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Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus

When I was in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I was able to spend all my time studying and pondering the nature of God, Jesus, and the community gathered around him. I considered deep questions of meaning, reflected on Quaker history, and came to a more settled understanding of the Bible and Christian spirituality. I visited a wide diversity of Quaker churches and gatherings, gaining greater insight into who we were as a whole.

Since completing my time at seminary, my life has changed. Slowly, gradually, my life has shifted away from the kind of full-time reflection I enjoyed at ESR. I got married, had a child, and took on full-time employment. Life is very full. I don’t have the mental, physical, or spiritual space to live the kind of deeply contemplative, studious life that I experienced in seminary and in the years immediately following. I hope I will again someday, but I suspect it won’t be soon.

As my life has shifted in a less contemplative direction, my existential curiosity and angst has not diminished at all. If anything, the press of daily life, work, and child-rearing has made issues of meaning, purpose, and legacy even more urgent. I’m growing in my experience of what it means to support others as a husband, father, and resident of the city where I live. It’s full-fledged adult life in all its freedom and responsibilities, joy and stress.

And after a decade of asking hard questions and drinking deeply from the Quaker tradition, I’m convinced of this: All I really need is Jesus – a real, intimate relationship of discipleship with him amidst the noise and clatter of everyday life. I need him to guide my day, even as I’m in the midst of it and can’t see where I’m going. I need him to make my responsibility clear to me, even when it’s inconvenient. I need him to bear God’s love to me, even when I feel lost and unworthy.

For me, any theology beyond Jesus’ death & resurrection is a luxury – something that, while nice to have, I probably don’t have time for most days. I can’t live without Jesus, though. I need his cross to engage with tragedy. I need his resurrection to overcome it.

I need to experience Jesus’ sacrifice first-hand, in my daily surrenderings. I need his resurrection to hold me together when the confusion and pain seems like too much to bear. I need his guiding hand, giving me faith in a victory beyond the compromises and losses of daily life in this world.

I don’t have God figured out. I don’t have the Bible memorized. I can’t tell you how the Trinity works or explain the systematic theology of the great theologians. Probably never will. But I do know I need Jesus. I need him to heal me, hold me together, and guide me in the little steps I must take to be faithful amidst the day’s work.

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There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (8/14/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon deviates a fair amount from the written text.)

Sermon Audio

Sermon Text:

This passage from Hebrews that we just heard: It’s got to be one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Bible. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit many times. It’s been the theme Scripture for church conferences and events. And it’s been the subtext for so much of church life.

This idea that we are surrounded by this “cloud of witnesses,” that we are a part of a long line of spiritual family. That the struggles we engage in today are part of a bigger picture. It’s a powerful, comforting image.

Back in 2010, Faith and I helped to organize a gathering of young adult Quakers in Wichita, Kansas. It was a gathering that would bring together Quakers from across North America, and across many of the theological and cultural barriers that divide modern-day Friends (and, as I understand it, modern-day Brethren, too).

Most of the gathering took place in a large church sanctuary. The space was ornate and cathedral-like, at least by plain Quaker standards, and it was far bigger than either we in the gathering or the local congregation had need of. In addition to the ample seating in ground level pews, there was also a large, wrap-around balcony – a gallery filled with empty seats.

I remember standing in the sanctuary with one of the members of the pastoral care team for the gathering, and older woman from New England. It was a quiet moment in the church building, before most of the participants had arrived. We were taking a deep breath before the heavy spiritual lifting that would come in the next few days. She looked up into the balcony level and said very seriously. “I can feel them. I can feel the cloud of witnesses.”

It was a comforting idea, but also a challenging one. That cloud of witnesses wasn’t just there to affirm whatever we decided to do. They had an agenda. If those Quaker saints who had gone before us were indeed present, they would be watching to see whether we could bridge the divisions that had developed over the last two centuries. They would be present to encourage us – but also to spur us towards hard conversations and spiritual risk-taking.

I think that this passage from Hebrews is easy to take out of context. We often stretch and bend the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” until it becomes something that is primarily about our own comfort. I don’t know if any of you remember that movie from the mid-90s – Angels in the Outfield? Honestly, don’t really either. I think I saw it once back in 1994, and I don’t remember a lot of detail. But here’s the basic idea of the film:

In the movie, the Los Angeles Angels are the worst team in Major League Baseball. But there’s a little boy who loves the team, and he wants them to win so badly that he prays and asks God to help them win the championship. To his surprise and amazement, God sends angels to miraculously catapult the team into first place. Only the little boy can see the angels, but the effects of their work is clear to the whole world as the Los Angeles Angels go from being the worst in the league, to the best.

It’d be nice to have a cloud of witnesses like that, wouldn’t it? A group of angelic figures that could carry us to glory, even if we’re not at all ready for it. If the “cloud of witnesses” were like the angels in the outfield, we’d always have these invisible cheerleaders – spiritual support for us when times are tough and victory seems impossible. The cloud of witnesses would become an angel army. They’d exist to reinforce our own dreams, our own wishes, our lives as they are. They’d give us strength to make our dreams come true.

And sometimes this might be the right idea. If we’re experiencing hard times, if we’re suffering for our faith and paying the consequences for following Jesus, we need the presence of this encouraging cloud of witnesses more than anything. We need to know that we stand in a line of courage, endurance, and victory in the cross of Jesus. Knowing that, by the grace of God, many others have run this race and been faithful, we’re encouraged to persevere, even when it feels impossible.

But most of the time, at least for me, I experience the cloud of witnesses as a challenging presence in my life. These are people who, as the scripture says:

“…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

This cloud of witnesses are no “angels in the outfield.” They’re not here to give me victory without suffering or pain. They are witnesses to the full cost of discipleship. They demonstrate the kind of hope that is only possible through bearing the cross of Jesus in this world. These are people who inspire us, people who challenge us, whose lives confront our own compromises and give us courage to do what is right.

I think we all have our favorite members of the cloud of witnesses, our own personal gallery of saints that have come before, who spur us to greater faithfulness. One of these witnesses for me is a man named James Nayler. James was one of the most visible leaders of the early Quaker movement in the 1650s. He was a gifted evangelist, spreading the gospel across England. His campaign of preaching in London had a powerful impact, growing and solidifying the Quaker community there.

The 1650s were a time of tumult and upheaval in England, and Quakers were often arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith. James Nayler had a rougher time than many. He was charged with blasphemy by Parliament, and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. But honestly, he might have been better off if they had hung him. His punishment was grotesque: He was given a public flogging of hundreds of lashes. After that, they branded his forehead with “B” for “blasphemer” and bored his tongue through with a hot iron, so that he could never preach again with his renowned eloquence. After that, he was imprisoned until he was physically ruined.

When he finally did get out of prison, he tried to make his way back to Yorkshire, to see his family for the first time in years. On his way, he was robbed and beaten severely. He was found by passersby and died the next day in the home of a Quaker physician.

I mention James Nayler this morning, because I believe he is a prime example of what the author of Hebrews referred to when he spoke of the cloud of witnesses – this heritage of saints who have run the race and endured the cross as an example and encouragement to us.

And I think that Hebrews 11 and 12 were on James Nayler’s mind, as he lay dying in the north of England. Those who attended him recorded his final words, which included this description of what it meant for James to be a living member of that cloud of witnesses – to find himself in communion with them through his own suffering and martyrdom:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The cloud of witnesses that James experienced were no “angels in the outfield.” They did not save him from suffering, nor give him victory in the eyes of the world. Rather, he encountered a spirit that walked with him through that dark valley of shame and defeat. This spirit gave him the power to love, even those who flayed the skin off his back, branded his face, and mutilated his tongue. Through his suffering and baptism into “love unfeigned,” James Nayler found fellowship with the lost and forgotten saints of God – who through death, obtained resurrection and eternal holy life.

Our gospel reading today reminds us that the kingdom of God comes through challenge. It causes division wherever it emerges, because it challenges our basic ideas about what is right and fair. The truth is, none of us want to experience the cross. Not even Jesus did! The most natural thing in the world that we could do is seek to avoid death, suffering, and shame.

But what Jesus reveals and the cloud of witnesses repeats, is that beyond the cross lies resurrection. On the other side of suffering, and torture, and shame lies the eternal holy life and love unfeigned that James Nayler and so many saints before him discovered. The cloud of witnesses bears testimony to each one us through the Holy Spirit, spurring us on to greater courage in the face of heartbreak, death, and loss of identity.

Unlike the angels in the outfield, this cloud of witnesses is not about helping us win the “game” of this world. Instead, they walk beside us, encouraging us as we learn how to lose in such a way that we experience the resurrection life in the midst of struggle, so that we ourselves become part of that cloud of witnesses, reflecting Christ’s self-giving love to others who need it.

Before I close, I want to take us back to that church sanctuary in Wichita, Kansas. I want you to stand with me on that lower level, amidst the pews. Look up with me into the gallery. Who are the witnesses that you see there? Who are the saints who have gone before you that encourage you even in the midst of confusion and pain? Can you see the faces of the people who have carried their cross with courage and joy? Can you see them smiling on you with love?

Where are they calling you? What parts of your life need to change so that you can embrace the kind of courageous living that they did? Even in the face of resistance and division, where are we being called to change so that we can bear the cross of Jesus, and become a cloud of witnesses to the world around us?

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Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?

What does it mean to be the church? Is it about an organization with staff and buildings? Is it about a set of traditions handed down by our ancestors, a denominational brand? Are these the things that make us the body of Christ?

When I read the New Testament, I see something different. During Jesus’ years of ministry, he demonstrated a relationship of a teacher and students. The disciple community held together because each one was committed to following Jesus, learning from and imitating him.

After the resurrection, the form of the community expanded. We came to know Jesus as an ever-present teacher through the Holy Spirit. The power of his presence released unique gifts in each individual. Some were called to be apostles, some prophets, others evangelists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers. Together, the early church discovered itself as a community gathered by Jesus. We fit together as an organic unity in him.

In this dynamic, Spirit-directed community, there was structure. The Twelve Apostles served as leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Others were appointed to care for the material needs of the community. Still others – like Paul and Barnabas – were sent by the Spirit to share the good news in cities throughout the Roman Empire. There was a role for everyone in this new community, according to the gifts that God bestowed.

The whole ethos of the early church was one of movement. The life of the church was catalyzed by prophetic action, works of mercy, risky cross-cultural mission, and passionate teaching. They thrived without buildings of their own. They met in homes to share meals, and they worshiped together in public spaces like the Temple and synagogues. This was a church without popes or priests or officers, without creeds or books of discipline.

Times have changed. Throughout the western world today, the church has become more about maintaining a business model than seeking the surprising way of Jesus. Whether you’re at a triumphalist mega-congregation or a dwindling mainline church, the focus of modern Christianity has shifted dramatically to institutional maintenance and the idols of comfort and respectability. In much of the church today, there’s very little room for the radical message of Jesus.

We have become burdened by our heritage in so many ways. Financially, with our endowments and buildings and legacy institutions – we’re so afraid to lose these things that we often allow them to hold us back from real discipleship to Jesus. Same goes for our ideological heritage. Many of us are so sure that our denominational orthodoxy is more important than healing divisions with our brothers and sisters in other Christian groups. Rather than consolidating our efforts and resources, we huddle in empty church buildings, waiting for a miracle that will likely never come.

What’s the alternative? Can we reform our Christian institutions? What would it mean to release the stored up potential of centuries, allowing the living Spirit of Jesus to gather us once more as his body? One thing is for sure: It won’t happen unless we are willing to abandon the comfort of being right in favor of being united in one Spirit, one mission.

What’s holding you back from being part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our generation? What are the denominational, institutional, financial, ideological, and relational barriers that hold you back from the life of the kingdom? What does it look like to be part of a community that is more about following Jesus than avoiding pain, loss, and death? How can we get there, together?

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Is the Gospel Just a Fairy Tale?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of college students about the idea of Christian nonviolence – or as Quakers would call it, “the Peace Testimony.” I was encouraged by how receptive they were to the message that the heart of the gospel is peace. We talked about how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of how God brings peace to earth – not through violent conquest, but in a humble life that surrenders itself in order to show unconditional love to others. We considered together what it means to live our lives in Jesus’ way of peace, and how that impacts all our other commitments.

Though I had been specifically invited to speak about the Christian peace witness from my own perspective as a Quaker, I was surprised by what a wide-ranging conversation we ended up having. As our discussion deepened, it became clear that the real question was not whether the gospel is nonviolent (clearly, it is – Jesus is our peace). The deeper, more urgent question was how we might live into the radical life of discipleship that we have read about in Scripture – particularly the Book of Acts. What would it mean to live like the New Testament church today, in 21st-century America? 

I was both excited and dismayed to hear this question. Excited, because this is exactly the question we should all be asking ourselves. Christianity isn’t meant to be a dull habit, but an acute fever. If we as the modern-day followers of Jesus aren’t on fire with the passion of the gospel, just as the first Christians were, something has gone wrong. I was happy to hear that these college students were asking some of the same questions that have been at the heart of my journey for the past decade.

So why was I dismayed? Simply put, I was convicted that I had nothing to offer or invite these passionate young disciples into. After years of seeking, praying, yearning to be part of a movement of “primitive Christianity revived,” I still haven’t found it. If anything, I feel farther than ever from the life of power and beauty in community that I see in the Book of Acts. In my years of ministry, I’ve seen glimpses of the kingdom; I’ve experienced moments of power and transformation in community. Yet I had no good answer to the question, “What should we do to experience the power of the New Testament church today?”

On a personal level, I’m convicted that my own life does not demonstrate the world-shocking presence of the living Christ. I’m a pale shadow of the Spirit-filled women and men I read about in Acts. I’m also convicted on behalf of the North American church as a whole. In my long search, I’ve rarely witnessed communities that are truly living into the full gospel that Jesus invites us into. At times, it’s tempting to wonder whether the whole story of the New Testament is just a fairy tale – a beautiful story, but not applicable to everyday life.

Where is the Spirit-filled, earth-shaking, radical church of Jesus Christ today? I want to see it. I want to participate in it. I want to point others to it. I want to sacrifice for it and be deeply challenged by it. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

It breaks my heart how little I have to offer to the young disciples who are coming up today. Their passion and faith makes me want to be a more faithful disciple, someone who can point them to Jesus and invite them into a faithful community where they can be challenged in their discipleship. Where can I go to find this circle of disciples? What must I do to change my life so that I can be a more faithful brother to those who are coming along in the way of Jesus?

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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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Why is Church so Hard?

For the last couple of years, this blog’s tagline has been: “Religion is easy; discipleship is hard.” I’m starting to think that perhaps this slogan is only half right. Discipleship certainly is hard, but religion doesn’t seem to be such a piece of cake, either.

I recently read a really tender, honest post from my friend Hye Sung, in which he wrestles with the fact that he rarely attends church, despite his strong faith in Jesus and his belief that Christian community is very important. What does it mean for him, and the millions of others like him, that faith in Jesus should be so compelling and yet finding healthy, life-giving Christian community is so hard? What does it mean for me that after spending years in seminary and nearly a decade in Christian ministry, I find myself resonating with Hye Sung’s dilemma, too?

Why is church so hard? For hundreds of years, the Sunday-morning congregation has filled a vital role in the life of God’s people. Yet in my generation, it may be that there are more Christians living their lives outside of the traditional congregation than those who remain within it. And many of those who remain are struggling.

We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the life of the church, one that is just as significant as the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Our entire culture is changing, and all of our legacy institutions – government, media, business, and the church – are straining under the pressure. We’ve set out on a new sea, but instead of oars, we have shovels. How long will it take for us to craft the tools we need to thrive in this new environment? So much hangs in the balance.

It’s reassuring to remember that we’ve been here many times before. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit that formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Pentecost was a moment when God made a way out of no way. In the face of stuckness and confusion, Jesus drew together a new community that could speak to the spiritual hunger of the people of the Roman Empire. The old order was fading away, and it was frightening, but the Holy Spirit brought the creativity needed to bridge the gap. She revealed the new order of God.

This new order played out differently in 1st-century Palestine than it did in medieval Europe. The body of Christ looked different in the days of St. Francis than in those of George Fox. The way that the Holy Spirit is guiding us in our time, place, and culture, is bound to be different from anything that humans have ever experienced before. We’re being given new wine for the new wine skins of our day and age.

I won’t sugar coat it: These are hard days to be living in. Everything that our grandparents thought they knew is being turned on its head. We are in the midst of a great confusion as a society, and it’s not clear where we are headed. And yet there is a blessing in such a moment, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new expression of faithfulness for our own day. Just like on that most famous day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago, we are being invited to participate in a brand new experiment, the likes of which the world has never seen.

I don’t know where this road leads. I’m not even convinced that I’ll like it when we get there. But I do have confidence that God is in control, and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned her people. This is a time for the patient endurance of the saints, for us to be actively partnering with Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation and peace. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. Let’s stumble down this road together.

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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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