Archive for 2015 – Page 3

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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Fifty Years Ago, a Quaker Lit Himself on Fire to Protest War. How Can I Understand It?

Be the Light

Fifty Years Ago, a Quaker Lit Himself on Fire to Protest War. How Can I Understand It?

As he poured the gallon jug of kerosene over his head, onlookers reacted with disbelief. Before anyone knew what to do, he lit a match. In one terrible instant, 31-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison set himself ablaze in front of the Pentagon, just 40 feet below the 3rd floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Moments before ignition, Morrison passed his 11-month-old daughter, Emily, to a bystander. His wife and two other children were in Baltimore that day, unaware of what this young husband and father had planned.

Through his terrifying act of self-destruction, Morrison brought the Vietnam War home to a country that was still largely unaware of the widespread atrocities taking place in Southeast Asia. It was hard for most Americans to comprehend the true human cost of U.S. carpet bombing, and the incineration of whole families in the name of peace and security. Even the U.S. military officials leading the war effort did not understand on a visceral level what it meant to burn human beings alive in Vietnam.
Norman Morrison provided a live demonstration.

Morrison’s action had a profound effect on those who witnessed it. It left an indelible imprint on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who observed the inferno from his office window. He would later write, “Morrison’s death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.”

It is still not clear what long term impact Morrison’s protest — or the similar act of self-immolation by Catholic social worker Roger Allen LaPorte in New York City one week later — had on the conscience of our nation or on the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, successive U.S. administrations escalated the carnage in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon directed a sustained bombing campaign on the people of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. U.S. forces kept up the assault for another 10 years after that awful morning in 1965.

“What can we do that we haven’t done?” This was the pressing question that seems to have led Morrison to emulate Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức‘s self-immolation. From Morrison’s perspective, resistance to the war machine seemed so overwhelming a challenge that burning himself alive in front of his infant daughter seemed like a necessary alternative.

Morrison’s choice does not seem reasonable to me. Being a 30-something Quaker myself, also with an infant child, I have a tough time understanding how he ever imagined that burning himself alive was the best way to serve the cause of peace and justice. How could the loving God that Quakers — and all Christians — seek to worship inspire such a self-destructive act? I just can’t fathom it.

But I can appreciate that Morrison was clearly committed to living out the full implications of his faith, no matter how terrifying and painful they might be. Hero or madman, Morrison was a person who sought to live a radical faith. He was willing to incinerate himself rather than be complicit in the continued fire-bombing of men, women, and children in Vietnam.

And it makes me wonder: What would happen if the Christian community today were endowed with that level of commitment to gospel nonviolence? What if the followers of Jesus were willing to lay down our comfort, rather than continue to accept a world where billions live in poverty? What if we took the health and well-being of the planet as seriously as where we send our children to school?

We live in a time of such great suffering and confusion. The poor are trampled by the 1%. Our precious earth is groaning under the abuse that we’ve heaped on it. When Morrison struck that match, the world stood up and took notice. If the followers of Jesus led lives completely given over to the practical work of love in the world, no one could miss that either. We would feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. We would speak the truth about climate change and challenge economic inequality. Our lives would shine.

We are desperate for change. And to become part of this movement, we’ll have to engage in a surrender akin to the shocking sacrifice of Norman Morrison.

Yet Jesus is inviting us into a kind of spiritual self-immolation — one that heals, rather than annihilates. He redeems our lives rather than destroying them.

What fear and self-doubt is preventing you from living a life transformed by truth and grace? What joyful sacrifice are you being called to make, so that your life speaks to the heart of a world eager to hear good news? How will you let your life shine?

The Spirit is ready to lead us. She wants to gather us into a movement that can expand our lives, bless the poor, and heal our broken planet.

It takes a courage to light yourself on fire. But it takes more courage to live the rest of your life having already surrendered everything to God. That’s the kind of soul force we’ll need to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ radical kingdom of joy and peace.

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You’re Going to Die (And Why That’s a Good Thing)

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

You’re Going to Die (And Why That’s a Good Thing)

You're Going to Die (And Why That's a Good Thing)

Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man that would live forever? 

Vanilla Sky (2001)

It’s not just the young who think they can cheat death. Most of the time, none of us dares to hold that stark reality before us. We live in a world of double-think, simultaneously knowing that the end is coming while living our lives as if it were all limitless. We refuse to look death in the face.

Religious people are particularly good at this. We know intellectually that we can’t cheat death in this life, so we project our fantasies of immortality into the afterlife. In heaven, we’ll be even smarter, richer, healthier, and happier than we are now. Death is swallowed up by dreams of Cloud 9.

Despite all our resistance, deep down we know that death is real. It’s fearsome, and it’s coming for us. Death is an end to everything we think we know. It will strip us of every plan we’ve made and possession we’ve accumulated.

Death is egalitarian. It doesn’t care who you are. Your good deeds won’t spare you. No amount of foresight and planning can hedge against it. Death exposes the fact that, no matter how much we might like to imagine we’re in control, we are finite creatures of an infinite God.

Most of the time, we just can’t handle this level of reality. We hit snooze, postponing the moment of awakening. We flee awareness of our own impotence. In a society that worships the self-made individual, the last thing we want to do is look death in the face.

So we accumulate endless tokens of our own strength and self-sufficiency. Whether it takes the form of base materialism, idealistic causes, or dedication to family and friends, we seek immortality through our possessions, accomplishments, and progeny. We’ll cling to just about anything if it means we can keep sleeping.

But the cost of slumber is high. Ignoring death means shutting our eyes to the truth of who (and whose) we are. As death-deniers, we shut out anything that reminds us of our own finitude. We doze in a fitful, anxious sleep. We linger alone, with our isolating and selfish dreams.

As much as we may fear it, waking up to death is a gift. A life lived with the end in sight is categorically different from the zombie existence of death-denial. There’s incredible freedom in knowing that nothing lasts – accepting that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Death is an antidote to the megalomania and despair that has gripped our civilization. It is a cure for the sense of trapped anxiety that seizes our hearts. Contemplating the certainty of your death, you come to see as never before what your life is worth. This amazing existence is a limited-time offer, and we don’t get to set the terms.

When all is said and done, only love endures. Only truth, hope, and open-eyed joy can redeem the annihilation of death. That’s the message of the cross. That’s the saving power of the gospel.

Look death in the face, and smile.

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Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity

When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Today, Jesus’ challenge is no less serious. He is inviting us into a life so radically different from our everyday assumptions that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. The path of discipleship to Jesus will not allow us to merely incorporate his teachings into our pre-existing social order. The good news of the reign of God – our mission, should we choose to accept it – yanks us out of our comfort zone no less than it did for the first followers of Jesus all those years ago by the Sea of Galilee.

Of course, most of us don’t fish for a living. And if we do, it’s probably not for the family business, passed down as a trade from generation to generation. We don’t live in the pre-modern economies of peasant farmers and blacksmiths, priests and imperial governors. Thank God.

But we do live within a vast, largely unquestioned economic order that defines our lives no less than the family trades and economic ties that were so critical for the early Christians. We live within a new world order, one so pervasive and powerful that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It’s just reality.

Today, we lead our lives embedded in the economic and social order of global capitalism. Just as the power of Rome and its imperial economy was a virtually unquestionable reality in the ancient world, the modern dominance of the neo-liberal global economy is reality for virtually every living person on earth today. Love it or hate it, it’s just how life is.

Or is it? What if there is a power greater than Wall Street, consumer capitalism, and the violent apparatus required to sustain it?

Christians can argue until the cows come home about how to define capitalism, and whether it is a boon or a menace. That’s a conversation worth having, but it doesn’t strike to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t focused on forming a debating society. He built a movement, a family.

He’s still inviting us into this new social order today. The family of God is in our midst, and it challenges all of our assumptions about what is valuable, who should be honored, and how we must live. Jesus continues to stand on the seashore, calling us to drop our nets and follow him.

What does this calling look like for us, in concrete terms? Are we being called out of jobs? Social ties? Our entire conception of who and what has value? What does it look like to repent (that is, to change our entire way of living in the world) in the context of a global capitalism that threatens to make our precious planet rapidly uninhabitable? What tangled nets are we being called to drop, and what is the way, the community, the family that will replace them?

The time has passed for a merely religious approach to these questions. It’s not enough to change in our hearts, when our lives remain so thoroughly entrenched in the assumptions and economy of global empire. What is needed now is a hard-minded call to re-examine everything, to change our whole lives in pursuit of the truly abundant existence that Jesus promises.

But first things first: Let’s leave our nets and follow him.

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Why “Everybody” is Wrong

In the months leading up to George Bush’s 2003 invasion, “everybody” thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In the months before the housing bubble burst, “everybody” insisted that the market was healthy – nothing to worry about. At one time, everybody knew that asbestos was a great material for use in home building, and that BPA was a harmless additive in plastics that hold our food and water.

What does everybody say is true, today? Could everybody be disastrously wrong, again?

It’s not everybody, of course. Everybody doesn’t believe the same thing, ever. There are always creative, alternative perspectives if we’re willing to hear them. Usually, though, we tend to assume that the most prominent voices speak for everyone.

But what if we don’t know that much, after all? What if we’re just playing a massive game of follow-the-leader? What if those leaders are taking us right off a cliff? Again.

Maybe it’s time we stopped hearing so much from everybody. Maybe it’s time we heard from you.

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Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

A funny thing happened when I moved to DC six years ago. I went from being surrounded by a laid-back crew of seminarians, pastors, poets, and radicals, to living in one of the most powerful, motivated, and highly-paid neighborhoods on earth.

It was a big shift in perspective. I had gotten used to living among simple people. Some of them had money and impressive jobs, but they weren’t the norm. I mostly compared myself to the people who were just getting by. And I was always aware of my friends who were struggling to survive. In the Mid-Western rust-belt economy, the Great Recession has been going on for decades.

When I moved to Capitol Hill, I was introduced to a whole new social landscape. These were focused, driven, specialized and highly-paid people. My neighbors came from around the world, seeking to work at the seat of US power. They served congressmen, lobbied for interest groups of all kinds, and led nonprofits stationed in Washington to advance a variety of social agendas. I had arrived in a land of formal attire, nannies, and dual-income power couples.

The air is different here in Washington; the longer I breathe it, the more it has affected me. Over the years, I’ve lost my frame of reference in the gentle culture of honest but economically struggling people. Another worldview has become the norm for me: one of worry, status-obsession, and lives that revolves around work.

These years in DC have helped me understand that my perceptions about life have little to do with what is actually happening, and everything to do with the comparisons I make with those around me.

Who am I comparing myself to? Is it the family to the west who work for a think tank and can afford a home on Capitol Hill? Is it the diplomats, politicians, and corporate leaders chauffeured from one climate controlled environment to another? Or will I look to the thousands of DC residents who are struggling to survive in the midst of rapid economic upheaval and injustice?

There’s another world that exists in my city, a thousand light years from the brunches and cocktail parties of the elites. It’s a world of rising rents, dwindling job opportunities, homelessness, and talented lives wasting away on public assistance. I experience an almost irresistible temptation to turn away from this alternate reality, the apartheid state hidden in plain sight.

Why? Why do I prefer to compare myself to the wealthy rather than consider myself in solidarity with the poor? How did I allow the 1% to become my norm?

This elite focus is especially mis-guided for someone who wants to follow Jesus. Christ’s entire ministry was about making himself the least, descending to the very bottom of the social pyramid in order to upend the whole oppressive structure once and for all. Through his liberating teaching and revolutionary sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquers the myth of the 1%. He calls us into a reality where those who have the least are our frame of reference.

Shifting the focus from the richest to the brokest isn’t just some pious exercise; it’s the surest way to experience joy and freedom. As long as I’m fixated on the wealth, fame, success, status, and power that others have, I trap myself in a race to acquire those same advantages. But when my frame of reference centers on those who have the least, I’m liberated into a life of thanksgiving and generosity. This is the opposite of the high-stress culture that is so prevalent here.

How about you? Who are you comparing yourself to? What kind of life do you want to be living? Do you want to spend your time climbing ever higher towards those who have more than you, or would you prefer to focus your attention on those who have been left out of the games of the 1%?

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