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Can I Be Happy Without Progress?

One Must Imagine Him Happy
Two of my favorite biblical books are the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes and the New Testament Book of Revelation. Strange choices, I’ll admit. You’d be hard pressed to find two writers with a more profoundly different view of history, and humanity’s role to play in it.

Ecclesiastes basically views all of life as cyclical, repetitive, and ultimately futile – even boring! We humans are born, grow up, work, struggle, and die. We bring nothing into the world and taking nothing with us. All our efforts are just chasing after wind – building sand castles that are inevitably destroyed by the incoming tide of history. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Revelation, on the other hand, envisions a cosmos that is on a collision course with an apocalyptic unveiling. God’s sovereign rule is breaking into history, and the end of the story is at hand. For Revelation, nothing about this life is remotely futile or boring. We are in a life-and-death struggle as the last chapter of human history is revealed. What could be more exciting or important?

Somehow, these two visions co-exist as integral parts of the Christian canon. Both are embraced by billions as authentic expressions of God’s story. Each one reveals something profound about our world and our Creator.

But can they both be true? How can history be both cyclical and linear? How can life be an endless cycle of birth and death, while at the same time heading towards culmination in a final revealing, release, and restoration?

I find this same confusing paradox in my own life. Much of the time, I feel as though I’m spinning my wheels. Despite my best efforts, very little changes – at least, not the way I expect. Yet, over time, life does develop and grow. The person I am today would both shock and amaze the young man I was in college. I have been transformed, almost to the point of being unrecognizable to those who knew me as a young person.

And yet, in many ways I am fundamentally the same individual I was fifteen years ago. My heart hasn’t changed. I’m still made of the same basic elements, even as life experience, circumstance, and personal choices have shaped me in so many ways – for better and for worse. My life has both a cyclical and a linear aspect. Some things never change, even as I grow and develop on a determined trajectory.

My heart has known this for a long time, even if my head is still catching up. I’m reminded of the writings of Albert Camus, who used the Myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the tragic/heroic state of human beings in the world. Sisyphus is condemned to push a huge boulder up a hill forever, always losing control just before reaching the peak. After watching the boulder tumble down to the bottom of the hill, Sisyphus walks down into the valley to do it all over again.

For the Greeks, who originally told this story, this was a vision of hell. The utter futility of Sisyphus’ actions – both heroically linear (with a goal of getting the boulder over the hill) and tragically cyclical (each time it rolled back down the slope)  – combined to deliver a terrible punishment from the gods on an arrogant humanity.

For Camus, though, the myth of Sisyphus was a vision of human freedom. It is precisely in the midst of the incomprehensible cycle of history that we find fulfillment – not by successfully pushing the boulder over the summit, but through finding joy in the labor itself. Living in hope of a linear, “end-of-history” fulfillment, we are empowered to embrace the hills and valleys of the apparently futile cycles of Ecclesiastes.

I believe that this aspect of Camus’ philosophy captures something vital in the biblical tradition, strangely reconciling the quasi-nihilism of Ecclesiastes and the apparent triumphalism of Revelation. This philosophy is, in fact, the polar opposite of the totalitarian visions of the 20th century, in that it invites us to embrace life on its own terms, rather than as a means to a greater end. The gospel of Jesus is that we may have life, and have it abundantly. No more, no less.

This abundant life is not conditional. It does not depend on human progress, historical development, or an end-of-history event occurring in our lifetimes. It cannot be discouraged by suffering or loss or historical failure. No matter how many times the boulder rolls down the hill, there is life and power available to us to keep pushing, keep living, keep loving.

In times such as these, when the liberal illusion of “progress” has been so dramatically punctured, this is good news. On days like today, when I wonder whether my life “amounts to anything,” this is good news. The joy that sneaks up on me, and is always available to each one of us, will keep me moving back up the hill. Not out of fear, nor because I have no other choice, but because there is joy in the labor itself.

Related Posts:

On Being Human in a Robot Age

When Everything Goes Wrong (It’s OK to Fail Sometimes)

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.

Related Posts:

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

Jesus is Lord. Trump is Not.

As the Election Looms – God, Be Merciful to Us

God, Be Merciful to Us
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (10/23/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 18:9-14 and Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22.

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

Listen Now On SoundCloud

I was raised in an activist household. My parents had really strong political opinions, and I grew up in an environment of really intense ideology. For me, as a child, that ideology was what would today be broadly described as “progressive.” Our family was actively engaged in struggles for peace and justice in a variety of ways. We were hard-core Democrats.

Living in Wichita, Kansas, being an outspoken Democrat meant something. It meant swimming against the current of our surrounding political culture. It mean being a loser during our mock elections at school. Later on, in high school, my outspoken views meant that I didn’t have many friends. I was openly mocked by other students, and sometimes even by teachers. I got used to living a life of resistance to the mainstream culture, but being socially excluded was painful in ways I don’t think I even fully understood at the time. Standing by my beliefs meant being judged on a daily basis, and I grew to be a pretty judgmental person myself.

When I was really young, in grade school and middle school, I had some amount of ideological stability, some ground to stand on. Because even though my family was in the minority as Democrats in Kansas, I still felt like I belonged to a well-defined and somewhat respectable camp. Bill Clinton was president for most of my conscious childhood, and I was a big fan. I admired Clinton, and looked to him as a champion of the ideas and causes I believed in.

But early on in high school, that all fell apart for me. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton launched Tomahawk missile strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. They said they were making VX gas there, but it turned out it was mostly aspirin.

This really upset me. I felt certain that Clinton had timed the strikes to draw attention away from his embarrassing political situation at home. I was shocked and disillusioned by what I saw as my president’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of others to maintain his image and grip on power. From that point on, I was no longer a fan of Bill Clinton. Soon, I didn’t even consider myself a Democrat.

I stayed away from mainstream partisan politics for quite a while after that. It wasn’t until the 2008 presidential elections that I allowed myself to get excited about a potential president. For me, Barack Obama was a truly inspirational candidate. After eight years of nonstop war, growing poverty, and environmental destruction, I was desperate for someone who would aim our country in a better direction. Still, I felt really nervous about pinning my hopes on this freshman senator from Chicago. I couldn’t forget how deceived I had felt in the past when I had put my trust in the partisan political establishment.

But Obama promised he would help the poor. He promised he would heal the earth. I wasn’t sure whether he was the real deal or not, but I decided to take a chance. Along with so many in my generation, I cheered when Barack Obama was inaugurated President of the United States.

In the seven and a half years since Faith and I just about froze to death watching Obama’s inauguration on the Washington Mall, the political situation in our nation has gotten worse in many ways. Now, I don’t want to deny the real progress that has taken place over this time. I’m thinking of the extension of health care benefits to millions more Americans. The growing recognition – both legal and social – of LGBT equality, and a broadening conversation about what it means to be black in a country that was built on the backs of millions of African-Americans. I can see how we are growing as a country.

And yet, during this same period, so much has gone wrong. The endless war on terror, launched by President Bush and his henchmen, has only been expanded under President Obama. This administration has developed the high-tech surveillance state to extremes unheard of before in human history. And despite Obama’s promises to heal the planet, the threat of climate change is even more dire today than it was when he was first sworn in.

And the whole spirit of this country. It’s gotten terrible. I mean, I don’t mean to say that things were great before. But during the last eight years, we’ve been going to a whole new level of nastiness. Open hatred has become normal. Religious bigotry. Racism. Misogyny. Classism. All types of behavior that were once considered limited to the lunatic fringe of American politics have been ushered into the inner sanctum of our newspapers, television broadcasts, and presidential debates. It’s hard to know how to respond sometimes.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t always respond well. It’s easy for me to hate people who are on the other side from me politically. I often find myself casually dismissing their humanity, dismissing the very real fear and anxiety that so many Americans, of all political persuasions are feeling right now. Rather than let myself feel that pain, it’s easier for me to get into battle mode. It’s easier to attack others, to project my own fears onto them – the worry I have about the direction our country, our world is headed in.

This is something that I need to be real about. It’s easy to hate people, and it’s getting easier. This whole environment we’re in right now encourages it. We separate ourselves from one another – by politics, by class, by race, culture, geography, and so many others. Rather than having the hard conversations with one another, it’s easier to stand far off and judge others – often people we don’t even know.

The Gospel reading today is all about this kind of anonymous hatred. Jesus asks us to imagine two people standing together in a public place. And – I hope you’ll forgive me – I’m going to take some liberties with the story this morning. We don’t have a Temple today, and there are very few places where people of all shapes and sizes come together. So let’s imagine these two parents sitting next to one another in their cars as they are waiting to pick up their children from the local elementary school.

One of these parents is a socially conscious progressive. She buys organic. She drives a Prius and is getting solar panels installed on her house. She contributes a good chunk of her income to charity, and she volunteers for all sorts of good causes. She considers herself one of the good people. She’s part of the solution. She’s on the right side of history. She wishes others would get on board and come around to her perspective. Or at least get out of the way.

There’s another parent out in front of the school, waiting for her kids to come out. She drives a beat-up SUV with an NRA sticker on the back windshield. She’s not sure whether President Obama was really born in America, but she’s suspicious of anything the liberal media has to say about it. One thing she does know for sure: This country needs a change immediately, because things have gotten pretty bad.

So as they’re sitting next to each other in their cars, waiting for their children to emerge, they’ve got some time to think. The first person, she’s thinking about the lady in the SUV. What a gas guzzler. She notices the NRA sticker, and she wonders how anyone could actually think that way after all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last couple years. That lady is probably a racist. She’s probably voting for Donald Trump. Thank God I’m not like her.

The other woman doesn’t have any idea that she’s being judged. She doesn’t know, because she’s not really paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around her. She’s deep in prayer. It looks like the bank is going to foreclose on her house. Her husband lost his job a year and a half ago, and keeping up with the mortgage has been a struggle since then. She’s praying, because she knows she needs God’s mercy. She knows that there’s no way she is going to get out of this situation by her own devices. She needs a miracle. In her frustration and despair, she cries out – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The point of Jesus’ story seems clear enough to me. It doesn’t really matter whether the lady in the Prius is making better life choices. (The Pharisee was definitely making better life choices than the Tax Collector.) The most important thing to God isn’t whether a person’s ideology is right, or whether they follow all the rules. Jesus tells us that what God really values is a broken heart and contrite spirit. Genuine repentance is more pleasing to God than all the superficial righteousness we can produce on our own.

This is relevant to me. I don’t own a Prius, but I fit the bill of this modern-day Pharisee. I like to think that I make good choices, that I’m a good person, and that I get the blessings that I deserve for my good behavior. Maybe you do, too. This is a pretty normal, natural way of thinking.

But it’s not Jesus’ way of thinking. In Jesus, I meet a God who longs for me to let down my defenses and embrace the reality of my own spiritual poverty. I want to believe I’m strong, but I’m not. I want believe that I have it all together, but I don’t. I want to belong to the right causes, the right church, the right political party. But God is a lot less concerned than I am with being right. In the face of all this darkness and despair, Jesus is focused on being love.

I believe this story – the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the self-righteous progressive and the Republican – is relevant to all of us, regardless of our politics. Because the sickness that we’re seeing in this election goes a lot deeper than an election. It’s much bigger than the candidates who are asking for our votes. It’s not just a matter of parties, lobbyists, and super-PACs. It would be so much easier if we could locate the problem outside ourselves and go about curing it. But the reality is that there is something truly wrong with us. This sickness is within us, and it’s being played out in our daily lives.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to look our sickness straight in the eye – to own it, and ask God to make us whole again. Jesus invites us to live lives of courage. Following him is going to demand bravery, because this life is really scary sometimes. Instead of seeing the fear, and ugliness, and pain as our ultimate reality, Jesus shows us how to embrace these challenging situations and take them as an opportunity for redemption. Forgiveness. Sacrificial love.

When I hear the hatefulness being spewed by the media, both right-wing and progressive. When I see those Trump bumper stickers and sneer. When I look at people around me and judge them because they’re not as enlightened as I am. I’m living my life in fear. I’m living my life outside of the love of God. I’m not being a friend of Jesus.

It’s hard to imagine sometimes – for me anyway – this life of God where tenderness is more important than winning, and love is more powerful than walls. It’s a challenge to stay awake to all the times that I judge others – and feel like I’m well-justified! It’s humbling to realizing that even when I’m right, my judgment and bitterness make me wrong.

In this country that is being torn apart by the need to be right, the need to win, this obsession with overcoming our fears by defeating external enemies – both real and imagined – what does it look like for us to walk in the broken, humbled way that Jesus shows us? What does it mean for us to see ourselves in the Tax Collector, and open ourselves to the forgiveness that we desperately need?

We can’t do it on our own, but the Holy Spirit will give us power and strength if we ask for it. If we cry out together – “God, be merciful to us, sinners!”

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Shake Off the Deadness and Embrace the Challenge

Shake Off the Deadness and Embrace the Challenge
Do you remember? Back then the Spirit was present with us. We felt sure that God was guiding us somewhere new, faithful, full of life. We held gatherings at churches, colleges, seminaries. We met in homes and on the street. We felt sure that revival was imminent. Christ was doing a new thing in our time and place.

And then, somehow, we forgot. The weeds of everyday life choked out our awareness of the seed of truth that once seemed so alive.

It didn’t happen all at once. There wasn’t some big decision or line in the sand. But over the course of months and years, through a million micro-decisions, our focus shifted. Our habits changed. Our hope grew dimmer as we set our sights on the things of this fallen world. The promise of Christ’s kingdom – the beloved community – began to seem like a fantasy, a dream. Beautiful, but not realistic.

It’s futile to try and recapture a season that has passed. There’s no rewind button for life. Our struggle, our pain, our redemption all takes place right here, in the very ordinary conditions of the present moment.

Yet the Spirit who animated our lives in the past is still alive and at work. The life and power that inspired all those gatherings, meetups, and actions is still available to us. We can’t turn back time, but we can turn our lives around and once again open ourselves to the reign of God that wants to break forth in our present-day experience.

I wrote in a recent blog post that we have no business talking about revival if we are unwilling to engage in the act of repentance – changing our lives to reflect the truth we know in our hearts. That’s true. But if we are willing to repent, if we are ready to change the way we’re living and embrace Jesus’ way of humble submission in love, then talk of revival is appropriate. The Spirit hovers in our midst, ready to transform our minds, our sight, our lives.

I need this repentance more than anyone. I need a change of mind and lifestyle so that I can become the life-filled follower of Jesus that my heart longs for me to be. It’s time to shake off the deadness, stare down the fear, and embrace the challenge and joy of life as a disciple.

Are you feeling this sense of calling, too? I hope you’ll consider joining me this weekend for the Friends of Jesus Fall Gathering in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s not too late to register.

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Are You Sleepwalking Towards Death?

Are You Sleepwalking Towards Death?

Are You Sleepwalking Towards Death?
Death is one of the few guarantees. It comes for each and every one of us. Yet, not all deaths are created equal. There is the tragic death that comes in youth, and anticipated death in old age. Sudden death from accident or violence. A slow, managed death in a hospital. There is diversity in death.

In another sense, though, there are only two ways to die: Awake or asleep. We see a reality, presence, and dignity in the deaths of people like Malcolm X, the passengers of Flight 93, and Archbishop Oscar Romero. These are people who died with their eyes open. They understood the moment in time that they occupied, and they seized it.

One of the greatest fears of the medieval European Christian was of dying suddenly, without the chance to confess sins and prepare for the hereafter. Yet today we live in a society of sleepwalkers. Our culture denies the reality of death and loses touch with the visceral beauty of untamed life. Each day, each breath, each interaction is rippling with vibrancy, but so often we are oblivious to it.

I, too, have been a sleepwalker. I believed that I had to mortgage today to purchase tomorrow. I bought into a lifestyle of delayed faithfulness. In exchange for a mirage of responsibility and security, I surrendered the vibrancy, freedom, and power of the present moment. Rather than being renewed and transformed, I allowed myself to be conformed to this darkened, crumbling world.

Fear. That was at the heart of it. Fear that the truth wouldn’t really “work” after all. Fear that my ideals and passion wouldn’t bring home the bacon. Fear that this present moment, with all its beauty, still wasn’t quite as real as my uncertain imaginings about the future.

I’m choosing not to live in fear anymore. 

It’s simple practicality: Fear just doesn’t work. Numbing myself to the joy of the present has never paid off in any way that really matters. Buying the future with the past is the game of the principalities and powers – the capitalists, politicians, and elite rulers. It’s not a game for me or mine. Our life, our calling is to serve the Lord. Today. Come what may. And there’s joy in that. There’s freedom in that.

Death comes to each and every one of us. No one escapes this final fate – no matter how rich, powerful, or successful they are in the eyes of the world. All that really counts for anything is: Will you die with your eyes open, your heart prepared, your spirit at peace? Or will you be one of the millions of sleepwalking zombies who goes to the grave with a life unexamined, joy unexperienced, love unexpressed?

Death waits for no one – and neither does this precious moment. Right now. Will you seize it?

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