Archive for June 2016

What Brexit Means for the Kingdom of God

What Brexit Means for the Kingdom of God
There is only one way to describe my feelings when I learned that the United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union: Astonishment. Disorientation. Shock. Could this really be happening?

I didn’t expect to feel so emotionally invested in the outcome of the Brexit referendum. I had barely paid attention to it in the months leading up to the vote. The fact is, I assumed the outcome was a foregone conclusion: Of course Britain would stay in the EU. To think otherwise was almost as silly as imagining the secession of Texas from the United States.

Obviously, I was quite wrong. Britain has been part of the EU and its predecessors since long before I was born, and it seemed only natural to me that they would remain. It seemed inevitable. Shows you how much I know!

In the days since Britain voted Leave, I’ve been gone through several stages of reaction and reflection. My first response was disbelief and disappointment. I didn’t want the UK and the EU to break up. I have friends across Europe, and I’ve always had a deep admiration for the political, economic, and cultural union that they have built in recent decades.

I was also deeply disturbed by the anti-immigrant sentiment that drove at least some of the Leave voters. I felt frustrated that right-wing parties throughout Europe are using the Brexit vote to further their authoritarian, hyper-nationalist agendas.

As I processed my grief, I also had the opportunity to read some alternative perspectives, which highlighted how the elitism and greed of global neoliberalism has set the stage for Brexit. I came across a particularly eye-opening piece written by Glenn Greenwald, which helped me gain a better understanding the structural brutality of neoliberalism in the European context. There are real injustices being perpetuated under the flag of the European Union, similar to those being experienced by billions of others under the neoliberal economic regime.

And yet, I’m still mourning Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Despite all of the problems with the European Union – and there are many! – I remain inspired by the European vision of an open society, where citizens can travel, work, and trade across national borders. The borderless society of the EU is something that I wish the whole world could experience.

Even as I mourn a setback in this dream, I’m also feeling grateful. The fact is, before Brexit, I had a lot of false assumptions about how the world works. For all the pain and discomfort this process will cause, Brexit has helped make me more aware of the real hardship, frustration, and emptiness that is driving the populist backlash that we are seeing around the world.

Even in the midst of this unraveling, I’m finding reasons for hope. Illusions are falling away, and we each have an opportunity to witness the truth. Our global society is convulsing in birth pangs. Something new is struggling to be born, though we can’t even fathom what it is yet. In the midst of Trump vs. Clinton, Leave vs. Remain, and all the many For and Against arguments that face us, we are invited into an alternative way of love, mercy, and justice.

It’s scary. Nobody knows what’s about to happen, whether it’s the birth of a new age or the escalation of a global war. We’re living through an unpredictable, highly combustible moment in history. We didn’t ask for it, yet here we are. What role will we play?

For those of us who have chosen to follow the Lamb, now is the time for courageous open-heartedness. In these times of growing crisis, the world around us will continue to whip itself into a fever pitch of fear, accusations, and violence. If we’re not careful, we’ll go right over the edge, too. But we have a greater calling, if we’ll choose to embrace it.

In this time of panic, we can be loving helpers, people who see through the smoke of confusion with the eyes of hope. We can tend the wounded, comfort the brokenhearted, and continue the work of building a new society in the shell of the old. Never before has kingdom of God been needed so much. It’s a shimmering, life-giving reality that bubbles just beneath the surface of these dark times.

The political authorities of this world – the EU, the UK, the United States, and all the other entities that vie for our allegiance – are passing away. What is emerging? It’s hard to describe it. But to use the old words: The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.

The kingdom is coming now. Can you sense it? It’s right here, bubbling up in our child-like hope and joy. The kingdom is alive in us, refusing to let fury and fear have the last word. Will we take the next step?

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Do We Have to Be Selfish?

When I was a little kid, my mom gave me a bag of fresh chocolate chip cookies and sent me out onto the playground with the other children from the neighborhood. About ten minutes later, I ran back into the house with an empty zip-lock bag and a big smile on my face. “Mom! I need more cookies!”

When I had stepped out onto that playground with my bag full of cookies, something magical happened. All the other kids in the neighborhood suddenly wanted to be my friend. They gathered round, paid attention to me, and played extra nice. In a sudden flash of insight, I had discovered a great new social strategy: If Mom would keep me supplied with cookies, I’d be a star.

I was raised with the ideal of altruism – that we should do good things for others, simply for the joy of being kind. Yet as I’ve grown older, I’ve had the chance to experience human behavior first-hand, and I’ve often wondered whether true altruism is possible. So much of what passes for kindness is merely veiled selfishness.

Having seen this side of humanity, I’m amazed at the kind of love Jesus teaches. It’s a love that goes far beyond the kind of cookie-based transactions that are so common in human relationships. Jesus didn’t just give out of his abundance in order to win friends. He gave away everything, his entire life, for the people who loved him – and for those who hated him.

Jesus teaches us to do the same. He introduces us to a God that gives good gifts to everyone, without distinction. Even the wicked have rain fall on their fields. Jesus demonstrates an indiscriminate love that finds its power in the joy of blessing rather than the security of social status or wealth. In Jesus, we see what real selflessness looks like.

I know that I’m not there yet. It’s terrifying to even think about giving myself to others the way that Jesus has. Loving my friends can be hard enough sometimes, without the burden of loving my enemies.

Yet there is a peace and power that comes with the indiscriminate love of Jesus. When we walk in this path, we discover that each one of us has something to offer. No matter how poor you feel, no matter how empty your bag of cookies, there are always ways that you can bless the lives of others.

The mystery that Jesus reveals for is that we don’t have to be successful in the world’s eyes in order to have a big impact. You don’t have to be wealthy, intelligent, or good-looking to experience the love and power of God. When we discover the servant heart of Jesus, we are set free. Anything is possible.

There’s still a child within me who thinks that self-interest is the game and cookies are the solution. But Jesus has invited me into a faith that is so much deeper than my fear and self-seeking. His joy and faith allow me to consider doing the impossible, showing love to others – even my enemies – without any concern for being rewarded.

What is the bag of cookies that you’re clinging to? What are the selfish transactions that underpin your life and relationships? How would it feel to release your gifts and bless others with no thought of return?

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Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?

Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?
Flying makes me a little bit nervous. I know it’s irrational. I know you’re more likely to die on the drive to the airport than you are on the flight itself. Still, there’s something about the feeling of takeoff and landing that puts me in an especially prayerful state. The roar of the engines, the awareness of tons of steel and jet fuel surrounding me – it can all be a little much.

On one flight that I took some years ago, a fellow passenger shared a reassuring thought with me. He told me that even if all the engines were to cut out, our airplane wouldn’t just fall out of the sky. Even without functional engines, the aircraft would glide for a long time. We’d have a good chance of making a safe landing. “The airplane wants to stay in the air.”

It was comforting to realize that not everything depended on the perfect functioning of the aircraft. A lot of things could go very wrong, and we’d still have a chance to survive. In the years since I received this little bit of wisdom, I’ve realized that I can survive – and even thrive – despite the reality that things fall apart.

I think especially about the church, the fellowship of modern-day disciples who are trying to find. I consider the fact that the great engines of 20th-century American Christianity are sputtering and dying. So many of the supports that the church has relied on for generations to keep us flying have been stripped away. The money, social prestige, political influence, and a whole set of cultural assumptions that once reinforced Christianity’s predominance in Western society – all those engines are burning out.

Without a doubt, there are millions of Christians who are scrambling to preserve what’s left of those old engines. In the face of this profound crisis of values and institutions that is transforming our world, there are many whose imagination only extends to seeking more horsepower for the dying motors of 1950’s Christianity.

But what gets me excited is to think about all the possibilities waiting for us in the wings of this ancient-yet-awakening community. Can we feel the presence in the air that is just waiting to buoy us, carrying us to destinations that our man-made engines could never have reached? What if this airplane of faith wants to stay in the air? Are we ready to fly?

I am convinced that the future of our fellowship, of our movement as friends of Jesus, will not rely on the false security that for so long has smothered western Christianity. There is a life and power at work in our time and place, one that flies on the winds of the Spirit rather than the jet fuel of human ambition and egotism. Despite all appearances, there is a hope and future for the church in the developing world. This plane wants to stay in the air, if we’re willing to allow ourselves to be guided wherever the Wind takes us.

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What the Orlando Murders Say About America

We were without internet at our house over the weekend. On the one hand, it was a super-frustrating first-world problem. On the other hand, it meant that we weren’t on social media for the first couple of days after the shooting in Orlando. All things considered, I’m sort of grateful that our connection chose to fail when it did.

When we finally heard about the killings, all I could feel at first was a great sense of weariness. Exhaustion at watching this pattern play out once again. So many young lives taken, families left in tatters. Ideological battle lines drawn – about terrorism, gun control, race, and religion. So many senseless murders in America, and we’ve learned to cope with it by racing immediately to our familiar camps. So much pain, and we numb ourselves in a cycle of outrage and finger-pointing.

These mass murders are starting to feel normal, even inevitable. It’s like having a nightmare where everything is moving in slow motion. We know exactly what comes next, we can see how this all ends, but we can’t find any way to stop it.

Except we do know how to stop it. It’s no mystery why 49 young people were able to be obliterated by one sick individual. We live in a nation that has enshrined access to lethal firepower as a constitutional right. Can it really come as a complete shock when someone given over to evil chooses to use that right to take the lives of his brothers and sisters? When we as a country value the right to bear arms more than the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, what do we expect to see happen?

What happened in Orlando is not an aberration. It is a reflection of who we are as a nation. Our country has been at war continuously for longer than many of our citizens can remember. Before the AR-15 assault rifle was used by civilians for depraved mass shootings, it was first used by the United States and its allies to “project power” across the globe. For generations, black Americans, LGBT folk, and many others have been brutalized by a culture of police brutality and mob violence. Random acts of hatred and terror aren’t a new problem; it’s a part of our DNA as a nation.

In the face of what happened in Orlando, many of us are tempted to rush to easy political fixes – for example, advocating for moderate changes to US gun laws. Others of our fellow citizens are succumbing to racism and fear-mongering, calling for bans on religious and ethnic groups. Both of these responses are predictable, but neither address the root of what is ailing our country.

I believe that it is time to move beyond the superficial politics of the Democratic and Republican echo chambers. Debates over gun rights, “radical Islam”, and the differences between a hate crime and a terror attack are noisy, and it’s easy to get sucked in. But a deeper question remains, and it must be answered before we can truly begin to heal as a nation.

Are we ready to acknowledge the spirit of domination and hatred that has gripped our society, which is the source of the cancer of murder that is spreading into our schools, churches, and night clubs?

The horror of Orlando is a mirror on our spiritual state as a nation. Are we ready to look? Are we prepared to engage in the personal and social transformation that will be required for us to emerge from this culture of death?

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How to Find the Holy in the Ordinary

Pouring the coffee. Sitting down in my favorite chair. Walking to work. Bedtime with my son. All these moments and a million more, together they make up a life.

It’s amazing how many of these moments I don’t even notice; I’m so busy rushing on to something more important. Sometimes these simple moments that make up the substance of my life can even seem like obstacles to me. But God is there, present in the traffic jam. Power, breath, and purpose is waiting for me in my toddler’s emotional meltdown. Every day holds a heroic quest, a challenge to overcome, even if it’s just my own attempt to go through the day blessing – not cursing – each person that I meet. Whether they help me or hurt me.

I’ve got this deeply-ingrained tendency to flee the present moment. Maybe you do, too. Maybe that’s why God has always taught us in simple things, moments that we thought were ordinary but turned out to contain the presence of the holy. The burning bush. Bread and wine. Seed and salt and mustard seeds. Feet washed with fragrant perfume and heartfelt tears.

Jesus is like that. He meets me in the everyday. When I roll out of bed, go on my morning run, take my walk to the train, or sit down at my desk at work – he’s there, staring back at me. He’s present when I’m angry or sad or laughing – or all of the above. He patiently waits for me to awaken, to see the simple opportunities I have each day to experience joy and demonstrate love to those around me.

The kingdom of God is not something for later. It is right now, present in each breath. The reign of God shimmers just beneath the surface of every moment, every interaction. Will I open my eyes to see it? Will I open the blinds and let the light shine in? Will I embrace the joy and peace that is available to me in every coffee cup, train track, green tree, and tall building? God made it all. His fingerprints are all over the creation.

He is with us always, even to the end of the age. Jesus has promised his presence – not just in some future heaven, but right here and now. Look around you. He’s here in your flesh and blood. Open your eyes. He lives in you.

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The Difference Between Doubt and Despair

Doubt has a very bad reputation in most Christian communities. It’s seen as a temptation to be avoided, a slippery slope to losing faith completely. In these communities, questioning God – or, even worse, the established teachings of the church – is seen as the worst thing you could do.

In the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we see things a little bit differently. We welcome honest doubt and wrestling as a pathway to faith. Doubt is where questions come from, and questions help us learn. If we never doubted God, we’d wouldn’t have any reason to ask questions about him, to grow in our knowledge of him. Without doubt about our faith, we’d never find the momentum to embrace new perspectives, reform struggling institutions, and breathe new life into our neighborhoods. Doubt is valuable. Though at times it can seem like doubt is destructive, healthy doubt ultimately builds us back up, leaving a faith that is even stronger.

Despair is different. Despair isn’t about asking questions, it’s not about the search for truth. When the darkness of despair creeps in, it speaks with finality. It tries to convince you that everything you love, everything you are, is a big waste of time. Despair is a suffocating presence. It annihilates our God-given spark, our life, our vision. If we spend enough time immersed in despair, we’ll die.

Doubt and despair often get mistaken for one another. I guess I can understand why. Both can be traumatic, throwing our whole worldview for a loop. But the outcomes that the two produce couldn’t be more different. Healthy doubt ultimately leads us to embrace a new sense of life and truth, but despair isn’t finished until it has taken us to rock bottom and beyond.

As followers of Jesus, how do we embrace honest doubt while rejecting the darkness of despair? Do we acknowledge that we are in a spiritual battle with forces that want to separate us from God? What are practices that we can embrace to discern the spirits, telling the difference between doubt that builds up and despair that destroys?

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That Moment When It All Comes Together

It’s a sensation that the ancients associated with the divine. The whispers of the muse. Inspiration from the spirit world. That moment of clarity when the veil is torn away and naked reality stares you in the face.

These moments of clarity come in all shapes and sizes. Those little “aha” moments when a particularly tough problem yields up a solution. A flash of awareness, when you see your own personality reflected in a trait you despise in someone else. A spiritual awakening that changes the entire course of your life. These are times when our human illusions become weaker and the truth is lifted into view.

Sometimes the truth hurts. There’s a reason that we went so long without looking at it. These encounters with reality can challenge us in ways we never considered possible. Most of us have had our share of euphoric mountaintop experiences, but what about those moments of clarity that find us when we’re face down in the slime of rock bottom? Both are real. Whether in the peaks or the valleys, these moments reveal the presence of a power greater than ourselves. We find clues about who we are and how our lives might change.

These moments when it all comes together, they’re mysterious. We can’t make them happen. There’s no switch we can pull for inspiration. The whisperings of the Spirit sneak up on us. At best, we can endeavor to be awake and listening when God speaks.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is to remember. Everyone has moments of clarity, but translating these experiences into changed lives is another matter. That requires endurance, a daily investment in storytelling, long after the fires fade.

Do you remember a time when the wisdom of God showed up in your life? What did you see? What did you learn about yourself? How were you called to change? Don’t forget.

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