Jesus

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. 

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. 

 

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. 

To My Four Kids, From Dad

IMG_1571After five days in the hospital filled with overwhelming joy, paralyzing fear and complete exhaustion in the wake of the birth of our twins, I finally found a moment to walk outside the florescent lights and sit under the bright moon. Sitting on a small patch of grass outside the hospital doors, the reality of being a father to four kids finally hit me. 

I was both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the gift and responsibility of raising four kids in a world so desperately in need of mustard seeds of hope that one day blossom into healing and beauty.

As I sit in relative comfort and begin to dream big dreams for my kids, I was struck by the reality that most father’s around the globe are forced to welcome their kids into a world where there is no “ladder” to climb because it has been knocked out from under them by broken systems that are breaking people. 

A world where many kids are born into families fleeing violent persecution and being nursed on the trauma of war in battered refugee camps; places where the thought of hope is a distant second to simply fighting to survive.

A world where one’s value is more closely associated with gender (male) than with the beautiful uniqueness inherent in every new life.  

But it is also a world pregnant with possibilities. A world where former enemies move beyond their past, share tables and begin to imagine a future together. 

A world where the blossoms of new life begin to sprout in the shadowy corners of forgotten neighborhoods.  

A world where the diversity of God’s kingdom begins to awaken our eyes and hearts to the new world God is making. 

It is in this world -- a world that is both beautiful and broken -- that I offer this prayer over my four kids. 

May you see the humanity, dignity and image of God in everyone. Regardless of documentation, orientation or association, may you choose to see the face of Jesus in all those put in your path. May you see those who are different than you not through the lens of judgment, but with a spirit of curiosity and posture of invitation. 

May you immerse into the the muck and messiness of everyday life seeking to understand rather than be understood. May you move toward broken people and places catalyzed by hope rather than paralyzed by fear. And, finally, as you move deeper into relationship with these people and places, may you stick around for the long haul offering radical presence in a world of hurry.  

My dear ones, may your relative comfort and inherited privilege not lead to complacency, but instead be used to contend for the flourishing of others. May you be willing to sacrifice your reputation, finances and time in order to stand in front of any bulldozer that is flattening people. Like the Jesus we follow, may you return evil with good and choose not to get even, but get creative in love.  

May you lead out of your identity as ones first and foremost loved by God, so you can give yourselves fully to God and others. If you get anything, please get this: your identity is not based on what you do, but who you are. All is grace dear ones and you are God’s beloved. As such, your mother and me will always love you, contend for you, pray for you and stand with you no matter what choices you make or what you “do” or don’t do.  

Whether you join God’s mission of reconciliation in the halls of power or the back allys of forgotten neighborhoods, may you see and participate in the restoration made real in Jesus death and resurrection. May you taste, feel, see and experience a Kingdom where the last will be first and the first will be last. For it is there that love lives. 

And, day in and day out, may we be parents who live and model the kind of lives we are inviting you to live. 

Much love to each of you; Ruby, Rosie, Hank & Lou. 

Dad

 

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