Poetry has a lot of power. Sometimes we put it to music, sometimes we recite it plain. It matters. Beautiful, heartfelt, sometimes prophetic or even harsh words still matter. In the age of alternative facts and people hacking our clouds of data, the poets draw us to deeper truths that are beyond the reach of tyrants, bean counters and hairsplitters. It has always been that way, right back to that huge poetry book in the middle of the Bible.
A new inspiration: Malcolm Guite
Last week I rejoiced to find a new poet I would have liked to meet twenty-five years ago: Malcolm Guite [his blog]. I passed around a speech of his [All Things in Christ]. I asked Joshua to teach me how to lift an interview I heard on a Mars Hill Audio JournalCD in which he brilliantly deepened any art director’s capacity to develop our weekly liturgy [deep, obscure and so useful: Part 1, Part 2]. Mostly, I appreciated his mostly simple poetry that seems well-tuned to connect with people in the present day. Here is an example I passed around. Too bad the weather is so nice — it would be even more useful in our usual February misery. (click on the title and hear him read it!):
These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace
When they are memory. In time to come
When we speak truth, then they will have their place,
Telling the story of our journey home,
Through dark December and stark January
With all its disappointments, through the murk
And dreariness of frozen February,
When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.
Because through all of these we held together,
Because we shunned the impulse to let go,
Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,
And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,
Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,
Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.
We have our own inspiration to share
I suppose most of us already appreciate how powerful art can be. We don’t produce it to to have an argument, for the most part; we just do it because we are creative like our creator. But art is its own argument, as it inevitably leads people beyond their situation and beyond their present understanding and touches the places where we love and love God.
Our long-term plans as a church include an arts cooperative of some sort because we want to encourage each other to touch people deeply in the Spirit. We already have our Audio Arts team, our events devoted to lifting up artists, our art directors who imagine our worship each week, and many wordsmiths, like our pastors. We’ve begun our cooperative — we always have big ideas and it is amazing how many of them come to fruit! I see artfully acting on our big ideas as one of the things we can do to stay sane, go deeper and prophesy in this weird time we are experiencing.
Malcolm Guite, the Bible, and all my creative friends who are reading this, inspired me to write another poem, myself. What’s more, I am going to share it. It comes from my morning prayer yesterday as God met me in my questions and in my longing to experience what is next.
Jesus laid hold of me
You are not busy
but you are always working. I am not sure I will master that or am even sure about the aspiration.
But I long for a sense of timelessness
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.
You are not impatient
but you are always creating. I would like to see endings but not despise beginning again.
I long for a sense of calm attention
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.
In my little prayer, I turn to praise
and I am raised and drawn to care
and led beyond what wears and harms
by gentle arms that find me here.
You are not confused
but you are always relating. I would like to wake up trusting instead of needing so many songs.
I long to sense my deepest self
as I lay hold of that
for which you laid hold of me.
In my little prayer, I turn to praise
and I am raised and drawn to care
and led beyond what wears and harms
by gentle arms that find me here.
When R. Kelly was a kid, his friends dared each other to go touch the new Sears Tower in Chicago. An older relative had told them to stay away because that swaying building would fall on them — but Kelly went up and touched it. He wanted to go to the top of it. Even though he was a poor, fatherless, sexually abused child who never learned to read well, he had dreams. He went on to become an alleged sexual predator (preying upon underage girls but escaping all penalty for it), a millionaire and a father. He’s a complicated man – and a very rich one with an apartment in Trump Tower. Many nights in his luxurious home, he steals into his pitch-black walk-in closet, laying as far away from prying eyes as he can, to sleep on a stack of quilts [GQ inteview].
Kelly grew up as a Baptist and still attends church services. So his salacious catalogue of songs is also sprinkled with religious ones. Most notable, for me, is I Believe I Can Fly, which was probably performed in a church service somewhere yesterday – it should not be, but I would not be surprised if it were.
The song is supposed to be an empowering metaphor, I think. (Although in Kelly’s closet, he may actually believe it, still dreaming of being at the top of the Sears Tower). People explain it as a song about believing in yourself, not holding yourself back, about visualizing who you can be and going for it. In some religious circles the song fits right in to “name it and claim it” teaching. In the world of positive psychology it is PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), in the increasingly popular Eastern-religion lite, is “wisdom.” For R. Kelly it was a collage of all the above, I think, the zeitgeist captured in a catchy song that topped the charts and won three Grammys. Who would not love the end of this video? I do.
Kelly’s song was first popular twenty years ago, about the same time Circle of Hope got going. As soon as we hit the streets to see if anyone wanted to follow Jesus, in rolled the bulldozer of this omnipresent anthem, telling people they can fly if they just believe it hard enough. Too be honest, I did not want to contradict anyone about that too much, since I figured they were just trying to feel better.
But can we admit it by now? You don’t really believe you can fly, do you? I don’t want to depress everyone, but Obama kind of got us believing we could fly, and now we are back to reality with Trump. And when you scratch under the surface of “Yes-we-can” Obama, even if his character seems sterling, his record was business-as-usual as far as the government goes: insurance-company-giveaway Obamacare, mass deportations and massive drone strikes, for a few examples.
And now we have Trump and his cadre of alternative-fact promoters. He makes us all wonder if it even matters if someone believes they can fly. If they are going to keep saying they can fly, what are you going to do? R. Kelly fits right in to Trump Tower. He pretty much lives in a bubble of his wealth and success. He has published three versions of his mother’s death and can facilely explain away all their discrepancies with alternative facts. He also believes his story creates reality.
When a wealthy, lying, morally challenged man who says he is born again gives us a super hit that most of us over 25 can sing, and the song has a “spiritual” basis, doesn’t the whole enterprise of life in Christ get tainted by association? Faith means we all believe we can fly just because we believe in ourselves? That’s it?! Plenty of people believe we preach that very thing right now.
But that’s not what we’re saying. You don’t believe you can fly, do you? Admit it. Celebrate your capacity to face your false self, your its-up-to-me, God-ignoring, even God-rejecting self and put on the new one Jesus is offering. Some people will turn that promise into a fantasy that is more about believing in oneself (or pitying people who don’t); they struggle to accept us Jesus followers as less than delusional.
Regardless, in an age of huge liars on huge stages, it is time for people who trust Jesus for their lives to say, “Enough with the bullshit, already! I felt like being generous with your good-heartedness, but I really don’t believe all your crap.”
OK, I said it. Now with a more positive mental attitude: “What I mean to say is, ‘I know who I can trust.’ Give me some real truth and love.”
At various levels of success, we’ve been devoted to speaking the truth in love for over twenty years, now. Maybe we’ve gotten good at it just in time. Maybe every time I can’t get R. Kelly’s song out of my mind he is doing me a favor: that metaphor is certainly not working for me the way it works for him.
Humans have always been lonely. But people are beginning to think the human condition these days is facing forces that make loneliness life-threatening!
Jesus has a promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” As the Lord’s hands and feet in the present, we are part of the fulfillment of that promise. We are the antidote to loneliness. We are the hug of Jesus. A lot of people are acting self-reliant when they don’t want to be. Way too many people have just given up on real connection. But we are created to alleviate that.
Why are we experiencing loneliness more than ever before? There are several interconnected reasons, according to Ronald Rolheiser and others.
Up until the very latest generations of humanity, most people didn’t have the time or energy to spare for their psychological and spiritual needs. They were surviving and usually just plain tired. Today, mainly because our recent ancestors rose from rags to riches, many of us were born into affluence and privilege in the United States. Compared to much of the world, we are all rather privileged in the Empire. The modern condition has set us loose to pursue the depths of ourselves or to pursue any distraction that will divert us from facing the depth of ourselves or provide a false replacement. The recent four-year election campaign and subsequent obsession with the results may be indicative. We have a lot of time to waste on our hands.
The “psychic temperature” has been turned up and is pushing on us. Most of us don’t experience that as an opportunity to grow. We just experience a force pushing us into things, like getting excited over the Superbowl, or freaking out about GMOs, or meticulously grooming our dog, or carefully calculating our food practices. We don’t always know why we are doing things, we are just restless and do more things. It’s like we are searching for a place, but we never reach home. It feels lonely.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are making a home together in Christ. Our faith is not just another leisure activity, just another distraction (although Lord knows it is used that way). It is the goal our restless hearts are seeking. Like Augustine said way back when, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Resting in God is a lot more than a good experience in church. But we are part of finding home. We are people someone can touch and know who are working beyond our mere restlessness together. Some of us never settle down very well, but all of us are held in the process by a love beyond any of us.
Fragmentation in society
People formerly lived in extended families. There was little that was impersonal in their lives, little privacy. Not so long ago (and still, in some places) people did not have much physical or social mobility. The United States has rushed into something totally different and preaches the change like it is “freedom” and “progress.” Now we live in a society characterized by the nuclear family (at best), impersonality, and much mobility (which shows like International House Hunters normalize). We have greater freedom to choose how we relate, but we are lonelier — catastrophically lonely and often depressed and anxious as a result. We take meds to stay self-sufficient when we might better heal if we could connect to God and others.
The changes in society undercut the interdependence on which relationships are built. We became habituated to seek privacy and autonomy, to make all our primary relationships chosen ones. When we marry (if we marry or make any love covenants), we break away and make our own nuclear family: a private life with a private house, car and office; plus we want a private room in the house, private cell phone, flatscreen, and so on. We want our kids in private schools, or at least ones we choose. Once we have cut off all our interdependence, we wonder why we are lonely. Even when we live in huge cities, there is no reason to meaningfully connect and we walk the streets wondering how to meet someone, feeling it invades someone’s privacy to talk to them and even taboo to make eye contact.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are audaciously an extended family, a village. Some of us moved in a long time ago and stick with it because we know mobility has some peril for our souls. For many of us, this intimacy and continuity require some re-culturing. We are patient as we all grow, since we know we are all in recovery from the enforced loneliness to which society condemns us.
As the future breaks into the present, we experience people, places, objects and organizations and knowledge passing through our lives more and more rapidly. Formerly we might relate to the same people in the same place, in the same institutions (like school or church), according to the same body of knowledge our whole lives. Now, as technology and knowledge explode around us we don’t relate to things or people for very long.
People, places, things are here today and gone tomorrow. Our government leaders disorient us by talking about “alternative facts” — even truth is being manufactured and changes with whoever is in power, no relating necessary, no testing required! Every few years it is like our location has changed and we have moved into a new culture and started over. We may not have changed our address but the culture changed so much that our surroundings are just as disorienting as if we had moved. Our congregations on South Broad and Frankford Ave. are experiencing such gentrification and development that they don’t feel at home in their own neighborhoods! Science is advancing so rapidly and corporations are acquiring so voraciously that we are not sure where to connect. And we feel very lonely.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We at least provide the opportunity for people to make face to face relationships in the middle of the swirling catastrophe of the future. I hate to call it catastrophe, but it is hard not to see climate change and info synchronicity as forces so large we really need someone to hold onto. The scientists are now tracking loneliness as a disease more deadly than obesity, more fundamental than many other maladies. We are a place where hearts are healed and people learn to find confidence in their future.
Advertising presents many of our ideals of love, intimacy, freedom, community, laughter, presence as elements of the good life which people have already been attained. Those other people on the screen have what I need! Everyone else apparently has what we can’t seem to attain! We know Jennifer Aniston’s real life has not turned out as close-knit as her character’s on Friends. Nevertheless, we spend hours alone watching people who have attained redemption. We are trained to hope that the screenwriters will tidy up all the loose ends on Downton Abbey — and they do.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are a place where real people do real things. We are stubbornly just us, not an idealization or a competition. We don’t choose one another as much as we are chosen to be together by being chosen by Jesus. It is a lot of actual freedom for some of us to bear, but it is a sweet suffering.
Humans have always been lonely. We learn both connection and aloneness as babies. But due to the factors listed, and more, our loneliness seems to be intensifying, even slowly building up pressure as if it might explode into some kind of crisis. What do you think, are the first spasms upon us? What are we becoming? I think Jesus has made his church the antidote to the present malady and to what might be coming. It is not like someone will walk into a meeting and automatically fee connected (although that regularly happens). But we have the solutions to the problem, when I comes to loneliness. We have a lot of damage to repair, but Jesus is still the Healer.
Last week about thirty of us slaves of Christ were doing some theology about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament and how it could inform how we think about our “social action.” The two-tiered idea we explored has proven helpful to many people so far. See it for yourself at the Way of Jesus blog.
One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.
First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”
Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.
So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day to day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25
Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.
There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.
How do we take action?
So what do we do in the face of the oppressive masters beating down on us and the world? Pray harder, safe in our salvation? Absolutely. But that is not all. We are already taking action in many more ways. I think we summarize what we do well in our statement of our mission.
Loving the thirsty people of our fractured region,
we keep generating a new expression of the church
to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.
We resist. I am Christ’s slave. That is a defiant statement of resistance. My existence is resistance. I will never be a slave to a human, no matter what one does to me: buy me, imprison me, or take away my livelihood. I will always belong to the Lord, forever. And, as Jesus demonstrates, in a very real sense, Jesus will belong to me forever. He has made Himself our slave.
We restore. I am an obedient slave. My work is well-ordered. Jesus is the Lord of all and we are making that known and effective, day by day. We restore by reorienting people’s identities to align with their salvation. We restore by relentlessly loving in the face of hate and indifference. We restore by telling the truth in the face of lies. We restore by sharing our resources and making peace. And, I think most important, we restore by practicing the kind of mutuality that creates an alternative community that is not allied with the powers that dig up the world and destroy connections between God and people like hurricanes blasting through our village.
Our existence is the fount of our resistance. We can only hope that the country will be put to right soon. But even if it isn’t, we know who we are and we know what to do. Being knit together in the love of Jesus is more important than ever, isn’t it!
Anderson Cooper was flummoxed as he sat in the middle of the fact food-fight he organized for the evening of the worldwide women’s march. The predicted fight was happening. But he seemed upset that it was a fight between facts and assertions contrary to the facts (or as Kellyanne Conway later named them: “alternative facts“).
For some reason, Donald Trump could not control the itch under his thin skin when he got to CIA headquarters to make amends. He patted his own back for his election victory; then he misrepresented the size of his inauguration day crowd — he said 1.5 million people showed up, which is not true. What made it worse is that he was exposing his inner dialogue while standing on one of the holy sites of American civil religion, the CIA wall of sacrifice. People noticed his lack of genuflection and said so. So he went even further. Donald Trump told his newly-minted press secretary to get to the podium and keep talking about the size of the crowd. Sean Spicer said that Mr. Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” which is not true, as were several other assertions he made.
Any casual observer (like me) could tell that the crowd was smaller than past inaugurations. A NY Times reporter tweeted a comparison shot with one of Obama’s to prove it.
What flummoxed Anderson and what interests me is the reply to all this hubbub by the Trump-supporter on his panel. She waved to the imaginary crowd of regular Americans behind the camera and said, “They believe Sean Spicer, not you.”
Anderson said, “But the facts are the facts.”
She said, contemptuously, “Nobody cares.”
Nobody cares! I think she is mostly right — even when it comes to my circle. For instance, we had a procedural tempest in a teapot last week among our church’s leaders, and I have to admit, as far as the general population of our church, it is very likely that nobody would care if we followed our agreements or not. Does anybody care?
It is an era when truth is what you care about. If you want to call climate change a hoax, fine. You want to have alternate definitions of words, fine. If you want to say you had 1.5 million people at your inauguration, fine, as long as you are willing to fight to the death about it. And who is eager to fight with the latest narcissist about their latest lie?
My mind immediately went to John 8, one of the least-appreciated chapters in the gospels, in my opinion — but read it for yourself of course. There Jesus calls his opponents fellow-travelers with the devil because they believe the devil’s lies. He told them, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies.”
The Lord’s whole argument with these opponents (who will, eventually, get him killed, as he implied) is based on the fact that they can’t hear him because they don’t know God. He is just revealing God to them. But they believe the lies instead. It is like He is speaking a foreign language when he tells them the truth.
These days, such an argument is even harder to have with Jesus’ opponents, since their philosophy of truth basically says that their assertions are equal with anyone else’s, and it is the majority (or those in power) who legalize what truth is. What the Bible says, is just another truth. What the woman on Anderson’s panel might say, if Anderson told her about Jesus, is, “Nobody cares.” And that would count as a televisable argument.
I admit that President Trump’s lying already bores me to tears. I am having trouble caring. I loved the pink-eared women getting out all over the world to say, “No” to his character and to the threat of his potential actions. But I have a feeling that in a few weeks they will also lose steam in the face of the chief liar and his cabal of billionaires and be tempted to watch fantasy people fight the power on Netflix. I hope I am wrong. Whether they fight the power or not, I hope our collective boredom has some of the same resignation as Jesus. He told the powers, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” Trump is just more of the same, only worse.
When Elizabeth Warren, the anti-Trump, got up to speak at the gigantic Boston protest, Saturday, she recited her latest version of the eleven commandments of progressivism. Most of them made sense to me, politically and even morally, but it was not like she was speaking from God. I was excited, but that will pass. My spirit was not moved by the Spirit, and that is what I long for. I was not moved to save democracy with her, yet another millionaire supposedly fighting for the downtrodden.
But I woke up today moved to listen to Jesus again and see what he really wants us to do in the middle of a world that is even more attuned to the devil’s lies than usual. I hope I am bored because I just don’t want to learn the native language of the elite. Come to think of it, Elizabeth Warren reminds me of my ninth-grade French teacher. I didn’t learn French, either.
In Resident Aliens, their influential 1989 book, Will Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas laid out a bracing vision of how to live Christianly in contemporary society. Where can Christians find guidance in the challenging times ahead? Plough asked the retired United Methodist bishop, now a Duke Divinity School professor, for his insights.
What did Christians have at stake in the past presidential election? The question is not primarily which candidate we should have voted for, a decision that for me was made easy by Donald Trump. Instead, we ought to be asking: Why should we vote at all and, once the 55 percent of eligible voters have voted, what are Christians to make of the outcome of the election? How then shall we live now that “the people have spoken”?
How will Trump rule, or be led by those who want to rule through him? Now that less than half of the voters have coerced the rest of us to call Trump our leader, how then should we live? How will we exorcise the demon of American-style racism and xenophobia that Trump has unleashed?
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.”
“How quaint,” the world must have thought; “how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.”
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
About the same time as Arnold’s sermon, Karl Barth was telling German preachers that they ought to preach “as if nothing happened.” The “nothing” that they were to ignore was Hitler. Barth urged preachers not to waste pulpit time condemning the Nazis. Demons were on the prowl which could not be exorcized except through prayerful proclamation of the Word of God. Barth’s famous Barmen Declaration (which never mentions Hitler) was a defiant statement that the church must be free to preach and that Christians listen intently to no other word than that of Jesus Christ. When the Nazis forced Barth to resign from his teaching position in Bonn, his last advice to his students bidding him a tearful farewell was to remain centered on scripture, exhorting them: “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!”
Were Barth and his friend Arnold escaping politics by not talking about politics? No. Arnold and Barth knew they were preaching God’s word in a world where politics had purloined sacred rhetoric and assumed eternal significance for itself with talk of Volk, Land, und Blut. They talked politics but not as the world talks politics.
“We must deprive the politicians of their sacred pathos,” Barth advised his fellow preachers. The flames of political zealotry must be starved by taking eternal significance off the table when we engage politics. The preacher must view the pretentious modern nation-state and its presumptive politics through a wide-angle lens. Politicians must not be allowed to assume a messianic posture, and citizens must be warned against giving politicians glory that belongs only to God. In other words, Barth and Arnold were determined to do politics in a peculiarly Christian way by talking about who God is and what God is up to before making any assessment of human alternatives to God.
God’s Politics: The Body of Christ
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
Preachers as Politicians
In Charleston, South Carolina, the senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church, Clementa C. Pinckney, was a state senator and a powerful politician. But the night he was martyred he was in the basement hall of his church, leading a small group of laypeople in prayer and Bible study. Much of the ordinary, unspectacular work pastors do is holy if we believe that the church is the incarnate Christ’s chosen means of showing up in the world. Even the mundane body work done by pastors and lay leadership is sacred when it equips Christ’s commissioned “ambassadors” and constitutes an “embassy” of another sovereignty, a living, breathing Body, something that a young South Carolina racist recognized as a threat to his white supremacist world.
The people who got the nation’s attention by giving so bold a witness to forgiveness after the massacre at Mother Emanuel didn’t drop down out of heaven. They were produced here on earth, in lifetimes of listening to sermons by pastors like Pinckney who took seriously their responsibility “to equip God’s people for the work of serving” (Eph. 4:12).
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
Christians are “political” because beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences. However, Arnold’s Incarnation sermon is based upon more than that hackneyed, common-sense observation. Arnold assumes that, when storm clouds gather and politicians strut their stuff before adoring audiences, the most world-changing, revolutionary statement we can make is that Jesus reigns; that God, not nations, rules the world; and that even the best of Caesar’s solutions fall short of the kingdom of God. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world, God’s exemplification of creative social alternatives, is the church. These sweepingly political claims are more than personal and private. As Arnold says, because we know, through Christ, who God (i.e., reality) is, we “cannot shed blood or tolerate private property,” we “cannot lie or take an oath,” and we must uphold “the faithfulness between a man and woman in a marriage under the church,” because we believe that God, not politics, names what’s really going on.
Returning from a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, where hundreds of us had gathered to once again castigate the state’s political buffoons, I was rather pleased with myself for my courageous (though not costly) political activism. We got them told.
Listening to the radio on the way back, we heard Governor McCrory dismiss our demonstration as “just a bunch of aging hippies from the sixties.” Ouch! Our Trump-wannabe governor bragged that polls showed close to 60 percent support for his right-wing policies.
“Preacher,” said the person I had dragged to Moral Monday with me, “sounds like we don’t need better politicians; we need a better class of voters. Maybe you should stay home and work on your Sunday sermon rather than get arrested in Raleigh.”
I have met the political enemy, and he is… me and my fellow Christians, who find it so hard to embody our convictions, and who, even in our left-wing protests, unintentionally give credence to political scoundrels. If we are going to worship a Savior who is determined to tabernacle among us, to show up and thereby disrupt our settled arrangements with Caesar, then we can’t avoid the mundane, corporeal work of having meetings, forming a congregation that becomes in its life together and its way in the world a visible, breathing, undeniable bodily presence of Christ.
That’s why maybe my most radical, politically significant act is to take Eberhard Arnold as my model: stand up this Sunday and preach that God’s will be done, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, whether we like it or not.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:16-18 (NIV)
I woke up pondering these verses. I think the Holy Spirit was helping me face the fear that seems to be infecting the world around me and infecting me! Many of us feel like we are being pulled toward the edge of something as we move closer to the inauguration. It is scary.
Some of us are lashing out in various ways and maybe getting ready to get on the bus to head for Washington to lash out in a big way. They have undoubtedly been told, perhaps by the silence they meet when their voices get louder, that such behavior is wrong.
Others of us are pretending nothing is happening, as if by sheer force of will we will render the fearful things unreal, or irrelevant. They have undoubtedly been met by some passionate person knocking on their foreheads, sending them another email, barraging them on Facebook requiring them to get out of their denial and face the enemy before it is too late.
Meanwhile we have the 24-hour infotainment industry, the 1%’s plaything, managing perceptions, wondering how to deal with Donald Trump tweeting lies that somehow need to be considered seriously because he’s the president.
I woke up pondering these verses because I woke up pondering fear, my own and everyone else’s. John had a lot to say to me. He comforted me. There are so many good things that he wants to give us, the church, in this frightening, unpredictable day in just these few lines! Pick out what you need. I picked out three things:
Perfect loves drives out fear
Whoever lives in love lives in God
People have said so much about this passage over the centuries, that I feel like referring you to a Google search project. But let’s just be us and see what God is going to do with us today. We face a lot of fear.
One of the things that kills the community of the church is a common reaction to fear: I think something bad is going to happen in our relationship so I plan for it not to happen in advance. I try to solve the problem you might have before you have it. I might not even let you say much about what you are feeling because I already fear what you are feeling before I hear you say it! Likewise, I don’t say much about what I feel or think because you are going to react negatively or I might be offensive and we would have a conflict, or you might be silently offended and leave. So in order to connect, I don’t connect. This happens in close friendships, marriages, and business partnerships, but let’s think about the church: all our cells, teams and budding partnerships. John has a few things for us to apply.
Don’t let fear steal your confidence.
Our confidence comes from God who is love and who loves us. Some people read John’s words, above, as if he is saying: “We will have confidence on the Day of Judgment if we are like Jesus.” There is something to that. But if that is all there is, it is a good reason so many people who believe it never get out of their starting blocks because they are afraid they won’t finish the race. I read it as saying: “We have confidence because God’s love is with us; so we know we will be able to stand before Him without fear, now and forever.” Paul says it even clearer, but I will just refer you to him. Don’t let fear steal your confidence.
Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love.
Love is a powerful weapon. People seeking the common good all over the world know this, even when they don’t know Jesus. Most of us feel that love makes a difference. Love upends things, even fear. When John says “Perfect love drives out fear,” some people focus on the “perfect” in the sentence. I do think John means to say God’s love is perfect and we should perfect it. But the point is not to be perfectly loving so you can be perfectly disappointed in how bad you are at loving and how ineffectual your love seems. We can end up being fearful of not being perfectly loving, right? — even fearful about being fearful!
Such an attitude about oneself usually results in criticizing others for how unloving they are; then there we go again in our usual judgment-laden struggle. I think what John means to say is this: Jesus is bringing us confidence to face our fears as we face them in the middle of his love. We love, not fear, because He first loved us. As a result of this great, self-giving love of God in Jesus, we end up connected to God again and so able to bring God’s kind of love to the world. Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love, just receive God’s love in Jesus and give what you’ve got.
Hang on to the love where you find it
Love is the best we can do. I know a lot of brilliant people who know a lot about a lot. They are going to apply their wisdom and all that intelligence to make the world a better place. I just watched Hidden Figures (loved it) in which three black women friends rose to the top ranks of NASA in the 60’s. The movie made you feel like miracles can happen, and they happen. But most of us are not going to do or experience a movie-makeable miracle this week. And John does not promise that, or even imagine the expectations of the 21st century, where if you don’t do something amazing, nothing is happening. What he does promise is this: the great love who-God-is and what-God-does-in-Jesus is infecting the world with eternity. Even unbelievers who latch on to that great breast are fed with possibilities for all we long to receive. Like Paul also says, even the best ideas and greatest ambitions without love are gone like the ring of a bell that has stopped disturbing the air. The love who God is and the love God does is greater. Hang on to love where you find it and let the seed of God there lead you into fullness.
Yes, it will be hard to have confidence in such love because it is imperfect. But your judgment is not always the point. God is the creator of love and none of yours will be wasted.
Thanks for reading in 2016, friends. I have not played the blogging game too hard, so it is encouraging that people manage to find my footprints on the beach and stick with me on the journey. Here are my most-read posts for the past year. Click the headings to link to the posts.
Periodically, I try to talk back when I get a whiff of Circle of Hope’s reputation. If you’ve been around a while, or even when you do something notable, people say stuff about you. I think I realized more than ever in 2016 that God has not only developed a way of life among us that contrasts with much of the churches in town, we also have some corrective theology to offer a Church that generally thought Donald Trump and the Republicans had their interests in mind. Some think we are not “holding the line” on purity. They are right; we are not holding their line.
What a crazy year! Hillary Clinton trounces Trump in the popular vote and he becomes president! I had quite a bit to say about it all — mostly trying to help us not be swallowed and to maintain our sense of separation from the world. We also did some theology that explained why we maintain that sense of separation, which I summarized on the Way of Jesus blog Elections: Trump, Constantine, etc.
I think a lot of people read this because Circle of Hope, in particular, has been colonized by disaffected evangelicals, and because, generally, there are a lot of people who are fed up with a church that promises one thing and does another. We are longing for Jesus, and he is often not allowed to be himself in our church, just like we aren’t.
In August I took the opportunity to explain what it is like to be me, now that I have traveled a while as Development Pastor. I think this post explains a bit of what Circle of Hope aspires to be now, too.
This post a also includes links to all the dispatches I sent from Africa when Gwen, Joshua, Bethany and I traveled with a crew associated with MCC to see what is going on in Zimbabwe and Zambia. They were all among my most-read posts. I think our trip had the intended impact and strengthened the Brethren in Christ – U.S. partnership with MCC.
I see quite a few married couples in the course of a month. Most thirtysomethings who are married could probably use some counseling to gain some insight and tools for the next steps in their relationship. This post is a summary of of a couple of things they might want to learn.
I feel like I have a new friend after reading Katherine Willis Pershey’s book: Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. We have only exchanged one email, but I already hope she moves here, or at least comes over to inspire us.
I would like to quote you the entire book, in case you do not buy it immediately, but I will just do this one part today. It feels urgent that I get you to think, feel and pray about marriage, since several are falling apart as we speak, and, I think, the partners in them don’t really want them to fall apart, but they are floundering. They did not do what the following quote suggests we do and the resulting injuries feel insurmountable.
Pershey is talking about John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (another recommendation). Specifically, she boils down his work into one very Christian exhortation: be kind. If you need a Bible verse, it could be Ephesians 4:32 (memorize it): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I agree with her. That about sums it up.
It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too. Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?
It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
One of the best things about the present era of the church in the United States is that 20somethings keep writing scathing critiques of it like this one: Twelve reasons millennials are OVER the church. My dear comrade, Joshua Grace, sent this article out to the pastors the other day and here I am stirred up and writing about it in the middle of the night on Kauai (where I am doing my best to act like I am a 20something).
I felt super-defensive when I first read Sam Eaton’s critique, which struck me as someone reiterating everyone else’s critique five years after the criticisms became popular. Can we stop criticizing people as if it were righteous? Anyone dealing with an overly-critical parent or a merely critical teenager, knows how far criticism goes toward the healing of humanity. For one thing, it makes people defensive!
So I did not feel like being critical about this super-critical summary of criticism of the church of yesteryear. But I do want to say a few things about it, since drinking poison needs an antidote. So here are a few things that I think are antidotes to Eaton’s well-meaning, passionate but unwittingly poisonous critique of the church.
1) Like any 20something worth their salt, I shared his criticisms of the American church — but that was 40 years ago! OK already, the church is a big fat mess. The two branches most bent on creating domination systems: the Evangelicals and Catholics, are especially culpable for giving the whole enterprise a bad name, by and large. SO WHAT? Criticizing someone is easy; that’s why it is often called a “cheap shot.” It costs little to criticize someone else for what they are doing. It costs a lot to be something better in the face of what is worse.
This is a good day to start a pilgrimage. It is the second day of Advent, the season that begins the Christian year. An “advent” is the coming of something expected. God is coming in the person of Jesus to be God with us. God’s coming as a baby invites us to begin again, ourselves, and go through our own process of maturation until we move though death into resurrection life with Him.
I take all my vacations as a pilgrimage. If I have my head on straight, I take a trip to Rite-Aid as a pilgrimage. My definition of a pilgrimage includes welcoming the unexpected, even the unwanted as part of my journey with Jesus. A pilgrimage allows me to see God at work in all sorts of new situations that tests my capacity to trust him. I discover, again and again, that beyond my ordinary awareness God is present and leading. So I don’t take vacations anymore; I’d rather inhabit what is happening than vacate. That’s more like God becoming Emmanuel, I think.
Last week many Americans (especially if they were in elementary school) remembered the persecuted separatists from the English Church, called THE Pilgrims, who created a place for themselves in Massachusetts. The kids learned that a pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey, often with a religious or moral purpose, often a journey to a place that is foreign to them. The Pilgrims who had the famous thanksgiving feast thought of themselves as those kind of pilgrims. Here’s some evidence: After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born to the Pilgrims who sailed on it was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White!) named him Peregrine – a word which applies to a person travelling from far away and also means “pilgrim.” When Governor William Bradford wrote about the group’s departure for America he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.”
Last week at the Cell Leader training, I only made one comment but I heard a lot about it later. Alison was talking about people who feel obligated and I decided to bring out a long-taught response: “I do not want to travel with people who merely feel obligated. If they don’t have the passion to be a cell leader (or to participate in other ways), they should spare us their begrudging ‘sacrifice.’ No one is obligated to serve the Lord. No one is coerced into receiving from the Lord what they have been given.” It was something like that — only maybe it sounded crabbier or more reactive.
However I communicated it, I still think my point is crucial, and it is often missed in the rush to not be inconvenienced by Jesus. It is not the only point to make when people are talking about their sense of obligation and how unsatisfying and troubling it seems. But it is important.
1) Burned out
Sometimes, people say they are “burned out” and are only doing their duty out of obligation. Ex-cell leaders form an affinity group and have similar stories to tell about why they don’t want to do that again. They seem to be functioning fine otherwise, but when it comes to cell leading (or some other need the church has) they get burned out. We’ve talked about this quite bit this year.
Maybe we have some Esther in us. When plots against the Jews were uncovered in the Persian capital, one of the king’s favorite wives, Esther, was well-placed to do something about it. But there were great risks to face! She was one of the Jews being slandered; she was just one of many wives; she was not sure whether she would not be killed if she appeared unbidden before the king. But her uncle laid out the situation to her again: Terrible things were about to happen and she was in danger, as well as her people. He said, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” So she told everyone to fast and pray and said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (see Esther 4).
Now we will need to “Go to the Trump.” Maybe that has always been inevitable. My twenties began with the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency and ended with the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s We sat on our porch and talked very seriously about how we needed to be ready for the police state to rule us. We told each other we needed to be an alternative community to sustain ourselves in the coming time of troubles, as well as to hold out the light of Christ. There was plenty of trouble, but not the collapse of civilization we expected. And ever since, I have witnessed inspired people fighting hard for the poor, for rights, and for goodness when the government was doing things wrong. There are still a lot of inspired people doing the same thing. But there is also the fruit of this stream of power-mad, self-interested, pure-capitalists that resulted in Donald Trump.