Of Mountain Trout and the Soul of a Man

Welcome to the first installment in my “Flashback Friday” series, where I’m going to share some of my favorite from my writing archives. This essay first appeared September 10, 2013, in EcoTheo Review.


Waters collected from the rains and snows of millennia gather and rush down primordial paths folded and worn into these mountains, the oldest in the world. From droplets and trickles tumbling off ridgetops they meet, flirting along bouldered slopes, consummating into something new and powerful and beautiful. Always downward, carving deeper and wider into soil and rock, ever finding new partners to join in their endless dance, all the while gaining might and urgency.

And as the waters cavort through ditches and ravines and hollows and valleys, they find a new consort. Painted trout, perfectly formed. Breathing in life through scarlet gills, capering with fins and tails, securing sanctuary in the chilly depths. From centuries of old they became one with the waters, and the waters became one with the mountains, and they all became one with each other.

It is in this place where I first found my soul.

Some have called it the Mountain State. John Denver called it Almost Heaven. But for those of us who make our lives here, who proudly proclaim “montani semper liberi,” it will always and ever be West-By-God-Virginia.

Sometimes I take people–friends–into these mountains, along these cascading streams and rivers, and they see them, and they are utterly gobsmacked by the visual splendor of it all. And they say things like, “How can you look at this view and say there’s no God?”

I guess I understand what they’re saying. But for me it has never been about just seeing it. Yes, it is a feast for the eyes. Stunning broad vistas from the peaks. The play of color and light in the valleys. It is always ancient, always new, both real and surreal.

No, for me it is the water. Always the water. The closer to its source I go, the closer I find myself to my own. The more intimate I become with it, the more I discover its story, the more connected I become with the One Great Story. It awakes the soul it led me to discover as a boy, and stirs it to life in ways that always thrill and surprise me.

It is the water. And with the water came trout. And in the water, the trout and I became friends.

With my finely-tapered magic wand of split bamboo, and with wisps of fur and feather lashed on tiny hooks attached to gossamer monofilament, I step tentatively into the flow, glancing about for a flash beneath the surface or a nose poking up into that mysterious place where water meets sky. I remember that the early Hebrews referred to “heaven” as “sky,” thinking of it not as someplace within the great blue expanse above the horizon  or as the twinkling black sea of night, but as that omnipresent ether that is always and ever all around us. It is in the very air we breathe. Near, not distant. Something we are part of, not apart from. And I wonder how we managed to forget.

I scan my viewscape for the telltale glint of a mayfly’s wing, knowing it would mean the buffet is open for the salmonids lurking below. I look into branches and inspect spider webs to see what tasty treats the arachnids and trout might share here today. Are there caddis? Stoneflies? Or will this be a day for terrestrials, when ants, beetles and grasshoppers will be the preferred fare? Or might it be best to imitate the nymphal stages and work beneath the meniscus where bugs have not yet hatched but where hungry trout aren’t patient enough to wait?

As I gain my footing on the cobbled streambed, I feel myself beginning to find the rhythm of the water and the air and the wind and the clouds and the trees and the grass. The current pulses against my shins as I wade upstream, taking a few careful steps at first, and then moving more confidently as my feet and legs remember. The sun warms my face as the breeze sweeps down the ridge and gently kisses my cheeks. Sweet honeysuckle and lilac blend with the subtle muskiness of hemlock and infuse each breath I take. The river’s song rises in harmony with the wind in the pines as the mountain’s orchestra reaches a stunning crescendo.

I start to notice the way the stream is put together…where rocks break the flow here, where the current gathers speed there, where a fallen tree branch creates a calm pool and the flow swirls back into itself, where the rocky underwater floor dips deep and then rises sharply. These are the places where the river feeds and protects its residents, delivering tiny six-legged morsels to every doorstep, or providing refuge from larger predators both within and without.

As observation gives way to instinct, I enter the dance. Conjuring ancient spells with my mystic cane, I start casting flies first to this pool, up against that rock, along the subtle line of bubbles that define a seam in the current. I know where the trout live. They have invited me into their homes time and time again, and they have showed me the signs on their doorposts.

One cast becomes a dozen, then a hundred. Some of the trout are at home, and a few deign to play my little game, pretending to be fooled by my feathered concoctions so we can gambol together to the rising strain of forest music. Some, I’m sure, are perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves if I were to keep one for a meal in camp. But most know instinctively that they will be safely returned. Because if it is the mark of friendship that one would give his own life for the other, it is the true sign of brotherhood that the other values his friend’s life too much to take it.

A hundred casts become two hundred, and I am now part of the river. I forget where stream and sky end and I begin. I absorb it all, and it envelops me. We move together as one, me and the river and the mountain and the trout. There is nothing else but this moment.

And I find it again. My soul. I know it has never left, that it never stays behind just to await my return, but it is in this here and now that it rises up and reminds me who I am.

It is not the mere sight of this place and its beauty that proves its creator. That implies a standing apart from it, a detachment, a looking at it as something that is other, that is outside oneself and separate and different.

No, it is this moment. When all the world and all of creation is inexorably focused in this breath, in this heartbeat. When earth and sky and wind and water and sounds and smells coalesce in one astonishing, impossible instant, and everything is revealed all at once.

And I cast again, and a trout rises, and takes the fly, and God smiles, and his laugh carries on the breeze down the mountain and through my soul, and my essence comes alive anew.

And I know. I know who I am. And I know what it means to be perfect.

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How to be a weed

A couple of weeks ago at our bi-weekly pub church gathering, New Wineskins, we were talking about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds from Matthew 13.

In the story, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who planted good seed in his field, but an enemy sowed bad seed in the midst of it. And as the good seed grew into a crop of wheat, the bad seed grew into invasive weeds. But instead of having his workers cull out the weeds, the landowner says to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, when the harvester would separate the wheat from the weeds.

Later, Jesus explains the parable to his followers: He is the sower, the enemy is the “devil,” the good crop is the sons and daughters of the kingdom of heaven, and the weeds are the followers of evil.

Pretty straightforward.

Except it’s not.

I know I am but what are you?

In nearly every context where I’ve studied this story or heard it taught or preached, the assumption is made that “we” (Christians) are the wheat, and “they” (non-Christians) are the weeds. We were planted by Jesus, and everyone else is a seed of Satan. We may have to grow beside each other in this world for a while, but eventually we’ll go to heaven, and they’ll burn in the fires of hell.

But what we fail to consider in that assumption is that nobody in Jesus’ original audience was a Christian. Jesus was preaching to first century Palestinian Jews who were deeply entrenched in their Jewish heritage.

And while a theology of resurrection had begun to take hold in Judaism by that time in history (although the Sadducees sect famously denied it), the dualistic question of who went to heaven and who went to hell when they died was really nowhere on their collective radars.

So why would Jesus tell a story about Christians going to heaven and non-Christians going to hell to a bunch of pre-Christian Jews in a culture that didn’t have a context for that kind of epistemology?

Let’s zoom out for a second and look at the bigger narrative picture.

The kingdom of heaven is like…

In Matthew 12 Jesus has been roundly criticizing the religious/political elite, who by the way have basically just called him the devil (Matt. 12:22-37). These leaders repeatedly criticize Jesus and his followers for being outside of Jewish law and tradition.

And so Jesus counterpunches in Matthew 13, where he launches into a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven. We know that’s what they were about because Jesus begins most of them by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like….”

But what we need to understand is that for first century Palestinian Jews, the “kingdom of heaven” was not understood to be someplace to which one’s disembodied soul took a postmortem luxury cruise. It was an expected state of reality within human history when God would set things right and God’s rule and reign would prevail.

Notwithstanding the fact that they largely believed in their context that the coming of the kingdom of heaven meant little more than the overthrow of the Roman Empire from Israel, they certainly would not have heard Jesus’ words to mean anything about reward in the afterlife.

Sympathy for the Devil

Similarly, we superimpose our visions of hell given to us by Dante and Milton (and not from the Bible) onto what Jesus says about the weeds being burned in the fire. Again, Jesus’ first audience would not have been thinking about eternal conscious torment, but would more likely have heard this as a reference to Gehenna, the trash dump outside of Jerusalem where fires burned constantly and where wild dogs would gnash their teeth as they competed for scraps.

So the point wasn’t about who’s soul would go where after they died. It was about who would get to participate in God’s will and reign when it was established on earth.

If anyone thought they were the wheat in the story, it would have been the Jewish leaders, who viewed themselves as the guardians of the Mosaic law. They were quite certain not only that they’d participate in the kingdom of heaven, but that they’d have positions of power and influence.

But Jesus seems to be flipping the script on them when he explains the parable to his followers in private afterward.

Because Jesus’ followers would have assumed that they were the weeds.

The Updside-Down

Everything they had heard from the establishment was that they were unworthy. Unwanted. Undeserving of God’s favor.

And Jesus is telling them not to believe that. Not to buy the lie of the powerful and privileged.

The meek shall inherit the earth.

What everyone thought were worthless weeds turned out to be valuable wheat. And what they thought was wheat was, in the end, fruitless and unproductive.

It’s another parable of purpose over privilege.

When we assume that our group is “right,” that we are the favored ones, that we have value that others inherently do not, we become fruitless and unproductive.

But when we see the worth and value of those who sit on the outside of privilege, and when we join them in living out God’s purpose for sowing love in the world, we are actively living out the kingdom of heaven.

“Attitude reflect leadership”

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Remember the Titans,” made in 2000 about the football team at an all-white high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that was integrated in 1971.

There’s a great scene where linebacker Gary Bertier, the white team captain, confronts defensive end Julius Campbell, one of the new black players, about being selfish and not helping his teammates. Julius counters that Bertier isn’t doing his job as captain because he doesn’t call out the white linemen when they fail to block for one of the black running backs.

At the end of the scene, Bertier accuses Julius of having a bad attitude…and then Julius drops the mic:

“Attitude reflect leadership…captain.”

What that scene (and actually the whole movie) dramatically points out is the way that an ingrained sense of privilege can lead us, often unknowingly, to the harm of other people.

Privilege or purpose?

Last week I introduced the theological theme of purpose vs. privilege that has occupied much of my writing, teaching, and preaching of late. Today I want to unpack it a little more fully.

I first started to sense the idea that the theme of purpose vs. privilege is an underlying thread woven deeply into the biblical narrative about four years ago when I was in the midst of a long, deep dive into studying the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) through the lens of Dallas Willard’s brilliant book, The Divine Conspiracy.

The more I dwelled in the Sermon on the Mount over the better part of 2+ years, the more it started to really inform my entire hermeneutic. I began to see it not as a series of instructions or guidelines for behavior, but as a way of being that is centered on a radical awareness of the worth and dignity of all things.

Don’t give me your attitude

Without writing an entire book report, what Willard so beautifully demonstrates in The Divine Conspiracy is that the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto of how life is supposed to work. Especially through the “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” monologue in 5:21-48, Jesus is getting beneath the behaviors of Mosaic law to the attitudes that drive them.

Rather than pointing out (as is often taught) that the Law is far too difficult to live out on one’s own so we need Jesus to save us from our inability to carry it out, what the Sermon on the Mount actually does is reveal that there is no difference between dehumanizing attitudes and dehumanizing behaviors.

“Do not kill” is more than just an instruction not to commit murder, but to so deeply recognize the humanity in others that you could not possibly conceive of such an act.

“Do not commit adultery” becomes less about cheating on your partner and more about mentally objectifying others for your own satisfaction, either physical or emotional.

“Do not break your oath” is not just about keeping your word for the sake of your own honor, but for honoring the dignity of the one to whom you make the promise.

In other words, Jesus is stripping away all sense of personal privilege. He is revealing all the ways we think ourselves superior to others and places us all, no matter our station in life, on a level field with one another.

Righteousness of the Pharisees

In that light, the greatest virtue is living for purpose.

“You (Israel) were given a purpose: to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To bring delight and flavor and love into the world. Don’t mistake the gifts of purpose for privilege. Don’t hoard them and keep them to yourself to exercise power and influence over others, but instead use them so that everyone everywhere knows that the true essence of God is love.” —Matt. 5:13-16, (my paraphrase)

Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to this sense of purpose as “righteousness.” He warns his followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, the self-appointed religious leaders of the time.

What Jesus means to point out, I believe, is that the kind of righteousness displayed by the Pharisees was little more than self-righteousness, a putting on display of their piety in order to cement their place of privilege.

True righteousness, Jesus says, is to be true to your God-appointed purpose.

You had one job

Let’s rewind a little further for some perspective. In Genesis, God encounters this dude named Abraham and makes a promise to him: that his offspring will become a great nation…a nation with a very specific purpose. A vocation, if you will.

“All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3b, NIV)

This is the key part of Israel’s back story in the Old Testament narrative: to be a nation chosen by God to carry out God’s purpose of blessing.

And the rest of the Old Testament tells the story about how Israel failed again and again and again to live into that promise.

Because Israel wanted to keep God’s blessing to itself. To have power and influence in a world where it was more often the bullied than the bully. To turn the tables on the nations that continually overran its borders and carried its people into exile.

To make Israel great again.

Israel wanted to take the privilege of God’s promise to Abraham without taking on the responsibility of the purpose God intended.

In fact, we can go even further back in the story to the Creation myth[1] and see where the story that we refer to as “The Fall” or “Original Sin” is also really a story about placing privilege over purpose.

When the first humans in the story chose to take what they want for personal pleasure, they chose the privilege that went along with their freedom and ignored the purpose of their responsibility to steward the Creation.

Privilege puts self at the center of the universe. Privilege takes.

Purpose revolves around the other. Purpose gives.

And when we live for purpose rather than for privilege, that’s where the Kingdom of Heaven is.


Welcome to the reboot of joewebbwrites.com. After an extended dry season where my writing has been limited to a few sermons and work projects, I’m re-launching with a series of articles on the theology of purpose vs. privilege. I welcome your feedback and conversation over the concepts I present here…just keep it civil and keep it classy.

The kingdom is coming, y’all.


[1] I use the word “myth” to denote a story that people tell to try to explain their perception of reality. It should not be read as meaning the story is not true, although I might argue that truth and facts are not at all the same thing.

A Parable of Purpose and Privilege

There were some folks who were very proud of who they were—their family heritage, their place in society, their ability to influence things—and who looked down on people who weren’t as “good” as them. And Jesus told them a story: “Two people went into the church to pray. One was a leader in the church who held much sway in the community. The other was an addict who tricked people into giving him their money to buy drugs. The first one stood at the middle of the altar, lifted his hands to the sky, and said, ‘Thank you, God, that you have made me so prosperous and so powerful, and that I’m not like these other low-lifes. I attend all the church council meetings and I put a tenth of my salary into the offering plate.’ But the addict stood in the back, ashamed to approach the altar or even to lift his eyes. He buried his head in his hands and said, ‘God, have mercy on me for the wrong that I do to people.’ I tell you, this person went home justified in God’s eyes rather than the one of influence. Everyone who thinks they’re more important than others will be brought low, and everyone who humbles themselves will be lifted up.” –Luke 18:9-14 (my paraphrase)

A friend of mine posted something on social media this morning that went something like this:

“I woke up this morning in a dry bed, had hot water in my shower, food in my fridge, and working air conditioning. God is so good!”

Actually, I hear this kind of thing a lot from my Christian friends.

“I can’t believe how awesome God is to make my life so comfortable. Yay God!”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I like to be comfortable. I like having a memory foam mattress and a full fridge and fresh fair-trade coffee. I like my iPhone and AirPods, my 60” TV, and my collection of expensive fly rods and backpacking gear. I like it when my car runs, and I like a good parking place close to the door as much as anyone.

And I think God is in that. God is in my comfort.

But my comfort is not God’s agenda.

If my comfort, or anyone’s comfort for that matter, is God’s agenda, then that means that God’s agenda is also someone else’s discomfort. Because I know that a lot of the things that make me comfortable come at someone else’s expense.

And I think that’s something God unambiguously stands against.

Privilege or purpose?

One of the theological premises I’ve been exploring in my current season of spiritual reconstruction is the theme of purpose vs. privilege. I’m going to unpack that a lot more in the days and weeks to come, but at its heart it’s a subtext I see running throughout the biblical narrative…God imbues God’s creation with purpose from the very beginning, but the tendency of humanity is to turn the gifts of purpose into a claim for privilege.

In fact, I think a pretty substantial theological stance can be taken that privilege is really the essence of what we might call “original sin.” Again, I’ll dive into that a little deeper in some future writings. For now I’ll let you sit with that concept and consider its implications.

The point, though, is that privilege always comes at the expense of the other. By its very nature, it creates ins and outs, haves and have-nots, worthies and unworthies.

Because I can’t have privilege without someone else losing it.

Did you hear the one about the golden calf?

And so when I experience comfort in my life, and credit that comfort as a gift from God, I have to be very, very careful. Again, it’s not that comfort is not from God, but that comfort is something that can very quickly become something we fight really hard to protect.

You might even call it an idol.

And this doesn’t just happen on an individual level, but also a cultural and societal one. One of the most glaring examples, but certainly not the only one, can be seen in systemic racism or classism.

It’s a symptom of people using their privilege—which they often believe to be God-given—to protect what they believe to be their God-given comfort.

When the Israelites in the Exodus story decided to build a golden calf to worship, the problem wasn’t that they were representing a god other than Yahweh. It was that they were misrepresenting Yahweh. They were making God into something God was not.

When we begin to worship our privilege over our purpose, we are replacing God as God is with who we want God to be…a God that exists for our benefit at the expense of others.

The Superiority Complex

Now, a legitimate question to ask at this point might be why we can’t just all have comfort. Why does my comfort necessitate someone else’s discomfort?

Think about it for a moment. Privilege, by definition, is exclusivist. It means having something that others don’t. It means being something others aren’t. It carries with it—either implicitly or explicitly—a sense of superiority.

And while that often gets played out in the realm of consumerism and materialism, it reveals itself more deeply in economics and politics.

But however it manifests, it is, at its root, a theological problem.

When we believe God gifts certain people with certain comforts/privileges that God does not gift to others, we have created a false God.

Worse, we create theologies and doctrines that defend the view of an exclusivist God that cares more about propositional acquiescence to a conception of God than an actual, lived, relational experience of God.

All for one and one for all

So yes, please, thank God for your dry bed and your hot shower and the roof over your head. Thank God for a life with more comfort than discomfort. If you must, even thank God for that great parking spot.

But don’t lift your privilege above your purpose. Remember that whatever gifts God gives you, God gives you not just for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.


Welcome to the reboot of joewebbwrites.com. After an extended dry season where my writing has been limited to a few sermons and work projects, I’m re-launching this week with a series of articles on the theology of purpose vs. privilege. I welcome your feedback and conversation over the concepts I present here…just keep it civil and keep it classy.

The kingdom is coming, y’all.

Flat tires and sunsets: A story of answered prayer

sunset

Sometimes, we have to look through the weirdest circumstances to encounter God. This is a story of one of those times.

I was lucky enough to spend last week serving as a mentor for a group of teenagers at the Radical Discipleship Academy of Appalachia, an initiative of the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church’s Conference Committee on Youth Ministries. It was an incredible week working with some really remarkable teenagers and some awesome colleagues at Spring Heights Camp, a facility owned by the WVUMC and used for a variety of summer camps and other retreat activities.

As the adult staff gathered on Sunday night to prepare for the students’ arrival on Monday, we walked through some worship and prayer exercises and ended our time together in prayer triads, groups of three people who would pray for one another’s needs for the week.

A prayer for rest

One of my prayer partners, who happened to be our guest speaker for the Academy, asked me what I needed prayer for. Having just come off a stressful week of trying to button things up at the church so I could be gone for a week, I simply asked her to pray for me to have some rest.

It seemed like a pretty reasonable request, considering the fact that our schedule for the week was jam-packed, including late nights and early mornings. Rest would be a precious commodity.

We’re having a heat wave…

Sure enough, I was beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation by about Thursday, a day when we were to take the students offsite for a planned overnight mission project. Due to some allergy issues, I planned to return to camp at the end of the day along with a few other adult leaders with similar concerns.

Thursday also turned out to be the 5th consecutive day for us to experience 90+ degree temperatures and oppressive humidity that drove the heat index well over 100º. So, needless to say, by mid-afternoon when some of us had to drive a few miles out a rural West Virginia back road to shuttle some of the kids from one place to another, I was fading fast.

Blowout

flat-tire-jpgWhich is when God gave me the flat tire.

Now I know it sounds strange to say that God gave me a flat tire. But hear me out.

As a result of getting a flat out in the boonies of Roane County, WV, in 100º+ heat, I was a filthy, sweaty mess by the time I got the tire changed, and had just enough time to get back to the town of Spencer to try to get to an auto shop before they closed to see if I could buy a new tire (luckily, my Jeep Cherokee came with a full-size spare…but it was just one spare, leaving me vulnerable for further driving on roads used more frequently by logging trucks than local residents).

I made it to the shop five minutes before closing time, and the kind and very professional owners and staff fixed me up by putting my spare back on the good rim and selling me a used tire to put in the spare well.

At that point, though, it was fairly pointless to drive back to the mission site, so I returned to camp with the hopes of getting my sermon for last Sunday written and maybe catching up on some correspondence before the other staff members returned.

One is the loneliest number

As it turned out, I had nearly five hours of total solitude back in the retreat area of Spring Heights.

Now, as an extrovert, I generally relax in a crowd. I need people around me to unwind. But even extroverts need the occasional bit of solitude.

After a quick shower and piecing together some delicious leftovers for dinner (don’t ever let anyone tell you sausage gravy and mashed potatoes isn’t a good dinner!), I sat down at my laptop, expecting to do battle with the camp’s sketchy Wi-Fi service while trying to get some work done while I had the time.

But something really cool happened in the midst of that.

I not only managed to get everything done I needed to do, but actually flew right through it without my internet signal ever dropping out. And as I finished up, I looked out the windows of the cottage to see an amazing sunset over the hilltops on the western horizon.

As I stepped out to try to get some photos and admire the day’s final display of color and light, I realized the humidity of the day had broken a bit, making it almost pleasant (or at least markedly less disgusting!) in the summer evening air.

And I realized something else.

I felt rested.

Did you hear the one about God and the flat tire?

And that’s when I realized God had answered my prayer through a flat tire.

I should note, by the way, that I’ve never doubted that God has a sense of humor.

I say that because in the moment of having a blowout in literally The Middle of Nowhere West Virginia, I could have thrown one hell of a pity party. I could have questioned why I was even there in the first place, or ruminated on what particular sin God was punishing me for, or indulged any of a number of other negative thoughts.

Now, do I believe God literally gave me that flat tire just so I could experience something transcendent later that evening? Honestly, I don’t think that’s how God works.

But I do believe God gave me the ability to see that good can be made of anything, and that if we’re willing to tune in and pay attention and not get wrapped up in our own self-pity, we might just open ourselves up to an encounter with the divine.

That evening, witnessing that sunset on that West Virginia Hilltop, there was no room for anything but gratitude.

Gratitude for a flat tire.

And an answered prayer.

The Lament of Words

words

Welcome to the long-overdue reboot of joewebbwrites.com. I’ve spent this week with some amazing students from around the WV Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church working as a mentor to a group of high schoolers in the WVUMC’s Radical Discipleship Academy of Appalachia. Today’s entry came out of a prayer practice called the Daily Examen the kids & staff were led through earlier this week. This piece reflects some of the struggle I’ve had lately with my discipline of writing, but it holds much more than that. I hope it finds meaning in your life, and that you’ll keep coming back for new content in the weeks and months to come. Shalom!

The Lament of Words

These words and thoughts
and thoughts and words
have meaning
have power
have danger
have hope.

I mean them to be helpful.
I hope them to be hopeful.
But lurking behind them
are doubts
and fears.
Are they good enough?
Are they strong enough?

Am I good enough?
Am I strong enough?

These words and thoughts
and thoughts and words
hold universes,
skip from star to star,
span the void
from eternity to eternity.

But sometimes they seem so small,
so weak.
And sometimes the smallest and weakest
become the loudest,
shouting into the void
to escape their inadequacies.

These words and thoughts
and thoughts and words.
Are they even mine?
So often they slip out
unnoticed
And before I know it
they’re bouncing around in the wide world
out of control
and whether they’re useful or not
or good or not
isn’t up to me.

So who’s are they?

These words and thoughts
and thoughts and words
are all I have.
My offering to God.
My offering from God.
Are they mine?
Are they God’s?

Are they yours?

Are they ours?

America, we have a problem

(c) All-Nite Images. Via flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA). Some rights reserved.

(c) All-Nite Images. Via flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA). Some rights reserved.

When I woke this morning to the news from Dallas, I just felt gut-kicked. I’m sure a lot of you felt the same way. How many more killings must we endure? What will it take to make it stop?

As I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, my depression just grew. Even the heartfelt and eloquent calls and prayers for unity and reconciliation seemed somewhat empty—not because they lacked passion or authenticity, but because even those just feel like more band-aids slapped on a gaping wound.

My opinion may not be any better. Certainly I’m as powerless as anyone else in pinpointing causes and offering answers. Part of that is because it’s not easy. There’s no single place to point blame, any more than there is any single solution to apply. Complex and nuanced issues are uncomfortable for us to confront. We’re more interested in fixing blame than healing wounds. We care more about voicing our rage than confronting the evil in our own hearts.

Which is probably why most of our responses—even the most articulate—ultimately amount to little more than kicking the can down the road…until the next black kid is murdered, or the next cop gets gunned down, or the next mass execution of innocents, or the next mom shoots her babies.

America is an angry nation right now. And in my experience, anger comes largely from fear. Fear of feeling victimized. From feeling wronged. From sensing you have no real control. We’re angry at other nations that fail to fall in line with our values. We’re angry at ideologies that conflict with our sense of moral superiority. We’re angry at refugees and immigrants who wish to share our benefits. We fear what all of that will do to our comfortable, privileged lifestyles.

Mostly, though, it seems we’re angry with each other. We can’t even carry on civil conversations about politics or economics or religion without calling each other sophomoric names or posting opinions and memes that do nothing but exacerbate our divides. We’ve come to believe that any thought that disagrees with our own lacks legitimacy. We view each other as enemies and compromise as weakness. We are obsessed with the us/them divide.

But what’s worse perhaps than this escalation in anger is our pervasive belief that our anger is righteous, and therefore any actions we take to express it are justifiable. That indulging our anger through acts of hatred and violence is acceptable. That somehow justice is served when we retaliate.

We forget, though, that justice and revenge are not at all the same thing.

Whatever the underlying causes, and whatever the ultimate solutions may be for our escalating culture of violence, at some point America has to deal with its underlying anger problem.

And that means you and I have to deal with it. We have to do the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We have to see each other as human.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matt. 7:12, NRSV).

We have a choice to make, America. And it’s more than a political or cultural or economic or religious choice. It’s a choice about who we are fundamentally going to be.

And if you’re one of those people who want to sacrifice other human beings at the alter of your anger, let me ask you: How’s that working out? Is your life better because of it? Are you really happier? More secure? More peaceful?

There is, as the Apostle Paul put it, a “more excellent way.” But the path to that way doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t come easy.

It requires something of us. It demands we release our sense of justified outrage and self-righteousness and embrace the worth and dignity of every single human life. It compels us to face issues of privilege and entitlement and to realize that there are other humans on this planet who have every bit the value, even if their experiences, beliefs, cultures, and perspectives are different.

It means we have to recognize those voices that claim to report “news” and “facts” for what they are: hucksters of coliseum-type entertainment, selling our fears and anger back to us in the name of ratings and the dollars they bring.

I hope that we can be brave enough to do the right thing. I hope we can realize that love is a bigger weapon that fear and anger and hate.

Because ultimately, it’s the only one we have.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” (Matt. 4:16, NRSV).

America was once a place where people saw light and hope. May it be so again. And may we be its instruments.

Time to turn the page…

turnpage

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To all things, Wisdom wrote, there is a season.

And so it is with TheAwesomenessConspiracy.com. And a fine season it’s been!

This site was birthed in January 2013 from my previous blog, faithrants.com, in an effort to bring more voices into the conversation and expand offerings to become a full-fledged resource site. I partnered with several brilliant and talented co-conspirators to diversify content and spark new ideas. It’s been a terrific ride with some amazing people.

And now, it’s time for another change. In January, I’ll be re-launching with a new design and a new name, joewebbwrites.com.

The new site will still feature faith-based content, but from a slightly renewed perspective. In some ways it will be a back-to-the-future kind of move, as I hope to return to writing about those places where I find the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary, and moments of sacredness growing out of common experiences.

I also hope to do more storytelling on the new site…both stories of my own as well as those of people who are doing remarkable things in the world whose stories you may not have heard.

I’m planning some regular features, including some devotional-type pieces to invite reflection and introspection. And I’ll still try to provide lots of resources to help us explore together what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century and to give you tools you can use in whatever setting you find yourself.

And since this is more of a relaunch/re-branding than a total start-over-from-scratch sort of effort, all of the content from here at TheAwesomenessConspiracy.com will continue to be available in archived form on joewebbwrites.com. If you’ve signed up to follow us by e-mail or via RSS, you’ll continue to receive updates.

Ultimately, this blog is for you, so I value your feedback, suggestions, ideas, and critique. Feel free to use the comment section here or reach me by email, Facebook, or Twitter.

Whether you’ve been a regular reader or have just checked in occasionally, I appreciate your support. I hope you’ll find the coming site updates to be something you’ll want to continue to enjoy. I’m excited about where we’re going together! See you in January at joewebbwrites.com!

Shalom,

Joe

May we celebrate love with grace

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I am indeed thrilled today for my LGBTQ friends and fellow allies who are rejoicing the US Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the rights of all people to enjoy the benefits of marriage. It’s been a long and difficult journey, and I join you in your celebration of this dramatic moment in our history.

At the same time, I know many others who are deeply troubled by this decision because of genuine, authentic and very legitimate religious beliefs. People I also love deeply who have not yet—and may never—come to see marriage equality as something they can support within their understanding of their faith. I sincerely mourn for your pain today. I pray God’s comfort for you.

This is no time for gloating, for “I-told-you-so,” for demeaning folks who have been long accused of being demeanors. There is nothing to be gained by that. My own position has only come about through a lengthy and often very difficult period of listening, study, and prayer. Because of that, I must respect that others are in that same discernment process, and may come to different conclusions.

The long and glorious history of our faith is full of days like these where people of good conscious disagree on how we interpret our holy writings and traditions. Happily, none of those days have destroyed us.

May today be no different.

If today is a celebration of love, let it be a celebration of love not just for those with whom we agree, but for those with whom we disagree. Let us enjoy the gravity of the moment with dignity and grace for those who still struggle to understand.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It goes both ways.

Celebrate love. Extend grace. Keep it classy.

Shalom,
Joe

I don’t like you, but I really want to love you

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“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” –Matt. 5:43-47 (MSG)

So I’ve been trying to do something really radical lately.

I’m trying to love people I don’t like.

This is one of those strange paradoxes of the Christian life. We know, or at least we assent to the notion, that we’re called to love our enemies.

But if we’re honest, for most of us, all that really means is that we hold those with whom we’re in conflict at arms length, agreeing without words to stay out of each other’s space.

But that’s not love. That’s just polite avoidance.

By both his words and actions, Jesus provides an example for how to not only tolerate, but actively love those we deem unlovable.

Actively, as I was reminded by a friend in a recent conversation, is the key word here.

For me to love my enemy means more than just passively setting aside animosity. It means actively seeking his or her well-being. It means—more often than not—sacrificing my own wants and desires so that someone I disagree with, someone I strongly dislike, or even someone who means me harm, can actually benefit from my actions.

The more I try to love people I don’t like, the more I find out that it’s not just hard. It’s actually costly. It requires something of me, something sacrificial.

It requires that I examine my motives, confront often previously-unrecognized prejudices, and become vulnerable. After all, there’s no guarantee that it will be reciprocated.

I’m beginning to believe, though, that learning to love people we don’t like might be among the most important things we can do if we truly want to follow Jesus.

Let’s face it. Arguing, fighting, insulting, bullying, and belittling don’t work. If they did, the problems of the world would have been resolved long ago. No authentic relationship was ever built on coercion.

And yet, those things continue to be our default settings. When confronted with ideas we find disagreeable or offensive, or with people we find rude or ignorant or otherwise flawed in our eyes, we move instantly to criticism and condemnation.

What we fail to recognize is that, in doing so, we rob the other person of their very humanity. The moment we categorize someone as this type or that kind of individual, we have made him or her a thing and not a person. In our minds they are little more than an object to be sorted into our narrow definitions and classifications.

This, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. As he declares the outcasts and unlovable to be blessed, he reminds them of their humanity. A humanity of which the religious and social elite of their communities too often had robbed them because of their failure to live up to accepted norms and standards.

He reminds them that each human being is a creation of God, loved by God. Equal under sun and rain, in good times and bad, whether good or evil.

And he reminds them that loving one another—actively and unconditionally—is the most powerful thing they can do. In fact, it’s what opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

We’re good at loving people who look like us, think like us, act like us and talk like us. We’re good at loving those who share our beliefs and values and worldviews.

But when we come up against opposition, with people who look different, believe differently, behave differently, we turn instantly to condemnation.

Disagreement challenges us on a primal level. Feeling that we’re “right” about a particular viewpoint reinforces our sense of well-being and identity. When confronted with the notion that we might be wrong about something, we react defensively out of a need to protect that identity.

That’s why loving those we dislike is so costly. It requires that something within us—an opinion, a preference, a belief—must, in some fashion, die.

But what comes to life in its place is always something better and more beautiful.

And when our “enemies” experience that, and when others around us see it, it is a catalytic force for transformation and reconciliation.

So I’m going to keep trying to love people I don’t like.

I’ll fail. A lot.

But I hope by actively seeking the best for them, I’ll find the best in me.

And ultimately, in us.

Authority

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(This is the eighth and final installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks for walking through the season with us! To view the entire series on a single page, click on the Lent 2015 tab above.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]  [Part 4]  [Part 5]  [Part 6]  [Part 7]

Today’s reading: Matthew 7:13-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

He had redefined the law. Fulfilled it.

Love. Unbridled, unconditional. Counter-intuitive, upside-down, inside-out.

Love that puts the welfare of others ahead of self.

Love that places no burden on others. Love that sees through God’s eyes.

Love that sees through God’s heart.

The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Their religious leaders had gotten it so wrong. It was so easy for them to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect their comfortable traditions, their strict legalism, their cozy doctrine…that, Jesus said, was a wide and easy path.

Anyone can cling to those things that benefit oneself and exclude those who don’t measure up. Anyone can call others to conform to their self-interest.

Anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies.

But this way of love, a love that gives and sacrifices and humanizes even those who would do us harm…this way is narrow. This way is hard.

This way is life.

Repent. Reorient.

Discard the way of false truth that destroys life on its way to self-salvation.

Real truth reveals itself in real love. Real peace. Kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness. Against these, there is no law.

Bear good fruit, Jesus says. Not the bad fruit of the Pharisees and religious elite that poisons and kills, but the fruit of love that nourishes and flourishes.

You can call out my name all you want. Use me to declare your own power and righteousness till you’re blue in the face. But unless you love, you’ll never know me.

Good news. Kingdom news.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Follow.

Love is the way to life. Love that respects the God-breathed humanity and dignity of each other person. Love that blesses the undeserving.

It had to be true. No other “truth” could measure up.

There was authority in these words, in this man, like none they had witnessed before.

It was as if their leaders, the ones who claimed God’s truth, who called them to follow God’s law, who confidently declared who was “in” and who was “out,” didn’t really know God at all.

To truly know God, to be citizens of his kingdom, was to truly understand that love alone fulfills the law.

This was a kingdom worth living for.

This was a kingdom worth dying for.