Archive for November 2014

Are Quakers Going Extinct?

My experience of Quakerism has always been tinged with a palpable awareness of its impending demise. When I first became a Quaker during my time living in Mexico City, I remember walking with a respected elder from Pacific Yearly Meeting who confided in me, I don’t know whether Quakerism will survive.

This question of denominational survival has been a live one for generations of Friends. The Quaker community has been in steady decline for hundreds of years. Hard as it is to imagine now, roughly one third of the colonial American population was Quaker. Today, the Quaker community is statistically insignificant.

In the last 50 years, Quakerism has basically imploded in many parts of the United States. Meetings have dwindled and winked out of existence. There are many indications that this rapid decline may still be in process. An enormous question facing the overwhelming gray-haired North American Quaker community is, Can the Religious Society of Friends survive the passing of the Baby Boomer generation?

I had the opportunity to visit a Quaker Meeting on Long Island recently, and during the tea time following meeting for worship we had a deep discussion about where we are at as a spiritual community. As we talked, it became clear that, for Friends in that Meeting, the status quo isn’t working. One Friend said bluntly, If we keep doing what we are doing, this Meeting is going to die.

I couldn’t help but smile. This is exactly where this Meeting, where all of us, need to be: staring death in the face. For hundreds of years, the Quaker movement has stagnated and declined, and time and again we have responded with panic. We’ve tried all sorts of things to save Quakerism. We’ve doubled down on our sectarian streak, disowning the greater part of our membership for petty offenses like marrying non-Quakers or participating in non-Quaker organizations. We’ve gone the other way, too – virtually abandoning our traditions in the quest to be more relevant – whether that relevance looked like adherence to the latest scientific fads or Evangelical dogma.

We have tried so hard to survive. For generations, we’ve wrung our hands over why we’re shrinking. We’ve lamented our cultural irrelevance. We’ve blamed everyone else, and we’ve blamed ourselves. But always, always, always, we’ve tried to survive.

What I said to the Friends at this precious Meeting on Long Island, and what I say to you now is: We’re not going to get anywhere as a people so long as survival is our objective. We’re not going to grow – in any sense, spiritual or numerical – when our obsession is the future of Quakerism.

Everyone dies, but not all deaths are created equal. There’s the sad, pathetic demise of a person or organization who clings tooth and nail to every last breath. This is a deathbed drenched with fear of losing out, terrified of uncertainty, grasping at straws to hold onto some semblance of familiarity. This is the cringing, repulsive state that we are in when we cry, how do we keep Quakerism from dying?

In stark contrast to this repellent death rattle, there is a way of dying that welcomes, blesses, and builds up. Rather than clinging to the last shreds of life as we have known it, those who die in this way radiate joy and impart true life to everyone around them. This is the dying life of Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi. This is the radiant death of Jesus, whose triumphant agony still has power to restore us today.

This is the abundant life that we are invited to dwell in today, as we witness the dying moments of our beloved religious communities. Instead of spending the time we have left lamenting what we are losing, why not rejoice in the gift that God has given us? Instead of desperately trying to preserve our community and tradition, what would it look like to break it open and pour out our blessings on others with reckless abandon?

The church will never thrive until we stop trying to survive. As we participate in the deep, radiant life of Jesus, we are freed from the power of brokenness, sin, and death. We don’t have to be captive to the terror of mortality anymore. With gratitude in our hearts, we can pass on what has been given to us, without expectation and without fear.

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Why sometimes Failure is the greatest Success

It was five years ago this month that Faith and I first held a meeting for worship on Capitol Hill. There were four of us, all twenty-somethings, gathered together in the conference room of the William Penn House. In the silence of that time of Quaker worship, I couldn’t imagine the kind of journey I was embarking on. I had no idea how this simple idea of starting a Quaker Meeting would change my life forever.

The last five years have been deeply challenging. There have been many points when I’ve wanted to give up more than anything. We’ve seen this community flicker and almost wink out several times. Yet, through it all, the dogged voice of the Spirit has always been present with us. Like a little terrier that chomps down on your leg and won’t let go no matter what, that still, small voice within has stubbornly refused to release us from the call to this work, this place, our people.

It turns out that the hound of heaven knows what he’s barking about. There’s power in persistence. There’s a quiet dynamism in endurance. Something incredible is unlocked when we commit ourselves unreservedly to the mission Christ gives us – no matter how crazy, unrealistic, humiliating, or even boring it seems.

There is a hidden power that comes to our aid when we patiently endure. This power doesn’t guarantee success; it promises nothing, in fact, but our daily bread and the chance to do it all over again tomorrow. And when the call is unrelenting and success seems far off, that quotidian bargain just has to be enough.

Amazingly, it is. For the past five years, we’ve experienced just-in-time delivery of the spiritual and material support that we’ve needed to sustain this work. There have been so many moments when I’ve felt like I couldn’t go one step further, but when I nevertheless put one foot in front of another, a way appeared out of no-way. The waters part, and I have what Deborah Saunders calls a Red Sea experience.

I recently read an article about a startup computer game company that crashed and burned. The project was a total failure; the product, a flop. The team mostly disbanded, except for a few core folks who sensed that there might still be potential in some of the material they had worked on together.

The game was still definitely dead in the water; they had no hopes about salvaging that project. Yet, there was something of value that remained intriguing for these developers: a tool that they had created to facilitate communication within their team. This tool, called Slack, is now a billion-dollar company that’s re-defining online business communication.

Slack’s story inspires me. It feels like our story, too. In this journey to develop a new kind of Quaker-Christian community, we’ve failed a lot. I’ve personally crashed and burned more times that I’d like to admit. But each time, there has been something worth saving. I’ve learned something very valuable from every challenge.

In five years of repeated disappointments and re-doubled efforts, I’ve acquired a deepened sense of realism, sobriety, and flexibility. I’ve gained a patient endurance I never knew I was capable of.

I’ve also learned to be really dumb! What smart person, after having fifteen rockets blow up on the launch pad, keeps trying to fly to the moon? But that’s just what Friends of Jesus are doing. We just keep designing new rockets to see what will fly. At the end of the day, we may just end up with a more colorful explosion, but we learn a lot in the process.

That’s the exciting part. Just like the makers of Slack, we’re discovering that the next big thing is probably going to be found along the way. The project is not always about what we think it is. The thing is not the thing. At the end of the day, what’s most important is the ethos of dynamic shared learning, collaboration, and off-the-walls innovation that we’re developing together.

We’re assembling the tools that help us do the work. We find ourselves drawn into a network of friends and allies that the Holy Spirit is gathering to accomplish something new. We’re invited into an adventure far greater than anything we ever imagined when we were first starting out.

You are invited. We want you to be part of this learning, growing, crashing-and-burning process. We need your participation, your gifts, your insight and vision. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is just a little seed beginning to sprout. There’s lots of room for new shoots and branches, audacious little leaves seeking the sun.

We’ll keep failing. Our rockets will continue to explode in mid-air. And we’ll watch it together. We’ll take notes, and next time we’ll blow up differently.

Do you want to be a part of this launch team? Do you want to participate in the dynamic collaboration, shared learning, and experimentation that we share in together?

You are important. Your gifts are important, and they’ve been given to you for a reason. How is the Spirit calling you to use these gifts to create a flourishing community that can grow like mustard seed and bless the world around us? How can we learn and grow together?

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Are you Conservative enough to embrace Gay Christians?

Yeah, you read me right. If you want to be a real conservative, you might want to consider supporting LGBT equality in the church.

Let me explain.

In the debate around LGBT equality, almost everyone I know labels an affirming stance as progressive or liberal, while a non-affirming stance is considered conservative or traditional.

I beg to differ.

If conservative means adhering to the prejudices of recent centuries, then yes, excluding gay folks is a conservative move. If conservative is defined as clinging to a this is how we’ve always done it attitude towards life, then I agree, a non-affirming stance meets that definition.

But what if being conservative means conserving the heart of our faith? What if we define conservative as re-connecting with the Spirit that inspired the Bible in the first place? What if love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were hallmarks of conservatism?

I’m here to say that embracing the spiritual equality of our LGBT brothers and sisters is a radically conservative position. To give love and encouragement to gay folks conserves the heart and soul of the gospel in the face of fear, proof-texting, and legalism.

If anything, those who deny the God-breathed lives and much-needed spiritual gifts of LGBT brethren are liberals. They’re liberal in disregarding the overwhelming witness of Scripture, which teaches us that God always finds a way to break down barriers between people. God favors those who are marginalized. God’s judgment comes, not on the poor and excluded, but on those who think they have it all figured out.

So, I’ll ask you again: Are you conservative enough to embrace gay Christians?

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I like Jesus. Do I have to be Religious?

Are you tired of the hypocrisy and greed of prosperity gospel preachers? Fed up with politicians appealing to religious sentiments in order to win elections and start wars? Do you feel like there must be something bigger and more beautiful than the simplistic story you’ve heard in church? Jesus feels the same way.

Jesus didn’t come to set up a new religious system. As a matter of fact, many of Jesus’ contemporaries could have described him as profoundly anti-religious. His message ultimately relativizes all religious practices. Walking in the way of Jesus isn’t about performing the right ritual or following a set of rules. It’s about embodying peace, enacting justice, and loving others till it hurts.

To a Jewish liturgical system that required constant penance, ritual, and sacrifice, Jesus delivers a prophetic rebuke: Go learn what this means, I require mercy, not sacrifice. When the pious Evangelicals of his day – the Pharisees – come to him quoting the Bible chapter and verse, he calls them out for following the letter of the law but missing the Spirit altogether. Jesus challenges the civil religion of the ruling authorities, relativizing all human powers in light of the power of God.

Religion isn’t really good or bad; it just is. Wherever there is human society, there will be religious practice. Whether it’s standing up at a baseball game to sing The Star Spangled Banner, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, or standing in line to take the Eucharist from a priest, religion is about ordering our shared life together. It tells us who we are, where we belong, the story that we are all a part of.

This embodied story can be used for all sorts of purposes, both good and evil. The civil rights movement famously employed the power of religious symbolism to bring down Jim Crow. The Plowshares movement uses shocking, apocalyptic imagery to drive home the message that nuclear weapons are sheer insanity. Our shared reservoir of symbols, rituals, and stories have immense power to call us to change.

Most of the time, of course, these signs and symbols are used to preserve the status quo. It would be hard to win an election or launch a war without appealing to the secular gods of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. The most popular use for religion – both spiritual and secular – is to build walls, to define an in-group and out-group, to achieve and maintain power over others.

Jesus has no time for these kinds of religious games. He stands with the prophets, who denounce the religion of death, the false faith that covers up injustice and privileges the powerful. Jesus breaks through the safety glass of our hypocritical rules and regulations, pointing us back to the radical implications of our faith. If we want to remain locked in the squalor of our little ideological prisons, that’s our prerogative. But we’re free to go. Jesus swings the doors wide open.

Do you consider yourself religious? What do you think the relationship is between Jesus and all the rituals, rules, and institutions that have grown up around him in the last 2,000 years? What would our world look like if we actually lived as friends of Jesus, rather than using his memory to create self-justifying systems of certainty?

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Being Quaker Is Not The Point

Are you ready to try some Holy Spirit Kung Fu?

Kung Fu!

Have you ever studied another language? You memorize vocabulary and verb conjugations. You get ready for quizzes and drills. If you’re a particularly good student, you may get these basics down well enough that you’re able to have real conversations and write passable essays in your new language.

This is where most of us stop. We learn enough to pass the test, even come up with some creative phrases in the language. But just a few months later, we’re lucky if we can even order toast!

Let’s say you continue on, though. Perhaps you study abroad and get a chance to use your new language in everyday life. At a certain point, something magical happens. You’re no longer actively thinking about vocab and grammar. You’re not pondering how to express ideas in a creative way. You just speak. You just live and think in the language, and the language lives in you.

We’ve all experienced this journey, in one way or another – progressing from learning the basics of a skill to demonstrating mastery. In Japanese martial arts, there’s a word for this process: They call it Shu-Ha-Ri.

In the Beginning: Shu

The first stage, Shu, is all about learning the basic forms of whatever art you are practicing. If you’re a guitarist, it might be learning to form chords and play cover songs. For a swimmer, it could mean proficiency in all the basic strokes. Above all, the Shu stage is about observation and imitation.

In Shu, your job is to learn from those who have mastered the art. You absorb the basic forms by mimicking the teacher without deviation.

Getting Creative: Ha

Things begin to get more interesting in the Ha stage. By the time you reach Ha, you’ve already acheived what some might mistake for excellence. The Ha-level artist has a firm grasp of basic technique. A Ha-stage photographer, for example, would have no trouble framing an aesthetically pleasing shot that followed the basic forms of classic photography. The real challenge would come in composing a photograph in an unexpected-yet-powerful way.

As a beginner, it is foolish to deviate from the forms set out by the master; you simply don’t know enough yet to discern between useful tweaks and silly errors. At the Ha stage, however, you are challenged to innovate. With a firm grasp of basic technique, it’s possible to experiment in useful ways. The dancer may add another swing to her step. The painter can try out unorthodox uses of shadow.

Attaining Mastery: Ri

By the time you’ve progressed through Ha, many observers may mistake you for a master. Not only do you have the basic techniques of your art down flat, but you innovate with grace and integrity. Because Ha is so easily mistaken for true mastery, this is where almost everyone stops. But for those few who continue, who refuse to accept mere excellence and persist in self-questioning, experimental practice, there is another level to be achieved.

This final stage, known as Ri, is a state of genuine mastery. Back in the Ha stage, you practiced your craft by skillful innovation on the basic forms that you mastered during Shu. When you arrive at Ri, however, you begin to discard the forms altogether. Your art has become so much a part of you that you embody it in your person, without need to refer to the rules.

The Shu-Ha-Ri of Christ

All of the truly great historic movements of the Holy Spirit bear the marks of Ri. The early church with its deep roots in the Jewish tradition, the Quakers, Methodists, and Pentecostals, all of these outpourings of radical faith were possible precisely because a critical mass of daring men and women had arrived at Ri. They were so steeped in their traditions, so well-practiced in the religious traditions of their day, that they were able to respond spontaneously to the movement of the Holy Spirit. When Christ showed up in their midst, they threw off the shackles of conventional wisdom – all those Shu forms – and embraced the new thing God was doing.

The apostles were so rooted in the essence of the Jewish faith that they were able to throw out the rules. They welcomed the unclean, notorious sinners, even Gentiles, into the church. The Quaker movement was best known for the reckless abandon with which it discarded the traditional forms of Christianity – including water baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many other beliefs and practices that Christians had come to take for granted. When the Pentecostal wave hit America, it broke down the traditional authority of pastors, re-discovered Christian nonviolence, recognized the spiritual equality of women, and, as Frank Bartleman described in his history of the Azusa Street Revival, “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”

Of of the marks of a great spiritual movement is the joyful abandonment of dead forms. When Ri arrives, the rules and regulations of Shu are hushed.

Careful Where You Throw Those Training Wheels!

But not all rulebreaking is revolutionary. Sometimes it’s just a sign of immaturity. When a child has learned to ride a bike with ease, it makes sense to ditch the training wheels and begin riding in the street. But what happens if the child hasn’t really learned the lesson yet? Removing the training wheels too early can lead to disaster.

And therein lies the rub. Our culture is one that values creativity so much that we often presume to engage in Ri before we’ve learned the basic lessons of Shu. We often teach kids to question authority before they’ve learned how to respect it. We expect to be masters when we’ve never done the work of an apprentice.

In the Quaker community, where I have been formed, we have a tendency to think of ourselves as iconoclasts – even when we don’t really know much about icons! We critique tradition without being familiar with it. We insist that we will accept nothing less than a Ri-level faith, yet we have so little grounding in the basics that we never even arrive at a solid engagement with Shu. This has the potential to be the worst scenario of all: We believe ourselves to be masters, but we haven’t even begun our apprenticeship.

The Shu of Quakers

Since the 1960s, deconstruction has been the name of the game in Western society. Any cherished belief or institution that could be challenged and discredited has been. But there comes a point at which there is nothing left to deconstruct. Eventually, we have no alternative but to begin learning the basics again.

I see this happening. Throughout the church in the United States, we’re increasingly getting back to the basics of our traditions. High church folks are re-discovering the liturgy. Evangelicals are exploring contemplative prayer. Many Quakers are encountering the Bible as a source of inspiration, power, and spiritual authority.

This reconnection with our Shu-stage roots is important. The Quaker movement was founded by an apocalyptic, Ri-stage spiritual explosion, and to this day we have a tendency to imagine ourselves as being beyond forms. Yet, if we are to have any chance of living up to the full promise of our faith, we’re going to have to commit ourselves to re-learning the basics. Until we have fully integrated the fundamentals of our Christian walk – until engagement with Scripture, prayer, waiting worship and action for justice become part of our muscle memory – we are simply not yet qualified to innovate. So long as we refuse to learn the basics of spiritual grammar, we will never be able to form coherent sentences.

Towards True Mastery

Our engagement with the Shu experience is going to vary. Different individuals and communities will need to re-connect with the ABCs of the tradition in their own way. But if we want to see a truly transformative spiritual movement re-awakened in our day, we have no choice but to begin walking this path again.

What will this look like for you? For the communities that you are part of? How will we need to change our posture in order to become people who are ready to experience the Ri revolution?

Note: I am indebted to Jeff Sutherland and his book, SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, for introducing me to the concept of Shu Ha Ri. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in improving the health and productivity of their team or organization.

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Brittany Maynard: Assisted Suicide, or Death with Dignity?

Brittany Maynard with DogAt this point, you’ve almost certainly heard about Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon to avail herself of that state’s Death with Dignity law, which allows physician-assisted suicide. Facing the terrifying prospect of degenerative brain cancer, Maynard recently ended her life with the help of her doctor. Maynard’s choice has resonated deeply with millions, causing many of us to ask the question:

If I was facing terminal illness, what kind of care would I want? Is there a point at which I would say, ‘Enough is enough’?

These are conversations that we all need to have. Personal questions about how we want to live our last days and what kind of treatment we do (and don’t) want to receive. For decades, the hospice movement has been working to increase awareness of end-of-life issues, to empower each of us to make the choices that are right for us. Hospice creates space for each of us, when it is our time, to experience a death that is compassionate, personal, and dignified in every possible sense.

The Death with Dignity movement takes things a step further. In addition to hospice’s focus on comfort and quality-of-care at the end of life, Death with Dignity proponents also see the choice of when to die as a matter of personal autonomy. They push back against the word suicide, with all its negative connotations and religious overtones. Instead, Death with Dignity advocates seek to normalize the choice of terminally-ill people to end their own lives with physician-prescribed medication.

Before the story of Brittany Maynard became national news, I was on the fence about physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Despite some serious reservations, I leaned towards the idea that PAS should be legal. Although I personally find PAS morally ambiguous at best, I tend to think that health decisions should be made by patients and their doctors rather than politicians and bureaucrats. When Maynard’s story became national news, I felt the same way: I don’t know that I agree with her choice, but, together with her family and doctors, she is in a better position to make it than I am.

Is it Suicide if You’re Going to Die Anyway?

Then I read a post by Benjamin Corey, a Christian blogger from Maine. Corey says that Brittany Maynard didn’t commit suicide, that she didn’t really have a choice in whether she was going to die – just about how it would happen. He criticizes the judgment and condemnation he has observed on the part of many Christians who decry Maynard’s choice.

Corey is right in calling out the self-righteous judgment of those who have never faced death yet feel free to disparage a young woman who faced a terrible decision. Condemning individuals for their end-of-life choices is unhelpful at best – hateful at worst.

I was bewildered, though, by Corey’s comparison of Brittany Maynard’s terminal illness to the September 11th terrorist attacks. He says that Maynard faced a situation just like the people who jumped out of the flaming Twin Towers. They didn’t have a choice in how they were going to die, just when.

And it’s true: Those who jumped from the Twin Towers didn’t choose to die. At a certain point, reflex just takes over. If you’re being burned alive, your body is going to seek to remove itself from the flames. Like pulling your hand away from a hot stove, this is reflex, not a decision.

But that’s got nothing to do with physician-assisted suicide. For Death with Dignity advocates, the whole point of physician aid in dying is precisely to restore autonomous choice to the dying process. The whole reason that Maynard went public and engaged the national news media with her story is that she believed that everyone should be free to choose the way they want to die. For those who support the right to physician aid in dying, assisted suicide is a proactive choice taken by an autonomous individual, not a reflex action taken in hopeless extremity.

No One Gets Out Alive

Corey says that Maynard’s decision is not a choice to die (suicide). It’s just a choice to pick the most painless way to die. But the reality is, none of us have a choice about whether we’re going to die. Death is not an optional feature of human existence. We all have choices to make about how we want to spend the limited time we have on earth. And these choices reflect our most fundamental values.

Corey’s suggestion that Brittany Maynard was helpless to make a choice is not merely inaccurate, it distorts the decision that she did make when she decided to go public with her story. For Maynard, PAS represented an important choice that was hers to make under Oregon state law. Her witness was for freedom to choose, not to elicit compassion for herself as a helpless victim. While I question the moral logic of physician-assisted suicide, I respect Maynard’s courage and conviction. She definitely exercised agency in her last months of life.

Brittany Maynard at her Wedding

Is Suicide Normal?

Yet, the growing call to normalize physician-assisted suicide gives me cause for concern. It’s one thing to believe that PAS should be permitted, on the premise that individuals and their doctors often know better than abstract laws dictated by politicians. It’s another thing altogether to promote Death with Dignity as normative in end-of-life care. After all, hospice has been showing for decades that it’s possible to have a dignified death without taking measures to end our lives prematurely.

For me, the question goes far deeper than public policy. It’s a question of story. What story do we want to be part of? As Christians – as compassionate people of any faith – do we really want to join in a cultural tide that sees human life and death as a decision to be made? Do we desire to live in a nation that prioritizes the avoidance of suffering above all other considerations? Is it really a step forward to begin referring to physician-assisted suicide as death with dignity, perhaps implying that those who make different end-of-life choices are somehow less dignified?

We’ve Got Options

While none of us can opt out of dying someday, millions will soon have choices to make about how we want to live our last days and months. Physician-assisted suicide is now one option, but there are alternatives. The hospice movement is growing by leaps and bounds, offering another kind dignity – one that is found when we neither hasten death, nor prolong the inevitable with futile and painful treatment. Hospice and palliative care offer other choices at the end-of-life, choices that provide dignity and reduced suffering instead of the frantic rush to cure death.

Brittany Maynard made a different choice for herself and her family. I don’t agree with her, but I respect her. Let’s not dishonor her memory by assigning her the role of victim, incapable of making the decision to end her own life. Many of us will find ourselves facing similar choices soon enough.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you accompanied a loved one in the last stages of life? What was that like?
  • In your experience, is there a difference between pain and suffering? How would you describe it?
  • If you were to face a terminal illness, is physician-assisted suicide an option that you would consider?

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Is Jesus a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Card?

Based on what you see in a lot of churches today, it would be easy to assume that the ministry of Jesus had mostly to do with teaching people 1 weird trick to avoid damnation. The Jesus we are most often presented with is a walking, talking get out of hell free card. Popular Evangelical theology tells us that we will be justified – that is, freed from the consequences of our sin – if we choose to accept certain intellectual ideas about God, Jesus, and the Bible.

But that’s just a head trip. The old-time Quakers referred to the Devil as the Reasoner, because one of the main ways that foul, life-denying ideas take root is by appealing to logic built on unquestioned assumptions. As long as the assumptions are wrong, our reason can take us to all sorts of nasty places, all the while being quite logical!

The popular theology of Jesus-as-hell-avoidance is rooted in a whole host of assumptions that just don’t jive with the broad thrust of scripture. Yet, once we accept those assumptions, it’s easy to read the Bible through these hell-colored glasses. Jesus’ political theology becomes entirely spiritual. The words of the prophets take on an other-worldy hue, suddenly irrelevant to the reality of modern day empire, violence, and greed.

Why Ask Why?

It’s scary how effectively our unconscious assumptions can block knowledge of the truth. So often, we in the church fail to ask the most basic question that every child knows so well: Why, why, why? If we had faith like children – a faith that kept asking why, kept challenging assumptions – we’d be more likely to uncover the false logic that blinds us.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to have our worldview challenged. We live in a society that increasingly denies the fundamental doctrines of popular Christian faith. Most people that I know aren’t looking for a God who will save them from hell. The most urgent questions of my neighbors have to do with pressing issues of this life: Is there a power that can overcome my addiction? Where can I find hope in a civilization that seems intent on destroying itself? How can I find the strength to love other people when I’m so angry and afraid?

These questions unlock real conversations that don’t require shared faith in Jesus to begin. These are conversations that don’t rest so solidly on our own theological assumptions that the only discussion to be had is whether the other person is going to accept our worldview. These are authentic, nonviolent questions.

Do You Buy It?

We live in a world that is bombarded with marketing. Whether it’s for Jesus, a political candidate, or the new iPhone, there is no shortage of coercive, deceptive communication whose only objective is to convince us to buy. In such an environment, the simple act of asking a non-loaded question is almost revolutionary. It opens the door to the real possibility of change – not just in the other person, but in our own lives, as well.

To ask such revolutionary questions, we’ll have to break free of the many hidden agendas that have been bundled with the gospel for centuries. We must become like little children – ready to learn, open to examining our hidden assumptions when they are pointed out, and free of any objective beyond the transparent desire to embody Christ’s love.

Time To Lose Control

This won’t be easy. It’s going to mean giving up many ideas that we’ve invested a lot in. We humans get pretty attached to concepts of God that we can control. We want things to make sense, and we want to be right.

But Jesus isn’t interested in having disciples who are smarter and more pious than everybody else. Jesus loves us in our weakness. He rejoices when we acknowledge our brokenness and insufficiency. He asks subversive questions to overcome our ingrained answers. Jesus substitutes the mystery of the kingdom for the settled law of empire.

How would it feel to allow Jesus to call all our assumptions into question? What would it be like to embrace Christianity as an invitation into ongoing discovery, rather than a system of settled answers? How might our relationships with others change once we let go of the need to be right all the time?

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