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In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/11/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, & Mark 12:38-44. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

It can be hard to believe, in times like these. Hard to believe in a God that allows a world of migrant caravans, smoke-filled skies, climate-fueled natural disasters, and a rising movement of authoritarian nationalism. It can be hard to believe in a Christianity that so often sides with the wealthy, the powerful, the violent and the arrogant. Based on what we see on the national and world stage, it can be a challenge to believe that human beings are capable of anything beyond self-interest, self-preservation, and self-deception.

There’s this spiritual weight that has fallen over us as a people. We feel the temptation to despair. Despair tells us, “things won’t get better – they’ll always get worse. People don’t change, what’s the point in trying?” As human beings, we don’t lose hope because life is hard; we lose hope because life seems to have lost all sense of possibility, all long-term meaning and legacy.

It was this kind of lurking despair that Elijah found when he encountered the widow in Zarephath. The land was dying. The food was almost gone. No one and nothing could save her or her child. It hadn’t rained in the whole region for years. The famine was severe. What more could be done? Maybe it was just time to give up and die.

When Elijah showed up a the gates of Zarephath, he found this widow doing the only thing she could do: gathering sticks to start a fire, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. And as she stands there, gathering kindling to prepare the last of the food available to her family, a stranger appears. Begging for food. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

I don’t know what the widow thought when Elijah approached her, asking for bread. I don’t know, because it doesn’t say in the text. But I know what I would be thinking if I were in her place. “Bring you a morsel of bread? Bring you a morsel of bread? My family is getting ready to starve to death, and you want me to give you food, stranger? Go sell crazy somewhere else – we’re all stocked up here!”

The widow is kinder than I might have been. Maybe because she’s afraid. She says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” That sounds familiar. Have you ever done that? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I know I have. “Sorry, man – I don’t have any cash on me.” Technically true, but really a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to help.”

And why should she, right? Why should she want to help? Generosity flows out of hope, and hope seems in very short supply these days. The widow tells the stranger, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare [the remaining food] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“That we may eat it, and die.” Things are getting real in Zarephath.

But then Elijah makes a promise – an outrageous promise: Give me some food, and God will take care of you and your son. He says:

“Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

Can you believe this guy? “Don’t worry lady – go make me some food right away. If you do, God is going to make your handful of grain and final drops of oil last for years!” Would you believe a stranger telling you this kind of stuff?

The text is very sparse on details. It doesn’t give us much insight into the widow’s emotional reactions to this whole conversation. It just says that she did what Elijah asked, and that God made good on Elijah’s promise. The prophet stayed with them for many days, and the three of them had enough to eat. The jar of meal never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.

The widow at Zarephath trusted in Elijah and his God, and that leap of faith – that leap of utter desperation – paid off. Elijah truly was a holy man, and God was faithful.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about some other “holy men.” In Mark 12, the important holy men of Jerusalem are demanding to know by what authority Jesus has disrupted the holy precincts of the temple by chasing out the money changers. In response, Jesus tells a parable, comparing the religious leaders to murderous thieves. They try to trip him up with questions about paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, and debates about the identity of the messiah.

At the end of all this, Jesus warns his listeners to watch out for these self-serving religious leaders, who live at the center of power in Jerusalem:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Elijah ate what a widow had to offer, receiving her food as an offering to God. And as a sign of God’s favor, God miraculously multiplied the meal and oil, saving the lives of the widow and her son. We see echoes of this story in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. When we offer up what we have to God, there is enough to go around.

The religion of the temple in Jesus’ time was of an entirely different character from the prophetic faith of Elijah. The widow’s gift to Elijah was a leap of faith, but tithes to the temple were a tax imposed by a wealthy elite. Elijah lived on the margins, fleeing the wrath of a corrupt king; the temple was the very seat of power.

In the traditional Jewish cosmology, the temple was the holiest place in the holiest land on earth. The story of Elijah and the widow takes place in the least holy place possible – among the gentiles in Sidon. The temple was home to the best and brightest; Zarephath was full of unclean outsiders who had nothing left and were preparing to die. The rulers of the temple demand religious devotion and economic sacrifice, but Elijah comes begging and offering good news to the poor.

The second part of our reading from Mark is the famous “widow’s mite” story. It says that Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched people putting money in. Lots of rich people came by and donated large sums. And then finally a poor widow came and put in a couple of copper coins – practically nothing. And Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The most common reading of this passage is to interpret Jesus as praising the widow for her faith. While the other, wealthy, donors all gave out of their abundance, the widow gave in a self-sacrificial way. Through her willingness to surrender everything for her faith in the temple, she demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that Jesus wants to see in his disciples.

There’s a beauty in this interpretation, and I think it can be a legitimate way of thinking about the text on a certain level. But when we look at the context of this passage in the Gospel of Mark, when we look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and all the struggles and debates that this action unleashed, the story of the widow’s offering starts looking less like a model of faithfulness and more like an example of economic oppression.

Superficially, it would seem that the widow’s gift at the temple has a lot in common with the widow’s gift to Elijah at Zarephath. In both cases, a marginalized, impoverished woman living on the edge gives everything that she has to live on. They both give it to holy men who claim to have a higher purpose for asking for the resources they need to live. But the holy men of the temple do not possess the same character as Elijah.

The widow at Zarephath took a leap of faith to feed a prophet on the run, a prophet being hunted by an abusive and unfaithful king in Israel. The widow at Jerusalem gave away everything she had to live on to satisfy the demands of an abusive and unfaithful temple system – men who “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” The faith of Elijah relieves poverty and famine, but the temple’s tithing system exacerbates it.

Where do we find ourselves in these scriptures? Do we live in the faith of Elijah? The faith of the margins? The prophetic faith that stands with the poor, the widow, the hungry? Or have we been seduced by the spectacle and violence of the temple?

The religion of the temple is still very much alive in our world today. It is the faith of Wall Street, the faith of the Pentagon. The faith of Silicon Valley. It’s the prosperity gospel that tells us we all get what we have earned – that the rich deserve to run the show, and the poor deserve to eat their last meal and die. This kind of religion centers the people and institutions that already have a lot, and says they should be given more. This is the kind of faith that devours widow’s homes and for the sake of appearances says long prayers.

Jesus and Elijah offer us an alternative this way of empire. They stand in the prophetic tradition. The way of the wilderness, the revelation of the burning bush. Theirs is the way of utter dependence on God, the way of the cross. It’s a way of liberation. To walk with Jesus is to hear the voice of God calling to us on the tattered edge of empire, commanding us to say to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” The prophetic faith of Jesus turns its back on the center, the holy, the important, the wise, in order to embrace those who are rejected and despised by the world.

In days like these, when the skies are filled with smoke and refugees stream northward seeking refuge and safety – in times when political power seems bankrupt of moral authority – we are tempted to despair, to gather sticks so that we can cook our food and die.

In our hunger for a faith that can speak to our distress, Jesus and Elijah present us with two different paths we can choose. Will we put our faith in the God of Moses – who challenges oppressive structures and liberates his people from slavery? Will we walk in the faith of Jesus, who surrendered everything – his life, honor, and dignity – to open the door to healing and reconciliation?

Or will we pick the way of the temple? Will we be like the scribes, riding high on our own sense of moral authority? Will we place burdens on the poor and the marginalized that they cannot bear? Will we side with the economic and political system that is choking our planet and tearing families apart? Will we allow our hopelessness to congeal into cynicism? Will we seek personal advantage in a time of societal breakdown?

As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to guess about which path we are called to. Our God is the holy one of the wilderness. He stands with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the migrant caravans and the child laborers who make our clothing and electronics.

Our God dwells with those who our economic system is crushing. On the cross, Jesus bears the suffering of the weeping parents and hungry children. In his resurrection power, he invites us into the ministry of reconciliation, turning away from the glitz and glamor of celebrity and power and toward the daily needs of those who have been cast away by our society.

Will we heed this call? Will we become like the prophet Elijah, approaching the widow at Zarephath for food, offering good news to the poor?

The prophet does not command obedience through their own wealth and power. Elijah did not come to Zarephath as someone superior and worthy of respect. He came as a homeless beggar. Like Jesus and the early disciples, he carried nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the good news of God’s salvation. Liberation for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.

In these times of darkness, when we are tempted to despair, Jesus and Elijah offer us a way forward. A way of life and peace. A way of releasing our fear and embracing trust in God. By serving those most in need – by embracing our place as humble beggars in the house of God – we can find our way through this time of drought and famine. Together with the unexpected friends that God will reveal to us, we might even find hope.

Related Posts:

God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

The Kingdom of God is Freedom – Why Are We So Busy and Anxious?

The Kingdom of God is Freedom from Anxiety and Busyness
When I first moved to Washington, DC, one of the first things I noticed was how busy everyone was. The capital of the United States is a place where people come to fight for their dreams. This city draws ambitious, well-educated, high-achieving people from all over the world.

Few other cities offer the kind of intellectual stimulation and challenge that our city does. Living here, we think fast and talk fast. We work hard to achieve a more positive and prosperous social order through business, science, and government.

But there’s a dark side to living in a land of such high expectations. Our culture leads to high performance and innovation, yes – but also to stress, workaholism, burnout, and even despair. When work becomes an all-consuming identity, all our other relationships – family, friends, hobbies, faith community – risk being diminished. Work and career success becomes the bright center of our universe, and all else must find its place in orbit.

For those of us who want to follow Jesus, this is an especially challenging dynamic. Jesus calls us to surrender our whole lives to loving God and neighbor. He commands us not to worry, and to give away what we have to those who are in need. He says, “don’t concern yourself with tomorrow, but show love to others – even your enemies – today.”

Our collective focus on career success is at odds with the life of gospel simplicity that Jesus teaches us. The unceasing treadmill of achievement threatens to overwhelm the joy and rest that Jesus offers us. The peace of Christ is swallowed up by the demands of sixty hour work weeks, networking, and an endless parade of goal-oriented tasks.

In this environment, even our faith can feel like just another task to be completed. Sunday morning worship – check. Spiritual disciplines – check. Grace before dinner – check. Prayer is yet another conference call we need to fit in before dinner.

But that’s not the gospel. The good news of Jesus is abundant life – freedom from fear, hatred, and the tyranny of busyness. As we learn to follow him, Jesus becomes the center – not another task to perform, but the unitive meaning and foundation of our lives. He liberates us from our task-oriented, success-dominated culture. He relativizes all those other demands in our lives. He reminds us that there is only one thing that is needful – his life, his presence, his love.

In Jesus we can find rest, relief from the burden of busyness. This is good news. Yet few of us are willing to walk this path, because it demands that we surrender our need to be important, be productive, be affirmed by our culture, colleagues, and bosses. It means giving up the security that this world offers in order to inherit the peace that the world cannot give.

What does this look like for you and me? How is Jesus calling us to embrace the bold and courageous spirit of the gospel in our daily lives? What would it mean to reject the culture of anxiety and overwork? How can we support one another in living as friends of Jesus, and inviting others to join us?

Related Posts:

Is My Life Too Busy for Contemplation?

What Does it Mean for Me To Believe In the Resurrection?

What Does It Mean For Me To Believe in the Resurrection?

What Does It Mean For Me To Believe in the Resurrection?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/1/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, and John 20:1-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And how did this world repay him? How did we respond to the love and prophetic challenge of Emmanuel, God-with-us? This dark and fallen world put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree. Blinded by fear and violence, they crucified the Lord of glory.

The forces of death, chaos, and confusion thought that they had won. The evil spirits were laughing in delight. They had defeated truth and love once again. The rulers of this world were breathing a sigh of relief; they were finally rid of this trouble-maker, Jesus. Like so many prophets before and since, Jesus paid for his faithfulness with his life.

But we are here this morning, because we know that this was not the end of the story. Can I get an amen? I want to hear you this morning. This is our victory celebration!

The cross was not an end, but a beginning. Not a wall, but a window. Not defeat, but triumph. The kind of death that leads to new life, like a seed that falls on the ground and dies, so that it may grow into something new, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, a hundred fold!

On the third day after Golgotha, God raised Jesus from the dead! Early that first Easter morning, Jesus appeared to Mary, the first apostle.

Mary had come to anoint Jesus’ body for burial – there hadn’t been time on Friday. She came to give Jesus’ the loving care that no one else had the courage to give. She came to care for the body of Christ.

But the body wasn’t there. The tomb was empty. Not knowing what to do, Mary ran and found Peter and another disciple. She told them what she had seen: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The men went off running to the tomb. The leaned down inside and saw that the body was missing. And then they returned to their homes.

But Mary wasn’t ready to return home just yet. Mary was in shock. Where was the body of her lord, her teacher, her friend? She lingered outside the tomb and wept.

Through her eyes, blurry with tears, Mary Magdalene saw what the men disciples did not. As she waited, present with her grief, she witnessed the angels of God sitting in the tomb. And then, something even more amazing. Mary was waiting for Jesus, and he also was waiting for her. Just outside the tomb. In the garden. Calling her by name.

Have you heard him call you by name?

This is how Mary became the original apostle. Apostle to the apostles, to the ones who we now call the Twelve. Mary proclaimed the word of God, the light of the resurrection, to men who didn’t understand yet, didn’t believe yet, but would soon be transformed into leaders that Jesus would use to gather his church and proclaim his gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Jesus didn’t appear to all the people, but he chose some to be eye-witnesses to the resurrection. Mary was first. Then Peter, then to the Twelve, and to others who especially needed his presence. Remember our brother Stephen, the first Christian martyr; he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus as he was being stoned to death for his faith. Brother Paul the apostle, who had been a notorious persecutor of the church; his life was transformed when met Jesus on the road to Damascus. To this very day, Jesus continues to appear to those who need him. Along with Mary, we can also say, “We have seen the Lord!”

John writes in his first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

For those of us who have seen, or heard, or tasted, smelled, touched with our hands the presence of Jesus – for those of us who have become his friends through the power of the resurrection – he has commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins in his name. The kingdom of God is within us and among us. Hallelujah!

Have you heard the voice of Jesus in your life? Have you seen with your eyes and touched with your hands? Have you experienced in your own body this Word of life, the resurrected Jesus?

Eleven Easters ago, I was in my first year of seminary at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary out in Richmond, Indiana. When I had arrived the previous fall, I didn’t consider myself a Christian. I knew I liked Jesus a lot, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to identify myself with the Christian tradition.

But by the time Easter rolled around, I had gotten to the place where I felt like I could take that step. I had begun calling myself a Christian. I got to that place after reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:3, where he says that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. I thought a lot about those words, “Jesus is Lord.” What did it mean to me, for Jesus to be Lord in my life?

By Easter that year, I knew that Jesus was my Lord. He was my friend, my teacher, my guide, and my example. He was master and commander of my life; where he led, I wanted to follow. I didn’t know what I believed about all the deep theological questions that great thinkers have been debating for the past two thousand years, but I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus wherever he would lead, to surrender my life to him. That was good enough for me.

That Easter, my first Easter as a Christian, I attended Sunday morning worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting. It was a really strange experience. It’s an atmosphere of celebration. Everyone is saying, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And here I am, the new Christian in his first year of seminary, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, I knew the story of the resurrection. I was actively studying the New Testament at that time; I knew what the texts said. But reading stories is one thing. These people were talking like these things actually happened. I had been reading the resurrection story as metaphor, but these people seemed to be taking it literally!

I didn’t want to seem too sacrilegious, so I asked my questions quietly. But I did ask. “Do you really believe this? You think that Jesus really, literally, physically rose from the dead? What’s your basis for that? And if you don’t think that, isn’t it a little weird to go running around proclaiming “he is risen!”?

I can’t remember exactly what kind of answers I got in response to my questions. On the one hand, I suspect that the people I was asking wrestled with the same kind of doubts as me. When you really examine some of the stuff that we believe as Christians, it’s a little ridiculous. Bodily resurrection? Ascension into heaven? We’d never take these kinds of claims literally if any other religion made them.

And yet… And yet. Despite the doubt, in spite of the preposterous nature of the Christian faith, I didn’t walk away from that worship service disillusioned. I was intrigued. I still didn’t know if I could believe this whole story. I didn’t know if I could really accept the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. But some part of me wanted to. Even if my rational mind couldn’t readily accept it, my heart wanted to believe.

Why? What would make me want to believe in this kind of fairy tale?

Joy. In these fully-grown men and women celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, I sensed the joy of children. If you ask a young child why they love their parents, they’re not going to give you some kind of coherent philosophical answer. At best, you’re going to get something along the lines of, “because they’re my mommy and my daddy!” The love of children for parents is rooted in the established reality joy and trust.

The resurrection is like that. It’s not a set of facts to be known, but a relationship to experience. This is what Mary discovered in the pre-dawn light that first Easter morning. She was distraught; her love for Jesus was so strong, and she thought she had lost him forever. She was so upset, and the reality of the situation was so unexpected, that she didn’t even recognize Jesus when he was standing in front of her.

Then he said her name. “Mary.”

Then she knew who she was talking to. Jesus. Friend. Lord. Brother. Teacher. Her heart was filled with astonishment and joy to overflowing. “Rabbouni!” She couldn’t believe what was happening, but her heart and her spirit told her that it was the most real thing she would ever experience. Jesus is here. “I have seen the Lord.”

Like Mary, we don’t have a relationship with Jesus because we believe in the resurrection. We believe in the resurrection because of our lived experience of Jesus. The resurrection is not just a story that we tell one another once a year. It is a lived daily reality. Jesus shows up. Even when we don’t recognize him. He calls us by name.

We don’t all have to have spectacular visions of Jesus to know him. Through Jesus, all things on heaven and earth were created, and we can experience him in all things. He’s with us when the trees sway and the leaves move in the wind – because Jesus is like that. We experience the resurrection when the truth is spoken and love is shared – because Jesus is like that. We know that Jesus is alive and well and active in the world when we see people caring for one another, sacrificing for each other, even when they’ve got nothing to gain – because Jesus is like that.

We have seen the Lord. Can you say it with me? We have seen the Lord. Hallelujah.

I know that some of us probably feel just like I did eleven years ago. Let’s be honest: This whole resurrection story sounds totally insane. It defies everything we know about the way the universe works. Dead men don’t come back to life after three days. Angels don’t show up in tombs. People executed by the state don’t get the last word.

But what if our conception of how the world works is the problem? What if the resurrection – our faith that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – reveals the way God’s universe really operates? We worship a God of impossible things, and we live in a mystery.

This world says, “money makes the world go round” – but the resurrected Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Our culture says, “might makes right,” but Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The world never tires of telling us that we need to be afraid, be prepared, be on guard, or we’ll get left behind. But the God of Jesus is the loving creator who has his eye on the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. In the face of fear, he has commanded us not to worry. In a world where nothing seems secure, Jesus teaches us to live in trust.

Maybe the resurrection isn’t crazy after all. Maybe it’s of one piece with everything that God is teaching us in Jesus.

The power of the resurrection is here this morning. Don’t just believe it. Live it.

We welcome you, Lord Jesus. We welcome you, Holy Spirit. We welcome you, God and Father of all. We see you.

We have seen the Lord.

Related Posts:

What is the Faith that Makes Resurrection Possible?

In the Ash Heap and By the River – There’s Only One Way Home

For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge

For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge
I’ve never been a quiet person. By temperament and training, I’ve always been outward-focused and active. I’ve always wanted to change the world. I’ve wanted to be a person who changes hearts and minds. Someone who develops new institutions and structures that serve humanity better.

I want to be where the action is. I have an innate desire to ponder and debate great ideas, to wrestle with difficult decisions. I want a role in shaping our society. For better or for worse, I am driven to be a leader.

In recent years, I’ve been wrestling with a new and surprising experience. It’s a sense of leading that pushes back against my own natural tendency to leadership and action. Every step I take leads me deeper into silence, self-questioning, and observation.

Something is changing inside me. In my twenties, I possessed a remarkable amount of clarity. My sense of vision was strong. My faith was sure. I knew exactly where I was going.

I no longer feel that way.

My sense of moral integrity remains steadfast. But my ability to articulate a clear way forward has diminished. I’m astonished at the complexity of this world. What I once considered “radical” now appears foolish to me. It’s easy to push for immediate, revolutionary change. What’s challenging is to produce change that is truly positive. Change that heals people and avoids harsh backlash and unintended consequences.

Complexity. I guess that’s what I’m learning. Human beings are extremely complex, and we live in a natural world that is even more complex than we are. It was arrogant for me to think that I had an easy answer for anything. There are no easy answers.

So what’s left? If I can’t provide solutions for the world – if I can’t be the radical change-maker I always thought I was – what can I do?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’ve been praying the Episcopal liturgy lately. There’s a particular prayer in the liturgy that has been standing out to me:

Most holy God, the source of all good desires, all right judgements, and all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, so that our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will, and that we, being delivered from the fear of all enemies, may live in peace and quietness; through the mercies of Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.

After all these years of “radical” thrashing, I’m resonating with this prayer to “live in peace and quietness.” I’m realizing that, for me, “revolution” had become both means and end. There really was no end game. I wanted change for the sake of peace and justice, yes. But ultimately, I wanted to make change for its own sake. It was a way to exert power over the world and feel important.

This need to change the world is something I am being called to shed. That doesn’t mean I stop caring about justice. Quite the opposite. But the goal of my life isn’t to change the world – though love may often require substantial change. Instead, for me as a follower of Jesus, life’s meaning is to participate in the peaceable kingdom of God: To love my neighbors as myself. To bless my enemies. To give freely, just as I have received freely.

Change isn’t an end, it’s a means. The change that God wants to see isn’t something that I have to produce. I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive “that peace which the world cannot give.” Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world. Instead, I can allow myself to become an agent of Christ’s love. That’s revolutionary.

Related Posts:

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

The Mountain Top Is Great To Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want To Live There

It’s Hard to Love When They’re Trying to Hurt You

It's Hard to Love When They're Trying to Hurt You
Most days, I go for a run. About three miles. Lately, I’ve been choosing a route that takes me along a trail that winds through a public park in the eastern tip of the District.

This past week, my run has been a struggle. Not because of the summer heat, or tired legs. Those things I can handle. My struggle has been with people. Young people. Boys throwing rocks at me as I pass, calling me names. A little girl on the playground who cocked her hand like a gun and pointed it at me, drawing attention to my whiteness.

Yesterday my struggle came in the form of violent ambush. Teenagers lay in wait for me, attacking me with fireworks. They recorded it on a cell phone for later amusement. All I could do was run, duck, and dodge.

Today, I chose not to run along the wooded paths in the park. Instead, I ran on sidewalks and streets. The more visible the better. Throughout my workout, my eyes scanned for threats. My ears listened for footsteps behind me. My body assumed that anyone moving towards me might be a danger.

We’ve lived in this neighborhood for five years. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt targeted. I’m one of very few white people in an area that is 98% African-American. My neighborhood is home to several large low-income housing developments. I stick out like a sore thumb, and people aren’t always polite.

But this last week has been different. Three separate incidents of escalating antagonism and violence while running. But wait, there’s more. Our car was also broken into. Our lawnmower was recently stolen. Last week when I was working from home, teens came into our back yard. Casually, they destroyed one of our stepping stones.

After a week like this, it’s hard to be here. It’s hard to love the people around me. I’m having a hard time seeing my neighbors as anything but a potential threat. After a week like this, I’m tempted to move. At the very least, I could build a high fence for our backyard. Rather than risking the streets, I could get a gym membership and drive miles away to exercise.

I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m not a victim, or a hero, or anything else. I’m just a middle class white man who would like to be on good terms with his neighbors. Or at least not face taunts, theft, and violence. That would be a good start.

This is a confession. I’ve been trying to follow Jesus for more than ten years, and I still don’t have any clue how to love those who hate me. When those kids chased me with lit Roman Candles, I didn’t have any desire to bless them. When others threw rocks at me and called me names, I didn’t feel anything resembling love. No, the honest truth – I felt hate.

I want to be a follower of Jesus, but I have no interest in being nailed to a cross like he was. Martyrdom sounds noble when you read about it in books. That’s because it’s in a book. It’s a beautiful theory – a lie we tell ourselves to justify horror.

But when Jesus died, there was no cause, no glory, no revolution. Only people who hated him for no reason. Just his decision to submit himself to the Father’s will.

I don’t have that kind of strength. What’s worse, I’m not sure I want it. I’d rather move away, or build a fence, or get that gym membership. I’d rather avoid contact with those who want to hurt me. Let the police handle them. I’d rather do what every rational human being wants to do: Protect myself and those I love.

But what would Jesus do? Surely, somehow, he would find a way to love.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

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Don’t Worry. Death Is Your Friend

Image by Zoe Delautre (https://twitter.com/ZDelautre/status/850365114490421249)
I’ve always been fascinated by death. The reality that I’m going to die is a major motivating factor in my life.

I may be a little strange. When I graduated from high school, my predominant mood was one of foreboding. I had passed this milestone, and now I was another step closer to the end. Today I’m graduating high school, tomorrow I’ll be turning fifty. Soon I’ll be six feet under.

In the middle ages, these kind of thoughts would have been normal. Medieval society was fixated on the reality of death, summed up in the Latin term Memento Mori: “Remember that you have to die.” For European Christendom, all of life fell under the shadow of death. The present took its ultimate meaning from the reality that it was all about to end.

American society, on the other hand, is almost ridiculous in its optimism. We couldn’t be more different from the death-focused culture of the Middle Ages. We view death as something to be avoided. Even to mention it is often seen as morbid at best, bad luck at worst. We should focus on the present. Better yet, focus on the future. Because it’s only getting brighter.

Despite my innate tendency to reflect on my own mortality, I’ve been deeply formed by my death-denying American upbringing. I’ve seen death’s icy gaze, but I haven’t welcomed it. I’ve fought it. Fled it. My remembrance of death has often served as an impetus to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I’ve placed great pressure on myself to accomplish something worthy of the time I’ve been alloted. Death could come at any moment. That makes it all the more important to justify how I spend my days. The worst imaginable outcome would be to look back from the moment of death and see only a life wasted.

This attitude has spurred my ambition, creativity, and exploration. It has also been a heavy burden to place on the countless mundane moments that make up an ordinary life. I’ve spent much of my time feeling guilty for not being more heroic, more daring, more prepared to smile back with pride from the brink of death. Rather than making life important, my relationship with death has made it urgent.

My relationship to death has begun to alter. For most of my life, I’ve experienced death as a foe to be outwitted and conquered. I’ve sought a life that laughs in the face of its end. But something has changed. Slowly, subtly, surprisingly, I am discovering death as a friend.

A strange sort of friend, to be sure. But I can no longer see death merely a constraint that forces me to live life to the fullest. Death is revealing itself as an integral part of my existence. To truly live, I must learn to die. Not just at some sudden moment in the future, but right now. Each day, I must learn to release my life and be handed over into death. 

I’m seeing the way a thousand little deaths accumulate. Losing a job. Giving up on a dream. Letting go of one passion to seize another. Moving to a new city. Surrendering singleness for marriage, and selfhood for parenthood. These are some of the little annihilations that make room for something new to emerge. The deaths that make real life possible.

This process of dying is more powerful than my own self-directed living. This way of dying provides me with glimpses of the cross of Jesus. In surrendering my life and will, I begin to taste the cup that he drank from. My hopes, certainties, and assurances are stripped away one by one. Nothing is left except a long walk on the road to Emmaus.

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What If This Is the End of the World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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