Suffering

The Pipeline Continues: May We Hear the Voice(s) of the People

IMG_7344Last month, I found myself sitting in a tent listening to the Sioux tribal elders at Standing Rock reflect on the implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline halt. In arctic temperatures surrounded by domestic and international reporters, one of the elders (pic) described the tribe’s genuine celebration at the halt and proceeded to elaborate on its significance.

In the next breath, his words turned somber as he walked through hundreds of years of interaction between the US government and his tribe (and the wider Native American community). He systematically walked through treaty after treaty after treaty and lamented the fact that the very government that had proposed them had broken each one.

He said, “While we celebrate this temporary victory, we have hundreds of years of history that remind us to never trust the promises of the government. Companies have responsibility to investors. We have responsibility to be stewards of the water. Oil is malignant to the planet and those who find life from it.

Ocheti camp will remain and double our efforts to protect this land, river and home. All seven tribes of souix have gathered for first time in 140 years. Former enemies are standing together for the land we’ve been entrusted to steward.

We have not broken any laws. We have conducted ourselves in a prayerful and peaceful way. We are not protestors or terrorists or rioters, we are in fact water protectors.

We pray for the law enforcement officials everyday. We want to walk across the bridge and shake hands. Dakota means “friend.” The people and place reflect that. We will continue to feed and keep warm everyone in this camp.”

As I listened, I couldn’t help but be both inspired and saddened. In the case of Native American’s in general and the Sioux at Standing Rock specifically, we have largely chosen to see only the realities that affirm our inherited worldview or benefited our bottom line. As a result, there are real people standing on real land that are hurting and pleading for us to listen. They stewarded this land long before white Europeans arrived and continue to bear the responsibility of caring for it for the generations to come.

Today, President Donald Trump signed an executive action greenlighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been halted to seek alternative routes. The original route, under Lake Oahe, would have threatened the Standing Rock Sioux’s drinking water and sacred lands.

Having stood with and been cared for by these remarkable people, I have the responsibility to at the very least share their story. As inhabitants of the same plot of soil we call the US, I would argue it is not only their story, but our story.

May we listen. May we lament. May we act by standing in front of any bulldozer that is flattening people.

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. 

 

On Christian Music and the Hidden Gem We’ve Been Waiting For

I grew up with a heavy dose of Sandi Patty, Michael W Smith (Smitty) and Steven Curtis Chapman. While I still love a good Ol fashion “Go West Young Man” or “Friends are Friends Forever,” if I’m honest, I haven’t listened to “Christian” music for well over a decade. For that matter, I’m still not sure how a noun like “Christian” can be used as an adjective to describe the salvific quality of a collective of voices and instruments, but that’s a whole other conversation completely… 

I didn’t intentionally stop listening to Christian music because I had some axe to grind, I just found that it no longer spoke to the Christian story I experienced: a story of doubt despite having all the “answers,” hope in the midst of crisis and suffering in the way of the cross. 

The Collection is not only my favorite band of 2014-15, but they are needed water on the dry soil of millennials’ interest in any music remotely “Christian.” Not only is their music creative and of high quality (think Mumford & Sons meets Lumineers), their lyrics cast a Kingdom vision in some of the most compelling and stirring ways I have encountered. 

I would argue that they aren’t getting popular because they are “cool,” but because the depth of their music is offering something that goes way beyond cynicism and critique of traditional forms of Christianity and instead offers a robust and constructive way forward.  

I spent some time with these good folks a few months back, long after I had become a fan. Here is an interview I recently did with the lead singer and songwriter, David Wimbish.

1. How would you describe your music? Who were major influences?

I like to think of our music as a shy rock kid befriending some band geeks and tripping into an orchestra pit. I’ve heard people say “Orchestral Folk” frequently. My favorite is probably “Big Band Americana”, though it might not be the most accurate. I remember reading an interview with Sufjan Stevens where he talks about how brass instruments can be just as “heavy” as electric guitars. Growing up in a missionary community, I was exposed to a lot of music around the world, and learned that concept through osmosis. I think a lot of the music that influenced me was music that had the same emotions as American music, but with different textures. Many times this was Balkan Brass, Traditional Ghanian, Chinese Folk, Mariachi, etc. Now it has grown to all sorts of things -- Big Band, Classical, Folk, Psych Rock, etc. 

2. Would you consider yourself a “Christian” band? Why or why not?

I don’t think it’s healthy, most of the time, for a band to identify that way, because I think it can perpetuate the idea that there’s a gap between a thing that is specifically “sanctified” and the normal world. If people believe that a god created the earth, I would hope very much that they would dwell within his creation, and that includes music, whether it is played by christians or not. That being said, some of our band members identify as christians, and some don’t. It definitely started more in that camp, and I think, in the American south especially, it can be hard to not at least have some connection with the ideas behind christianity as it has such cultural prevalence in this area of the world. Within our band dynamic, we try to promote a space for spiritual seeking, for loving others, and for acceptance, whether it be through christianity or not. 

3. In your music, you confront some heavy themes like the death of a close friend. How does your music serve as both an expression of lament and a hope for what has come and is coming?

One of the first shows I played, when I was 13 or 14, I remember my Mum afterwards telling me, “You were very good, you have a lot of potential, but all of your songs were so sad.” I know that’s a bit of a Mum thing to say, and I didn’t have much to be deeply sad about at that time, but I realized it was an easy way to write -- songs come out of our deepest emotions and the most common and universally felt emotion is pain, I think. So I’ve been trying to find a better balance in showing my honest process in wrestling with difficult experiences, without putting a bow on them, and still writing honest songs during hopeful times. I haven’t found it yet -- many newer songs have leaned a bit on the darker side I think than ones from the past. To me, though, what is important is honesty. I think people can hear when you’re lying in a song. Not lyrically, but emotionally. We identify with honesty. And for me, especially while writing Ars Moriendi, I felt really hurt, but I also felt hopeful, and was trying hard to capture both of those.

4. A few of your songs confront experiences of toxic legalism in the Church. Rather than coming off cynical, you paint constructive and beautiful pictures of the hope found in Jesus and the reality of the Kingdom. What has been your personal journey that has led to this point?

Thank you; I’m glad to know I don’t come off as cynical. It’s something I’ve talked with our bassist about a ton, “keep me in check if my lyrics start sounding cynical.” When I was younger, my Mum was the music leader at a church. She helped grow it in so many ways, and it became a beautiful place. At one point though, she was forced out, seemingly because she wasn’t mega-churchy enough. I spent ten years of my life being a part of that community, only to lose trust in people I had leaned on. Does that mean I wasted those ten years, that they didn’t mean anything? The truth is, there isn’t a human soul that has figured out perfect peace and harmony and love with other people all of the time. So any place there are groups of humans, there will always be some sort of toxic practice or thought, it is just part of being human. But, those ten years are part of what made me who I am, just like every hard experience I’ve had. There have been many times in my life that reading the words of Jesus gave me hope that seemed to transcend the bad experiences, and give me vernacular to understand the good parts.

5. So your band has about 87 members. Tell us why and share a bit of your hopes/plans for the future.

Ha -- we may have had close to that many in and out over the years. When I started writing “the Collection” songs, it was a bit of a solo project that selfishly came out of wanting to have a band without losing any creative freedom. I’m lucky to have had so many people be committed to my songs and the vision, even before I had a good way to be committed to them as members. If I met someone that played an instrument we didn’t have, and they seemed like a cool person, I’d invite them to come play with us. We weren’t touring much, so there wasn’t much of a commitment necessary from anyone. It’s grown into more of an actual band, which I am very grateful for because it has allowed more musical and relational intimacy than I was able to have in the past, but it still centers around us being a big family. This past tour we did with 7 members, while past tours have all been with 12, and it felt very small; we kept getting in the van and asking, “Wait, who are we missing?”, though I reckon 7 people is still a pretty big band.

We love being on the road, so I think a lot of our future plans are centered around how to do that as much as possible. We’re also working on getting our album release on Vinyl, Cassette, and putting out a documentary. Maybe some new music this year? Only time will tell -- we don’t always know where to move, but we just keep moving.

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NOTE: Their latest album, Ars Moriendi, is off the charts good and where I recommend starting. They are also on Spotify. 

Embracing the Greatest Challenge of My Life as Opportunity

IMG_2280Having taken paternity leave with the arrival of our twins, I haven’t “worked” in nearly two months. With that said, there has been no time for reading deep, reflective books on spiritually. No time to engage world issues. No time to be active and seek the healing of systemic injustices in our neighborhood.

No, there has been time for one thing and one thing only; being a dad

If I’m honest, it’s been a struggle. The same exhausting, under appreciated, sleepless, messy and relentless grind of parenting four kids, all of whom are four years old or younger. There are certainly moments of joy, pride and gratitude, but they are far less frequent than the ones of discouragement and delirium. 

In the midst of the fog, I had a bit of an epiphany a couple weeks ago. I found myself thinking about how I would find time for spiritual practices to be reintegrated into my life and dreaming about the intellectual growth I would experience when I go back to “work.” It was as though I was telling myself, “If you just survive this season, then you can finally get back to attending to your spirituality and formation.” 

This is when the epiphany hit; If I don’t connect my parenting with my spirituality and formation, I’m missing out on potentially the most important season of my discipleship journey. 

Changing diapers at 3am = Opportunity to choose selfless sacrifice. 

Responding to yet another 2 year old melt down = Opportunity to model grace and understanding.

Chaos of everyday life = Opportunity to embrace and live into an everyday spirituality.

Weeks/months between dates with my wife = Opportunity for me to get creative in what love and intentionality look like. 

These are all opportunities for me to choose to grow in my personal formation and live more like the One I follow. I can’t see these as hurdles to jump so I can then get back to my spirituality and formation. No, these are the very experiences that are forming me into who I am created to be. To be fully human. To be connected to the gift of life that is pulsating in every moment of everyday. To choose to live a life of self-sacrifice for the flourishing of others. 

I don’t have this figured out in the least, but I do want to give it a shot. I don’t have to wait. We don’t have to wait. We just have to wake up to what is right in front of us and be fully present there.

Maybe that is what love looks like and what the gift of discipleship means in the midst of the mundane and unglamorous realities of daily life.

 

 

Owning My Dysfunction and the Freedom of Dependence

unnamedIt was nearly five years ago that Janny and I moved to Golden Hill, a neighborhood in San Diego, to be part of a little faith community committed to love God and neighbor in some of the most tangible ways we had ever encountered. As you can imagine, we were curious as to what all this would mean for us as individuals, as a young family and for our role within the Church as a whole. It was a great unknown, but we were willing to “role the dice” and did so with much conviction. 

We could have never foreseen the beauty and richness that would birth forth out of a community of people committed to share life together as we stumble towards Jesus on the same streets, parks, homes, pubs and coffee shops. There was nothing flashy about it and I can remember thinking early on, “So this is it? Life just keeps happening day after day after day after day?”

I would soon realize that’s the beauty of it. Church wasn’t something we attended on our own time and at our own convenience, it was something we participated in every moment of everyday.

In fact, that was our path toward discipleship. It’s not an event, it’s nothing flashy and it certainly doesn’t lift our names/titles/roles above our neighbors. We can’t pat ourselves on the back after a successful event that brought in the masses; we can only love in such a way that we stand in each other’s pain and joy on Monday…and Tuesday…and Wednesday…There is no day off from discipleship or our commitment to a place and a people who inhabit it. And rather than grab for power or prestige, the road to discipleship requires we give it away for the flourishing of others. 

When the preverbal sh*%t hits the fan in one of our lives or our neighbors lives, we sit in the middle of it. We certainly don’t always do this well, and we have a ton to learn, but we do our best to contend for one another in costly and creative ways.

Why? Well, because that is what we think Jesus meant when he said to love God and neighbor (Jesus went as far as calling us to love our “enemy”). In Jesus, we see that contending for others might even look like giving up your life.

In the end, embracing the Jesus’ way of the cross is really freeing. When I realize life isn’t about “me” (which I still struggle with EVERYDAY…ask Janny) and my flourishing, but about advancing the good of those around me, I am free to truly love and be loved. Because faithful discipleship doesn’t require that I am comfortable, that I will “succeed,” or even that I will survive. 

It. Just. Doesn’t. 

And when I spend so much of my time and energy seeking my personal advance, it highjacks my ability to follow Jesus and it does harm to those around me. 

After three years of learning and being mentored by trusted guides, our little faith community was no longer little and had grown to the point where we needed to multiply (rather than get bigger, we multiply and start new faith communities). It was then that Janny and I were entrusted to lead one of the new communities.

We’ve now been leading and walking with this community of Jesus’ followers for over two years and this past Sunday night, we created some space to reflect and celebrate. Sitting around a bonfire, we shared what we have learned about God, ourselves and our neighborhood over the past couple years. It was beautiful and reminded me of the value of simply acknowledging and celebrating the good gifts of this life. 

We shared about the times we helped pay each others rent when one of us was struggling financially. 

We shared about the gift of new friendships with neighbors where we learned about Jesus in the most unexpected and beautiful ways. 

We shared about the gift of vulnerability and transparency. 

We laughed at the many days where we took care of each other’s kids because we were all sleep deprived.  

I confessed that I simply can’t follow Jesus alone and that this community has helped me own that. We all know the point isn’t community in and of itself, but that community is a means and context for us to all more faithfully follow Jesus. 

Bottom line: I need a community of practice that requires me to live the stuff I spend so much time talking about. If I don’t have a community and neighborhood that invites me to give myself away in the way Jesus gave himself away, I miss out on living into who I was created to be. And, those around me miss out on the gift I have been created to give to the world. 

We concluded the evening by offering prayers of blessing and sending over our community as we move towards the start of another year. Mine was simple and I think it was meant more for me than anyone else: 

“May we receive the gift of community we have been given with deep gratitude. And may we not see this way of life as a list of obligations to fulfill, but as an opportunity for each of us to be fully human.” 

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NOTE: Paul’s words in Philippians 2:1-11 offer a beautiful picture of the above based on the life of Jesus and the activity of the early Church. 

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