One Reason I Still Have Hope For The USAmerican Evangelical Church

DSC00816If I’m completely honest, I’ve been really discouraged as of late. A major source of my discouragement has been the way the USAmerican evangelical church (a tribe I have identified with for most of my life, so my critique and exhortation will be directed there) has chosen to engage the world in this season marked by division, violence and trauma. Now, I admit I’m speaking in generalities, but rather than being the healing balm to society’s gaping wounds, we have often contributed to the bleeding by either withdrawing in fear or adding fuel to the violence. 

I actually believe that if the USAmerican evangelical church took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, our collective presence globally would not be associated with violence and division, but with hope and reconciliation. Call me crazy, but I believe the Church -- at her best -- can be an instrument of peace in the world. The collective impact of the USAmerican evangelical church (which, obviously, is only one segment of the Church global) on the world is unprecedented. That impact can either be associated with revenge (which it largely has been) or reconciliation. 

When we are more driven by our fear to defend what is ours from the enemy “over there” rather than freed to live fully into our mandate to love, we morph into something we were never intended to be…and our actions follow suit:

Fear trumps hope.

Isolation trumps invitation.

Stereotype trumps understanding.

Dogma trumps generosity.

Critique trumps curiosity.

Safety trumps faithfulness.

And, ultimately, hate trumps love.

So, what is one reason I still have hope for the USAmerican evangelical church?

As much as you may be thinking I’m going to say Amy Grant’s infamous Christmas album or Nick Cage’s sterling performance in Left Behind or our fascinatingly disturbing alignment with the “politics” of Donald Trump, it is none of those…

What gives me hope is that we follow a God who, in Jesus, invites us to not only love our neighbor, but our enemy. 

We follow an enemy-loving God. 

I think we often miss how unbelievably significant and world-altering the implications of this mandate can be if we actually took it seriously. Having sat at the feet of religious teachers from all over the world representing many different traditions, I’ve NEVER heard a teaching so radically provocative, subversive and compelling as Jesus’ words of enemy-love in Matthew 5. Of course, Jesus didn’t just teach this stuff, he embodied it as he’s dying at the hands of the “enemy” saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I would argue that living this mandate is the best, most tangible contribution the USAmerican evangelical church can make in our divided world. In fact, I think this matters so much, our world can’t afford to have us withdraw from Jesus’ invitation to enemy-love. 

Why do I believe the USAmerican evangelical church can actually live this out?

Two reasons:

  1. Because Church history affirms that a commitment to enemy-love is a normative element of discipleship. Dr. Ron Sider recently did an exhaustive study of the Early Church’s response to violence and found that there were no accounts of Christian’s responding to violence with violence for the first THREE HUNDRED years of its existence (Jesus to Constantine). Violence only infected the Church when Constantine married Empire and militarism with Christianity in the 4th century.
  1. Because I’ve seen it being lived out ALL OVER the world and it has inspired and completely reshaped my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. 

It’s being lived out in war zones in Iraq by my friends with Preemptive Love

It’s being lived out under military occupation in the West Bank village of Bethany by my friends Milad and Manar

It’s being lived out in deportation shelters in Tijuana by my friend Gilberto at Casa Del Migrante

It’s being lived out on the streets of East Oakland by my friend Ben McBride of the Empower Initiative

Although we are still stumbling into this, it’s being lived out among my community right on our streets in Golden Hill. 

And, here’s the thing, every time hatred and violence is returned not with revenge, but with forgiveness and love, the world actually begins to reorder itself into the way God designed it to function all along. The cycle of violence is immediately destroyed. The humanity and dignity of the abused is revealed. The inhumanity of the actions by the “enemy” are exposed for all to see. Relationships strengthen and deepen in mutuality. Imagination and creativity grow as we see that another way is actually possible (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God!). And, ultimately, people actually see, experience and are transformed by this revolutionary 1st-century rabbi from Palestine we’ve all been trying to follow all along. 

This, my friends, is Good News. This gives me hope. This is our invitation and opportunity to join God in healing a broken world by living in the most counter-intuitive and counter-cultural way imaginable. 

It’s going to cost us something. In fact, it may cost us everything. But, it is in our willingness to die that the soil is prepared for new life. 

Despite our temptation to be discouraged and paralyzed by our collective failures, we have something to contribute to a hurting world.

Now, let’s get after it. 

The Opportunity of Raising Kids in This Crazy World

kidsHaving spent the last couple days getting solo time with my kiddos, I’ve never been more convinced that the way we raise the next generation will be our greatest contribution to healing a broken world. The stakes are high. 

Let’s not shelter our kids, but invite them into the beautiful and broken realities of our world.

Let’s not hide them from the darkness, but accompany them into the midst of it.

Let’s teach them to lead with curiosity, ask great questions and be discontent with the status quo.

Let’s help them not be color blind, but color competent. 

Let’s give them the gift of community that keep them rooted in an interdependent network of relationships and specific place that shapes their view of God and others. 

Let’s teach them to have their lives marked by what they’re for rather than what they’re against. 

Let’s teach them to identify their inherited privilege and choose to leverage or give it away for the flourishing of those who don’t have it. 

Let’s give them the freedom to question, doubt and wrestle with their faith and inherited narratives.

Let’s create a safe space for them to identify our blind spots and help us reframe, reform and renew the stories we tell ourselves. 

Most importantly, let’s live the kind of lives we would want our kids to live by not only passing along a set of ideals, but modeling a set of practices in every day life. 

And, in the end, when we inevitably screw up, may we have the kind of grace on ourselves as has been given to us. 

This is a our best “weapon” against the pain, violence and division of our world.

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. 

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