Archive for April 2016

We Don’t Have to be Afraid Anymore

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic, which examines why many Americans (particularly elite men) are so obsessed with wealth and work. The author speculates about the extent to which these obsessions are rooted in culture or biology. He notes how the wage gap between men and women is exacerbated by such obsession, and he laments the deep unhappiness of many elite men who work themselves to death for the mirage of achievement and wealth-accumulation.

This article points to a deep crisis of values in our culture. In a society that is so fixated on money and professional identity, how can we root our lives in something deeper? In a culture that worships wealth and exalts those who succeed in business, what does it mean for us to prioritize health, family, community, and our relationship with God?

Deep fear lies at the heart of this crisis. We’re terrified that we’re not doing enough, having enough, being enough. We have become a society that hides from the reality of our limitations, weaknesses, and even death. We long to be forever young, strong, and healthy. The fact that we know these dreams are an illusion provides all the more motivation to distance ourselves from reality. We flee into the endless chase for more money, higher status, greater achievement.

But, for those of us who have come to know Jesus, we are invited into a different reality altogether. We have begun down a path that acknowledges the reality of our own limitations, of struggle, and death. Accompanying him to the cross, Jesus shows us that we don’t need to be fixated on our own survival anymore. We can experience freedom to love others without holding anything back. Even if that means a loss of status or reduced income. For Jesus, this path led to arrest, torture, and a humiliating public execution. Compared to that, why should we concern ourselves with how big our paycheck or how important our job?

All this talk of the cross sounds really stark. It’s fair to ask, Why would anyone want to walk in the way of Jesus? Yet, as we embrace this way of surrender, we discover that the heart of the gospel is love. It is a release from the fear that has gripped us for so long, and in so many ways that we had almost stopped noticing. The way of the cross is freedom; its fruit is joy. Despite all of the darkness, uncertainty, and even suffering, the path of Jesus is marked by radiant joy and passionate love.

This kind of love drives out fear. Opening ourselves to a life beyond the grasping self-interest of the meritocracy, we can be filled with wholeness and peace, even in the midst of challenges. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

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Blessed Are those with Nothing to Lose

There was a time when truly anything seemed possible. I was young and the world was laid out before me. I was sure that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Imagination was the limit.

There was very little to hold me back. Most big life decisions were still in the future. I was free to make massive changes at the drop of a hat. I went to live abroad in Mexico, worked at a bank as a bilingual teller, and headed off to seminary – all based on little more than a hunch of what it might mean. My existence was flexible in ways that seem almost incredible now. Every few months brought a new revolution, a total re-working of my focus and direction. It was an exhausting, and exhilarating, way of life.

Over time, my choices added up. I made those big life decisions, committing myself to people, places, and work. Little by little, I found what all young people are looking for: An identity, purpose, and place to call my own. My dreams came true. I made it.

I lost something, too. Before, I enjoyed a flexibility and daring that comes with starting from zero; now, I have responsibilities. Taking off for foreign adventures, trying out a new job, pursuing more education, or making any other big life change isn’t as simple as it used to be. These days, I’ve got a lot to lose. My commitments constrain the choices I feel comfortable making.

That’s not so bad. I like my life, and I’m grateful for the gifts I’ve received. I don’t need a lot of choices and changes, as long as my life is on the right trajectory. If I’m generally headed in the direction that God has prepared for me, an occasional course correction will probably do the trick.

But what if the Spirit wants to do something truly new with my life? What if all the commitments and decisions that I’ve made so far are blinding me to the path where God is calling me? What if my comfort with the status quo is discouraging me from accepting the discomfort of revolutionary change?

The whole thrust of Jesus’ ministry is a call to lose everything, so that we can act decisively to usher in the reign of God. He tells us that if we are to follow him, we must abandon wealth, familyprofession, and comfort. The path of discipleship is one in which we are called to surrender everything for the sake of the new life and family we find in Jesus.

The new order of Jesus presents a radical challenge to the society we live in. To follow Jesus means questioning everything – the way we live our lives, do our jobs, govern our cities, and raise our families. This kind of fundamental upending of the powers and principalities is impossible for those of us who are still beholden to the world as it exists. It’s hard to abolish Wall Street when our money is still invested there. It’s tough to work for a new world of peace when our livelihoods are based in war. The truth is difficult to embrace when our daily lives are permeated with convenient lies.

The radical, world-changing activity of the Jesus community can only be carried out by those who have nothing to lose. The reign of God is for those who renounce the world as it is in favor of the world as it could be. For those of us who want to become followers of Jesus, we must be prepared to lose our lives – to surrender everything we think we have – in order to participate the new order that is being born.

This is a disturbing proposition for those, like me, who have begun to find our place in the world. As much as we may desire to see the reign of peace and justice that Jesus promises, it seems like an awfully big leap to renounce everything for the sake of a vision that seems impossible by the standards of the dominant culture.

Yet I am also reminded of how joyful it can be to live in that state of radical openness. Being young was painful in many ways, and I know that I scratched and clawed to find a place I could call my own. Yet there is beauty in such an exposed life of uncertainty. There is a fearlessness that comes when we have nothing to defend, only the promise of a more true and beautiful future together.

Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the reign of God. I think this probably applies to everyone, rich or not, who has found comfort and consolation in this broken and unjust order that we live in. It certainly applies to me. And yet he also says that all things are possible with God. It’s not too late for us to be roused from our self-satisfaction and rediscover the challenge and power of the gospel.

How would it feel to re-embrace the fire, joy, and uncertainty of your youth? What would it mean to start from zero again, this time as a grown adult who has chosen to surrender everything for the sake of a more beautiful, just world? At age 25, 45, or 95, what does it mean to live with nothing to lose?

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Life is Absurd. So is God.

When I was a kid, adults would sometimes seek to encourage my faith by telling me their own reasons for believing in God. They often told me that without God the universe would make no sense. “Look at a sunset! Listen to birdsong or running water. This world is so beautiful. How could there not be a Creator who made it?”

I never found these appeals compelling. I can see now that my elders were attempting to encourage a sense of awe in me. Yet at the time, I just heard adults attempting to make sense out of an utterly mysterious universe. It sounded more like wish-fulfillment than well-considered logic.

The more I thought about their answer, the deeper I was drawn into a sense of unfathomable mystery. “How could there be such a beautiful universe without a creator to design it?” they asked. But I wondered, Why would the existence of God make the universe any more explicable? If anything, it just added another layer of enigma to an already confusing world. After all, if God made the universe, who made God? If the answer was, “No one; he just exists”, is that any less crazy than saying the universe exists without a creator?

Faith in God isn’t a logical answer to a rational question. The kind of faith that I’ve discovered transcends normal human reason. It goes beyond the pat answers that settle questions as fact or fiction. This faith is a response to a powerful, loving, personal presence who can be neither proven nor explained.

Now I am one of those adults who sees God everywhere. I find him in sunsets and morning runs. He’s right there, staring out at me in all the beauty and tragedy of this world. I finally understand what those adults were trying to tell me: There is a life and power so deep and wide that the universe simply cannot cohere without it. 

And yet, I retain my sense of absurdity. I am still a tiny being in the midst of a vast, inexplicable universe. This world is profoundly, fundamentally bizarre. Faith in God doesn’t change that. God is absurd, too. 

The faith that I’ve discovered doesn’t make the cosmos any easier to understand. If anything, I’m more baffled than ever. But what my faith has given me is a place to stand despite the uncertainty. I’ve found a relationship to cling to in the midst of the unknowing. Thanks to this faith, I am free to trust the God of the mystery. He is the I AM beyond my comprehension. In him, I can rejoice in life’s beauty, mourn its agony, and live in hope of a yet-unseen cosmic redemption.

And so even in the midst of life’s confusion, there is a seed of hope.

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How to Escape the Baby Eating Cycle of Doom

Our son George just recently turned one year old. As you might expect, the last year of our lives has been marked by great joy, new experiences, and total exhaustion. It turns out that babies need to eat all the time. When George was first born, he needed to be fed every hour and a half. As you can imagine, this grueling schedule was quite disruptive to adult sleep patterns. For our first few months as parents, the boundaries between day and night seemed to dissolve. For George, it was always lunchtime.

Fortunately, the Baby Eating Cycle of Doom (technical term) slows down a little bit as they get a little older. At this stage in the game, George only needs fed about once every three hours. Even better, he usually doesn’t need fed that often at night. Lately, we’re even occasionally able to sleep through the night without getting up to feed George. (Parents will know how miraculous this is!)

We’re making progress. George has been eating solid foods for many months now. More of his calories come from regular, adult food than from milk at this point. Still, the milk connection is strong. Usually, if George is really upset and nothing else seems to do the trick, the answer is milk. In fact, milk is rarely a bad answer. Whenever tensions are high and emotions out of control, milk has the power to put everything in perspective.

What I’m saying is, my boy is addicted to milk. Seriously, he freaks out if he goes without it for more than a few hours. And when he sees me preparing that bottle, he starts weeping like a man being reunited with his family after years of separation. “Hello, my name is George. I’m a milk-o-holic.”

The time is coming when we’ll begin weaning George from breast milk altogether. The process has already begun: We recently started introducing cow’s milk in his sippy cup. (George is not a fan.) Based on George’s attachment to breast milk, I know this will be a tough transition for all of us. Trying to quit cold-turkey would be a mistake; but over time, we’re hopeful we can help him make the transition. After all, what would all his friends say if he were still breast-feeding in high school?

George’s attachment to milk is making me more aware of the many ways that I allow myself to get stuck in behaviors that no longer serve me. I become attached to so many things that are vital, necessary, and good in their right season, but which have perhaps outlived their usefulness. Mother’s milk is good, but it’s for babies, not adults.

The process of weaning never ends. It’s a lifelong journey, not only of releasing that which is no longer necessary, but also of embracing the delicious and wonderful things that come with new life stages. George must give up milk so that he can enjoy solid food. And in my own way, so must I.

What are the ways in which I am still spiritually breast-feeding, when God wants me to grow into greater maturity? What are the things that I must surrender so that I can fully embrace what God has next for me? What delightful, amazing discoveries await me when I choose to grow?

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Could Empire be a Good Thing?

Could Empire be a Good Thing?

For me, and most people I know, the word “empire” has a negative connotation. As well it should. The economic and military might of human empires has been one of the most destructive forces in history. From the genocidal campaigns of Genghis Khan to the modern day invasions of Iraq, the prerogative of empires is to establish their power through conquest and domination. In the process, they’ve destroyed the lives of billions.

The early Christian communities knew this. The ancient church lived under Roman occupation – first as Jews in Roman Palestine, and eventually as people of all tribes and tongues throughout the Roman Empire. The first Christians experienced first hand the deadly power of empire. Jesus was tortured and executed at the hands of the Roman legion. Many of the most dedicated saints were martyred by Caesar or his local representatives.

The earliest followers of Jesus had every reason to reject empire. They saw on a daily basis how the powers distort the image of God in humanity. The power of the Roman state enforced conformity to a worldview that was profoundly twisted, life-denying, and oppressive. Caesar and his minions directed worship to themselves, rather than to the one true God of love whom Jesus reveals. In the midst of this suffocating atmosphere of state violence, the disciple community composed and circulated the Book of Revelation, one of the most powerful denunciations of human empire ever written.

Yet the Christian tradition also embraces the language of empire. Throughout the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, the power of God is presented in imperial terms. Even Jesus, who was murdered by Caesar’s army, is fashioned a conquering king, come to establish an empire of peace and justice without end. The many of the titles that the church uses for Jesus – such as “lord”, “messiah,” and “savior of the world” – are firmly rooted in the vocabulary of imperial rule. In Jesus, we are presented with a leader who overcomes the powers and principalities of human empire, conquering death and oppression with the legions of love.

This framing is strange for someone like me, who has always assumed that empire is simply evil. Why would a good and loving God be described in imperial terms? Could even empire play a role in God’s vision? If God in Jesus has created everything for a helpful purpose, perhaps it is only our twisting of God’s good creation that has turned empire into a destructive force.

God created empire as a positive good. That sounds crazy, I know. But consider this: Would we really want a world without empire? Do we want a society without a central source of governance and authority? Would we prefer that every man, woman, and child be forced to fend for themselves – survival of the fittest? Even pacifists like me are sometimes grateful for the presence of police.

All empires derive their authority from the promise of bringing order to a chaotic world. This is why human beings have embraced dictators, warlords, kings, and parliaments for as long as we have a written record. Despite the terrible track record of human power structures, we tend to think that the order and stability they provide are worth the cost.

What God offers us in Jesus is a holy center of power and justice who can resolve the hostilities and divisions among people and nations. In Jesus we find the emperor that we’ve all been waiting for – one who rules the nations in justice and establishes real peace wherever he reigns. In him, all things hold together. Out of chaos and confusion, he brings order – and joy.

In the United States, and in nations around the world, we are presently experiencing a crisis of empire. The structures of authority that once seemed stable have become increasingly shaky. We don’t know where to turn for strength, vision, and direction. We are looking for leaders we can trust – men and women who will re-establish an empire based on justice, care for those on the margins, and peace with our neighbors. In a moment like this, we have a great opportunity to point to Jesus as the leader we’ve been longing for. He is present to lead us, if we are ready to follow him.

What would it mean to invite Jesus to be president of our communities, our culture, our nation? What would it look like to live as part of the empire of peace, righteousness, and social justice that he promises? What if empire is just what we need?

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What Are You Willing to Lose?

There are a lot of things that Jesus taught that most of us tend to ignore. We may like abstract ideas about love, self-sacrifice, and a society of peace and justice. But Jesus wasn’t simply an advocate of a new social program that can be slotted into our world the way it is. The brokenness of our world isn’t a matter of a few faulty pieces that must be replaced. On the contrary, an honest reading of Jesus’ ministry demonstrates not a gentle reform, not an arc of history that bends toward justice, but a basic break with history, a frank rejection of the world as it is.

Jesus Christ is a one-man apocalypse. Everything he said and did pointed towards a coming cataclysm. He offered his disciples an opportunity to part ways definitively with the system of death that was bound for the bottom of the abyss just as surely as the Titanic. But he dismissed out of hand any talk of re-arranging the deck chairs. Jesus left his family, publicly rejected them, and encouraged his followers to the same. He denounced the corrupt economic system and imperial power structures. Yet when he stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and the local petty dictator, Herod, Jesus stood mute. He wasn’t there to change them. His was another kingdom altogether.

What a contrast with the kind of faith that I, and most of the Christian church, live most of the time! We tend to assume that the gospel is ultimately a plan for social reform, a path that should gradually yield progress as the system is convinced to change. Because change is slow, obedience to social conventions and family obligations take precedence over the urgent call of Jesus.

One of the greatest betrayals in history is the church’s stubborn refusal to take Jesus at his word when he says that we must surrender everything to follow him. For millennia, institutional Christianity has insisted that discipleship can be reconciled to the world as it is. What’s more, we’ve been taught that our obligations to family, the state, the economy, and all sorts of other abstractions, absolves us from the radical, all-forsaking demands of Jesus. Tragically, almost all of us have allowed ourselves to be fooled.

We need to be reminded that the human religion of cathedrals and popes, presidents and nation-states, socialism and capitalism, must not be confused with the radical gospel of Jesus. It is easy to choose the religions of this world. They allow us to put safety, comfort, and conformity first – and there’s no shortage of religious leaders who will support us in our compromise. But let there be no doubt, this has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He is the one who has told us that the way to life – real life – is narrow. Most of us pass it by, sure that there must be some easier path to the life of joy and power that the gospel promises us. But deep down we know that’s not true. We know that compromise with this dirty, rotten system we live in can’t bring true peace. We settle for less because we can’t bear the cataclysmic price we must pay if we follow the way of renunciation, the way of the cross of Jesus.

I know it scares me half out of my wits sometimes just to think about it. Living fully as a disciple of Jesus, without shame and without fear, seems impossible. But Jesus has promised his Holy Spirit to give us the strength to do anything he commands us.

The first step is to confess that we’re not really living the life of discipleship Jesus calls us to. No matter what the political, economic, and religious leaders of our society tell us, we’ve got to know that something is deeply wrong, and it can’t be addressed without a total reordering of our society. The arc of the universe bends towards slavery, until and unless we are prepared to radically break with history altogether. The Spirit gives us that power.

My grandfather used to say, “You can have anything you want; but you can’t have everything you want.” We can have the life of boldness and freedom that Jesus promises us – but that life has consequences. What are you willing to lose?

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Frustrated? Babies Know How You Feel

I was recently watching a toddler play with some plastic blocks, the multi-shaped kind that are meant to fit into a series of openings in a box. He would pick up a cube and try to fit it into a triangle-shaped hole, then into the circle. Sometimes, he picked the right opening, but didn’t have  the block oriented correctly to get it through. Most of the time, his efforts ended in frustration.

It was fascinating to watch what a challenge these blocks could present a one-year-old. The child was definitely having fun, but he was also struggling. I could practically hear the wheels turning in his head as he tried to figure out how to match these 3D blocks with their corresponding 2D shapes.

What interested me most was how often the child refused to give up, even when it was clear (from my perspective) that his strategy was hopeless. The triangle wouldn’t fit into the round hole, so he’d slam the block again and again, grinding it against the opening. I couldn’t help admire the infant’s tenacity, but it was also frustrating to watch such an exercise in futility. No matter how hard he pressed, a triangle was not going to pass through a circle.

Watching this child’s game got me thinking about how often I play out this same drama in my own life. In my own adult way, I’m playing with blocks, too, and I have a definite tendency to try to fit round pegs into square holes. How many times in my life have I refused to give up on a dream or ambition, when it was clearly not working? How often have I pretended that just pushing harder would change my situation?

I’ve spent years engaged in futile activity, sure that if I only exerted a little more effort, I could achieve my goals. But like the toddler with his plastic blocks, I couldn’t see the truth: Only a completely different way of relating to my situation would allow me to move forward. I’d either have to pick a different block, or a different hole.

It’s easy for me to get upset, to blame the world for my frustrations and difficulties. Too often, I give into the temptation to blame my circumstances rather than taking a second look at my choices and reorienting my life. Maybe that heart-shaped block that I’ve been stubbornly slamming just needs to be turned around to fit. Or maybe I’m focusing on the wrong opening altogether. But I’ll never know if I’m unwilling to take a step back and reevaluate my actions. The hardest thing to change is my mind.

They say that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect different results. By this definition, we’re all a little crazy sometimes. Where are some places in your life where you’ve gotten stuck in a mentality that just isn’t helpful? Where have you set your sights on the wrong goals, or pursued the right goals in the wrong way? What will it take for you to see your situation clearly, despite the frustration?

There’s nothing more beautiful than when life suddenly clicks into place. Sometimes, though, this requires letting go of those things that have become most important in order to receive something better.

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