Archive for January 2016

What is Next for Friends of Jesus?

Whats Next for Friends of Jesus?

This weekend, the core leaders of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be gathering in Washington, DC. This is a special retreat, to consider how God is calling us to move ahead as a community in the months and years to come. This gathering comes at an pivotal moment for Friends of Jesus, which has grown and evolved in exciting, surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable ways over the course of the last several years.

Since our early days gathering in Barnesville, Ohio, we’ve expanded beyond our original communities in Detroit and DC. We are now made up of disciples from across the eastern United States – including hot spots like Philadelphia and New York City. At the same time, we’ve struggled to really gather momentum in any one location. All of our local communities remain quite small, and we struggle to find the critical mass that is required to develop sustainable congregations.

We’ve all learned so much in the last few years together. We’v gained so much insight into both what to do, and what not to do. We’ve grown in our gifts as individuals, and we’ve bonded deeply as a scattered band of brothers and sisters in the way of Christ. Together, we have begun to learn what it means to live as friends and followers of the risen Jesus, and how we are called to live that out in our daily lives.

Last September at our Fall Gathering, there was a growing sense that God is asking something new of us. We’ve come a long way together in a very short time, but the journey ahead is going to look different. Our faithfulness to the Spirit will require that we move in new directions, ones that perhaps never occurred to us when we first started gathering as Friends of Jesus. The next steps forward for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be different from those that brought us to where we are today.

“What got us here will not get us there.”

Change isn’t easy, but it’s coming for us whether we choose it or not. The challenge before us this weekend is: Are we ready to re-order our lives in the radical ways that the reign of God demands of us? Are we prepared to make Jesus and his new order of love our top priority, even if it shakes the foundations of our comfortable existence? Are our eyes, ears, and hearts open to the terrifying and exhilarating next steps that the Spirit is inviting us to take together?

Jesus teaches us that we cannot love two masters. We will love one and hate the other. Please pray for us this weekend that we would find the courage and joy that comes with choosing our master wisely, embracing the humble way of Jesus as our path of salvation. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, guiding our worship and discernment, so that we can see clearly how we need to change our lives. Help us to be faithful to the next steps that God is calling us to. Holy Spirit, come.

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What to Do When You’re Snowed In

Snowed In

This weekend, those of us on the East Coast of the United States got several feet of snow dumped on us. It’s one of the biggest blizzards ever recorded in this part of the world, and it’s quite a sight to behold.

Here in Washington, DC, we’re not used to this kind of weather. We got about an inch of snow a few days before the main event, and we ended up with snarled traffic, massive accidents, and 8-hour commutes for some unlucky travelers. Given the amount of trouble caused by one inch of snow, I was a little concerned about what might happen when we got 20-30.

I’m happy to report that our family has made it through the blizzard without too much trouble. There’s been a lot of snow-shoveling, and we’re getting a little stir-crazy from this snow-imposed house arrest, but we’re mostly just feeling blessed to be in a warm, well-stocked home with electricity.

For me, the most remarkable thing about this storm is simply the way it has been able to immobilize an entire region. My city is full of ambitious go-getters, and we like our freedom to move. But this weekend, we didn’t have that option. The weather gave us no choice but to stay put, drink our warm beverage of choice, and contemplate the power of nature demonstrating itself right outside our window.

For me, this snowstorm is a reminder of my own powerlessness – not just before the occasional weather event, but in every sense. For all my pride and independence, the reality is that I don’t have nearly as much control over my life as I like to imagine. At best, I have choices to make about how I will respond to a universe that is vast and unsympathetic to my attempts to direct it. I’m “snowed in” all the time, whether I recognize it or not.

I’m wondering what it looks like for me to lead a life of joy, hope, and faithfulness in the midst of the snow. What would my life be like if I were both fully surrendered to my circumstances and at the same time on alert for how I could cooperate with God’s movement in the midst? What does it look like to stay awake, to trust, and to demonstrate love in a world that is so amazingly out of control? Snowed-in as I am, how can I be a person of peace who keeps the lights on and the house warm for all who visit?

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There’s a Storm Coming. Are You Ready?

Should I Fear God?

There’s a Storm Coming. Are You Ready?

There's a Storm Coming

It’s been a mighty warm winter so far, but that’s over now. Here in Washington, DC, snow hit the ground last night. It was just a dusting, maybe an inch, but the weather forecasters are telling us more is coming. There could be feet of snow by Saturday – enough to shut down the whole city.

This week’s trip to the grocery store could be a little rough. People go a little crazy when we know that severe weather is on the way. All those little things we never worry about too much under normal circumstances – batteries, toilet paper, and salt for the front steps – suddenly become an urgent need. Who knows? We might not be able to leave our homes for days. Better make sure we have everything we need.

It’s interesting what we pay attention to, what we prioritize. So much of our life is governed by the panics of crisis and the complacency of everyday life. Those things that are urgent get attended to, even if that means neglecting some of the most significant aspects of our lives. With no crisis to draw our attention, it’s easy to keep ignoring the people, places, and things that are most important.

Climate change is a great example. For most of us, global warming has been anything but a crisis. We put a lot more mental energy into finding a school, a job, a house, a spouse, than we have into considering such a long-term problem as climate change. Climate change is important, but the water bill is urgent.

One of the most profound messages contained in the Bible is that there is a crisis coming, one which we’ve never taken into account. There’s a storm on the horizon that is going to put everything into perspective. All of those little urgent problems, the ones we rushed off to the grocery store to take care of, aren’t really that vital after all. There’s a storm coming that will make this blizzard look irrelevant by comparison.

The writers of the Bible describe this storm, this crisis, as the “Day of the Lord.” This is the day that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. It’s this day that Jesus announces in his ministry, calling us out of our preoccupation with groceries, work gossip, and family drama, and into a life of tumult and exploration. For those of us who have eyes to see, this Day of the Lord looms on the horizon, a fearsome storm front that promises to sweep away all of our current priorities. It provide a new definition of urgency.

This storm that’s coming will change everything. For those of us who can smell it in the air, and who are awake to its implications, we have only one sane course of action left to us: We must abandon whatever else we were doing and prepare ourselves. We must put aside all those terribly urgent things and set our sights on the one truly important thing, which we are called to together.

Do you see the storm clouds forming? Can you hear the thunder? Will you be ready?

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Martin Luther King Isn’t Interested in Your Praise

Martin Luther King Isn't Interested in Your Praise

I’m in favor of holidays, period. Compared to most cultures, the United States has very few festivals where work ceases and we celebrate those things that are most important to us as a society. These times of rest and remembrance are important.

I’m particularly thankful that there’s a federal holiday in the United States that celebrates the life of Martin Luther King. As one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century, he stands as an icon for the struggles that black Americans have faced – and the victories they have won – during the last 400 years of hideous abuse, slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day mass-incarceration and police brutality.

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us, the civil rights struggle is far from over. The blood, sweat, and tears of our 20th-century civil rights heroes must be followed up by the clear-eyed resolve of a new generation. Ideally, celebrations like Martin Luther King Day should help to sustain this resolve, energizing us for the hard work ahead.

That being said, I suspect that King would not be too thrilled about MLK Day. I doubt he would take much solace in all the schools and highways named after him. The newly erected MLK monument – an enormous stone statue of King overlooking the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC – would almost certainly leave him cold. “What an enormous pedestal they’ve built for me”, he might say.

This past year I’ve had the opportunity to read a number of King’s sermons. Like any good preacher, in each of his speeches King brings something new to light, but he also demonstrates a deep repetition of theme. One of these repetitions is a passage from the prophetic Book of Amos, which warns of coming judgment for a disobedient nation. One of the passages that King quotes most often is Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the text, these might just sound like pretty words. But if we take a look at the verses preceding King’s favorite quote, we see a different story:

“I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. […]
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

King wasn’t interested in symbolic victories. He wasn’t concerned about whether the civil rights movement was honored by politicians with a national holiday, monuments, and pretty speeches. Quite the opposite. He was well-aware of the human tendency to put on a big show in order to cover up our own lack of righteous living.

King knew that God hates holidays without humility, songs without sincerity. He would know that in a country where black lives still do not seem to matter to most of us, where millions of African Americans are imprisoned or branded as felons, that any celebration of civil rights victory is premature. If King were here to celebrate his holiday with us, he would ask us to show him justice, not statues; changed hearts, not new names on freeways.

As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, and the many thousands of others who have poured their lives into the struggle for freedom, let’s make sure we keep our eyes on the prize. The civil rights campaigns of the 20th century are over, but the 21st century struggle for righteousness and justice have only just begun. A few more marches and few less statues would make Martin proud.

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Why is our Christian President so Violent?

Why is our Christian President so Violent?

For his final State of the Union address, President Obama delivered a characteristically eloquent and passionate speech. He issued a heartfelt call for unity and cooperation in a country whose political climate is just a few notches short of civil war. He asked us to consider how we might move forward as one nation, affirming our highest ideals rather than the hateful rhetoric of would-be despots.

Obama’s final State of the Union was in many ways a masterpiece of American political theater. He reminded us of the best of our tradition, calling us to live up to our history of welcoming the outsider and being a land of opportunity for all people. Despite the fact that this canonical history is to a great degree aspirational rather than actual, I was at many points uplifted to hear the president invite us to live into the more beautiful aspects of the American Dream.

Given how compelling the president’s speech was, it was disappointing to hear him spend so much time asserting America’s “strength” on the global stage. There were long stretches of the State of the Union that were unabashedly imperial. The president spoke with pride about the overwhelming US military budget, which has been draining the lifeblood of our poor and middle class for decades. He cited the 10,000 airstrikes he has overseen as if it were a badge of honor. He bragged about assassinating Osama Bin Laden, with swagger that was reminiscent of George W. Bush.

None of this is surprising. I’m not so naïve as to expect the commander of “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” to renounce the way of the sword. Caesar will be Caesar, and the empires of this world are not likely to be governed by peacemakers any time soon.

And yet this president – like almost every other president in our country’s history – is a confessing Christian. So were almost all of the national leaders gathered in the Capitol Building. We are a nation governed largely by professed Christians who have no compunction about taking up the sword and “destroying” those who threaten America’s economic and military dominance. For all his lovely words, President Obama has once again made it abundantly clear: He is more than willing to destroy whole nations if they threaten the US Empire. 

How do we as the followers of the crucified messiah reconcile ourselves to the fact that many of the most violent people in the world are our co-religionists? In this time of such great fear about militant Islam, who will protect us from nuclear-armed Christians? How can we share the good news of Jesus’ way of love while launching 10,000 airstrikes on people around the globe? How many must die at the hands of Christians before the followers of Jesus finally resolve to follow our humble commander-in-chief to the cross? 

To all of our leaders who profess faith in the Lord Jesus: I beg you to consider whether your commitment to American military dominance is compatible with your decision to live as citizens in the reign of God. And for all of us who seek to follow the risen savior, whether we hold political authority or not: How long will we choose to compromise our faith and support a nation that so disregards the law of love and the Spirit of Peace whom our Lord Jesus sends us? 

My prayer is that President Obama, and all of our Christian leaders, would come to more fully know the power of Christ’s love, which frees us to lay down the sword and take up the cross. On that day, ISIS won’t stand a chance.

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Why Your New Year’s Resolution is Doomed

Everyone knows that New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

Marketers count on it. In December and January they sell us on all sorts of products, programs, and offers that they claim will transform our lives in the year ahead. They promise us fitter bodies, sharper minds, and warmer hearts.

Despite what we know about New Year’s resolutions, we fall for it every time. The possibility that this year might finally be the one we kick smoking, lose weight, or complete that degree is just too tantalizing to ignore. We want these things. So every year millions of people pursue their dreams in the form of resolutions that we know almost certainly won’t be fulfilled.

Why do we almost always fail at creating the future that our hearts tell us is possible? Why is it that the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions fail every year? If these resolutions represent our deepest hopes and aspirations for our lives, what does it say about us that we almost never achieve them?

Writer and artist Austin Kleon suggests an answer:

“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”

This rings true as a reason that our New Year’s resolutions so often go unfulfilled. Almost everybody would like to be in shape, but few want to exercise. We’d all like to be financially secure, but most of us don’t want to reign in our spending. Millions of us want to be good Christians, but actually following Jesus and obeying him in our daily lives is another question altogether.

We want to be the noun without doing the verb.

This year, rather than dreaming about what kind of person you’d like to be (noun), what if instead you dedicated yourself to the more challenging tasks of loving the work that you are called to do (verb)? Rather than becoming a writer, what if you wrote? Instead of trying to fit the mold of being a Christian, what if you simply embraced the daily joy (and pain) of following Jesus?

This year, stop dreaming. Do the thing.

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Should I Fear God?

The Christian tradition can seem a bit confusing when it comes to the subject of fear. Is fear a legitimate, God-given emotion, or is it something to be overcome by the power of love?

There is a strong biblical case to be made for both perspectives. On the one hand, the authors of the Bible repeatedly paint a picture of God that is the very antithesis of fear. In the 23rd Psalm, we read God’s promise to comfort us and relieve our fears:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

The author of 1st John writes in the same spirit:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

On the other hand, the Bible is also full of statements that seem to say the exact opposite, describing fear as a virtue. For example, the Book of Proverbs states:

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

And Jesus himself suggests that the true alternative to fearing the rulers of this world is to instead fear God:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

I’ll be honest: I’m a lot more comfortable with the stream of biblical thought that promises an experience of love that totally obliterates fear. I resonate with the end-times vision of Isaiah, in which the lion lays down with the lamb. I love the apocalyptic visions of the prophets, who foretell a time when “no one shall make us afraid.”

At first glance, I’m less excited about the many biblical passages that talk about “the fear of the Lord.” In light of the fearless vision of the prophets, I find the idea of fearing God either confusing or disturbing. How can God be both the one who drives out fear, and a source of fear himself?

It’s helpful for me to remember that fear is a God-given emotion, just like anger, joy, and sadness. God created these emotions for a reason, so there must be an appropriate use for them. The authors of the Bible warn against anger, too – but it is appropriate to be angry at injustice. On the other hand, even “positive” emotions like joy can be twisted. For example, I think of God’s harsh judgment on the people of Edom, who rejoiced when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians.

If no God-created emotion is inherently good or evil, then, what is the proper role of fear? Certainly it is appropriate to fear things that will destroy us. It would be a huge problem if I did not fear walking out into a busy street filled with traffic! On the other hand, there is fear that is pathological. Far from safeguarding us, this kind of fear destroys our lives. Fear of pain could keep me from a much-needed surgery. Fear of human rejection could prevent me from expressing love and creativity.

In reality, the two streams of biblical witness about fear – the “perfect love that casts out fear” and the “fear of the Lord” – represent a coherent story about how emotions work. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, God created fear in order to benefit our lives. The fear of God – knowing that God is our ultimate reality to be loved, respected, and obeyed –  put all of our other fears into perspective. Fearing God liberates us to experience lives of fearlessness in the world.

There are many reasons to be wary of “fear of the Lord” language, especially when the people preaching it are asking us to fear them. But it would be a mistake to recoil from the full spectrum of the Bible’s teachings about fear. The fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. It’s liberation from all the false fears that have captured our lives!

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