Archive for November 2015

Do the Work

When I was in high school, my friends and I had a rock band. We played some original songs – with lyrics by yours truly – and a ton of Oasis covers. It was a lot of fun, and we probably weren’t bad compared to other garage bands our age group.

Still, pretty much anyone could have guessed that we weren’t going to sell a lot of records. We never did a paid show at a venue. We had a good time dressing up and playing rock star, but we weren’t ready for the heavy lifting that it took to be real musicians.

I was the worst. My spot in the band was lead singer, but that’s where my contribution stopped. We really needed a rhythm guitarist or a bassist, but I didn’t have the patience to practice either instrument. Eventually, several members of the band went on to other projects – without me.

This was really hurtful at the time, but in retrospect I can’t blame them. I wasn’t pulling my own weight. I didn’t practice on my own time, and wasn’t really thinking about the success of the band. I was more interested in the image of being part of a band than the hard, repetitive work of developing my craft as a musician.

This wasn’t the first or last time that I would put image before substance. In high school, I wanted to be a fit and healthy person, but I didn’t want to exercise or change my diet. In college, I wanted to be an expatriate novelist (who doesn’t?) but I never disciplined myself to write. And so on. Throughout my life, I have often pursued an image of the kind of person I would like to be; but I haven’t always taken seriously the question: Do I actually want to do the work?

If not, that’s a problem. Because the work is where it’s at. 99% of an artist’s time is spent at the easel or doing promotion, not receiving accolades. Writers spend years, sitting at a desk – writing, editing, agonizing over their work. Athletes and musicians train and practice a thousand hours for every five minutes of glory.

At the end of the day, it’s the work that makes a life. If I don’t like the daily grind of writing, it doesn’t really matter how glamorous it is to be an author. If I don’t want to spend most of my available time practicing at my instrument, I’m not cut out to be a musician. Pro athletes have to love the thousand hours of training just as much as the moments of glory. They’re a package deal.

Where’s the work that I’m called to do, even if the glory never comes? What’s the thankless, slogging labor that I find rewarding in and of itself? For me, that’s the litmus test of fulfillment. Rather than seeking out an image that suits my ego, wholeness comes when I pay attention to the daily activity that makes me come alive.

The work doesn’t have to be picturesque or fashionable; in fact, it almost certainly won’t be. Nobody lives in the limelight most of the time, not even rock stars. But if I’m true to the work that God created me to do, I’ll find peace in that. And maybe, some days, even a little bit of glory.

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Give Thanks, Let Go

Give Thanks, Let Go

Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. It is a time to give thanks for the harvest just brought in, the work of a whole year coming to fruition as we enter the holiday season. As winter arrives, we gather around the table with family and friends. We rejoice together in the warmth of our radiant homes.

It is no coincidence that the Thanksgiving holiday comes at this time. As the daylight is growing dimmer and shorter each day, our hearts are drawn to that which is most dear to us. Gathered together in our warm and well-lit homes, we prepare for months of dark and cold. Surrounded by the abundance of harvest, we prepare ourselves for leaner times to come.

Now, just as we have everything, we have come to the season of letting go.

Winter is coming. It’s a time of renunciation. A period when precious things will be taken away. The table will be empty, the house will grow cold. Life will change in ways that we can’t foresee now, and that we wouldn’t welcome even if we could.

The joy of Thanksgiving is best experienced in the knowledge that winter is coming. The reality of loss and limits, of emptiness and pain, frames the joy and fullness that we experience now. The present moment is brought into focus in light of the truth: This too shall pass.

To give thanks, we must let go.

Real gratitude doesn’t cling to food, or wealth, or status, or even to life itself. There’s true joy to be found in the pleasures of our lives, but only when we renounce our ownership of them. This present moment is alive and special precisely because it only lasts for a short time.

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Who are the people, places, and things that bring you joy? What would it mean for you to hold them lightly, in the knowledge that nothing really belongs to you?

What are the possibilities that come with winter? What beautiful things might need to be cleared away in order to make space for the next chapter in your walk with God? Could even this life as a whole be a moment that is passing away, yielding itself to even deeper love and peace?

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What Are You Afraid Of?

When there are armed killers in the street and you’re running for your life, where can you hide? When the country you grew up in is no longer safe, when masked men with militant ideologies are massacring the people you love, how will you react? When your children don’t have enough to eat and the bombs are falling, where do you go?

These are not hypothetical questions. For the millions of Syrians who have been forced to abandon their homes and risk their lives seeking refuge abroad, this is daily life. In these circumstances, there are no good alternatives. Will you stay and face the guns and bombs? Or will you risk the uncertainty of ocean crossings, international borders, and weeks of walking in the baking sun, carrying your children in your arms?

People across America are afraid. We’re anxious that terrorists may find a way to sneak into the United States and carry out mass murders like in Paris. Politicians are calling for a beefed up military response to ISIS. Many governors are saying that we should keep refugees out of the United States; welcoming them would just be too dangerous.

I was astonished by a quote published in The Washington Post, talking about the intense fear that many in our country are feeling: “I have never been fearful of anything in my life because I put my faith in God,” said Kathleen Jones, 58, a vice president at a medical equipment company. “But I went out this week and bought a pistol.”

It took my breath away when I read these lines. What is it about the terror attacks in Paris that made Ms. Jones feel that she could no longer rely on God? Is ISIS so strong and God so weak that now, after 58 years of faith, she needs a pistol to protect herself?

Then I got to thinking about Jesus’ story of the two men building houses. One built his house on top of the sand, while another built his on the rock. When a big storm came, the house with a sandy foundation was washed away, but the house with a foundation on the rock was able to withstand the storm.

The kind of fear on display in America today reveals that many of us have built our homes on a sandy foundation. It’s easy to talk about love, peace, and forgiveness when you’re doing well and no one is threatening you. But your real convictions are revealed when the storm comes.

The storm arrived a long time ago for the people of Syria. As we speak, they are begging for sanctuary in our country. Violence and terror has driven them out of everything they’ve ever known, exposing their families to unthinkable dangers. Their displacement, their need for help is obvious for anyone to see. Are we willing to see?

We wanted to believe that we were kind, loving people. And it was easy as long as nothing was at stake. But then Paris happened. Now we fear that God might not protect us after all. Now we’re ready to buy a gun and lock the door. We’re willing to tell millions of people, fleeing with their families from the devastation that ISIS has wrought, that they’re not welcome. They might be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.

These are the thoughts and reactions of a people whose house is built upon the sand. Such beach combers are scattered and fearful in the face of danger. They fall easy prey to deceitful leaders who would use our terrified confusion to enslave us, and attack those who are most vulnerable. This is how tyranny is born; it is on sandy ground that atrocity is birthed.

What are you afraid of? Do you fear the huddled masses from Syria, looking for room at the inn? Or do you fear the moral consequences of turning away families that in so many ways resemble the holy family of Jesus Christ in that ancient Christmas story?

It is in times like these that our faith really matters. Where have you placed your trust? What is your foundation? I pray that each one of us will take this critical moment in our history as an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to rock of the gospel, which is good news to everyone who is desperate and looking for help.

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Jesus Commands You to Welcome Refugees

Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Jesus Commands You to Welcome Refugees

Jesus Commands us to Welcome Refugees
Despite what you may have picked up about Christianity from some of our more loud-mouthed brethren, Jesus did not spend his time denouncing gay people, foreigners, or people of other religions. And, believe it or not, he rarely talked about hell. But when he did… Buckle your safety belts, America.

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about Judgment Day, when every person is held to account for the outcome of their life. In the typical American Christian cosmology, this is the big moment when God rewards those who said the right prayer and accepted Jesus into their hearts. Everybody who didn’t say that prayer and didn’t believe all the right things? Into the furnace.

But that’s not what we find in Matthew 25. Instead, we learn that when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead, he’s going to have a very different set of criteria. It’ll go something like this: When I was hungry and thirsty, did you give me food and drink? When I was a stranger, did you welcome me? When I was naked and sick, did you clothe me and care for me? And when I was in prison, did you visit me?

We’re going to ask him, When did we ever meet you as a stranger and welcome you in? When did we ever see you hungry and thirsty, or naked and sick, or in prison? And Jesus will say, You did see me. I was there with you every time you encountered a person in need. And whatever you did – or didn’t do – to them, that’s exactly what you did to me.

This will be a big revelation for all of us: A nice surprise for those of us who cared for the least of these, and a rude awakening for those who turned away and ignored those in need.

When Jesus judges the world, according to this passage, he won’t care what you think about him. He’s not going to praise or condemn you for your knowledge about God, what church you went to, or how much money you put in the offering plate. When this age is over and each one of us stands before him to give account, the question he will ask us is, Did you care for the stranger? Did you feed my sheep? Did you really love me, showing it in the way you treated those least able to repay you?

What will you say?

At this very moment, there is a debate taking place across the United States. We’re arguing about whether we should welcome refugees from the Syrian Civil War. These are families fleeing for their lives. They’re men, women, and little children clamoring onto boats and risking everything to escape a flood of extremism and violence. They have come to the shores of the Western world, begging for shelter from this terrible storm.

These folks have nothing left. They are hungry and thirsty, naked and sick. They have arrived as strangers at our doorstep, asking us to welcome them into our homes. Do we dare to turn them away? Can we honestly call ourselves followers of Jesus and turn away the least of these, our brothers and sisters who find themselves in such desperation?

If we turn our backs on the Syrian refugees, we reject as irrelevant the claims of Jesus. We deny the truthfulness of the Bible. We renounce the Christian faith altogether.

Let me be clear: You cannot ignore these refugees and be a follower of Jesus in any real sense. To reject the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the weak and despised, is to reject Jesus himself.

The very heart and substance of the Christian faith lies in hospitality to the stranger, accepting the danger that unknown people can represent. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, has already ruled on the question of the Syrian refugee crisis. All of us who claim to follow him must open our arms wide and embrace our Syrian brothers and sisters – whether they are Christian or Muslim, or atheist for that matter. Let them come. Let each and every one of them find room at the inn.

Our country stands at a moral crossroads. We have a decision to make. Will we be a nation that turns away the very people that Jesus has commanded us to comfort and serve? Will we choose the path of fear and isolation in the face of so much suffering? Will those of us who claim to be Christians choose instead to renounce our faith in exchange for the false security of Fortress America?

Will you throw away your faith and cower in fear?

You don’t have to. There is another way.

Do you hear the call of Jesus to clothe the sick, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger? Now is our time. Despite the panic and confusion, despite the shrill calls for sealed borders, there is an alternative. Now more than ever, we must welcome the stranger and hold fast to the profession of our faith.

In this time of crisis we have an incredible opportunity to show what true, fearless love looks like. Do you have the courage to embrace it?

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Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

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Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Just like you, I was horrified when I learned of last week’s terror attacks in Paris. The scale, precision, and barbarity of these crimes are hard to fathom.

My first reaction was sadness for the victims and a desire for peace. My second was a sense of mild panic. If they can do this in Paris, they can certainly do it in my city! My third reaction, I’m not particularly proud of:

I thought about how much I’d like to see the people responsible for these acts hunted down and destroyed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about 9/11 lately. I remember the way that we as a nation went through this same three-step process. We went from shock and sympathy to fear and paranoia, and finally to the conviction that we must annihilate those who attacked us.

It all happened so quickly.

The world’s first reaction to 9/11 wasn’t a call to war; it was a process of grieving. The whole world was shocked. President George W. Bush got on television and quoted from the 23rd Psalm. People around the globe flew the American flag. They prayed for us. Even folks who were normally our enemies expressed condemnation for the attacks. Never before or since has the world loved America so much.

But soon things began to change. We started to panic. No one knew whether there might be more attacks on the way. Thousands ran to the supermarket to stock up for the apocalypse. Gas stations were overwhelmed by lines of vehicles, rushing to fill up before it all ran out. There were reports of profiteering; some stations marked up the gas to several times its normal price.

Before we could even process our grief, we went straight to fear.

In the days and weeks following the attacks, our leaders chose to exploit that fear. We could have treated 9/11 as a terrible crime to be prosecuted. We could have deemed it a threat to public order, punishable by law. We might even have taken this terrible day as an invitation to turn the other cheek and walk in the way of forgiveness.

Instead, our national leaders – of both parties – declared war.

Through this so-called war on terror, we would launch a disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that continues to this day. The United States would spend trillions of dollars and destroy millions of lives in a futile and short-sighted invasion of Iraq.

Rather than destroying our enemies, we multiplied them.

As I mourn the precious lives lost in the city of Paris, I pray that the people of France will avoid the terrible lost opportunities of my nation. It is not too late to turn hatred into love and forgiveness. There is still time to mourn and seek comfort. The whole world is ready to feel the pain with you. I promise.

Right now, my dear brothers and sisters in France have an opportunity to show their true hearts. We are all longing to see how very different the French people are from those who wrought such terrible bloodshed in their streets. We in America failed to embrace our opportunity, but that doesn’t have to be the fate of France.

I am praying that the Holy Spirit will touch the hearts and minds of the French people, now and in the days ahead. May you become a nation that shows the rest of us the way. May you become a people of God’s peace.

Je t’embrasse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

I believe that climate change is real, and that it’s caused by humans burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. I believe, not because I am personally competent to prove it, but because I rely on the analysis of climate scientists who, by a 97% margin, agree that this is the case. I have faith in the judgment of the scientific community.

I believe that climate change is probably the most significant threat to humanity’s future that we are aware of today. If we do not alter our course immediately, I believe we are in great danger of rendering the earth less habitable, or possibly even uninhabitable by humans. There are few measures that I would not consider reasonable to address this great challenge.

I’m also flying out to Kansas this Christmas to be with my extended family. Our son will be eight months old then, and this will be the first opportunity for his great-grandma and great-aunt to see him face-to-face. I have prioritized making this trip, even though I know that it will result in even more carbon emissions that our planet cannot afford.

I believe in climate change on an intellectual level, but my lifestyle is out of sync. How can I justify the carbon output of this trip, which will only perpetuate a process that threatens the lives of billions – including my son’s? If I’m honest with myself, I can’t.

It gets worse. I also own a car. My family consumes goods that are shipped from all over the world. 95% of the electricity that I’m using to write this blog post comes from non-renewable sources, including 40% from coal. Almost every activity in my life is deeply complicit with the process of anthropogenic climate disruption.

I say I believe in climate change, but what’s that worth? My actions don’t reflect my faith. Maybe I don’t really believe, after all.

But what if I did? How would my life need to change to truly embrace my convictions? What kinds of disruptions and adventures would I experience if I were true to my faith?

Quite honestly, it would probably be a mess. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to follow my heart on the issue of climate change, much less on the many other areas of my life where my actions fall short of my beliefs. My life is a tangled web of inconsistencies. It’s easy to feel ashamed of myself.

But shame is not a good jumping off point for radical transformation. Shame is responsible for the fact that most of us live timid, uninspired lives. In spite of the dazzling light of our heartfelt convictions, we’ve convinced ourselves that darkness is more realistic.

Maybe there’s another way to think about it. If it’s too overwhelming to put your faith into action all at once, is there somewhere small you can start? What changes can you make to your lifestyle – not because it will save the world, but so that your faith is expressed in concrete action? Is there one small step you can take right now to begin a habit of faithfulness?

Great power is unleashed when we choose to let outside and inside match. When faith seems impossible, we can explore ways of thinking and doing that no one ever imagined before. We can give birth to genius.

Real faith is about living with that kind of courage. It’s when we refuse to let our failures and inconsistencies prevent us from moving forward in confidence. Faith is trusting that we’ll see the next step when we’re ready.

What is your next step? When will you start living out the faith of your heart?

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Be the Light