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What Would You Do If ISIS Killed Your Child?

I recently read a blog post by a US Army chaplain, who talks about his struggle with Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In a military context, he regularly finds himself asked some version of the question: “If ISIS killed your child, would you pray for them?” His answer? “Yes, while I am on my way to kill them.”

I understand this answer. It’s my natural answer, too. When others wrong me, I want to strike back. I want revenge. There’s something deeply human in the idea that we can somehow restore a measure of order, balance, and justice to the world through violent retribution.

But for people like that army chaplain, and for any of us who claim Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and Teacher, this is not an answer that we can ultimately accept. Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. The meaning of Jesus’ words are clear, unambiguous. If we take the Bible seriously – and, more importantly, if we take Jesus seriously – we must embrace the way of love for enemies.

Jesus’ actions are even clearer. Through his saving death on the cross, he demonstrates for us the way that God handles the sin, darkness, and horrible injustice that has spread like a cancer in our world. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, apart from God. Jesus died for us when we were his sworn enemies. Jesus’ death was no accident. We killed him.

Yet God in Jesus demonstrates a reaction that is so foreign to our broken human nature. Where we rush to seek bloody vengeance, Jesus allows his death to become a doorway to forgiveness, healing, and transformation for we who have been the murderers.

In Jesus, we discover that our own rush to judgment and violence is a reflection of the fallen order – the darkness that God would free us from. When we become friends of Jesus, when we choose to follow him, we are led inevitably into an encounter with the cross – and that cross disarms us forever.

Nevertheless, we are called to a certain kind of warfare. The life of a disciple is full of struggle, since we are called to go against the grain of the surrounding society. History has shown time and again that many who choose to follow the way of Jesus will be subject to trouble, persecution, even death. In the midst of this challenge, our war is one of selfless love that stands firm in the face of hatred, evil, and darkness – exposing it to the light for all to see.

Violence, oppression, and all sorts of evil hide behind a veneer of respectability and authority. The role of the prophetic church is to issue an invitation to see what’s really happening behind the curtain. As disciples of Jesus, we are given authority to unveil Empire, challenging all the powers and principalities that twist our society and harm our communities.

And when they come for us, when they slander and attack us, we have only one defense: prayer for enemies, and the courage to continue our powerful witness in the face of social pressure, threats, and violence.

Is that the kind of church you belong to? Do you want to? I’d like to invite you to join us for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering (October 7-10). We’ll be exploring how we can actively, imaginatively, and faithfully follow Jesus in a chaotic and broken world. Registration is open now. I hope you’ll consider attending. Together, we can live more deeply into the way of courage, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

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How We Can Wage Peace Amidst the Chaos

How We Can Wage Peace Amid the Chaos

We’re living in a time when it feels like everything is ready to fly apart. Our political process is bursting at the seams. There’s violence in our streets, and fear in our living rooms. As if all this weren’t enough, we are faced with an ecological crisis beyond any human experience. The challenges of our age are at least as great as those of any other generation – and that’s saying a lot.

In the midst of all this tumult, it’s hard not to get swept up in reflex and reaction. We see problems and want to fix them. We see injustice and want to denounce it. Yet it seems that the increasing volume of our bitter arguments is only leading us on a path to greater destruction. We watch the dismemberment of our civil society, the arena in which we had hoped for cooperative solutions. Our emotional temperature is so high, it’s hard to imagine finding any unity.

Make no mistake, there are battles worth fighting. But as followers of the risen Jesus, the weapons of our warfare are different from those of the world. Our armor is the humble-yet-confident poise that comes from walking in intimacy with God. Our armaments are love unfeigned, a genuine concern for the well-being of even our enemies. This is no abstraction; it’s very a concrete, ethical concern that moves us to take great risks for the sake of love. Despite the cost, we are commissioned to answer the witness of God in those who seek to destroy us.

In these days of hatred and violence, the Holy Spirit invites us into a new, creative path. It’s a path that goes toe to toe with the powers of selfishness and fear that reign so openly in our society today. It’s a path that penetrates the lies and confusion. It’s the way of Jesus, who confronted the rulers and authorities once and for all, giving us power to become children of light.

There is a quiet voice in our hearts that says, “another way is possible.” Despite all the horror that this young century has offered us, there is a presence deep within us that cries out, “even so, come Lord Jesus!” It’s a fearsome voice, one that calls us into the midst of danger with no protection but the power of love.

Are you and I ready to respond to this invitation? What does it mean to participate in Jesus’ way of love, which overcomes hatred and division through the blood of his cross? How can we prepare ourselves to return good for evil – to speak the truth, even if our voice shakes?

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Common Wisdom, or Uncommon Faithfulness?

When I think about the people in history I really admire, it’s those who bucked the norm. Sure, there are lots of really wonderful people who, like the Dude, just “fit right in there.” But the people I look up to – people like King, Fox, Francis, and Paul – are ones who had the courage to stand out, even when it meant they’d be on the outside looking in. Even if it got them killed.

It takes a lot of guts to stand far outside the bounds of what’s considered normal and acceptable; it’s even harder to do so over a long period of time. Ostracism isn’t something that any of us aspire to. Most of us – myself included – will avoid it at practically any cost.

Following the rules isn’t always a bad thing, of course. I’m as grateful as anyone for traffic regulations and common courtesy. Yet, far too often, common wisdom gets in the way of uncommon faithfulness.

What if Francis of Assisi had decided to fulfill his socially assigned role as a wealthy heir, rather than embracing Christ’s prophetic calling to re-ignite the slumbering European church? What if Margaret Fell had chosen her comfortable life as an aristocrat rather than her God-ordained role as a mother to the fiery Quaker movement? What if Martin Luther King had chosen the path of a respectable – and quiet – southern pastor, rather than the explosive ministry of prophetic truth-telling and movement leadership that God was calling him into? It’s so easy to embrace the superficially good, rather than the challenging depths of God’s kingdom.

As I consider my own life, and its relative conformity to the world, I have to ask myself: Where do my loyalties lie? Who or what is my ultimate standard? Is it the judgment of my friends and family? The opinion of people at work or celebrities on TV? Or is it the living presence of Jesus, who calls me to embrace the cross and face my fate outside the gates of the city, just like he did?

What is my frame of reference? What constitutes success for me? Do I dare walk with those holy fools who defy human standards in pursuit of the reign of God? Will I conform to the mainstream culture around me, or will I follow Jesus?

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What Did Jesus See?

What Did Jesus See?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was a big deal. The city was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. The occupying Roman army was on high alert, well-aware that insurrection was common during the days of the festival. The air was electric as devout Jews from across the diaspora gathered together in the city of David to remember their liberation from Egypt, and to wait for God to send another leader like Moses, one who would free them from the Roman yoke.

There was revolutionary expectation as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a victorious messiah-king who would free Israel from foreign domination. People waved palm branches and threw down their coats in front of Jesus, reenacting the anointing of Jewish kings. They shouted praise: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” All of Jerusalem was abuzz with the question: Could this Jesus be the one? Could he be the promised savior who would defeat the Romans and establish an independent Jewish state?

Jesus didn’t seem to deny that interpretation. When some of the Pharisees in the crowd demanded that he calm his disciples, Jesus only replied: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Yet Jesus saw something that no one else did. All the crowds around him were imagining what the future might hold for Israel. But Jesus didn’t imagine – he knew. With the eyes of a prophet, Jesus could see what was on the horizon. And all he saw was terror and bloodshed.

Looking down from the Mount of Olives at the holy city, he cried out, weeping: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus could see what the crowds, the Pharisees, and even his own disciples could not: Jerusalem would be besieged, burned, destroyed. The people within it would be annihilated. The dream of violent revolution would become a nightmare. The myth of a Davidic kingdom and a holy Temple would be replaced by utter destruction.

Jesus’ followers had no idea what kind of king they were dealing with. His coronation would take place while hanging from a Roman cross. His crown would be made of thorns. His triumph would be total defeat in the eyes of the world.

In Jesus we discover a ruler whose power comes not from terror and violence, but from self-sacrifice and love. His is a kingdom where the highest ranking people are the outcasts and misfits – the lowest rungs of Caesar’s order. Jesus brings a peace that relies not on legions and imperial occupation, but on radical acts of truth-telling and compassion.

But no one could see that then. Even for Jesus’ closest friends, the kind of leadership that he offered was literally unimaginable. 

For most of us, most of the time, it still is. As those of us in the United States find ourselves in the midst of the most contentious, disturbing political season in at least a generation, it’s easy to get scared. It’s tempting to place our hopes in the Caesars and Davids of our time, rather than in the humble way of Jesus that overcomes the politics of Empire. It’s easier to seek comfort from the power of political victory in the world’s terms, rather than entrusting our lives to the lordship of Jesus.

Precisely in times like these, we are invited to stand with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the holy city. With the Spirit he gives to us, we can see what he sees. We can perceive the destruction that is coming – and also the transformation and redemption that is possible, even in the face of so much brokenness, violence, and despair. And we can weep with him. Sometimes, tears are the right response.

For all of us who choose to walk in the way of Jesus, we know that crucifixion is coming, but there’s also resurrection. There is darkness all around us, but we have been given power to be the light. We live in a time of confusion, fear, and hatred, but the Spirit of Jesus has given us a bold love to stand in. It’s there waiting for each of us. Will we recognize our time of visitation from God?

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The Gospel Isn’t Zen

One of the most popular images of spirituality and enlightenment is that of the zen practitioner, sitting calmly in the lotus position. Deep breaths. Long silences. Peaceful surroundings.

Zen meditation is useful. I’ve practiced it many times, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Recollecting the mind and body to this present moment is a valuable skill. The rested calm and equanimity associated with meditation is laudable.

Yet, for those of us who seek to follow the God of Israel, we cannot be satisfied with inner peace. While there’s no doubt that Jesus spent a lot of time in quiet meditation, his path is not one of silent retreat and self-improvement. Jesus reveals a God who both rejoices and cries, who demonstrates great tenderness and furious anger. This is a God revealed not in stoic calm, but in passionate engagement with everyone around us.

The way of discipleship is not a race to become “perfect” by human measures. A cheerful disposition is not a requirement to follow Jesus. The saints of God can be – and are! – just as grouchy, introverted, or melancholy as anyone else. In fact, many of the most faithful servants of God have been among the most afflicted, emotionally unstable people in their societies.

The gospel isn’t about having good manners or being easy to get along with. Friendship with Jesus isn’t about taking deep breaths and smiling. The way of the Holy Spirit is a life of love, expressed through compassion and justice. If that comes across as cranky, so be it. If your disposition is a shy one, God will work through that, too. God is ready to use each of us, just as we are. You don’t have to be a polished image of enlightenment to be a saint.

Have confidence that God created you with a purpose. Even your flaws are there for a reason. Embrace yourself, as God has already embraced you. If you’re stubborn, angry, or cry easily – remember that we follow a savior who demonstrated all of these traits in the course of his ministry. Jesus lost his composure on a regular basis; certainly we can, too!

Zen is great. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is love – real love that flips over tables, stands with the powerless, cries for the dead, and fights like hell for the living.

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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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