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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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7 Lessons About Peace From My Time in the Middle East

998309_10152222403097492_17879176_nHaving just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict. 

Here are 7 learning’s that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:

1. It’s About a Holy People, Not a Holy Land

There is no place on earth that has exploited human story and experience for the sake of a tourist “experience” more than in the Holy Land. Millions and MILLIONS of people go to the Holy Land each year seeking a holy experience, but fail to actually interact with the Holy People of the land. Now, I’m not saying a Holy Land pilgrimage is evil or bad. No, they are incredible and allow us to tangibly interact with central places and experiences central to our faith story. I’m a history/geography nut, so I totally get the value of this! But, and this is a big BUT, many of these tours inherently place the inhabitants of the land as tour guides in our “holy land experience” rather than seeing them as the very source of our holy land experience. It’s like going to Disneyland and as we run to each ride, our only encounter with the human staff is as they strap our seat belt around us before yet another emotional high.  

Not only is this model of tourism unsustainable, it is unjust and insulates us from the realities of those living within Israel/Palestine. Bottom line, as followers of Jesus, is is our responsibility to turn our primary attention to the people of the land rather than to the land itself. Not only does this honor our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, it creates the space for us to encounter not only the work God has done, but the work he is doing

Note: There are more and more organizations that have identified the brokenness of the tourist industry in the Holy Land and are leading “ethical” tours in this region. In addition to TGIP, see Telos, MEJDI & even Rick Steve’s!

2. Forming Peacemakers is Hard

My primary role in leading these experiences is that of teacher and coach. Being a peacemaker does not equal picking a side and trying to get people to align with you. Firstly, no conflict is that dualistic and secondly, that would be far too easy. Being formed as a peacemaker is learning how to place yourself in the center of the pain and tension of conflict and highlight the humanity that exists within. It is about walking with people toward conflict transformatively rather than picking a side or running from the conflict all together. 

As our participants see and experience the pain and injustice that exists in this region, there is a natural pull to pick sides and get really pissed off. The opposite extreme is to see the conflict, be so overwhelmed with its complexities and want to simply walk away. Neither option is the work of peacemaking and my (and my partner, Jer Swigart) work is to walk with people towards a more constructive place in their formation, which usually means confronting the evil within ourselves before confronting the evil around us. It is ridiculously difficult!!

3. Enemies Cease to be Enemies When You Look Them in the Eye

The Western world has become quite content with allowing sound bites and images to tell us who our “enemies” are. Without leaving the comfort of our own lazy boy chair, we talk and act as though we have a nuanced understanding of who is our friend or enemy. Not only is this unhelpful, it is does not allow us to see and celebrate the humanity we share with all of God’s children. 

We spent an afternoon in conversation with one of the most “extreme” ideological and polarizing characters in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Although I disagreed not only with much of WHAT he had to say, but HOW he chose to say it, I was struck by his humanity. He’s just another guy like me who deeply believes in his cause and those impacted by it. At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his time, congratulated him on his newest grandchildren (We’re friends on Facebook, so I was in the know!) and gave him a hug. All the rhetoric and posturing went out the door and we saw each other as fellow humans. It’s really hard to have “enemies” when you look them in the eye.

4. Choosing Non-violence Doesn’t Equal the Avoidance of Bloodshed. 

It absolutely bends my brain when I hear arguments that choosing non-violence in the face of violent conflict is somehow soft or weak. As we learned from peacemaker after peacemaker who is faithfully choosing to face violence with creative acts that subvert and disarm systemic violence and war-making, I was both inspired and convicted. It was inspiring in that it was in these stories that the story of Jesus was BY FAR the most tangible and real. It was convicting in that I was confronted with my own tendency toward violence. I want to live the Jesus way that calls me to set down my weapons and pick up my cross, but it is hard. It is scary. And to be honest, it doesn’t always “work.” In other words, non-violence doesn’t equal the avoidance of bloodshed. Like Jesus, rather than it being my “enemies” blood, it would be mine. I suppose that is why I’m convinced the work of peacemaking is not only a way of life, it is discipleship. 

5. Violent Conflict is Very Real, but We Choose How We Engage It

We intentionally go to the center of this often volatile conflict because it is the best classroom, filled with the best instructors for the things that make for peace. Sometimes the conflict feels a bit far off from everyday life both in Israel and in the West Bank, but on this trip, it became more real that ever. There were three different instances where protests, clashes and violence unfolded within steps of us. It culminated with our hotel being hit by tear gas canisters and tanks rolling through the road at the bottom of our steps. 

As these incidents unfolded, I was stuck by the reality of violence AND the very tangible choice we have in how to engage it. Again, not an easy choice, but a certainly a choice in our discipleship journey. 

48053_10152222376937492_1409313618_n6. Brotherhood Has Nothing to do with Borders

While with our dear friends at the House of Hope in Bethany (in the West Bank), Jer and I were given what could be the most moving “award” I have ever received. We were honored as “Brothers for Peace” and given a plaque that read: 

“For being ambassadors for Christ, passionate peace builders, and partners in building bridges…reviving hope…and making the future…”

I could have never imagined a reality in my life where I would consider one of my dearest friends to be a person who lives half way across the globe in a reality and culture that is 180 degree different than my own. But, I am glad to say that reality has come true with my friend Milad, a Christian Palestinian who has given his life for peace in the midst of a reality that knows very little of peace. This is not a one way relationship where I simply go to “serve” him. No, he often “serves” and teaches me far more of what it means to follow Jesus than I teach him. It is a genuine, mutually edifying friendship. It’s crazy the types of experience and relationships you build when you follow Jesus into the places you’ve been called. What a gift.

7. When the Church Embraces Her Vocation as an Instrument of Peace in the World, Wrong Things Will Begin to be Made Right.

It is both terrifying and convicting hearing from person after person living in the Holy Land (Israeli and Palestinian) how much of an impact the American Church has on the continuation or the resolution of the current conflict between Israel & Palestine. They, very tangibly, feel the impact of our theology and politics being played out on their streets, in their homes and shaping the future of their children. Whether we like it or not, this is the reality and we have to take it seriously. For too long (about 100 years specific to our engagement in this region), the Church has given more allegiance to war making and nationalism that it has to the Kingdom of God and the Way of the Cross. Thankfully, the tide is turning and our friends in the Holy Land are celebrating our realignment with peacemaking and reconciliation as is central to the Mission of God and embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus 

I’m a more convicted than ever that the Way of Jesus, and the Church as an embodied manifestation of this Way, is the most constructive way to bring about peace in the world. In other words, when the Church embraces her vocation as an instrument of peace, wrong things will begin to be made right in the world. What an honor to be part of and worthy cause to give our lives to!

An Inconvenient & Unlikely Experience of Peacemaking

OrthodoxJewishManWe often associate the work of peacemaking with grand political agreements or far out euphoria that really isn’t worth our time and effort.  The more I understand the work of peacemaking through the life and teachings of Jesus, the more I realize peacemaking isn’t a far off ideal, but the very real and tangible realities we choose to live into each day.  

I’m currently in the Holy Land to dive deep into the places of conflict to learn from the peacemakers embedded within.  It would be easy for me to think the “peacemaking” stuff would wait until I got deep into the West Bank or in an Israeli Settlement, but no, it began the moment I got off the plane.  

I was the first person on the Sheruit (mini bus taxi) headed to Jerusalem.  As I picked out my ideal seat, I settled in to soak up the culture and geography in our ascent into the Judean hill country toward Jerusalem.  Minding my own business, the bus began to fill up with other passengers; a couple from Spain, two younger women appearing to be on pilgrimage and 4 or 5 Orthodox Jewish men.  As I settled in, the bus driver tapped me on the shoulder and began talking to me in Hebrew.  He quickly realized I was an English speaker and proceeded to ask if I would be willing to move from my prime seat in the front to the very back, middle seat.  I was a bit confused until I took a second to assess the situation.  

All the Orthodox men were looking at me and I realized that the only seat left for the last Orthodox man to come in the bus was next to a woman in this back middle seat.  Knowing that Orthodox Jewish men aren’t supposed to sit next to woman, this was an issue.  I was in no way obligated to move, but my choice became quite clear.  I could stay in my seat and put my Orthodox friend in a precarious spot that would have led to further chaos among everyone on the bus, or I could give up my prime seat and take the back, middle seat that would probably lead to carsickness.  Whether good intentioned or just feeling a bit intimidated by everyone starring at me, I picked up my stuff and gave the man my seat. 

Naturally, the woman who he wouldn’t sit next to was quite offended and confused.  We talked a bit and it turned to friendly laughter.  

A few minutes later, another Orthodox man came in and was faced with a similar situation that would have had him sit by another of the woman on the bus.  Before the situation could turn to what we had all just experienced, I quickly grabbed up my stuff and once again moved to a strategic seat that would keep all the Orthodox separated from the women.  

It may sound silly or insignificant, but these micro acts of peacemaking matter.  They not only do honor to the traditions and convictions of others, they reflect the best of our faith and tradition as followers of Jesus.  As we dropped off each man at their respective homes across Jerusalem, they looked at me with genuine gratitude and said, “Thank you.”

In the Holy Land, the temptation is to tune out the modern realities of everyday life and transport oneself back into the historical; which is understandable!  Even as the interaction unfolded above, we were driving through the land where the ancient Philistines lived near the coast, into the foothills and up into the Judean hills where Jerusalem rises above it all. These are important realities that are a significant part of a pilgrimage as we connect with earlier parts of our faith story. With that said, the Jesus Way always requires us to put human relationship above any mental time warp that may cause us to disengage from the realities surrounding us.  Yes, we can worship through history, but worshiping through loving humanity is our primary call and vocation.  

The work of peacemaking is everyday and unfolds in all of life.  Even (if not especially!) in these seemingly insignificant micro actions of selfless love.

Why is the Holy land such a dynamic place to be formed in this way? Because there is a collision of dramatically contesting worldviews and traditions.

We must listen. We must learn. And we must act while being the presence of reconciliation Jesus called us to be. 

Raising Children to be Global Citizens

It’s not often that Janny (my wife!) and I write a blog together, so it was especially fun writing this post for Allison Buzard’s current series asking how to live out the radical way of Jesus while raising kids. 

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Before we had kids, we loved to travel, had worldview stretching experiences and were all together creative in how we lived the lives we had been given.  For us, having the right kind of experiences meant far more than have the right kind of house, car or other possession that could be associated with “success.”  As we reflect on our development individually and as a couple in the context of marriage, it is clear that these experiences (and resulting relationships) have shaped us more significantly than any classroom or lecture series.  It has been the classroom of real life relationships that have formed us into global citizens who follow a Jesus with a global reign.  

And then we had kids…

Having heard that we would finally have to “slow down” or change our unorthodox way of life with the wee ones around, we were feeling a bit anxious about this new stage of life.  Would the most life giving elements of our life quickly be swept away in exchange for dirty diapers and trips to the laundry mat?

Well, they could have been, but we quickly realized that the very best gift we could give our children is to live the kind of life we would desire them to live as faithful followers of Jesus.  In other words, if we are to be role models to our children, we need to live the kind of life we’d hope they’ll live someday.  

So, we figured we’d just keep on living the unorthodox way of life and bring ’em along with us.  That’s why God made front packs and folding strollers for crying out loud!!

We are far from having things figured out, but here are a few key learnings we aspire to embody…

Read the complete post on Allison’s blog here.

 

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