Listen to My Interview with Morgan Freeman from the Holy Land

A few months ago, I had the incredible opportunity to do an in-person interview with one of the most iconic figures of the silver screen, Morgan Freeman. As anticipated, his presence was both stoic and warm and his voice as silky smooth as imagined. I’m just disappointed I didn’t ask him to record my voicemail message. Alas, we had a great conversation about themes in his recent National Geographic Channel show, The Story of God. You can read the interview and my reflections on it in this article.

Fast forward a couple months and I heard from his team about doing an audio interview with Morgan while I was leading a delegation through the Holy Land…because there is no more appropriate location to discuss the different ways religions view God than in the place where Jews, Christians and Muslims find a common home. So, while overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel, I was able to fire up Skype and record this conversation I had with Morgan and his colleague Lori McCreary (Executive Producer of The Story of God and Madam Secretary). We talk fear of the “other,” multi-faith understandings of God -- and how that impacts our common call to love our neighbor -- and a handful of other fascinating topics. Listen in by clicking on the recording below the picture. Enjoy! 

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The Idol of Safety

safetyIn the wake of another heinous attack taking the lives of innocent civilians, the world feels increasingly unstable. The violence “over there” is no longer relegated to headlines on the other side of the world; it is edging closer to our doorsteps and threatens to invade our everyday lives. 

In light of this reality, conversations ranging from our coffee shops to the halls of political power are shouting out the necessity to pursue security and safety above anything else. 

I get it. 

As a father of four little kids, there has never been a season in my life when I’ve felt more compelled toward security and safety. I can’t begin to comprehend the disorientation and paralyzing pain that would come with the harm of my family. 

For the past five years, I have regularly been traveling to conflict zones in the Middle East, but the more kids I have waiting for me to safely return home, the harder it gets to step on that plane and make an intentional decision to move toward exposing myself to violence. 

In short, when I hear our current political candidates talking about the paramount importance of “security” and “safety,” it strikes a chord and I find myself tempted to stand up and applaud.

AND THEN I PAUSE, step back for a moment, ask some harder questions of where my applause is coming from, and consider my kingdom allegiance marked by One who moved toward rather than away from potential violence.

I’m convicted that my desire to applaud this “security at any cost” rhetoric and policy is a temptation to worship the idol of safety. It is not something to be admired, it is something to be acknowledged, questioned and repented of (turned away from). Worshiping the idol of safety greatly inhibits our ability to worship the crucified and risen Jesus.

It’s not that I don’t want safety for me, my family or the world. I actually want that more than ever, but when I look at this through the lens of discipleship (following Jesus), here are the issues I’m wresting with today:

  1. The objective of terrorism is to instill fear. Politicians then use that fear to shape a reality that advances their agenda. What they are offering us is nothing more than a pseudo-reality that requires we have the discernment to see through the smokescreen to what is actually real. My desire for safety is real, but in reality, I should be far more concerned about a car wreck, chronic disease or natural disaster than terrorism. When I begin making decisions from a place of fear, I not only buy into a pseudo-reality that is being crafted by political power plays, I begin to close my eyes to the new and dynamic ways God is calling me to join in the world he is making. 
  2. The means through which we pursue safety often force us to compromise our kingdom identity and can lead to less safety. First, let me acknowledge that political leaders are responsible to tend to the safety of citizens and can make the decisions they feel are necessary to do so. With that said, we, as the Church, can’t allow our political allegiance to trump our kingdom allegiance. When we worship the idol of “safety,” we can quickly compromise our kingdom witness and begin to justify the means through which safety is achieved. For example, when we celebrate the death of other human beings because it means we are “safer,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than the enemy-loving God embodied in Jesus. When we demonize and punish entire groups of people (the vast majority of whom have no desire to do us harm) for the sake of our “safety,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than a Jesus who loved indiscriminately. When we reject the very people (many of whom are children!) who are fleeing violence for the sake of our “safety,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than a Jesus who calls us to care for the “strangers in our midst.” Finally, while these may feel like safety measures, it is growingly clear that these means don’t lead to a lasting, sustainable security and safety. Rather, they more often lead to resentment, oppression and instability, which then breads more violence. 
  3. I can’t reconcile withdrawal, isolation and a posture of defense with a God who moved toward violence, brokenness and “the other” in Jesus. As Ive been wresting with this idol of safety, I’ve repeatedly been convicted by this truth; Jesus never called us to be safe; he called us to be faithful. According to Jesus, faithfulness moves us beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy. If pursuit of my safety trumps my ability to love whoever God has in my path, fear wins and I distance myself from God’s heart for the world. How can I love my “enemy” if I don’t know them? The idol of safety moves us away from people who are different than us and sends us inward to those who look, think and act like we do. There is no love outside of relationship; there is only misunderstanding, demonization and stereotype. Lastly, how can we know our “enemy” if we don’t cross the borders that divide us? The Jesus Way requires we reject the temptation to move inward and continually calls us to move toward “the other.”  

Interestingly, I find myself wresting through this stuff during Holy Week. This is the week in which Jesus models to the world life as it was meant to be lived. It is a life marked not by isolation or triumphant overthrow, but by suffering, sacrifice and selfless love for the flourishing of others. It is a life that crosses borders and boundaries to reassign the humanity, dignity and the image of God in all the “wrong” people with whom he should have feared and stayed away from. A life that ended with the uttering of this prayer for his enemies, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” These are the stories we tell in Sunday School and say, “Wow, Jesus is a bad ass. He wasn’t scared of anything and I would do anything to live and love like that.” 

Imagine if instead he chose to worship the idol of safety and never left the safety of his little Galilean synagogue so he could read Torah and remain isolated from all the violence of the world? That story would not only suck, it wouldn’t reflect the heart of a God who literally moved into our human neighborhood to remind us what love looks like. 

So, during this Holy Week, let’s pay attention to the very understandable fear, paralysis and temptation to worship the idol of safety. If I’m completely honest, I’m still having a hard time with this. This is not easy stuff and I’m not happy about having to make these intentional decisions to keep perspective in a world that feels so unstable. But, friends, this is the beauty, challenge and mystery of choosing to follow an enemy-loving God who -- this Holy Week -- invites us to love to the point of death, while being fueled by the hope and reality of Resurrection. 

May it be so. 

 

Shrinking Our World’s: Presence in a Polarizing & Painful Season

neighborhoodThe other night Janny and I sat on our front patio after getting all the kids down to listen to the sacred silence and debrief our day. We talked about our new neighbor hanging out in our yard to help out with the twins and reflected on the life of our little faith community while meeting another new neighbor who happened to be on an evening walk with her dog, Nelly. 

We also talked about the state of our world; hostile political campaigns fighting for power, refugees caught between violence and barbed wire, our friends in the Middle East who are discouraged and exhausted, our immigrant neighbors who are growing in fear as the political climate further dehumanizes their existence, and on and on and on. 

Then another neighbor would walk by. We’d say hello, chat for a few minutes, say goodnight and the stillness of the evening would settle back in. 

While there is no more important moment to be deeply engaged in the realities impacting our global family, there is also no more important moment to be fully present to the world that is pulsating right in front of us in our homes and on our streets. 

There are currently dozens of national and global realities swirling around us that can cause us to fear, worry and pour our precious energy and attention outward. Our smart phone notifications go off and we are once again a screen away from the other side of the globe or at the center of another partisan debate. What can be used as a critical asset in our global engagement quickly becomes the source of our paralysis and distances us from what is right in front of us. 

What if we quiet the noise while occasionally practice putting on blinders by choosing to see only the life unfolding in our homes and on our street? What if we tune out the political posturing and tune in the laughter of children playing kickball in the street until their parents call them in for dinner? What if we spend less time debating political party’s and spend more throwing parties? What if we tune out our role in being a hero to the world and tune in to our role of being a hero to our family and neighbors? What if we release our need to recite our candidate’s party line and embrace the gift of generous conversation and curiosity? 

We aren’t abdicating our global responsibility, we are simply pausing to steward the life we have been given each day. We are re-centering ourselves in the soil and story of the unique neighborhoods where we are called to live, love and lead in the beautiful and mundane of everyday life.

Our world’s need to get smaller if we are to engage well in the world’s bigger issues. 

There is an interdependence to living as global citizens and neighborhood practitioners. We can’t be understanding and engage our world without being rooted in the identity of our own unique context. Similarly, we can’t be embedded in our increasingly diverse neighborhoods without understanding the larger world in which we inhabit.

The monastics throughout Church history offer us a beautiful model of this local-global paradox and practice. Many of the most globally engaged activists were monastics who would take entire seasons of their lives to cloister themselves in isolation to allow the Spirit to re-engage their senses, calling and identity. Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich and John Dear to name a few. 

When we are daily exposed to all the worlds’ problems without being rooted in our own soil, it’s as though a collective numbness takes us over. We lose touch of our senses, priorities and relationships. We become more irritable. Our relationships become more mechanical and forced. Our attention span shortens. An anxiety about our individual and collective future breads paralysis. The distance between those of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities grows. We pour more time and energy into our political allegiance than our Kingdom allegiance. We miss seeing the sacred even when it’s being displayed on the faces of our kids, sidewalks, parks and pubs. 

Maybe a Lenten practice isn’t to remove ourselves from the world, but right size our engagement of it so the numbness fades and we can feel again.

Tonight, I’ll look forward to hearing my kids breathing slow as they fall asleep, sit on the patio with Janny and wait for our neighbor to walk by while trying to keep Nelly from peeing on our grass. Because if I don’t live fully present to what is right in front of me, I won’t have anything of substance to contribute to my friends on my street or on the other side of the world. 

Living ‘Selma’ in a ‘Sniper’ World

130117191909-mills-mlk-march-story-topThis coming Monday is our national celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As I have been reflecting on his work and witness, I am convinced his message is as necessary and prophetic today as it was when he was alive (if not more!). 

We live in a culture that not only glorifies violence, but often celebrates its use against the “enemy” as the truest form of heroism and bravery. While I won’t get into the debate of whether violence is ever justified to preserve life (a much bigger conversation extending far beyond an 700 word blog post), I will say I’m deeply troubled by our assumption that violence is the only way to respond to a real or perceived threat. 

Most disturbing is the fact that the majority of Jesus followers in this country have the same assumptions about the “necessary” use of violence as the culture at large. I would argue that an objective observer would not be able to distinguish between the USAmerican Church’s ethic of violence and the ethic of the State or the culture at large. As followers of a God who looked like an enemy-loving Jesus -- who sacrificially absorbed violence rather than perpetuating it -- we’d be wise to re-examine our assumptions around violence in light of his life and teachings. 

Jesus’ take on responding with violence:

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.” -- Matt 5:43-45

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.” -- Matt 5:38-41

After being beat, humiliated, dehumanized and nearly killed, Jesus’ response to violence, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” -- Luke 23:34

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” -- Matt 5:9

These passages are often interpreted as Jesus either being a soft pushover or teachings that were not realistic and helpful for establishing a normative, everyday ethic toward violence. The reality is that Jesus was not promoting a passive response to violence, but a dignifying one. A response that would both expose the inhumanity of the abuser’s actions and amplify the dignity of the abused. 

Jesus is not just calling us away from the lure of violence, but inviting us toward the necessary, subversive, creative and costly work of peacemaking. Peacemaking isn’t a passive withdrawal from conflict. Peacemaking isn’t embracing the status quo. Peacemaking isn’t euphoric or other worldly. 

Peacemaking is a series of actions that move us toward conflict armed with weapons to heal and transform rather than weapons to destroy.

MLK not only took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, he modeled actions of an alternative response to violence, hatred and injustice. He invited a movement of people to take the hard work of peacemaking seriously by outlining tangible actions that would expose the inhumanity of those abusing power and amplify the humanity, dignity and plight of his black brothers and sisters caught in their wake. 

As we celebrate MLK’s life and legacy, may we be reminded to take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously and repent of the ways in which we’ve allowed a culture of violence to hijack our own humanity. Because when we begin to view fellow image bearers as “collateral damage,” we are becoming less human and missing out on an opportunity to join God in the world he is making. 

So, rather than embrace an American Sniper spirituality where the Bible brands our violence, may we embrace the spirituality of Selma where the Bible is embodied in nonviolent action. This is not only our task, it is our opportunity. May it be so. 

A Theology from Below (and Subterranean Book Review)

subterraneanYear after year as my community seeks to live well in the unique soil of our little neighborhood, we discover how much our neighborhood has to teach us about ourselves, each other and the One we follow. Because real life is textured with both the beautiful and broken realities of humanity, we find ourselves formed and informed in new ways that we couldn’t have ever expected. For this reason, we make plenty of space for our theology to be shaped not only from “above” through our intellect, study and empirical insight, but also from “below” through the realities of God’s presence in the mundane of everyday. In fact, it is often this lived theology that most clearly reveals to us where we fit in God’s story that is unfolding in our place. 

The reality of having our theology developed from below means we regularly expose ourselves to darkness, disappointment and failure. The stories don’t always end the way we want them to. In our heads we may have the perfect theological formula, but in reality, the formula is often as unhelpful as our freshman algebra class. What happens when that friend you’ve been walking with for years falls back into addiction and violence? What happens when your seemingly perfect family reality get upended by tragedy? Or when despite your best efforts, your vision for what is “good” in your neighborhood turns out being the exact opposite? 

In Practicing Locality -- chapter 9 of Dan White’s new book, Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness -- he argues that despite the cost and potential disappointment, we have to give ourselves to everyday practice because it is only there that we will develop a “living theology.” To do theology faithfully, we must participate in the social realities of our broken and beautiful places“(pg 95). This is a theology not only informed by a textbook, but by the breath of the Spirit moving in and through a community of practice. It is for that reason Dan opens the chapter by describing the necessity of imagination. When we give ourselves to the everyday, we have to carry with us an imagination for God’s dream for the world in the midst of the inevitable disappointment, failure and darkness. As one who is part of a faith community committed to a “living theology,” we experience as much heart ache, failure and brokenness as we do joy and “success.” An imagination for not only what is, but what will be, is often the fuel that sustains us.

Dan goes on to offer a couple “tools” that can help faith communities experience a “living theology” by participating in the fabric of their neighborhood as a reflection of renewal and rooted presence. Without going into the nuances of his suggested pathways here, it is clear that Dan is a practitioner whose stories and insights could only come forth out of a life of practice. Not only does he encourage us to hold our theology accountable to a lived set of practices, he reminds us to remain in the posture of learners rather than hero’s. “We speak from where our bodies are situated. Too much theologizing and Christian living techniques are formed in the ivory tower of the Christian world, telling us what people need and how they should receive it(95).

In contrast to many “church-planting” books, he continually highlights the necessity of learning from and being loved by our neighbors in a mutually beneficial relationship. We aren’t the hero’s who have come to conquer or correct, we are simply participants in what God is already doing for the flourishing of all.  We must take a teachable posture as we are confronted by our ignorance and misplaced judgments. We must recognize our own blindness and limitations in the spaces we dwell in. We must behold, not just look (97)…walk gently and quietly so as to not stomp all over others’ sweat-soaked work. Innovation happens when a community humbly comes together to discern how to be in a place in a way that blesses the lifeworld of a neighborhood(98).

If there is a liability to this chapter, it is the introduction of so much new language. This is not only true of Dan’s book, but characteristic of a whole moment of theologians and communicators who are seeking to offer a renewed vision for how the church can be in the world. While fresh language is vitally important, it can also be confusing and a hurdle rather than an asset. I have been guilty of this myself and would love to see a growing movement with common language so as not to require the continual interpretation and reinterpretation of shared ideas. 

In the end, Practicing Locality is a refreshing reminder that we must live the stuff we talk about. Theology means little (if anything at all) if it isn’t lived out in the context of everyday life in neighborhood. Further, this chapter serves as a helpful guide to onramp individuals and communities into a lived set of practices that reflect a Jesus who didn’t come to conquer, but to give himself away for the flourishing of others. May we go and do likewise. 

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This review was part of a Subterranean Book Blog Tour, which is offering a unique 40% off discount code that expires Oct 23rd if purchased at http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html Here is the code: ROOTED

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