.

It’s reassuring to remember that we’ve been here many times before. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit that formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Pentecost was a moment when God made a way out of no way. In the face of stuckness and confusion, Jesus drew together a new community that could speak to the spiritual hunger of the people of the Roman Empire. The old order was fading away, and it was frightening, but the Holy Spirit brought the creativity needed to bridge the gap. She revealed the new order of God.

This new order played out differently in 1st-century Palestine than it did in medieval Europe. The body of Christ looked different in the days of St. Francis than in those of George Fox. The way that the Holy Spirit is guiding us in our time, place, and culture, is bound to be different from anything that humans have ever experienced before. We’re being given new wine for the new wine skins of our day and age.

I won’t sugar coat it: These are hard days to be living in. Everything that our grandparents thought they knew is being turned on its head. We are in the midst of a great confusion as a society, and it’s not clear where we are headed. And yet there is a blessing in such a moment, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new expression of faithfulness for our own day. Just like on that most famous day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago, we are being invited to participate in a brand new experiment, the likes of which the world has never seen.

I don’t know where this road leads. I’m not even convinced that I’ll like it when we get there. But I do have confidence that God is in control, and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned her people. This is a time for the patient endurance of the saints, for us to be actively partnering with Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation and peace. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. Let’s stumble down this road together.

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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does Solidarity Mean?

What Does Solidarity Mean?

I grew up with a weird mix of influences. My parents were pastors of an Evangelical Friends Church in Wichita, Kansas. They were also radical social justice activists who were getting into all sorts of trouble with mainstream Christian culture. In the early 90s, they were taking me along to gay pride rallies. They trespassed at the local Air Force Base and stood on railroad tracks to block the transport of nuclear weapons. They involved me in creative protests at stores selling violent toys. My parents taught me that it was the duty of Christians to disobey unjust laws and reject violence – whether by individuals or the state.

My family straddled two worlds that are often kept apart: Biblically-based Christian discipleship, and radical movements for social transformation. It wasn’t until later that I would understand just how unusual, and amazing, this early training was. I got exposed to the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, as well as to a variety of other radical ideologies not explicitly based in the gospel. I absorbed all of this side by side with a reading of the Bible that emphasized God’s love for the poor and Jesus’ invitation to participate in a new social, political, and economic order.

Growing up in this milieu, I heard the word “solidarity” a lot. To be honest, I never quite figured out what it meant. It was a nice word to throw into an email to make myself sound a little more radical, but my understanding never went much beyond that. “Solidarity” was an insider word that helped signal that I was part of the movement.

The first time I truly began to grasp the meaning of the word “solidarity” was during the Occupy movement. Thousands of like-hearted people were coming together to make immediate, concrete change in our society. This was a new experience for me, on a whole new order of magnitude from the what I had seen before. It opened my eyes to what solidarity could mean in practice.

Suddenly, I was part of a community so much bigger than myself, a movement whose total focus was the transformation of the world, now. We made decisions together, we prepared food and tried to stay warm. When the police attacked, we all felt it. We were so identified with one another than an assault on another occupier felt like a personal slap in the face. “Solidarity” wasn’t just some convenient movement word anymore; it had taken on flesh and bone. We were ready to suffer and sacrifice for one another. We believed we could change the world through our endurance. And we did.

I find it striking how this experience of solidarity parallels with the story of the early church and other movements of the Holy Spirit. Solidarity corresponds to that sense of being “one body” that Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians. Communities gathered together by the Holy Spirit experience this kind of organic unity: a readiness to prioritize love for one another over personal fear and ambition.

For the thousands of us forever changed by our experiences in the Occupy movement, we know that solidarity is a key ingredient. It’s like salt, without which our lives have very little flavor. Yet solidarity is such a rare thing for many of us. It’s a reality that is lacking almost completely from middle-class American culture. We’re individuals. We don’t rely on one another. We’re not knit together as one fabric.

And why should we be? We don’t share one mission. Each of us looks out for our own interests – our careers and families, dreams for the future conceived of in personal rather than collective terms. At times it seems that there is nothing uniting us but shared consumption. But in the words of Charles Eisenstein: “Joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.”

It’s time to break out of this middle class trap of fear and consumptive materialism. We’re invited to experience solidarity, which breaks down the barriers between us and creates genuine community. When we become friends of Jesus, we discover the true meaning of unity. Based in shared mission, gifts, and care for one another, we are drawn together as one body in his Spirit. Living as members of one another, we can discover a life that goes beyond the hungry selfishness of consumerism.

Are you ready to open yourself to this journey of discipleship together with me? The Holy Spirit is present to break your shackles and fill you with life. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

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I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

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3 Reasons Pope Francis’ Visit Could Change America

3 Reasons Pope Francis' Visit Could Change America

Pope Francis will be arriving in Washington, DC tomorrow, and we locals are getting ready for a huge celebration. Public officials have warned us to avoid travel for the next few days. We’re expecting the roads and public transportation to be flooded with thousands of pilgrims making their way to see the head of the world’s largest Christian communion. It’s gonna be a beautiful mess!

Francis’ visit to the United States will be an enormous spectacle. I have no doubt that many will find it inspiring and uplifting. But what’s the ultimate impact? Could Francis’ time in the US make waves that go beyond traffic delays and photo ops?

Here are three reasons that the Pope’s arrival could mark a tipping point for American culture:

1. The Pope inspires us to move beyond the culture wars. If you’re like most Americans, you’re exhausted from the endless ideological battles that have consumed our country in recent decades. So often in these battles, Christianity has been used as a weapon to attack others and score political points. It’s no wonder that millions of Americans have given up on organized religion altogether. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being manipulated for political advantage.

And yet, most of us are still hungry for something that goes deeper than the numbing consumerism that we are constantly being sold. We’re disgusted by the right-wing, imperial Christianity that justifies foreign wars and domestic discrimination, but we long for the heart of love that we once found in Jesus. We are hungry for the genuine gospel of peace, reconciliation, and justice.

The good news that Francis preaches cuts through the hypocrisy of American political discourse. Francis reminds us that, in Jesus, it is possible to work for the protection of all life – including the unborn threatened by abortion, the natural world threatened by climate change, and the poor who are being crushed by ever-widening income inequality and economic injustice. Pope Francis breaks down the Republican/Democrat binary, holding out a vision of the Reign of God that challenges all political ideologies.

2. Francis is unifying the Christian community. Just as the gospel message dissolves the hostility of the political culture wars, it also has the power to overcome divisions within the church. For hundreds of years, the Christian world has been divided between different Christian denominations, each one claiming to be the one and only true church. The emergence of Pope Francis, with his broad-minded ecumenism rooted in an evangelical mission, encourages us to reevaluate the sectarianism of centuries past.

This doesn’t mean we all become the same. There are important reasons that I am not a Catholic, and that the Pope is not a Quaker. But our differences are relativized in the light of our shared experience of Jesus Christ in our lives. The barriers between us are broken down by a common recognition of the challenges that face us as a species, and the extraordinary measures that we must take together to avert ecological catastrophe and economic atrocity. Our shared calling as disciples of Jesus and heirs of the Reign of God is so much greater than the many ways that we are different from one another. What would it look like if we committed ourselves to working together in all those areas where we are already of one heart and mind?

3. He builds bridges with skeptics. Pope Francis has shown himself to be a universal Christian leader, with relevance far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic fellowship. His compassion and demonstrated love for the marginalized speaks to the heart of the spiritual-but-not-religious, agnostics, and the countless other Americans who want something deeper, but cannot in good conscience accept the Christianity presented to them by mainstream Evangelicalism.

Most of these folks are probably never going to become Catholics, but that’s not the point. Francis is a major Christian leader who is showing himself to be a compassionate, principled human being. It’s sad to say, but for many Americans, that’s something new.

For an historically Protestant nation that is increasingly fed up with George Bush Evangelicalism, Pope Francis’ visit is an opportunity to present an alternative vision for what life with Jesus can look like. This pope is connecting with millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves Christians, but who find themselves resonating with the simple, radical faith of Jesus.

This is an exciting moment. I’m looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to my city and nation. I feel hopeful about the kind of positive change that his visit could bring about in the spiritual life of our country.

What are ways that we can amplify the volume of the gospel message that Pope Francis is bringing to our national stage? How are we, as followers of Jesus, preparing ourselves to reap the harvest of this visit, as thousands – perhaps millions – are brought into a new awareness of what a radiant, loving, faithful life in Jesus can look like?

I’d love to discuss these questions with you in the comments below.

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Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering

It’s easy for your faith to become just another obligation, a set of rules to fulfill and a standard that you struggle to live up to. But every once in a while, you catch glimpses of what it could feel like to be part of a community where heaven and earth come together, when everyday life becomes saturated with meaning and authenticity. In such times, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Life takes on a whole new smell, because you are living it on purpose.

In moments like these, you know who you are. You know where you belong.

This weekend has been one such moment for me, a time of power, presence, and life. I’ve been at the annual Fall Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, held this year in Lebanon, New Jersey. Our theme this weekend has been Fully Human, focused on the ways that we can live into the love-saturated life and power that Jesus promises us in the Holy Spirit.

Together, we’ve been experiencing the living presence of Jesus. We’ve been hearing his invitation to truly abundant life. What he offers us has more depth and reality than the false promises and illusions of the dominant culture: consumerism, materialism, and the soul-numbing myth of the autonomous individual.

We were made for more. We can feel it our bones.

Every gathering of God’s people has its own flavor. Some are raucous affairs, whipped hard by the winds of the Holy Spirit. At this gathering, though, we’ve experienced a sweet spirit of reassurance and gentle challenge. We’re being invited to take a realistic look at our lives, and to consider how we can take the next steps into deeper discipleship with Jesus.

This weekend has been a baptism into a deep reservoir of courage. It’s the kind of bravery that can only be lived into over a period of months, years, decades. It’s not the thrill of the quick decision or the decisive battle. We’re being called into the gentle, relentless faithfulness of water – slowly wearing down the path that God desires to walk in us.

There is a stream of living water that is flowing through our lives as friends of Jesus. We’re encountering an invitation to turn away from the many ways that we burden ourselves. The Spirit is calling to us, inviting us to take up the easy yoke of Jesus. Together.

It’s not clear what the next steps will be, though we’ve gotten some hints. It’s going to involve slowing down and really being present with one another. It’ll mean taking big risks over long periods of time, preparing ourselves for those kairos moments when God will use us to take powerful and transformative action, in ways both seen and unseen by the world.

The path we are being called into calls for patience, discipline, and steadfast love. There will be few quick victories, no easy answers. Nevertheless, Jesus has promised to walk with us along the way, and we already experience his child-like joy accompanying us. We are learning to trust him, and to take him at his word. He is faithful.

I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

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