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

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

 

“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.

Advertisements

Righteousness

Hellfire and Brimstone Preacher

pond5.com

(This is the third installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

[Part 1]   [Part 2]

Today’s reading: Matthew 5:17-20

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The righteousness of the Pharisees.

How could they ever expect to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? These were the nobodies that nobody wants to be around, these crowds who had gathered to hear Rabbi Jesus speak. “Righteous” was never a word anyone used to describe them.

The Pharisees, though. Righteous through and through.

Don’t believe it? Just ask them.

The gatekeepers of the law. Judges of what is clean and unclean. Constabularies of thought and action. Arbiters of what fulfills and what abolishes Torah. Self-appointed authorities of binding and loosing.

And yet, these nobodies—the unclean, the unlawful, the unrighteous—Jesus calls them “blessed.” Theirs, he says, is the Kingdom of Heaven.

But a kingdom, it seems, they cannot enter unless their righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the keepers of the law.

Wait…What?

Did he really just say that?

Could it be that the righteousness of the Pharisees is no righteousness at all?

Surely this is not the Law of Moses.

But…I have come not to abolish Torah, but to fulfill it.

What is this new teaching? Surely this is not what they have always heard, what their traditions have always taught.

But what if?

What if the teachings and traditions have missed the mark?

What if this Kingdom is not one of clean and unclean, of legal and illegal, of in and out?

What if fulfilling Torah is not about being right, but about being light?

Repent. Reorient.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Righteousness.

Where there is harm, there is no righteousness.

Where there is discrimination, there is no righteousness.

Where there is  exclusion, there is no righteousness.

Where there is marginalization, there is no righteousness.

The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is no righteousness at all.

Want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus asks. Don’t act like them.

Don’t harm. Don’t discriminate. Don’t exclude. Don’t marginalize.

Heal. Accept. Include. Embrace.

Love.

Righteousness.

They thought Jesus was turning things upside-down. But now, they are beginning to see, he’s turning things rightside-up.

Next: Indulgence

Prelude

pond5.com

pond5.com

Today’s reading: Matthew 4:17-25

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Repent. Kingdom.

Loaded words.

Jesus comes on the scene invoking the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming light shining into darkness.

A regime change is about to happen.

Repent. Change direction.

Get ready, because something bigger than the world has ever seen is about to happen. Something that will require a radical reorientation of your life.

This is not a simple call to apologize for personal misdeeds. It is an invitation to a new reality.

In his prelude to his Kingdom Manifesto, Jesus continues the work of his cousin John before him, preparing the way.

Reorient yourself to this new reality. The reality of God’s rule and reign overtaking all human systems and structures…even religion.

Next, Follow.

Jesus chooses his first disciples, not based on their achievements or scholastic aptitude, but their ordinary-ness. And their willingness.

For what? A political movement? Economic upheaval? Military coup? These were the expectations of the one to be called Messiah.

Good news. Jesus proclaims “good news.”

And what is this news?

The Kingdom of Heaven.

This is what Jerusalem has waited for. Longed for. The return of the King to his Throne.

But is it what they really wanted? Is it what they expected?

Look at the text: Jesus went among the crowds, “…healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people…they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.”

Healing. Restoration.

What kind of Kingdom is this? And who could be its king?

Repent. Kingdom. Follow. Good news.

Reorient. God’s in charge now. Come along.

It’s going to be awesome!

Next: Blessed.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

Some interesting conversation emerged over on my Facebook page after my last post about American individualism and its infiltration into the church.

One of the things that jumped out at me as part of that discussion was the popular notion that Christianity is primarily about our personal relationship with Jesus, and that “salvation” is something that is made available to each of us as individuals as we make a choice to enter into that relationship.

I want to be careful here. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a key tenet of Christian faith. Not only that, I believe it to be integral to my own identity. I believe it is, as theologians say, salvific. That is to say, it is at least in part what saves and is saving.

But I also believe that the notion of “salvation” as a strictly individual transaction is not, in fact, the primary message of the gospel…and the Western church’s insistence that it is may be part of what is currently tearing at the fabric of society in our world today.

These modern times

Bear with me a moment for a little philosophical background…

We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the mid-17th through early-18th Century movement most famously embodied by Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). It was a time when humanity began to see the possibilities that science and reason could provide rational explanations for everything, including our very existence.

The modernist movement spawned by the Enlightenment period began to reject religion as a source of meaning in favor of a belief that only knowledge—not religion—could be certain, objective, and good…and that only reason could ultimately lead to truth.

This required a radical commitment to freedom of individual thought over against collective religious certainty.

Predictably, the church of the time responded with fear and defensiveness. Fresh off the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants were scrambling to assert authority over their flocks. While the church was saying it was the ultimate arbiter of truth, modernism said humans could essentially take the place of God by attaining ultimate knowledge through science and reason.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

As James K.A. Smith points out in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (pp59-61), a great contemporary representation of the clash between religion and modernism can be seen in the Coen brothers’ cult classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In the clip above, we see a philosophical clash between George Clooney’s character, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his rube-ish cohorts Pete and Delmar. For Everett, it’s a modern world where the quest for individual knowledge is the path to utopia. His bumpkin friends succumb to the irrational superstition and magic of religion…even to the point where Delmar believes Pete has been transmogrified by the demonic sirens in the river (“We…thought…you…was…a…toad!).

But what’s interesting is how, in the span of about a hundred years or so, the church actually began to appropriate modernist thought patterns. Even while railing against scientific knowledge as the basis of truth, it acquiesced to the notion that the individual was the most sovereign expression of humanity.

As Western societies developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, so Western Christianity ran a parallel path. In its fight against modernism by rejecting science itself through invoking a literalist reading of scripture, the fundamentalist movement (which emerged to counter the liberal social justice theology of Catholics and mainliners in the mid-late 19th Century) chose to fight that battle in the heart and mind of the individual.

And thus the goal of Christianity—just like the goal of modernism—became personal conversion.

“Jesus was a socialist”

I have to admit to a bit of gratuitous click-baiting in the headline of last week’s post. The point was not to debate or defend socialism as an institution, but to point out that the gospel of Jesus soundly rejects any notion of the value of individuals over the value of community or collective humanity.

And so when we make the central claim of our faith to be about a personal relationship with Jesus, and we pursue intellectual assent to that principle (and call it “salvation”), we miss the point of Jesus’ message.

Again, I want to be careful. It’s not that Jesus’ message is not about a personal relationship. Even though that specific phrase is found nowhere in scripture, there is abundant evidence that personal relationships were of critical importance to the Jesus event.

My point is that Jesus’ message is indeed about personal relationship, but it’s also about much, much more.

Evacuation theology

Modernist Christianity (most specifically—but not exclusively—embodied in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps), with its stress on individual conversion/salvation, more or less follows the proposition that: 1) I am “saved” by intellectual assent and personal confession; and 2) I am called to love you; therefore I want you to be “saved” by whatever means necessary.

Also, our post-Enlightenment approach has suffered from a misdiagnosis of what Jesus actually means by “salvation” by making it all about the eternal disposition of one’s disembodied soul after death.

Again, I’m not arguing that a continued postmortem existence is not part of the message, but it’s not the whole message. Jesus’ promise of “eternal” life is as much about a quality of life here and now as it is about an ongoing quantity of life once our mortal flesh ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the early languages of the Bible connotes the life of God or the life of the ages. It is a present, as well as a future, reality.

So when we talk about salvation as something strictly individual that results in the transport of our immortal souls to some other-worldly “heaven,” we miss the point Jesus makes that the kingdom of heaven is sprouting up all around us, here and now, as we share his radical program of unconditional love in the times and places we find ourselves as human beings.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is not just a cute phrase in a memorized prayer, it is the actual goal Jesus has for God’s kingdom.

Salvation as holistic

I do indeed believe Jesus wants to save us all as individuals. But the modern Western church’s notion of salvation as primarily an individual transaction misses the larger biblical context for what salvation is really all about.

At the risk of being redundant, our Western/American arrogance and pervasive individualism get in the way of our ability to see what Jesus is doing and saying because we have 200+ years of indoctrination into the modernist primacy of the sovereign self.

What God has been about from the beginning has been the redemption of all things (Rev. 21:5). To me, that suggests that salvation is not meant to be individual, but holistic. And that it’s not about being swept away into the clouds when we die, but about a redemption and regeneration of the created cosmos, with love as the creative force that binds it all together.

So instead of saying, “I’m in and you’re out; but I love you and want you to be in, too,” a holistic approach is more like, “I’m a part of something, not apart from it. And if I’m a part of a greater whole, it’s only by the salvation of all things that my own salvation has any meaning.”

The longer we continue to put ourselves as individuals at the center of the salvation narrative, and the more we assert our rights as individuals over against the rights of others in our pursuit of our own salvation, the further we get from what Jesus actually intended.

Our challenge is to recapture that holistic sense of belonging, to become radically committed to the well-being of others, and to extend that commitment beyond our tight circles of those who look and think like us to those who disagree with and even persecute us:

“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. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (The Message)

“Jesus was a socialist…”

pond5.com

pond5.com

It the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.

We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.

“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.

Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.

To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.

And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.

But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.

What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.

Case in point: the current debate over vaccinations. There can be no question that childhood vaccination against diseases like measles and polio is beneficial to the vast majority of people and to society as a whole. Yet, in our staunch political defense of individual choice, we have allowed an illness that was once virtually dead in this country (and much of the world) to now create a public panic.

Which leads to the question: Have our freedoms enslaved us?

And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?

For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.

And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.

The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.

And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.

Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.

Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.

But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.

The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.

And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.

The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.

To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.

21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.

But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.

That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.

But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.

The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?

Have Yourself a Compelling Little Christmas

pond5.com

pond5.com

The gospel is compelling, not coercive.

Is there a statement that more fully embodies the Christmas story?

In a time when Christian denominations offer a fragmented picture of the body of Christ, when self-appointed gatekeepers impose narrow definitions and restrictive requirements for what is and is not acceptable, and when fear is wielded as the primary motivator of faith, we as the church would do well to be reminded of the compelling nature of God’s entry into our winner-take-all existence.

The ancient Hebrews spoke of God’s hesed love. Hesed is most often translated as “loving-kindness,” eliciting mercy, loyalty, faithfulness and compassion.

Hesed love is not conditional. It is not a love that wavers with our commitment or diminishes in the face of our disobedience. It is not love that pushes us to change in order to be acceptable.

Hesed is love that comes to us in a story of the poor and oppressed, of the despised and reviled. Of a baby born in dirt and filth to an unwed mother, whose coming was announced not to kings or religious leaders but to untrustworthy field workers and immigrant astrologers.

It is no coincidence that hesed is by its very nature incarnational. It is love that comes to us not as a warm and fuzzy feeling of attraction and excitement but as something that comes alive and takes shape in us and through us.

It is not just something that is delivered to us, but produces something in us, something new and surprising.

Something faithful and compassionate and merciful and just and beautiful.

There is nothing coercive about this kind of love. Nothing about it screams, “accept me or else!

But could there be anything more compelling?

Is there anything else, any other power in the universe that so captivates us? That grabs our imagination and makes us ask, what if life could REALLY be like this?

That’s the answer that Christmas gives us.

The compelling story that life really CAN be like this. That there is a love that reaches past our sorry commitments and our disobedience. That brings the incarnational beauty of hesed alive in us and unites us.

This Christmas, may we truly embrace the hesed loving-kindness of God through the incarnation of Jesus. And may we, like him, become a compelling force for mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Happy Christmas!

Faith Not Fear: A story of inspiration

FNF_01

Dear fellow Conspirators for Awesomeness,

As a seminary student and someone seeking to discern a call into vocational ministry, I often find myself in conversations about discovering our purpose in the world. Often, we find ourselves talking about how we’ll know what God’s will is for our lives.

What I’ve come to believe is that, more often than not, God’s not so much directing us to a particular activity or position as he is encouraging us to find something that ignites our passions. Maybe, rather than waiting to hear what God is calling us to, we should do what excites us most and allow God to bless it.

A few months ago my friend Allie started a new venture called Faith Not Fear Apparel. FNF sells inspirational t-shirts as a means for people to start meaningful conversations, and gives away a portion of all sales to help empower others.

I wanted to feature FNF here on TheAwesomnessConspiracy.com both to help spread the word about their products as well as to tell Allie’s story. I think it’s a shining example of finding that place where your gifts and talents intersect with your passions, and watching God go to work with it in spectacular ways.

I recently had a chance to ask Allie to share the story behind FNF. And while many are rushing stores today for Black Friday deals, I thought today would be a good day to feature a possible alternative for your Christmas shopping.

What inspired you to start Faith Not Fear? 

Faith Not Fear Apparel was born out of a desire to “do more” to encourage people’s faith. After coming back from a life-changing mission trip to Haiti, I knew I couldn’t go back to sitting behind a desk, looking at the computer screen all day, when just a few days prior I put shoes on the feet of impoverished children, handed out Bibles and prayed with strangers. While sitting at my desk I kept wondering what I could do to make a difference here…as Mother Teresa said, “love begins at home.”

FNF_02Why t-shirts?

America is not a third world country and is privileged in many, many ways. But it’s a land full of hurting people, people who need Jesus. However, as a Christian it’s sometimes hard to start a conversation about God with strangers (or even friends!) − how do you bring it up a topic like that to that person behind you at the grocery store or that mom waiting to pick up her children beside of you. A t-shirt − that is was it! I decided that that was the way I could try to make a difference in my own community. It is our hope that by wearing a Faith Not Fear Apparel shirt that someone might ask you about it and give you the opportunity to share a little bit about faith/God/church with them. As a company, we strive to develop shirts you would be proud to wear and that have a simple, powerful message.

You said your trip to Haiti was life-changing. What was it about that experience that motivated you to do something like this?

With the root of the idea being planted in Haiti, 10% of the sales price of what we sell goes to support the ApParent Project, a nonprofit I visited there. The ApParent Project provides opportunities for Haitians to have steady employment. Haitian artisans learn skills, which enable them to provide for their children rather than send them to an orphanage due to extreme poverty. The Apparent Project distributes Haitian recycled, or “upcycled” items, which have become beautiful products including jewelry, home décor, pottery and more! They are making great strides in empowering Haitian people and keeping families together. To learn more about this heartwarming organization visit them at http://www.apparentproject.org

What’s in the name, “Faith Not Fear?” Is there a story there?

FNF_03Dave Willis, a leading expert on building strong Christian marriages, said, “There isn’t enough room in your life for both fear and faith. Each day, you must decide which one gets to stay.” This quote really stuck out to me − fear is something so many people (including myself) struggle with, it’s something the devil uses to paralyze us, so as the quote says, each and every day we have to make a conscious decision to squash those lies and choose to believe the promises from God.

How have other people spoken into your vision for FNF? Was it important for you to hear other voices? If so, why?

I have received a lot of encouragement from others to continue down this journey and each time I start to take a step back, God puts someone, even strangers, in my life at the right time to continue to push me! People have shared their heartfelt testimonies with me, and shared the reason they want a shirt whether it to be wear themself or to give it as a gift to encourage someone else. I love the way people want to shine God’s light on others using Faith Not Fear Apparel as a vehicle to do so. 

If we could fast-forward to a year from now and you could call FNF a success story, what would that look like for you?

I would love to walk down the street and see people wearing my shirts! I would also love to be able to send significant contributions to the ApParent Projects and be able to see the wonderful ways they will put the money to good use! 

What dreams do you have for the future of FNF…both in terms of product as well as mission?

I hope to expand the product line to include more designs and possibly a workout line of apparel. My main goal will continue to be to think of ways to shine God’s light on hurting people and find ways to help encourage people’s walk in faith.

To learn more about Faith Not Fear apparel, visit their fully-featured online store at www.faithnotfearapparel.com.

 

A prayer for Ferguson

pond5.com

pond5.com

I’m praying for Ferguson today.

Not just in that semi-sincere “Christian-ese” way that feels sorry for someone and says, “Oh, I’ll be praying for you.” I am literally on my knees. Praying. Begging God to make things right.

I’m praying that your city will find peace, and that neighbors can learn to live alongside one another without fear. That your people who desired nothing more than a nonviolent protest in response to a devastating announcement aren’t further victimized by criminals who used your pain as an excuse to loot and pillage, and your peaceful attempt to be heard as a cover for their selfish actions.

I’m praying for Michael Brown’s family. Your loss is insurmountable. And regardless of what the grand jury said, regardless of the evidence they saw, or maybe didn’t see, you deserved better than a cheap explanation from a slick politician.

I’m praying for Darren Wilson and his family. You have experienced something awful. You made a decision no one should ever have to make. You too are a victim of sorts. A victim of a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality that makes deadly force your first instinct instead of a desperate measure of last resort.

I’m praying for justice. Not revenge. Not retribution. Those are different. I’m praying for real justice, the kind that brings reconciliation, the kind where something beautiful grows out of something horrible.

I’m praying that we can stop calling killing of any kind “justifiable.” I understand self-defense. I get that “kill or be killed” is a real, powerful, primal instinct. But because it’s understandable doesn’t make it justifiable. Again, that word implies that justice was somehow achieved. It’s more than semantics. Words matter, and we need to be less careless when our words are this important.

I’m praying that we can stop promoting and elevating fear as a motivation for our actions. The more we do that, the more superficial the things on which we base our fear…to the point where we become afraid of each other based on something as ultimately superficial as the color of our skin.

I’m praying that our news media will honor its responsibility to inform citizens, discover truth, and uncover corruption rather than selfishly escalating viewers’ emotions and inflaming conflict in the interest of selling more of its product.

I’m praying that white Americans can begin to empathize with the different perception our black neighbors have of life in our country. That we can recognize our privileged position in society and admit that we are able to live without much of the daily anxiety African-Americans must endure every moment of every day. That we can stop deflecting the argument toward so-called “black-on-black” violence. Or the notion that had Darren Wilson and Michael Brown been of the same race, their confrontation would have never made headlines. Those are cheap excuses that keep us from confronting legitimate issues.

I’m praying that the people of Jesus, who should be best equipped to bring about the kind of change that can end violence and injustice, will worry less about the silent voices of invisible imps and demons tempting them to misbehave and worry more about the systemic sin of an industrial/political/military complex that stirs fear and mistrust in order to protect its wealth and power and privilege. I’m praying that we will take seriously the call to stand up for the poor and oppressed and marginalized and stop defending those who oppress and marginalize.

And finally, I’m praying for love. Not a soft, sentimental emotion, but a love that has the power to burst through horrifying events to create communities of genuine affection and caring. A love that refuses to fear and insists on kindness, respect, dignity, and the common good.

A love that breaks down barriers and exposes our mutual humanity.

That’s my prayer for Ferguson. And for all of us.

Amen.

Crazy Busy-ness and Pub Church Awesomeness

wineskinsIt has been a crazy and eventful summer here at the home offices of The Awesomeness Conspiracy. A 9-hour course load (which included an intensive ministry internship) to push me toward the finish of my master’s degree from Asbury Theological Seminary this fall has dominated my time.

Add to that the move of Elder Daughter and TAC Poet Laureate Anna to Pittsburgh for her new career at ModCloth Clothing, and prepping Younger Daughter Amanda for her driving test and junior year in high school, and there hasn’t been much temporal or mental space for content update here!

Things never really seem to slow down much, but hopefully the clearing of those particular life events will clear out a little room to get back to updating the site and engaging the broader conversation of how we can bring more awesomeness to the world around us.

And speaking of awesomeness, there’s been a little movement happening here in the Mid-Ohio Valley that I wanted to share with you faithful readers.

If you’ve noticed the little tabby things at the top of the page, you may have observed that one called “New Wineskins” has appeared there in the past few months. New Wineskins is a discussion group that some of us are having every other week to bring to light various ways in which the church might re-examine contemporary issues in light of our growing postmodern cultural context.

It’s all based in Jesus’ words that appear in some form in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the need for a new interpretation of what it means to be God’s people in light of God’s ever-present revelation of himself in new ways for each new generation and each culture in which the gospel comes alive.

My friends at the Marietta Brewing Company have been kind enough to host our little gatherings, giving it sort of a hip pub church kind of vibe. Each meeting focuses on a particular idea or issue that we present in various formats such as music, poetry, narrative, story-telling, etc.

And then, we just talk. Everyone gets the chance to respond to whatever has been presented, to raise questions, to share insight, and to dig deeper. Over the past several months we’ve discussed culture wars, depression/recovery, science, gender roles, and a number of other topics where it seems the church finds itself struggling.

What has been most remarkable has been the raw vulnerability that participants continue to bring to the discussion. People have been unbelievably willing to share their deepest doubts, their hardest questions, and their rawest emotions…often with complete strangers.

The result is that we are all beginning to understand one another better. To separate issues from people. To learn to love and be loved.

And it all happens around the table, sharing food and drinks, growing friendships.

If you live in these parts, or if you find yourself in the Parkersburg-Marietta area some Sunday evening and have a couple of hours to kill, we’d love to see you at one of our gatherings. Upcoming discussion dates and topics are posted and updated regularly on the New Wineskins website, and we have a Facebook event page where people can invite other friends and share ideas between gatherings.

Even if you can’t join us in person, we’d love to have your voice in the conversation. There are comment sections posted with each weekly update both on the website and on the Facebook page. It’s not exactly the same as being there, but we live in a connected world where participation transcends physical space.

And thanks for being part of what we’re doing here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy. New content is constantly brewing, and I hope you’ll tune in often and join the conversation!

Peace,

Joe

A Declaration of Peace

istockphoto.com

istockphoto.com

 

My good friend Jeff Johnson has posted a brilliant and evocative piece over on his Our Human Life blog. Jeff raises some important issues that all of us trying to follow Jesus and seek shalom need to explore.

Will we continue to pay lip service to a nebulous concept of peace, or will we be the generation willing to take the hard path of nonviolent response that is the only way to a world where war will be no more?

I invite you to read Jeff’s brilliant and beautiful article and join the conversation. Click the link to begin:

A Declaration of Peace

Worship or warfare? A tale of pens and swords.

Feather sword and letter

You may have noticed that I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately.

As a writer I’ve learned that sometimes we go through these dry spells. Times when it’s just really hard to process and coalesce any thoughts that seem worth articulating.

It’s not that there haven’t been things I’ve wanted to write about. In fact, I have about a dozen rough drafts saved in a folder on my laptop. Stories I’ve started to write but couldn’t figure out how to end. Most of them were responses to occurrences where it seems the church is failing to seek justice and act mercifully in light of current events.

But somewhere in my effort to write pieces that try to critique in a helpful way, I crossed a line.

When I read through those rough drafts, I don’t find the voice of someone searching for truth and justice. I find the voice of a self-righteous jerk.

I find myself becoming exactly the kind of Christian I was criticizing.

And so I had to try to step back and take an honest look at what I was doing.

And in reading back through all those unfinished, unpolished, discarded drafts, I started to see a pattern.

And behind the pattern I found the problem.

Somewhere along the line, my writing stopped being an act of worship.

One of the scary things that happens when your creative work starts to get noticed is that, well, it gets noticed. And getting noticed carries the weight of expectations…those you perceive from your audience, and those you place on yourself in response to that perception.

My best writing, or at least what I consider to be my best writing, is the stuff I write that comes out as an expression of how I’m experiencing something of the divine. It’s the stuff that articulates a deep relationship with Jesus…whether that comes through a day on a trout stream or a season of wrestling with difficult scriptural texts or a conversation with another human struggling to navigate life on planet earth.

It’s the stuff that takes a hard and honest look at what we’ve become as a church and tries to find a way back to The Way of The One.

And that’s worship. When we pour ourselves out in love and awe as a result of how we experience the reality of Jesus.

It doesn’t just happen in gilded buildings on Sunday mornings. It happens when we hand a homeless man a dollar or a cup of coffee. It happens when we give up a Saturday afternoon to help a mom & daughter move out of an abusive household. It happens when we fix meals or build houses or buy toilet paper for people who, for whatever the reason, can’t do it for themselves.

It also happens when we stop to hear the morning songs of the birds in the trees, when we listen to grandparents’ stories of their youth, and when we watch four-year-olds eat ice cream.

And for some of us, it happens when we make music or mold sculptures or paint images or even write sentences and paragraphs that express a reality we can’t explain any other way.

If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, it can’t simply become a sword. It must serve a higher purpose.

So that’s what I’m trying to get back to.

Writing is a gift, and with it comes a responsibility. It’s not a weapon to wield in the destruction of opposing ideas, but—hopefully, at least—a conduit by which I can help you connect to your own unspoken realities.

Yes, at times that requires honest critique. If the church is to be a vehicle for justice and mercy in this world, it must be open to regular and constant self-assessment and adjustment. Our abuses usually come out of sincere desires to help, but sometimes we get in our own way by putting the wrong things first.

And this is where you come in. I need you, my readers, to keep me accountable. To keep the right things first.

It’s easy to get on a bandwagon when you connect emotionally with a particular argument or issue. It takes deep discernment to find the most helpful, loving, transformative ways to create dialogue.

Our goal should be communication, not condemnation.

Worship, not warfare.