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How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again


The industrial revolution colonized my faith, and I never even knew it.

For so much of my ministry, I focused on doing things for God. I’ve been like a child who takes a toy their parent has given them, and returns it to the parent as a “gift.” One of the first revelations I received from God was that I own nothing. I can’t produce anything under my own power. Yet my response to God’s action in my life has always been about creating return on investment. It’s so hard to receive a gift without providing anything in return.

As a pilgrim in the north of England in 2005, I experienced something life-changing. It was an anointing by the Holy Spirit. God touched me in a way I’ll never be able to describe. I felt resolute clarity that God had called me into a life of service to him. I thought I was ready to give up everything.

My first response to this amazing encounter was to dream of evangelizing Europe. I find this embarrassing to recall. Not because Europe (or America) aren’t in need of the gospel. That’s a mission I’m still excited about. But the idea that I, as someone who had just received the Holy Spirit and who hadn’t even read the New Testament yet… It makes me blush. In truth, I needed people to continue evangelizing me. I was a baby in Christ, and I needed spiritual parents – not to start a family of my own!

It’s fortunate that I listened when God guided me to enroll in a small Quaker seminary in Indiana. I spent several years studying the Bible, Quaker/Christian tradition, and the practice of ministry. This was crucial. My time in seminary broke me open in a lot of ways. I learned to listen more. I submitted my sense of personal inspiration to the discernment of a wider community. I grew in maturity and patience.

But my production-oriented, industrial mindset remained largely untouched. My ministry was still centered on what I could do for God, rather than simply receiving the gift. My focus was on how to engineer tangible results that the world would recognize. I ended up transferring my desire to do something for God into a desire to do something for the Quaker movement.

I was on fire for Jesus and his kingdom. And I knew that the kingdom of God is one of unmerited love and grace. But I wanted to merit it. I wanted to build the kingdom of God with my own two hands. I wanted to be a successful minister, like my heroes from the Bible and Quaker history. More than anything, I wanted to be a minister after the mold of Paul and George Fox. An apostolic movement-builder and church-planter. A charismatic leader who could break open whole new frontiers for the gospel. A man whose faithful preaching and example lays a foundation for community.

It would have been one thing if I had merely burned to be faithful. It would have been beautiful if my dream had to been to use the gifts God gave me to bless others. To show God’s love through my actions, to be a servant like Jesus. But I wanted more than that. I wanted more than Jesus. I wanted results. I wanted to be measurably successful. I wanted to hit those successful ministry benchmarks as defined by the early church and the early Quaker movement. I wanted to win.

The spirit of this age, of the market, of industrial capitalism, was so strong in me, I never even recognized it. I gravitated towards materials from the Evangelical world. They promised to teach me how to be more successful, more productive. I, too, could have an earth-shaking ministry just like George Fox. I could turn stones into bread and throw myself from the top of the temple. Nothing would be beyond me.

It was all a lie. No matter how much I studied the work of other ministers and applied their techniques, I never saw the kind of results I was seeking. The communities I served stayed small. I couldn’t support my family with the income that my various projects brought in. My wife and I grew burned out. Our shared ministry was beginning to feel like a revolving door of failure. The image of ministry success that I dreamed of had turned into a nightmare.

And so, at a certain point in the fall of 2014, I gave up. I was finally exhausted enough to face the truth. My dreams disconnected from reality. My aspirations seemed to be running against the grain of what God was asking of me. I had no idea what God wanted, but it wasn’t this.

I’ve spent the last couple of years in the wilderness. I’ve backed away from full-time ministry. I’ve taken on full-time, secular work. I put my time and attention into family, career, and the nuts and bolts of making a life for ourselves in this city. I’ve found friends and activities that have nothing to do with any sort of ministry objective. This is new.

These have been hard years. It was painful to step away from the work that had defined my life so completely in my twenties. It was disorienting to release leadership and allow my communities to fall apart, lie fallow, or morph into new configurations I hardly recognized. These last few years have felt like dying.

But I’m thankful. These wilderness years have been a dark blessing. Through the pain and confusion, God has been scouring out my insides. He’s challenged my industrial, results-oriented mindset. The Holy Spirit has hollowed me out and broken me.

I won’t say I’m healed. I won’t say it’s over, or that I’ve figured my life out. There’s nothing that definitive. I’m living in a not-knowing that is powerful in its ambiguity. I’m living in the desert of the Real, and all I have to guide me is the hope that God will lead me, even if I don’t know it.

For the time being, I don’t want to do anything for God. I also don’t want to do anything for principle, causes, or movements, either. Any positive impact I make, any real joy I experience, is going to come from doing things for people. Not an abstract idea of people, but the flesh-and-blood human beings who live in my neighborhood, joke with me at work, and share my commute. My ministry field is the brothers and sisters that God has placed in my life. My measure of success is the joy, generosity, and love that I bring into theirs.

Maybe someday I’ll be part of something big. But that’s up to God. Until then, I’m excited to see what small can do.

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What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?

What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 36 & Matthew 6:19-34

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!

Good morning.

I’m going to start with the heresy and work back to the gospel this morning. Because reading on the sermon on the mount reminds me of what a tough time I have with the Bible. The Bible, for me, is pretty uneven in terms of how it impacts me. So this morning I want to talk a little bit about three broad categories of scripture and how they impact my life.

The Bible has a lot of rough parts to it. There are the parts that make me uncomfortable because they don’t seem to reflect the character of the God I know. I’m thinking of the genocide passages in Joshua and Chronicles, for example. Or the parts of the New Testament where Paul seems to be getting pretty negative towards women. These sections of the Bible are difficult for me. As a Christian, I want to trust the text, but some of these texts seem to run against the grain of what I know from the life of Jesus, the great cloud of witnesses, and my own lived experience with the Holy Spirit.

So there’s this other category of scripture, that hits me in a different way. One way of naming it might be the “warm fuzzy scriptures.” Now, we all have our own warm fuzzy scriptures – they’re not all the same for different people. A great example might be 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul writes about love. This passage is so beautiful and moving that it’s commonly read at weddings, even though Paul is speaking about God’s agape love, rather than human romantic love. Another scripture that comes to mind is John’s first letter, in which he writes about the tangible reality of God’s light and love.

With these passages, and many others, I’m ready to shout “Amen!” They affirm who I know God to be, and they encourage me to more fully live into the radically open, deeply loving presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are some parts of the Bible that don’t fit into either one of these categories. It’s a kind of scripture that I find deeply disturbing. It’s not like those uncomfortable passages from Joshua or Paul’s letters, that I can simply dismiss or bracket as not meaningful for me.

When I read about God ordering the destruction of whole cities in the Old Testament, or when I find passages where Paul seems to deny women equal dignity before God, I feel a basic wrongness with these writings. They don’t line up with who I know God to be.

But then there are passages like the ones we’ve heard this morning. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are truly startling. I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t worry. Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” I know that Jesus’ words are true, but I can’t quite accept the teaching. Something within me resists.

With scriptures in this third category, like the ones we’ve heard this morning, any resistance, any dissonance, any sense of wrongness that I feel is rooted in myself. It’s not a problem with the text. It’s not a problem with Jesus. It’s a problem with me. I’m drawn to the teachings of Jesus. I can feel their truthfulness. Yet I hesitate to fully embrace his teaching. It seems impossible. I’m afraid that if I were to follow him completely, it would destroy my life.

So I’m caught in this strange place. Not brave enough to fully embrace Jesus’ teaching, but also unable to walk away. This feeling reminds me of what the first disciples experienced. There was a time when Jesus said some really crazy things and many of his friends were abandoning him. And Jesus asked the twelve, “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?” Peter responded this way: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

That’s my feeling when I encounter Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t really like what he’s saying. His teaching threatens my whole way of life, and part of me would rather run away. I’m tempted to avoid this wild-eyed teacher who wants to turn my whole world upside down.

But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His words simultaneously disrupt my life and heal me. I can’t escape his message. Even if I were to flee across the sea like Jonah, I know that his words would find me. They’d swallow me up like the fish and spit me onto the dry land, and I’d have to go to Nineveh anyway.

Jesus has the words of eternal life. We heard in our psalm this morning, “With you is the fountain of life. In your light we see light.” Through the words that Jesus speaks to us this morning, he is en-light-ening me. He’s shining light into places that I’d rather not see. His light shows me places I’d rather not go. He’s calling me.

Jesus is inviting us into a life free from worry and fear. Casting aside all the wealth, status, and possessions that we spend our lives accumulating. Jesus calls us into a life that refuses to defend itself. Right now we’re trapped in a death spiral of anxiety, consumerism, and self-defense. But Jesus illuminates a whole different path we can walk.

Jesus reveals a way of joyful abandon, one in which we can live freely and simply. Like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to burden ourselves with guilt and worry. We can abandon the fiction of self-sufficiency. That’s what it means to accept the bounty and goodness of our Creator.

This whole Sermon on the Mount pushes me really hard. From chapter 5 to chapter 7, Jesus is laying down a heaping mess of truth. No one can hear his words from start to finish, take them seriously, and not be moved to repentance and action.

In the passages we’ve heard this morning, I think Jesus’ message is for the most part very clear. He tells us that we’re going to have to make a choice between God and wealth. We can’t serve both of them. We’re going to have to pick sides. Will we seek after God and the web of loving relationships that he wants to establish? Or will we choose the way of clutching anxiety that accompanies our obsession with wealth, possessions, and status?

We cling to these things because they provide us with an illusion of control. An illusion that, somehow, we can cheat death altogether.

There’s a movie I really love. I’ve watched it many times. I’m willing to admit it’s a Tom Cruise movie. It’s called Vanilla Sky. Have any of you seen it?

In Vanilla Sky, the main character, played by Tom Cruise, is a man who has everything. He’s ridiculously wealthy. He’s powerful. He can have any woman he wants. As much as any human being can, he lives with the illusion of complete control and freedom. Yet, as we come to find out, he’s a deeply unhappy person.

Cruise’s character lives in an illusion of youthful immortality. In the opening scene of the film, he finds a gray hair and plucks it out. He refuses to grow old. He will not acknowledge his own mortality. Later in the movie, during a moment of introspection, he says: “Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?”

Despite all his power, wealth, and fame, Tom Cruise’s character is living a lie. He can’t see what’s right in front of him. He’s living in darkness, and he doesn’t even realize it.

That’s the part of our scripture reading today that is really intriguing to me. Jesus’ clear commands about what our relationship to wealth needs to be – I get it. It’s incredibly challenging and I don’t live up to it, but I get it. I understand, at least conceptually, how the life of freedom Jesus promises us can work. When we let go of our need to be in charge, be in control – when we become simply flowers in the field of God – things change. The world opens up. We don’t have to hold onto our anxiety and dread anymore. We can live in joy.

But Jesus also talks about the light and darkness. And these words of Jesus have always struck me as enigmatic. Not just challenging, not merely convicting, but mysterious. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

So. The eye is the lamp of the body. If it’s healthy, we’re full of light. But if not, the whole body is full of darkness. And if the light within us is darkness, how great is that darkness!

This takes me back to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. This man is trapped. He’s living in a miserable, isolated, narcissistic fantasy world. The light within him is darkness. He is so deeply invested in his own illusions – his power games and toys – that he’s lost track of what reality consists of. For him, darkness really is light. How great that darkness!

And I wonder about myself. I like to think I’ve got a solid grip on reality. I want to imagine that what I value really is worthy of my time and energy. That my relationships are real and meaningful. That my love and care for others is genuine. But what if the light in me is darkness? What if my eye is unhealthy. What if I’ve become so used to my deformed condition that now darkness looks like light to me, and real light is a terror?

How great the darkness!

I’m in need of a regular reality check. That’s probably the biggest reason I keep coming back to the Bible, to this community, to our Christian tradition. My own perceptions of the world are so subjective. I need a regular dose of reality to make sure that the light in me isn’t actually darkness.

Each one of us alone is in real danger of developing unhealthy eyes and losing track of what’s true and important in our lives. As a community gathered by the Holy Spirit around the person of Jesus, we have a better chance of keeping our eyes open and alive to the light of God. When we gather together. When we hold one another accountable. When we read the Bible together and weigh what’s being said. When we come closer to Jesus together.

For with him is the fountain of life. In his light we see light.

So I want to leave us with a few queries, a few spiritual questions to consider:

What are the ways that we hold one another accountable as a community? How do we encourage one another to have healthy eyes, so that the whole body is full of light? What does it mean for us to live into the radical, fearless, joyful life that Jesus offers us? And what will it cost us?

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If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up with Trump?

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up with Trump?
When I first became a Quaker, I assumed that the Friends tradition endorsed my existing liberal, secular worldview. I believed that all human beings were basically good. All of us want to do the right thing, after all. We just need resources, love, and support to grow in a healthy direction.

The more I learned about the theological underpinnings of the original Quaker movement, however, the more uncomfortable I became. It seems that, when George Fox spoke of “that of God in everyone,” he wasn’t referring to a divine spark innate to each person. He was speaking of the imprisoned presence of God within the heart of a depraved humanity.

Depravity. It turns out that the early Quaker movement had a lot more in common with Calvinist Puritanism than it did with modern theological liberalism. Rather than viewing humanity as basically good, but in need of a little bit of TLC, the early Quakers taught that humanity is fundamentally selfish, broken, and in active rebellion against God’s love.

The place where Quakers parted ways with the Puritan doctrine of “total depravity” wasn’t the “depravity” part. Quakers took issue with the idea of “total.” For George Fox and the fiery preachers of the early movement, it was axiomatic that humanity is lost in darkness and separated from God. It’s obvious that human beings often choose our own selfish desires over love for others. Anyone who is paying attention knows there is something terribly wrong with us.

What set Quaker teaching apart was its emphasis on the inward Light of Christ. Quakers preached the saving power of God, present in/with the Creation. This loving presence can redeem even the most wicked and hateful person. Calvinists argued that God sovereignly redeems only some people, and predestines the rest to damnation. Quakers insisted that all people receive an actionable offer of salvation through the indwelling presence of Jesus in their lives.

Why does all this matter? Why am I dredging up centuries-old theological debates, using language that is, at best, opaque to many readers?

Strange as it may seem, I believe that the concept of depravity is vital to the experience of the church in the West today. Much of the progressive Christian community – along with our liberal secular counterparts – has held to teachings about human beings that are just plain wrong.

Just as I once believed that human beings were “basically good” and that we just needed a little extra support to reach our potential, much of the western church has imagined that human thriving was just a matter of technique. With enough education, technology, and economic justice, we could achieve the kingdom of God. The moral arc of the universe would bend its way towards justice.

This faith must now be irrevocably shattered. Many of us closed our eyes to the violent injustice of the United States under the Obama administration. Almost all of us fought less urgently for justice than we feel compelled to now, in the wake of the 2016 election. With the rise of a proto-fascist, white supremacist regime, it’s harder than ever to maintain the fiction of a “basically good” humanity that just needs a little bit of encouragement.

It’s time to reclaim a recognition of human brokenness, sin, and separation from God. We can’t ignore it any longer. It is manifestly evident that we are not what we ought to be. Neither technological prowess nor economic gains seem likely to alter that equation any time soon. Something is wrong here, and we must look deeper than ever before if we are to come to terms with it.

Self-examination is in order. It would be easy to take the idea of human sin and selfishness and merely apply it to others. There is a temptation to take all of our fear, fury, and disappointment and project it onto those who supported Donald Trump in his bid for the presidency. It would be all too easy to scapegoat them, allowing them to absorb all of our culpability.

But a recognition of human depravity is no cheap trick we can use to absolve ourselves of guilt. Any attempt to turn ourselves into heroes and others into villains would be a lie. If we are to live in the truth, we must begin with the devastating realization: You and I are ourselves depraved. We are liars, self-seeking, potential murderers. We are dishonest with ourselves and others.

None of us is exempt from the reality of human depravity. You and I engage in the very same kind of tribalism that we recognize in others. Most of us were quite willing to overlook the sins of the Obama administration. We have been complicit in the war machine and surveillance state that Mr. Obama helped to perpetuate. In the same way, most of Trump’s supporters are prepared to ignore the dishonesty, violence, and outright narcissism of their chosen leader.

I am not better than Trump’s supporters. It may be that the policies and philosophies that I advocate would have a better effect on the world if enacted. But my fundamental motivations for advocating them are not so different from the motivations of my enemies.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is in no way an excuse or apology for the truly evil regime that is now in power in the United States. God judges wickedness, and this is almost certainly the most wicked administration in living memory.

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

So where do we go from here? How do we emerge from this pit of depravity and engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it were?

When I first became a Quaker, I thought we were an optimistic faith tradition. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between optimism and hope. We can no longer indulge in the cheap optimism that tells us that we’re good people and everything is going to be alright. Our need for hope has never been greater. As friends of Jesus, we are called to live in the hope of redemption. As lost and depraved as we are, there is a life, power, and presence among us that can restore us. Heal us. Bring peace where now there is only struggle.

This peaceable kingdom is real. We are called to it, and with divine assistance we can inhabit it together. But we can only enter this kingdom once we have shed the illusion of our own goodness, piety, and self-sufficiency. There will be no “good people” in this kingdom – only repentant sons and daughters who have come home once again, having squandered our inheritance. The kingdom of God is gentle, a place of thanksgiving and joyful tears.

I want to join you there. To do that, I need to recognize my own brokenness. I need to acknowledge all the ways I’ve prioritized myself over others, all the ways I have been dishonest in pursuit of my own desires and objectives. I want to meet you in the kingdom where the last is first, and the first last. Even if that means that I end up being at the end of the line.

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Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus

Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus
When I was in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I was able to spend all my time studying and pondering the nature of God, Jesus, and the community gathered around him. I considered deep questions of meaning, reflected on Quaker history, and came to a more settled understanding of the Bible and Christian spirituality. I visited a wide diversity of Quaker churches and gatherings, gaining greater insight into who we were as a whole.

Since completing my time at seminary, my life has changed. Slowly, gradually, my life has shifted away from the kind of full-time reflection I enjoyed at ESR. I got married, had a child, and took on full-time employment. Life is very full. I don’t have the mental, physical, or spiritual space to live the kind of deeply contemplative, studious life that I experienced in seminary and in the years immediately following. I hope I will again someday, but I suspect it won’t be soon.

As my life has shifted in a less contemplative direction, my existential curiosity and angst has not diminished at all. If anything, the press of daily life, work, and child-rearing has made issues of meaning, purpose, and legacy even more urgent. I’m growing in my experience of what it means to support others as a husband, father, and resident of the city where I live. It’s full-fledged adult life in all its freedom and responsibilities, joy and stress.

And after a decade of asking hard questions and drinking deeply from the Quaker tradition, I’m convinced of this: All I really need is Jesus – a real, intimate relationship of discipleship with him amidst the noise and clatter of everyday life. I need him to guide my day, even as I’m in the midst of it and can’t see where I’m going. I need him to make my responsibility clear to me, even when it’s inconvenient. I need him to bear God’s love to me, even when I feel lost and unworthy.

For me, any theology beyond Jesus’ death & resurrection is a luxury – something that, while nice to have, I probably don’t have time for most days. I can’t live without Jesus, though. I need his cross to engage with tragedy. I need his resurrection to overcome it.

I need to experience Jesus’ sacrifice first-hand, in my daily surrenderings. I need his resurrection to hold me together when the confusion and pain seems like too much to bear. I need his guiding hand, giving me faith in a victory beyond the compromises and losses of daily life in this world.

I don’t have God figured out. I don’t have the Bible memorized. I can’t tell you how the Trinity works or explain the systematic theology of the great theologians. Probably never will. But I do know I need Jesus. I need him to heal me, hold me together, and guide me in the little steps I must take to be faithful amidst the day’s work.

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There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (8/14/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon deviates a fair amount from the written text.)

Sermon Audio


Listen to the sermon on SoundCloud

Sermon Text:

This passage from Hebrews that we just heard: It’s got to be one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Bible. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit many times. It’s been the theme Scripture for church conferences and events. And it’s been the subtext for so much of church life.

This idea that we are surrounded by this “cloud of witnesses,” that we are a part of a long line of spiritual family. That the struggles we engage in today are part of a bigger picture. It’s a powerful, comforting image.

Back in 2010, Faith and I helped to organize a gathering of young adult Quakers in Wichita, Kansas. It was a gathering that would bring together Quakers from across North America, and across many of the theological and cultural barriers that divide modern-day Friends (and, as I understand it, modern-day Brethren, too).

Most of the gathering took place in a large church sanctuary. The space was ornate and cathedral-like, at least by plain Quaker standards, and it was far bigger than either we in the gathering or the local congregation had need of. In addition to the ample seating in ground level pews, there was also a large, wrap-around balcony – a gallery filled with empty seats.

I remember standing in the sanctuary with one of the members of the pastoral care team for the gathering, and older woman from New England. It was a quiet moment in the church building, before most of the participants had arrived. We were taking a deep breath before the heavy spiritual lifting that would come in the next few days. She looked up into the balcony level and said very seriously. “I can feel them. I can feel the cloud of witnesses.”

It was a comforting idea, but also a challenging one. That cloud of witnesses wasn’t just there to affirm whatever we decided to do. They had an agenda. If those Quaker saints who had gone before us were indeed present, they would be watching to see whether we could bridge the divisions that had developed over the last two centuries. They would be present to encourage us – but also to spur us towards hard conversations and spiritual risk-taking.

I think that this passage from Hebrews is easy to take out of context. We often stretch and bend the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” until it becomes something that is primarily about our own comfort. I don’t know if any of you remember that movie from the mid-90s – Angels in the Outfield? Honestly, don’t really either. I think I saw it once back in 1994, and I don’t remember a lot of detail. But here’s the basic idea of the film:

In the movie, the Los Angeles Angels are the worst team in Major League Baseball. But there’s a little boy who loves the team, and he wants them to win so badly that he prays and asks God to help them win the championship. To his surprise and amazement, God sends angels to miraculously catapult the team into first place. Only the little boy can see the angels, but the effects of their work is clear to the whole world as the Los Angeles Angels go from being the worst in the league, to the best.

It’d be nice to have a cloud of witnesses like that, wouldn’t it? A group of angelic figures that could carry us to glory, even if we’re not at all ready for it. If the “cloud of witnesses” were like the angels in the outfield, we’d always have these invisible cheerleaders – spiritual support for us when times are tough and victory seems impossible. The cloud of witnesses would become an angel army. They’d exist to reinforce our own dreams, our own wishes, our lives as they are. They’d give us strength to make our dreams come true.

And sometimes this might be the right idea. If we’re experiencing hard times, if we’re suffering for our faith and paying the consequences for following Jesus, we need the presence of this encouraging cloud of witnesses more than anything. We need to know that we stand in a line of courage, endurance, and victory in the cross of Jesus. Knowing that, by the grace of God, many others have run this race and been faithful, we’re encouraged to persevere, even when it feels impossible.

But most of the time, at least for me, I experience the cloud of witnesses as a challenging presence in my life. These are people who, as the scripture says:

“…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

This cloud of witnesses are no “angels in the outfield.” They’re not here to give me victory without suffering or pain. They are witnesses to the full cost of discipleship. They demonstrate the kind of hope that is only possible through bearing the cross of Jesus in this world. These are people who inspire us, people who challenge us, whose lives confront our own compromises and give us courage to do what is right.

I think we all have our favorite members of the cloud of witnesses, our own personal gallery of saints that have come before, who spur us to greater faithfulness. One of these witnesses for me is a man named James Nayler. James was one of the most visible leaders of the early Quaker movement in the 1650s. He was a gifted evangelist, spreading the gospel across England. His campaign of preaching in London had a powerful impact, growing and solidifying the Quaker community there.

The 1650s were a time of tumult and upheaval in England, and Quakers were often arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith. James Nayler had a rougher time than many. He was charged with blasphemy by Parliament, and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. But honestly, he might have been better off if they had hung him. His punishment was grotesque: He was given a public flogging of hundreds of lashes. After that, they branded his forehead with “B” for “blasphemer” and bored his tongue through with a hot iron, so that he could never preach again with his renowned eloquence. After that, he was imprisoned until he was physically ruined.

When he finally did get out of prison, he tried to make his way back to Yorkshire, to see his family for the first time in years. On his way, he was robbed and beaten severely. He was found by passersby and died the next day in the home of a Quaker physician.

I mention James Nayler this morning, because I believe he is a prime example of what the author of Hebrews referred to when he spoke of the cloud of witnesses – this heritage of saints who have run the race and endured the cross as an example and encouragement to us.

And I think that Hebrews 11 and 12 were on James Nayler’s mind, as he lay dying in the north of England. Those who attended him recorded his final words, which included this description of what it meant for James to be a living member of that cloud of witnesses – to find himself in communion with them through his own suffering and martyrdom:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The cloud of witnesses that James experienced were no “angels in the outfield.” They did not save him from suffering, nor give him victory in the eyes of the world. Rather, he encountered a spirit that walked with him through that dark valley of shame and defeat. This spirit gave him the power to love, even those who flayed the skin off his back, branded his face, and mutilated his tongue. Through his suffering and baptism into “love unfeigned,” James Nayler found fellowship with the lost and forgotten saints of God – who through death, obtained resurrection and eternal holy life.

Our gospel reading today reminds us that the kingdom of God comes through challenge. It causes division wherever it emerges, because it challenges our basic ideas about what is right and fair. The truth is, none of us want to experience the cross. Not even Jesus did! The most natural thing in the world that we could do is seek to avoid death, suffering, and shame.

But what Jesus reveals and the cloud of witnesses repeats, is that beyond the cross lies resurrection. On the other side of suffering, and torture, and shame lies the eternal holy life and love unfeigned that James Nayler and so many saints before him discovered. The cloud of witnesses bears testimony to each one us through the Holy Spirit, spurring us on to greater courage in the face of heartbreak, death, and loss of identity.

Unlike the angels in the outfield, this cloud of witnesses is not about helping us win the “game” of this world. Instead, they walk beside us, encouraging us as we learn how to lose in such a way that we experience the resurrection life in the midst of struggle, so that we ourselves become part of that cloud of witnesses, reflecting Christ’s self-giving love to others who need it.

Before I close, I want to take us back to that church sanctuary in Wichita, Kansas. I want you to stand with me on that lower level, amidst the pews. Look up with me into the gallery. Who are the witnesses that you see there? Who are the saints who have gone before you that encourage you even in the midst of confusion and pain? Can you see the faces of the people who have carried their cross with courage and joy? Can you see them smiling on you with love?

Where are they calling you? What parts of your life need to change so that you can embrace the kind of courageous living that they did? Even in the face of resistance and division, where are we being called to change so that we can bear the cross of Jesus, and become a cloud of witnesses to the world around us?

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What does it mean to be the church? Is it about an organization with staff and buildings? Is it about a set of traditions handed down by our ancestors, a denominational brand? Are these the things that make us the body of Christ?

When I read the New Testament, I see something different. During Jesus’ years of ministry, he demonstrated a relationship of a teacher and students. The disciple community held together because each one was committed to following Jesus, learning from and imitating him.

After the resurrection, the form of the community expanded. We came to know Jesus as an ever-present teacher through the Holy Spirit. The power of his presence released unique gifts in each individual. Some were called to be apostles, some prophets, others evangelists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers. Together, the early church discovered itself as a community gathered by Jesus. We fit together as an organic unity in him.

In this dynamic, Spirit-directed community, there was structure. The Twelve Apostles served as leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Others were appointed to care for the material needs of the community. Still others – like Paul and Barnabas – were sent by the Spirit to share the good news in cities throughout the Roman Empire. There was a role for everyone in this new community, according to the gifts that God bestowed.

The whole ethos of the early church was one of movement. The life of the church was catalyzed by prophetic action, works of mercy, risky cross-cultural mission, and passionate teaching. They thrived without buildings of their own. They met in homes to share meals, and they worshiped together in public spaces like the Temple and synagogues. This was a church without popes or priests or officers, without creeds or books of discipline.

Times have changed. Throughout the western world today, the church has become more about maintaining a business model than seeking the surprising way of Jesus. Whether you’re at a triumphalist mega-congregation or a dwindling mainline church, the focus of modern Christianity has shifted dramatically to institutional maintenance and the idols of comfort and respectability. In much of the church today, there’s very little room for the radical message of Jesus.

We have become burdened by our heritage in so many ways. Financially, with our endowments and buildings and legacy institutions – we’re so afraid to lose these things that we often allow them to hold us back from real discipleship to Jesus. Same goes for our ideological heritage. Many of us are so sure that our denominational orthodoxy is more important than healing divisions with our brothers and sisters in other Christian groups. Rather than consolidating our efforts and resources, we huddle in empty church buildings, waiting for a miracle that will likely never come.

What’s the alternative? Can we reform our Christian institutions? What would it mean to release the stored up potential of centuries, allowing the living Spirit of Jesus to gather us once more as his body? One thing is for sure: It won’t happen unless we are willing to abandon the comfort of being right in favor of being united in one Spirit, one mission.

What’s holding you back from being part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our generation? What are the denominational, institutional, financial, ideological, and relational barriers that hold you back from the life of the kingdom? What does it look like to be part of a community that is more about following Jesus than avoiding pain, loss, and death? How can we get there, together?

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I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of college students about the idea of Christian nonviolence – or as Quakers would call it, “the Peace Testimony.” I was encouraged by how receptive they were to the message that the heart of the gospel is peace. We talked about how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of how God brings peace to earth – not through violent conquest, but in a humble life that surrenders itself in order to show unconditional love to others. We considered together what it means to live our lives in Jesus’ way of peace, and how that impacts all our other commitments.

Though I had been specifically invited to speak about the Christian peace witness from my own perspective as a Quaker, I was surprised by what a wide-ranging conversation we ended up having. As our discussion deepened, it became clear that the real question was not whether the gospel is nonviolent (clearly, it is – Jesus is our peace). The deeper, more urgent question was how we might live into the radical life of discipleship that we have read about in Scripture – particularly the Book of Acts. What would it mean to live like the New Testament church today, in 21st-century America? 

I was both excited and dismayed to hear this question. Excited, because this is exactly the question we should all be asking ourselves. Christianity isn’t meant to be a dull habit, but an acute fever. If we as the modern-day followers of Jesus aren’t on fire with the passion of the gospel, just as the first Christians were, something has gone wrong. I was happy to hear that these college students were asking some of the same questions that have been at the heart of my journey for the past decade.

So why was I dismayed? Simply put, I was convicted that I had nothing to offer or invite these passionate young disciples into. After years of seeking, praying, yearning to be part of a movement of “primitive Christianity revived,” I still haven’t found it. If anything, I feel farther than ever from the life of power and beauty in community that I see in the Book of Acts. In my years of ministry, I’ve seen glimpses of the kingdom; I’ve experienced moments of power and transformation in community. Yet I had no good answer to the question, “What should we do to experience the power of the New Testament church today?”

On a personal level, I’m convicted that my own life does not demonstrate the world-shocking presence of the living Christ. I’m a pale shadow of the Spirit-filled women and men I read about in Acts. I’m also convicted on behalf of the North American church as a whole. In my long search, I’ve rarely witnessed communities that are truly living into the full gospel that Jesus invites us into. At times, it’s tempting to wonder whether the whole story of the New Testament is just a fairy tale – a beautiful story, but not applicable to everyday life.

Where is the Spirit-filled, earth-shaking, radical church of Jesus Christ today? I want to see it. I want to participate in it. I want to point others to it. I want to sacrifice for it and be deeply challenged by it. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

It breaks my heart how little I have to offer to the young disciples who are coming up today. Their passion and faith makes me want to be a more faithful disciple, someone who can point them to Jesus and invite them into a faithful community where they can be challenged in their discipleship. Where can I go to find this circle of disciples? What must I do to change my life so that I can be a more faithful brother to those who are coming along in the way of Jesus?

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