the love of friends / my new guitar

In my last post I shared about how my beloved guitar was sadly stolen from our Volvo on Thanksgiving Day in a smash-and-grab theft.

Today, I want to share about how I’ve experienced the cycle of hope that I alluded to in that post.

Not long after I shared on my blog and in social media about the smash-and-grab, a great friend, Mark Aubin, took it upon himself to act. He quickly set up a GoFundMe drive to allow folks to help me replace the guitar and cover the $290 that the window cost to repair.

Within only a few days, we covered the $1000 goal. Then, Continue reading “the love of friends / my new guitar”

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science / God

Something not many people know about me is that I went to a STEM-focused high school. It was called the Math Science and Technology center, and to get in you had to write an essay. Mine wasn’t very good, and my confidence in my math skills was already waning as my pre-high school progressed.

At some point I received a letter – I was on the waitlist! 

This wasn’t awesome news, since my older brother John had already been in the program for a couple years, and he was flourishing in all subjects STEM-related and otherwise. But it wasn’t terrible either, because there was still a chance that I could join my immediate family’s new academic tradition.

Finally, a week before school started, I came home from soccer two-a-days to another letter:  Continue reading “science / God”

God is Shaking the Hell out of Earth.

Imagining what God will one day do is a compelling thought, is it not? Picturing how God is at work long-term puts our present-tense actions into perspective.

Ultimately, God is ushering in a kingdom that cannot be shaken!

Along the path to this kingdom there are two compelling mountains. In Hebrews 12:18-29, the author contrasts the mountain of fear with the mountain of joy.

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a mountainous overlook deep in the Santa Cruz mountains only severalmiles south of Silicon Valley

The Mountain of Fear:

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” 

Clearly, there is something terrifying about experiencing God! Moses was terrified at Mount Sinai as he felt God in his bones. He hid his face. According to Proverbs 9:10,

“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” 

Just like we fear and respect a burning fire or powerful animal, so do we fear [respect] God. We revere God as the creator of the ENTIRE COSMOS as it continues to expand into Continue reading “God is Shaking the Hell out of Earth.”

Spiritual/Mental [Un]Rest

The Scream, painted in 1893 during a time of intense personal pain, has always haunted me. There is something haunting in the face of the painting’s subject, something sos evocative about the open mouth and hands held over the ears.

The_Scream.jpgSome psychologists conclude that, over his lifetime, Munch experienced bipolar disorder with psychosis. This particular painting was inspired by a visual hallucination in which he perceived the sky turning to blood. As everything crunched together in his imagination, terror struck him: he is quoted as having said,

“I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My  friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”  

Munsch’s experience and his artistic representation of that experience both serve humanity, allowing us to see into the kind of pain others may feel. Though we often hide it well, each of us experiences various kinds of loss and hurt. It may not come in the form of a visual hallucination, but it may more often come in the form of loneliness, isolation, distrust, hopelessness, or lack of self-worth.

We moderns are not the first to experience deep pain and alienation from ourselves, others, and God. Elijah, an ancient prophet, and Jesus, who we Christians understand and believe to be the incarnate Son of God, both experienced deep pain and rejection both from other people and from God.

In I Kings 19, Elijah is running for his life, terrified of an evil queen and complicit king, feeling unguarded and alone. He cries out from his soul,

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors [I Kings 19:4b].”** 

That’s heavy stuff. It’s along the lines of suicidal ideation, to be sure, though thankfully he voices his anguish to God [a safe place if there ever was one!]. He’s ready to die, alone, afraid, and exhausted from the depths of his soul to his physical body and psychological center. He is absolutely spent, desiring death, yet courageously-and surprisingly-places this desire in God’s hands.

We’ll take a look at how God responds later.

Right now, let’s zoom forward quite a few centuries and check out a dark moment Jesus has right before his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial.

He’s with close friends, praying before, quite literally, all hell would soon break loose and come tempt the world into believing evil is the larger power in the cosmos. In his darkest hour, he wants the support of friends to pray with him:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me [Mt. 26:38].” 

Jesus is pretty low, from my read. Overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death sounds like spiritual and mental breakdown. Was it an acute bout of anxiety-a panic attack? I don’t presume to know, I’m just an observer reading the text and wondering out loud.

Soon, he asks for relief from God:

…he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will [Mt. 26:39].” 

So let’s hop back to Elijah, who had just told God he’s ready to die. How does God respond? The response is immediate, timely, fitting. God gives Elijah a snack and lets him continue his much-needed nap:

…an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again [I Kings 19:5b].

Elijah wanted to die, but God wanted him to live.

Instead of death, he gets a nap and a snack.

And that’s not all.

A few chapters later, instead of experiencing the death he once wished for, Elijah is either the only or is one of just two people [Enoch being the other, but it is less clear] who are taken directly to be with God:

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11].

Ironically, after begging God for death, Elijah never dies.

Now let’s move back to Jesus, who we left praying in Gethsemane. He gets very different treatment than our Old Testament friend, Elijah. God is silent, allowing his own son to suffer at an overwhelming juncture:

  1. He doesn’t get a nap, but his friends fall asleep on him [twice], failing to pray when Jesus most needed spiritual support.
  2. He doesn’t get a snack, just some gross vinegar wine whilst bleeding out on the cross.
  3. He doesn’t even hear a word from God, at least not one that’s recorded in our text. He is utterly alone for his final hours, dying alone with only a few friends left to honor him at his final hour.

God does not take the cup from Jesus, spare him this crushing, torturous aspect of his earthly ministry, and we don’t even know if there was any consolation offered to him from anyone, save the sympathy of Pilate and his wife, both Romans. And Pilate’s sympathy certainly didn’t stop him from enabling the religious leaders in their mission to kill this man claiming to represent a kingdom not of this world.

But Jesus is raised from the dead. 

God was at work despite the total despair Jesus felt at the end of his life.

There is so much to learn here, but here are some things that stick out:

  1. Like both Elijah and Jesus, our laments [and yes, any emotion including anger, joy, jealousy, yeah-anything] is always safe with God, and better expressed and externalized than repressed and hidden.
  2. God doesn’t always answer in the way we desire, but we do know our advocate before God, Jesus, has experienced unanswered prayer-and the pain native to humanity. Jesus identifies with our pain but also knows the supreme joy that comes with being “the firstborn over all creation” [Colossians 1:15]. He has seen torture, loss of friends, and an excruciating death-but also the triumph of new life and victory over evil.

The resounding joy Jesus experienced as the firstborn over all creation means he knows what it’s like to move through human life, death and through death into new, full, whole and transformed life.

And, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, we get to follow him on this life-giving and hope-filled path.

***

 

 

 

 

*Heller RH: Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Viking Press, 1972, p. 109)

**All biblical quotes are from the New International Version.

Let Go? [Never!]

Silas, our 3 year old, learned to ride a bike yesterday.

He asked a little girl, Autumn, if he could borrow her pink Frog bike. As she consented, I thought about how to make sure to preserve the integrity of the bike itself since it was clearly on the more expensive end of kids’ bikes.

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I was shocked at what happened next.

As I released the handlebars and relaxed my support on his back and arm, reality unfolded at a pace my imagination could not match. He was balanced and stable, moving faster than I could keep up with at walking speed.

I let go.

Silas was on his own, and he proceeded to ride all over the playground.

After recovering from the shock, my first instinct was to tell Kaile, which I immediately did as soon as I got home [I didn’t cheat and send a text message!]. She was, of course, delighted, so now we are left to brace ourselves for the task of keeping up with him.

Today, in the wake of this moment, I cannot help but continue to reflect on his newfound two-wheeled freedom.

Looking back a couple years, was meaningful when our boys first learned to walk; it was unadulterated joy to watch them first craft words [both boys] and sentences [still waiting on Maelin for that!]; it is presently an incredible gift to observe them interact positively [ie *not* hitting or pushing one another for any length of time].

But there was something so poignant about first riding a bike. It’s an either-or kind of skill. Unlike speaking, reasoning, and walking, riding a bike without training wheels is, unlike so many things in this world, rather binary. You’re doing it-or, well, not.

Suddenly, I was transported to a sloping driveway in Big Rapids, Michigan, in the very early ’90s. Probably not wearing a helmet, I remember piloting my $5 purple banana-seat down the driveway after my dad let go.

They let go.

I let go.

There really is something profound about this process of letting go.

Over a lifetime, each one of us either chooses to or is forced to let go of identities, occupations, relationships, habits. Parents have the very visceral experience of letting go as their children move to new levels of independence.

Along these lines, it seems letting go of one’s child is a process that comes with cultural expectations. As an American with many generations going back in time on both sides, my culture tells me I need to let go, to promote autonomy, to encourage my kids to find their voice and engage their world. While I have some nuance that I place on this strong push for independence, I generally agree.

And yet, for my family and community of faith, we have a special narrative framework in which all of this letting go / autonomy-seeking is couched. The story of God’s creation, preservation, and ultimate restoration of the world and the cosmos through Jesus is my larger framework, and any letting go I do fits into this bigger picture.

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As I reflect on the present-tense grace and long-term hope that my faith offers, my mind also wanders to that time later in life when letting go hurts. Frankly, I assume my kids are going to reject my voice in their lives, whether gently or overtly. In the maturation process, I can’t imagine even most of childhood, latency, and adolescence to be free of challenges and heartache. I’m open to being surprised, but I brace myself as I hear so many stories from other parents.

I think of a friend who has a child in the Army. She worries about him, as one might expect, and prays for his well-being, certainly his physical preservation, even as she also prays for his spiritual, emotional, and relational journeys.

She let go.

I [am/will] let[ing] go.

And when my son rides off on his bike on his own, it’s a picture of my limitations as a parent. I felt tears come to my eyes as I walked home with Silas on his bike and Maelin [somewhat] content in the stroller, imagining our toddler at other milestones in his childhood and later years.

Back to the narrative framework of Christian faith/hope.

So many times in Jewish/Christian Scripture we hear the biblical authors referring to God as a Father. Some texts also give a deep sense of maternal qualities as well, and we conclude how something about God’s character is like that of a parent.

But here’s the problem.

Not all human parents are good. And sadly, some die before having the chance to parent, or they leave, or they’re separated as refugees, or they’re conscripted into a war, or…

Anyway, I’d contend that every parent [myself especially included] inculcates their child with habits and predispositions that are harmful. We could call it the filial passing-on of the sinful nature. Yes, we of course pass on tons of good qualities as well; but it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? We are beautiful, good beings, created in God’s perfect image, yet we, to varying levels, are simultaneously corrupted at our core by sin.

It sounds old-school sometimes to say it this way, but the term *sin* can be quite helpful. In short, sin separates us from God and each other. Conversely, because of God’s transforming grace made apparent in Jesus, we are reunited with God-and with one another as well. As we experience the massive forgiveness God extends to us, we cannot help but keep one another’s sins in perspective.

Remembering God’s grace toward us, we are left with no other option than to extend it to others. 

But God doesn’t just forgive; God also restores. God gives 2nd and 5th and 194th chances, “grace upon grace” as John 1:16 phrases it. The grace we receive helps us pause, take note, then [eventually] search for opportunities to extend that same grace to others.

Back to letting go.

I think one of the most meaningful steps in the journey of faith is when a child’s faith becomes their own. The training wheels-mom and dad and church friends-eventually come off as we launch into an educational journey, military service, or a regular job, and at some point, so many of us discover there was something real and life-giving and salvific happening throughout our entire life, and we didn’t even know it.

On that same *letting go* concept, I’m struck with this closing thought:

Parents let go. Then their children, who often become parents must also let go; and the pattern continues. But God, from what is revealed in written Scripture, is and always will be a good and loving and patient parent. And he even loves us enough to always correct and restore and redeem our wandering selves. Instead of bracing for a future moment of letting go, we can be sure that in God our future is secure and safe, that through Christ our Lord is making all things new through the power of his Spirit.

Unlike Kaile and me and all human parents,

God doesn’t ever become disinterested;

God doesn’t become impatient with us; 

God doesn’t get disappointed in us;

God doesn’t leave us;

God doesn’t let go. 

***

 

 

 

Pelted with Hail [with our Toddlers]

I had an exhausting, exhilarating Monday.

For me, Mondays are full days. After a busy Sunday spent leading, connecting, and doing random tasks at my church, Monday is Kaile’s study day-from 8:30 to 5:30, she’s out at a local coffee place working on coursework while I care for Maelin and Silas.

For those of you who know or have even seen pictures of our toddlers, you have surely gathered at least some hint of their energy levels [high]. Sometimes Silas gets so wound up he yells at the top of his lungs while swinging his arms, which are sometimes attached to toys, which sometimes fly out of his hands and crash throughout the house-or on Maelin’s head.

Maelin, you must know, has one of the most piercing and distinctive crying sounds I’ve heard in my limited experience. It is quite loud, loud enough that to warrant sympathy from neighbors and friends-and a few threats to call the police on us. I suppose that’s a story for another time.

The weather today forecasted rain, so we were forced to remain inside until about ten in the morning. By that point we were all beyond ready to be outside our 800 square foot apartment, so I put the boys in rain slickers and Batman boots, and we sought our fortune at nearby Sylvan playground.

Events unfolded with relative peace: Silas found and proceeded to carefully, almost scientifically inspect a tiny fly, Maelin careened through puddles on his three-wheeled scooter, and daddy was thankful for the change in weather that had allowed us to be outside.

Initially was gorgeous.

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The sidewalks were dry, and the boys and I were more or less carefree.

It was moments after having snapped this picture that I became aware of the interesting cloud formation in the distance

I heard a dull roar in the distance.

Maelin! Silas! We need to get going!

The boys ambled along distractedly, as is normal, so I coached them unceasingly.

“Mr. Tiny [Maelin], come on! I’m going to count, 1-2-3!”

“You guys, we have got to go!”

Here’s the picture I took right before the deluge. Note the dark blue clouds to the left side of the frame.

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Soon the rain hit, crushing and cold. As I heard the sound, I realized it wasn’t rain at all.

It was hail.

Pea-sized pellets began to pelt us.

Unfortunately I had parked our stroller rather far away. Silas was beginning to cry out, “daddy, the ice is hitting me! The ice, owiiee! Help me!” Maelin was just sort of crying, lacking the words to express what he was experiencing.

As the hail blasted them, I was thankful they had their helmets on as I presently found myself running, holding the handle to each boy’s scooter with my two hands. They cried as I coached, and we raced to the stroller which has protective covers.

They would soon be safe and warm, but at that moment things were bleak.

For me, I was a little frustrated at being cold, pelted, wet, and now faced with a lot more work once I made it home. A bath would be in the works, plus drying their small clothes, not a typical mid-day thing.

Once they were in the stroller for a couple minutes, the hail stopped. And on our way home they were incredibly calm, stunned-no, catatonic! after thinking back on what had just happened.

Their calmness allowed me the presence of mind to reflect on some of my own life experiences, times when I have felt closer or farther from God, closer or farther from others. Interesting how proximity to God and proximity to others seem to correlate rather closely!

And it was during the the walk when I again realized how God parents me, how God watches over us. Our family, though certainly stretched thin at times, is together and quite intact. We are tired, probably undernourished from a diet consisting of far too many chicken nuggets and peanut butter & jelly than is healthy [but oh so convenient!], and don’t always have some of the conveniences we might like.

But we are okay. Kaile is growing massively in her graduate program in drama therapy; I am growing in my vocation and the related skillsets, and our boys are making real progress not only in their growth and development but also in their relationship with one another.

And during recent stormy seasons, God’s goodness has been especially clear.

Like the time we were in San Francisco, stranded with two kids, no family around, and the news of no job.

Like the time I prayed for a renewed sense of community, and God reveals new relationships and blesses them.

Like how our kids, who we pray for all the time, and who are really high intensity, pause and say “daddy, I love you.”

The words of Jesus in his cosmos-shifting Sermon on the Mount ring as true as ever:

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. [Matthew 6:30-33]

Watching as my boys trusted completely in me during the hail storm with their white-knuckled grip on their scooters reminded me of the kind of trust I have to place in God.

And here’s the best news of all: as a parent, I’m grumpy, inconsistent, frazzled…

…and God isn’t.

***

 

 

Light Enters Darkness :: A Spoken Word Poem for Christmas

This past Advent, a small team and I were tasked with planning and leading our Christmas Eve worship gathering. In lieu of a message or sermon, we decided to motivate a small team of performers and tell the big story of Jesus entering into humanity-the incarnation.

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God’s Son, Jesus, took on human flesh and entered our struggle. He celebrated humanity and affirmed God’s love for us. If any of us were wondering if God cares about the world, we needn’t look any further than Jesus!

Our group of 7 [Laurel, Ethan, Anna, Lucas, Zach, Kaile, and yours truly] performed this poem Christmas Eve for our church and the many guests who were present from out of town.

Ok, about this poem. It’s in the spoken word style, so if you’re unfamiliar head to YouTube and look it up. Essentially, it’s a rhythmic iteration of poetry that holds all the typical elements of poetry in one hand while clinging to lyrical performance with the other. It’s a thing of its own.

For this poem, it ended up taking a fourfold format. Inspired by the insights of my friend and co-worker Suzanne, it traces the theological theme of light entering darkness throughout four portions of Scripture:

1. Genesis 1-3 / 2. The Old Testament Prophets / 3. John 1:1-14 / 4. Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2

I’d suggest reading this out loud or taking turns with a small group of people. There are some italicized and bolded words, and this was part of the original formatting for the poem. The markings serve to highlight inner rhyming and alliteration, and assisted the readers [and myself of course!] in our performance role.

If anyone is inspired to tuck this away and use it in any form or function, I would love to hear about how it connects with listeners-so please keep me informed!

Ok. Here goes.

Light Enters Darkness

Genesis 1-3

“Let there be light” spoke an ancient voice over an expanse of space filled to overflowing with darkness, there was no sun glowing, there was nothingness; there was emptiness waiting for divine direction, restless creation waiting for God’s creative initiation-and the only relationship was between the creative One and the expanse that had been caused – from nothing, ex nihilo – to come – so: now there was something.  WUAes5HCTQiaRT+1ju6luA.jpg

“Let there be light” came this word from an ancient Creator, spinning together a world in the expanse of space, separating every night from its day, governing each rotation of the planet with God’s particular pace; now there were distinct days – and while each night offers a break from the hot sun, each day is filled brightly filled with energetic light, and every turn of the madly rotating globe gives the sun a chance to offer new hope: yes, let there be light!

“Let there be light” rang out the word, and it was heard all throughout the cosmos, it echoed even as the stars came into their celestial setting and plants began to grow; and our planet’s first inhabitants quickly began to feel love the Creator was showing. And although the glowing light of day caused night to flee for many hours as it radiates, darkness would eventually creep in in the form of a snake displacing the tranquility of a world so newly made within the vastness of space.

“Let there be light” became less metaphorical and more practical as spiritual darkness wrapped its shadow over our spherical planet. Adam and Eve couldn’t stand it, but theirs were the only hands in it; their actions had landed them in oppositionoppositionopposition to their source, their hope for their children’s children. They had chosen to rebel from their Creator though he still pursued them.

Yes, “let there be light” was a promise that did not cease after our ancient ancestors experienced death; no, there was more story left waiting to be told as a brief portion of inspired text revealed the plans that God would execute throughout history. And yeah it’s a mystery Jesus was distant to Eve and Adam, and yeah Jesus is not mentioned by name-but God’s ultimate intention remained. Jesus would eventually come to crush the serpent’s taunting head, trampling down death by his own death, one day shocking the evil powers that thought the end of a life meant the continuation of the world’s spiritual night.

“Let there be light” was a promise, yes, for the sun to shine and divide day and night; but God’s true delight was to eventually end the seemingly endless cycles of violence that continue turning human creativity into a crushing proclivity toward complacent silence. Yes, God was tireless in his promises and he put into motion a plan, from the start, that placed eternity as a central desire in human hearts.

Let. There. Be. Light.

Prophetic Witness

Light will one day come to this world currently shielded spiritually from the son, the prophets, priests, and psalmists wrote about a light that would come break in, that would come take on sin and remove this barrier for all men and women. These writers were woke, ready to offer hope to the beaten down people of Israel-and what was spoken? What new horizons did they open? What could these ancient people put their hope in?

Light will one day come to this world and brighten the night like an explosion, but the oceans of text we behold first told of a king who do real justice on planet earth, who was foretold to rule righteously through a humble birth in obscurity. Insightfully, the Psalm-writers insisted we worship the king who would one day appear, though they often got distracted with their own rulers and their own political atmosphere, the ancient writers were still pretty keen on the gravity of God someday portraying himself eternally-and clearly-to all people, to those who are far, like us, and to those who were near.

fullsizeoutput_a5eLight will one day come to this world, and it was supposed to be a virgin who would conceive, and yeah that’s hard to believe but God would also give us eyes to spiritually see, so in keeping with the words of Isaiah maybe this foretelling was to be taken literally. Isaiah spoke of a virgin conceiving a baby. Yeah, well maybe, though the idea was swell few believed Immanuel, God with us, was something they could really trust-mainly because they sometimes lost faith that God is truly for us.

And yet, they insisted: Light will one day come to this world, said Micah. From the tribe of Judah, he said, from Bethlehem-the house of bread-and instead of just feeding the people for a day Jesus would rescue them from death. He would shepherd his people and become their peace, yes, this man born in obscurity, he would spiritually release them from captivity and bring them life eternally: this was the prophetic certainty.

Light will one day come to this world, the prophets said. Israel would finally be secure and vindicated; their nation’s suffering wasn’t wasted, for everything God initiated could now be tasted and seen [even touched and believed!] ..their holy nation was newly appreciated for giving the world Light to see, a living hope to believe. Though not all would eventually perceive the subversive authority of a new Messiah, the many who would receive Him would know he didn’t just die on Calvary’s tree but he rose up and conquered hell below then ascended to sit at heaven’s throne.

Light will one day come to this world said the prophets-nothing could stop it repeated Isaiah, for one special night a Savior would be born who be called Christ the Lord. The people would see a great light and darkness would be dispelled when Jesus would rhetorically compel them to understand their ancient laws in a new way. In this new day they would come out of the spiritual dark and discover their law was meant not to simply govern outer actions but to transform the heart.

Yeah, light will one day come to this world-but there was a lot of waiting involved as silence crept over the prophets and the Spirit was hushed and; for four-hundred years the people had to trust and believe that all of their fears would someway, somehow lead to deep peace. The captives would one day be released, and God’s people would help the world to see hope unfurled through the clouds and darkly shrouded swirls.

Yes, insisted the prophets: light will one day come to this world.

John 1:1-14

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. Moon and sun came later, stars would expand into space at the hands of the Creator; but the Word was first in this plan; the God-Man was already prepared to become humanity’s Savior. The Word was first, and as all creation began to burst out of the formless expanse, everything was held together in Jesus’ careful hands. Yes, Jesus the Life-Light blazed out of the darkness and the darkness couldn’t put the light out, and though the creation would come unglued the creative life-light would one day come down to pursue God’s plan to turn everything around. 

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. And at the apex of history, a man named John would come into the nexus of creation’s fragility-to baptize and mark out the path to the kingdom of God according to salvation’s necessity. He came as a nephew-to-be to Joseph and Mary, who was also carrying a surprise baby: Jesus, John’s cousin-to-be. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were scared to death as their parenting role shifted for the years they had left, yes-they were old-but as their story unfolds our eyes behold the hope of one who would go before the Messiah, boldly proclaiming the coming day of the LordIMG_6435

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. So as John pointed the way to the Life-Light, he did everything he could do to live right, to give sight to those who always felt like they were tightly sealed in the darkness; John started to proclaim a new kind of hope to the chosen people of Yahweh, the one God of all gods. John explained a new way of carving out identity, how God’s people weren’t meant to be an entity unto themselves but a people ready to be responsive to the world’s deepest needs. In history we see how Jesus was supported, freed, and upheld because of his cousin John, we see him as a foundation He was built upon, through the relational plan of God.

Jesus the Life-Light was first-present to God from day one. The Son, the life-light, was tempted, tried, and rejected by many of his own people; so many were caught in the swirls of evil directives and they couldn’t believe he was who he claimed to be even though it was plain to see his ministry was filled to the brim with real healings yet maintaining an emphasis on spiritual seeing.

Yes, believing was the hardest part, for the people walked in darkness, and though they saw a great light, Jesus the Life-light was often confused for another desert leader stealing the limelight. And yet Jesus insisted we are blessed who believe without seeing, so even though faith is supported through the doubts of Thomas we can honestly trust the promise of the Life-Light is also for us.

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. So when He finally did come on a special night, the Life-Light, the Son came to usher in the kingdom and make not only our spiritual lives, but all creation right.

Mary / Joseph Sequence

Mary ::

“You will have a son” said this angel, and I was sort of, well, overcome. See, my life story hasn’t exactly been boring but imagining a baby boy inside my body was beyond what my mind could explore at that point. But the angel implored me not to be afraid, I had found favor with God; I was okay, even with all the mistakes I’ve made over my years, my weeks, my days. Yeah, it’s okay, it’s okay. But then I had to tell my fiancé.

Joseph ::

…It’s ok, said my fiancé, but that wasn’t the news I felt ready to hear that day, NO. The heat of anger rose up in my soul as her words scattered over me, and as I lost control, then BOOM! As I put my hand down on the table my voice rose slightly in my outer self and I asked Mary un-politely what really happened to her that night she gave herself to someone else. But she sold me a crock story about the *Holy Spirit* – and I wasn’t prepared to hear that, my anger was so near that.. It ate me up, and I said forget that. And I turned and left, thinking I’d never come back.

Mary ::

“You will have a son” said this angel, and with Joseph, well, I wondered during the argument whether running away might make sense. But I hung in there, I stuck to my guns, and… I heard the message, and though my pregnancy had just begun I had no choice but to wait for Joseph to come back and listen close, to trust that somehow God would speak to my betrothed, that we could find the forgiveness we needed most. See, I had my simple testimony, and even though my time away from Joseph was overwhelmingly lonely I had God above holding me, I had God’s Son exploding me… and I had God’s Spirit enfolding me.

Joseph ::

I was ready for a quick, quiet divorce; of course Mary had her story but I was still unconvinced-there had to be more for me. So I told myself let it be, I got down on my knees, and wrestling with the anger I couldn’t appease-the burning pain inside-I just closed my eyes and prayed for hope to return to my quiet life. I slept light… hoping for a peace from God to ease the unrest within me.

Mary ::

Inside, I wondered and prayed God would work within Joseph as he had in my life. I had tried to convince with my visitation story but in a moment of hesitation Joseph said, “that’s not working for me.” But God, if you can, speak to Joseph, speak to my love; can you assure him that I haven’t given myself to anyone? That I’m carrying your Son? That he’s still my beloved one?

Joseph ::

I loved the feel of sleep. Then, as I rested, suddenly: a dream! Maybe you’ve had the kind of dreaming-feel where everything happening seems to be real-like you’re literally living out the scene? This was no third person dream experience; it was as real as hearing from someone else, someone else with authority, who clearly knew more than me. It was an angel-just like for my fiancé, Mary! An angel carried to me a message about Mary’s Son, the one that I had doubted, and the thing about it was she was speaking God’s truth-there was no way around it.

So the angel told me to name our little one Jesus, and mentioned something about how He’d one day free us, free us from sin and deliver us through the power given to Him. There was something about the ancient prophecies, something they foretold about Mary and me: He’s Immanuel-God with us-and all this from our tiny, unborn Son whom I haven’t yet even had the chance to love.

Mary ::

Vindicated. Vindicated! Though I had waited so patiently, now my joy can’t be overstated: Joseph finally believes me even if it took a God-given dream. You see God is good, so I’m gonna sing out, I’ll tell the world all about how God has looked upon me, seen me, freed me, believed in me, and even conceived the Son of God’s life deep inside me. Yes, the Mighty One has done great things for me; my heart explodes in celebration. From one generation to the next God’s mercy extends to those who fear him; He’s near to them. And for the humble ones seeking and trusting him he lifts them high. But God also brings down the proud and afflicts those who rule unjustly in his eyes.

fullsizeoutput_9f2Yeah, we can trust Yahweh to feed the hungry while the rich get richer but more spiritually empty. It doesn’t even make sense to me but God acts mercifully not only to my people, Israel, but to everybody who responds to the love of the God-child still inside me. Praise be to mighty Yahweh, the God who not only loves little old me, but cares enough for the world’s problems to not just let it be, but through his Son enter into history and through victory over death he would bind up our wounds, heal us, give us the Spirit with his breath; he would rescue us from our ancient enemy, and set us free.

***

An Open Letter to our Male Toddlers in the #metoo Era

Silas, Maelin, you’re both asleep as I write. Your tiny eyes are closed, and the blankets you threw off during the night are in disarray around you.

You’re snug, cozy, secure.

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When you’re awake you’re filled with wonder, energy, excitement, curiosity for life.

M5cFlyC3SLCULMEVbNVspA

Needless to say, I’m a proud dad.

I’m proud of who each of you are. Silas, you’re fascinated with the world. Recently, your big phrase has been, “why daddy, why?” You have got to know how things work in the world. Maelin, you are bold, ruggedly driven to keep up with your brother who is more than twice your age. As a second son myself, I respect your tenacity [and you’re only 1!].

Right now, you’re both concerned about why mommy is away at class [because she’s learning!] or why daddy has to go to work [you’re going on your bike, daddy]. You want to hear our stories about the Gentle Giant, to read books with us, to go on adventures with us.

Eventually, you’re going to wonder new kinds of questions. You’ll begin to ask about what is the source of happiness and deep joy-why people flourish and find contentment in life. Conversely, you’ll want to know what causes unrest and violence in families and communities, what the source of evil is might be.

Mommy and I are going to do our absolute best to walk you each through these questions. We’ll talk about how God is good, how God created each of us-and this beautiful world we live in, and about how God is at work through the Spirit in the church that Jesus initiated-and how the church tries [with the Spirit’s help!] to point us toward the kingdom of heaven, the place where God’s reign is evident.

We’ll also tell you about new creation, the way that Jesus will return to earth and how heaven and earth will one day no longer be separate.

Chances are, there will be some confusion. You’ll wonder if what we’re saying is true. You’ll wonder how the kingdom of God operates. You’ll have doubts, for sure, but also times when you’re convinced God is really at work. Your faith will fluctuate, but your parents will be praying it forward at every step.

Now.

You’ll also have questions about sexuality, and whether or not you voice those questions to us, we are going to be talking through a lot of different things related to relationships and sexuality with you both!

Accordingly, I want to touch on an aspect of our current cultural situation. A lot of women have been recently adding portions of their life stories to a Twitter campaign. Using the hashtag #metoo, they’re letting the world know about how men in their lives have done them wrong.

And there is a massive response. Countless male celebrities and politicians are being called out for their sexual harassment, advances on women, their sexual assaults, their acts of rape. There is power in seeing such powerful men humbled. This happens at church too [#churchtoo], and it’s meaningful to see the hashtag campaign prompting some acts of inner-reformation to the faith community.

The #metoo campaign is giving voice and strength to women who have not felt empowered to share their pain-and we need to listen closely. Recently someone Tweeted about how Christmas is, in part, about believing a woman about her sexual experiences. Indeed, before a holy dream, Joseph had his doubts about his fiancé’s sex life!

When women gain the courage to honestly share their stories, it brings accountability to men who have taken advantage of their powerful positions.

All of that said, there are countless, well-meaning Tweets directed at men saying things along the lines of, “get better, men” or “come on men of America, step up your game.” This is a well-intentioned but sadly unhelpful sentiment, for it offers no pathway forward besides essentially pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

This “get better” mentality imbues shame while failing to provide resources or direction. Yes, men must get better; but a Tweet won’t fix us. Holy Spirit-inspired, heart-based spiritual transformation will.

With the #metoo campaign happening, I want to offer three ways to not only stay far away from such accusations, but prevent the very conditions that allow for it-to experience heart transformation. The road toward sexual violence has a great many pitstops, from the way a young person observes their parents’ attitudes toward sex, to how they internalize those messages, to pornography or other sexual addictions, to how they approach the place of sex in relationships.

To change the world, we must ourselves be changed. 

To me, sex is to happen in the context of committed marriage, and women [and men too, obviously] are to be respected both relationally and sexually. This may sound odd or old-fashioned, but I believe this is the best way to approach relationships and sex.

The Bible never makes a separation between sex and marriage; they are always part of the same bond. I’m of that same mindset, and there happen to be a great number of resources and research that reveal where the Bible’s ancient wisdom intersects with contemporary life.

Anyway, here are a few admonitions that I want to impart to each of you, just a few steps that will keep you on a path that I pray will lead to relational wholeness. Even if you’re never as famous as Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Louis C.K., or Bill Cosby, the people you end up in relationship with have much to gain or lose as the women affected by these famous men now caught in their sin [sexual violations of various kinds].

1. Stay anchored in Jesus spiritually, and take his teachings seriously.   

As Christians, we metaphorically participate in the life of Jesus by participating in the body of Christ, the church. Jesus emptied Himself in order that God might fill Him up [Philippians 2:6-11], and in a similar way we, as Christians, learn to imitate Jesus and allow the Spirit of Christ to fill us up.

When it comes to sex, Jesus’s clearest teaching is probably the soaring Sermon on the Mount found in the New Testament’s first book, Matthew, in chapters 5-7. Eugene Peterson translates verses 27-28 like this:

You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices-they also corrupt. 

Jesus was talking to Jewish folks who were pretty well-acquainted the laws of the Pentateuch [first 5 books of the Bible]. But some Jewish folks had also gotten pretty good at finding ways around the law. A look into first-century rabbinical literature will reveal varying viewpoints on the permissibility of divorce for various reasons [like when a man’s wife fails to cook a meal to his liking-that’s a serious problem!].

Instead of entering the banter regarding the ins and outs of divorce, Jesus goes straight to the soul. He confronts the heart-attitudes that drive and direct us. Indeed, the heart can be corrupted rather quickly.

And how egregious are the consequences? It’s impossible to overestimate the pain that sexual violence causes. Women are driven to depression, anxiety, isolation, and even suicide. Don’t believe me? Start listening, please, not for me but for people who are affected. Talk to mom about what she has gone through, she’ll be more than willing to share with you. Talk to the [at least] one in three women who has experienced sexual trauma.

An old friend recently posted this picture on Facebook. This isn’t the complete text of what she posted, but it’s the beginning:

Surviving sexual assault is strange.door.prop
*
It is so many different things to so many different people.
*
It is working downtown and getting out after dark. So, you make sure to take your ponytail out, change into shoes you can run in, activate your emergency apps, make sure not to wear a scarf or visible necklace, put your keys between your fingers, and call a friend who will talk to you on the walk to your car. Making sure to text when you get home safe.

*

*

This is the too-often unspoken reality of sexual assault and abuse. It’s fear that no one should have to experience.

Silas, Maelin, take Jesus seriously! He cares about your soul-yet also about other people in your lives who you affect. Your actions matter. Jesus wants the very best for you and even provides a path to get there. Would you grow into your full spiritual stature and take it? Respecting women and ordering your relationships rightly may take a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

I love you guys.

Ok, on to the next thought.

2. Connect with a local church and be willing to be changed through it. 

Yes, we have raised you guys in church, and by now you have seen the flaws and inconsistencies native to the community of faith.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not shaping you positively. If we disassociated ourselves with every flawed institution and person we’d be stranded entirely. There is no politician, business, organization, or individual apart from Jesus who is unflawed, who is without sin. And Jesus leads the church. That’s good news.

When we’re around church for long enough, it becomes less a place where we learn new things about God and more a place where we are reminded and empowered to live into what we already know. It becomes less a place where we find new spiritual insights and more a place where we have a community to put those insights into real-world practice.

Our communities shape us.

Be a faithful member of a community that will shape you to know and love and follow Jesus. 

3. Build real, lasting spiritual friendships 

There’s a reason I write this directly after the local church piece, for it is so often through the relationships begun in the church community that spiritual relationships grow.

That said, this particular admonition comes from two places within my life experience: 1. experiencing the power of deep spiritual friendship, and 2. at various seasons, not having those relationships and subsequently discovering what I was missing.

Through spiritual friends, God offers us godself. Created in God’s image, when we are at our best, we can help others experience the reality of God’s kingdom. 

There are parts of every person that reflect not our brokenness but God’s wholeness; not our dis-integration but God’s ordered-ness.

And this is why I want to encourage each of you to seek deep friendships, and to carve out a place for trust, for listening, for confession, for accountability, for support, and maybe all of this for a lifetime.

Silas, Maelin, we want your hearts to be transformed! Not only do we want you to stay out of any kind of trouble, but we want your soul to resonate with Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith. We don’t want you to live lives that are based on looking good and pretending to be some awesome person; instead, we want to deeply desire the things we were created to desire and to walk humbly with Jesus.

Love, mommy and daddy.

***

Jesus Calls Us to Die. Literally.

Not long ago, a friend of mine challenged me theologically on how the Christian church is to interpret the teachings and example of Jesus, particularly in terms of nonviolence.

Here is my response.

The text in question, primarily, is the Sermon on the Mount, spoken in 1st century Palestine to Jesus’s closest followers, plus an apparent crowd of Jewish folks from nearby villages may have been listening in. Looming large is the question of how Jesus’s teachings relate to Christians living in the 21st century, whether American-or not-and how to receive the radical challenge Jesus gives his Jewish-turned [over just a few years]-multinational audience.

Jesus begins his sweeping homiletic discourse with the Beatitudes [verses 2-12]. Essentially, Jesus insists that we are blessed or happy or in a really good spot when our present conditions are, seemingly, not so blessed.

Already, Jesus is painting a picture of a very different world

Next, salt and light [verses 13-16]: Jesus calls out a special community, a people set apart to flavor the world with a new way of existing [i.e. the Beatitudes!]. They are called also to be a model, an example, a “city on a hill,” a light set on its stand to brighten planet earth with new ways of coexisting, governed by a new law of love.

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to connect his teachings to the Jewish law that came into practice centuries earlier, the ancient code that set the people of Israel apart from the nations as a people who knew the one true God, Yahweh.

What is happening here? Is Jesus insisting all the details of the law must continue? Shall the new converts following Jesus continue wearing clothing consisting of just one fabric, or can they mix it up [Lev. 19:19]? Can they plant two kinds of seeds in their fields now? How about that bacon they have always wanted to try?

Without a doubt, Jesus is underscoring certain aspects of the law while reappropriating other portions of the ancient Jewish code, for as his earth-shaking sermon continues, he casts new light on six categories of human interaction. Each teaching assumes knowledge of the exterior guardrails of the law, the rule-keeping; but Jesus’s words get at the inner motivation contained in the human soul: 

  1. Anger
  2. Lust
  3. Marriage/Divorce
  4. Language
  5. Self-Defense/Retaliation
  6. Loving One’s Enemy

How can Jesus on one hand insist he’s fulfilling the law, and holding followers to do the same, while also re-working it?

I turned to one of my commentaries, searching for quality language and scholarship to help give meaning to how exactly this fulfillment/completion paradoxically radicalizes-and changes-Old Testament law:

It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.*

I bolded that last section because it’s important. We don’t see many Christians holding tight to the ancient laws, and this is one of the theological reasons why. Jesus changed everything, so much so that we now observe all of Scripture using the new lens of His teachings and atoning work on a Roman cross.

It’s not that the law disappears; instead, it is seen in new light.

Possibly the strongest example of Jesus radicalizing the expectations of the law follows in 5:38-42. Here, He actually overrules the Torah! Referring to the lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” presented in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Exodus chapters 21 and 22 codify self-protection norms; for example, a nighttime intruder can be killed, but if they break in during the day, the defender is guilty if they kill.

Not so for Jesus.

Here, he insists even self-defense is prohibited:

 

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.** 

Emphasizing various cultural factors, a number of theologians have attempted to soften the theological force of this passage. And it makes sense why this happens: how could we possibly live like that?

It seemed appropriate to turn to a respected scholar for insight. No matter how we look at it, Richard B. Hays is pretty hard to keep off a top-5 list of theologians of our era. What might he have to say about the Sermon on the Mount? After a thorough defense of how the teachings of Jesus square not only with the Matthean witness but with the whole canon, he offers his perspective on the how the strange pacifist teachings found in the Matthew 5:38-42 work in reality:

“The posture of the community is not to be one of supine passivity, however. The actions positively prescribed here are parabolic gestures of renunciation and service. By doing more than what the oppressor requires, the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights. Thus, the prophetic nonresistance of the community may not only confound the enemy but also pose an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom.”*** 

My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.” 

That attitude is as deeply felt as it is widespread. For so many Americans, it is part and parcel of our national framework for seeing all of life.

What might be another approach? Like, an actual example?

How about the 2006 West Nickel Mines Shooting? On an early October day 11 years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish school and, after a hostage situation, shot 8 out of 10 female hostages aged 6-13 years old. He killed 6, including himself, and there were 5 non-fatal injuries.

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It wasn’t long before the Amish responded. But it wasn’t with calls for justice; instead, the response was the embodiment of forgiving love. They decisively forgave the shooter, and took it upon themselves to visit his surviving family. They also set up a charitable fund for Marie Roberts, the shooter’s wife.

 

One Amish man held Roberts’ grieving father in his arms for nearly an hour, allowing him to simply let go of his tears and lean, literally, on someone who apparently cared. 

I also think of certain movements, revolutions in the history of the world that feature nonviolent actions. Imagine the work of Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly infused with violence and self-protection? Is not the power removed?

Yes, we know that there were small pockets of violence that erupted among protesters, but this was not characteristic of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. I must imagine that if it had been, America would not have made the same progress.

Going back a bit farther in history, it’s hard not to mention Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. After forging a simple knotted rope, he escaped from a window, then fled his captors over the surface of a frozen castle moat. He was thin from prison rations, but his heavier pursuer fell into the ice.

dirk.willems

Gripped with compassion, Willems turned to pull the man out, and was able to save his life. Unfortunately, the man was less than grateful; Willems was imprisoned again, this time in a far more secure facility where the possibility of escape was nought.

 

He was then burned alive.

Such a radical act smacks greatly of the kind of enemy-love Jesus enjoins us to practice. If this isn’t “do not resist the one who is evil” I’m not sure what is.

Unfortunately, we too often attempt to soften the strong words of Jesus in his great Sermon. Instead of recognizing them for what they are and attempting, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond with our lives, we theologize about how the commands of Christ are impossible ideals [Reinhold Niebuhr].

We revert the Old Testament lex talionis eye-for-an-eye paradigm that Jesus modified. We talk about how we’re just looking out for our families, a noble cause indeed.

We as Christians have the hope of New Creation, of heaven being reunited with earth, of rejoicing forever with the family of believers; yet so many of us cling to our guns, our 2nd Amendment *rights*, and our middle-class worries about the safety of our families.

So many Christians are positionally convinced on a great many other ethical and soteriological questions, such as what constitutes a marriage, what salvation means precisely, what loving one’s neighbor means, creation care, and a host of other important questions.

We have verses to back it all up of course.

As an American, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who feel compelled to arm and defend themselves out of fear of attack. I am uncomfortable with passivity when it comes to the safety of one’s family. And I recently wrote about this, in some detail.

I write my position as an invitation and good-hearted challenge, not as the sole way of reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. There are many who see it differently.

I understand that we receive grace and how God’s forgiveness is boundless. At the same time, I am reminded that the same Jesus who insisted we turn our cheek; that we are not to resist an evil doer; that we are to give away our cloak and tunic; yes, that same Jesus [in the same Gospel account!] invites us to take up our cross and follow Him [Matthew 16:24].

He also says, in the next verse, that those who lose their lives for Him will find it. Much of the time, this is certainly metaphorical.

But what if it were literal? 

It was for Stephen, who was stoned to death for insisting Jesus was Lord [Acts 6].

It was for Philip, whose head was bound to a pillar before he was stoned to death.

It was for James, who was thrown down from a great height before being beaten to death with a club.

It was for Simon Cleophas, crucified under Roman emperor Trajan.

It was for Ignatius, torn apart by wild beasts at a Roman circus.

Ignatius_of_Antioch-martyrdom

I want to spark new thoughts on this topic of nonviolence, not get into the weeds on American politics [though I do have some thoughts on that!]. My goal, really, is to encourage a new look at old words.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to great things. He’s calling us to rise with Him in baptism, to walk with Him in new life, to become-with the community of believers-a light on its stand.

And he’s calling us to die to our old self.

Or maybe, every once in a while and in a tragic story that makes no sense this side of eternity…

…to literally die. 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 103–104). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:38–42). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

***Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996], 326.

From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

I recently tweeted this:

Since my Twitter link to my Facebook page, the conversation continued there. Head to my page in the event that you’re curious, but suffice it to say a *conversation* ensued that has everything to do with what Jesus has to say about violence, self-defense, and killing in general.

Then, today at church we prayed for victims of gun violence:

We cry out to you [God], heal our land from the scourge of gun violence. In the coming days and weeks as our leaders debate solutions, Lord we ask that you grant us the voice to speak truth to power and demonstrate sacrificial compassion to the hurting.

That’s a good summary of the prayer I have mirrored in my soul as I write, so please forgive any sentiment you read that may come across the wrong way.

Now, some biblical background, since I’m a person of faith and since I call Jesus my Savior and my God.

Jesus / Swords

In our discussion, the point was made that Jesus tells his followers to purchase a sword in Luke 22:36. Here’s the ESV version of that verse:

36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Now we are reminded this is is Jesus talking. When it came up, I was reminded of the more intense moments Jesus has, namely his clearing out of the temple. There are couple Gospel passages that feature this event, so here’s one from John 2:13-22, which includes his use of some kind of whip:

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Do we have the makings of a religious zealot?

Does Jesus actually belong to the radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow Rome through the use of force? Is he a sicarii, a dagger person, who wants to quietly knife centurions and government officials that cause so much taxation and injustice toward the Jewish people?

Reza Aslan thinks so. He makes his case in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013]. He bases his case in large part on Luke 22:38, where the disciples apparently possess two swords, and Jesus responds by saying, in the ESV translation, “it is enough.”

Ok, two swords is enough? To overthrow an empire? To defend a group of Jewish men against a large armed force that would come to take Jesus?

I think not. 

You can disagree with me, but it seems two swords isn’t quite enough to take on the Jewish temple guards in addition to the Roman legions who really held the regional power.

Jesus confronts Peter just verses later, telling him to put away his sword. Here’s Luke 22:50-53 [ESV]:

…one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.

So why does Jesus say “it is enough” in Luke 22:38?

It’s a good thing we can study language, since this is all about how words are being used. In the Bible, the phrase Jesus uses is written in Koine Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament. It looks a bit like this:

Ἱκανόν ἐστιν

Literally, at face value, it means, “it is enough.”

Maybe you’ve said to your kids, or to your partner, or to a friend, “hey, that’s enough!” “That’s enough of that!”

“That’s enough!” is a far better rendering of Jesus’s words, for he clearly insists they put away their swords only a few verses later as the authorities close in to take him to his death. He even goes so far as to heal the gentleman affected by his disciple’s act of defense [the dude lops off an ear].

“That’s enough!” is precisely what the NIV and NLT translations contain, so I guess I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

Various grammatical configurations of that same phrase, Ἱκανόν ἐστιν, can be found in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it most often means “that’s enough of that!”

Ok, but what about Jesus instructing his followers to purchase swords in Luke 22:36?

For starts, I thought I’d look into a commentary. This is from the New American Commentary, and the citation is at the end of this post:

And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned. See 20:20–26, “Context.” The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).*

This author, with his biblical scholarship background, renders the idea of “buying a sword” as a metaphorical preparedness for future suffering and spiritual conflict. Early church history reveals a great deal of death among early Christians; volumes have been written on the subject, and the blood of martyrs has indeed been a source of faith for many.

Other readers, such as my friend and former teacher, Peter Simmonds, take this passage as literal. He thinks Jesus is simply telling his followers to buy swords and defend themselves out on the road. That’s certainly possible.

So, I thought I’d check another commentary, an older tome translated from its original German. The original publishing date was 1872. Here’s the English translation of the commentary on verse 36:

Vs. 36. Therefore He said.—Οῦ̓ν subjoins the opposite of their acknowledgment, that at that time they did not lack the least thing. He that hath a purse, let him take it, ἀράτω: Let him not leave it at home, but take it with him on the journey, in order by so careful a preparation to assure himself against any possibility of a lack. Even so let him who possesses a wallet, hasten to avail himself of it. And he that hath not, neither purse nor wallet, let him sell his garment, which he otherwise would at last expose to robbery, and buy—not a purse or a wallet, but what is now more indispensable than clothing and food—a sword. Self-defence is now not only an urgent necessity, but the first necessity of all. This last word we have to understand, not in an allegorical, but in a parabolical sense. If one understands (Olshausen) the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17), he is then also obliged to give to the garment, the wallet, and the shoes a spiritual signification. Our Lord will simply, in a concrete pictorial form, represent to His disciples the right and the duty of necessary defence, in order that they may, by the very opposition to the former command (vs. 35), finally come to the consciousness that an entirely peculiar danger shall break in upon them.**

Oosterzee insists we read Jesus’s command in a parabolic sense. He likens the sword to the spiritual sword referenced in Ephesians 6:17, a passage that uses military language to refer to our spiritual defense against the power of spiritual forces within a dark world.

If I were to go back even further, to early church manuscripts on the subject, they would reveal similar things. To be sure, one could probably dig up scholars who have come to a different conclusion on the topic, but the point stands Jesus is concerned here about spiritual self-defense, not about promoting sword ownership in the 1st century or gun ownership in the 21st century.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus’s disciples were almost all killed for their allegiance to Him.

Indeed, every time we read Scripture, we take it into context; a text without a context is a pretext! In this context, I agree with the commentary in reading the command to purchase swords as metaphorical, for Jesus commands his disciples to put away their swords so immediately. Jesus so radically condemns violence elsewhere in the Gospels that this command to buy swords sticks out like a sore thumb. When taken literally, doesn’t square theologically with Jesus’s central teachings.

One more thought on that matter. Most American Christians would not read Jesus’s strong moral injunctions as literal. For example, the whole bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle and how that’s about how challenging it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God [Mt. 19:24/Mk. 10:25/Lk. 18:25]. That subject hits a bit close to home, so we tidy it up as metaphorical. Point made?

Even a cursory glance through the Sermon on the Mount forces one to reconsider how we are to approach violence and even self-defense. Don’t murder, and don’t even call someone a fool! Forget an eye for an eye; turn your cheek! Love your enemy and pray for those who seek to harm you!

If Jesus’s encouragement to buy swords in Luke 22:36 is to be taken literally, it’s a theologically frail case, and it doesn’t hold water when taken alongside the rest of Jesus’s words-or with early church history. There have been volumes written on Christian non-violence, and this post only alludes briefly to some of the highlights. There exists a lively debate on the subject, of course, and I would enjoin you to be a part of it.

But I do join a host of others who are on similar biblical and theological footing, so if you want to read more, here is a great list to get started.

Now, about the land of the free.

Our American Context / Politics / 2nd Amendment

All of that said, I am a 21st century American. It’s no longer a sword debate; it’s a gun debate. Now let me put my cards on the table. I’m a white guy from the American Midwest-Northwest Michigan in particular; I grew up reading the NRA magazine which featured [I’m guessing it still features this, though I no longer read the magazine] personal stories of how guns helped people defend themselves in their homes and businesses; I also went to a primarily white, evangelical church, which contained plenty of NRA supporters as well as many who held to an opposing viewpoint on guns.

I even owned a gun for about a decade, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

I grew up hunting with my dad, and given the chance, I’d hunt tonight [opening day in Michigan for rifles was four days ago!]. I wholeheartedly support gun hunting, and I especially appreciate how hunting is local, and how the meat is organic, grass-fed-and typically really cheap when you put together all the factors.

I digress.

My Personal Journey

Anyway, hunting aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty that everyone loves to philosophize about: that hypothetical moment your house is suddenly invaded by a hostile enemy seeking to kill you and do terrible things to your kids and wife.

It’s a very unusual scenario for most NRA members and law-abiding gun owners, but it’s an important ethical question nonetheless. As I reflect on this question, I consider my own experiences, which can be excellent teachers.

The first of which comes from sometime in my college years, when I learned in-person that one of my uncles had received his concealed-carry license, which allowed him to carry a small weapon in most public places. I remember asking him, “would you really shoot someone if they broke into your house?”

He replied, “yes Ben, I’d shoot them, and I’d shoot to kill. I have it from good sources that it’s a legally bad idea to simply maim someone; they could sue the shirt off your back. I’d shoot to kill and not ask questions.”

I was taken aback. I cannot imagine the moral weight of killing someone, especially with no questions asked. I’m sure there is another home-defense ethic that departs from my uncle’s view, but hey, a lot of people agree with him.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in sub/urban Grand Rapids. It was urban yet suburban, you see? Anyway, I walk home from work one day and there’s caution tape across my sidewalk. I asked the cops if I could return to my house, and they let me through. I soon discovered, through my roommate, that he had heard gunshots just minutes prior.

The story was ghastly.

My next-door neighbor, Gary, and his estranged adult son became involved in a dispute. Four shots later, he killed him in his own living room.

Dead. 

The gravity of the act set in for me a couple weeks later when I noticed Gary moving new couches in. Maybe it was coincidence and Gary needed new couches, but it certainly seemed as if they had been soaked in his own son’s blood. Did Gary have to kill his son? Was there another option? Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer.

Fast forward again. I’m married now, living in true urban Grand Rapids. One night we notice some things out of place, and Kaile is freaking out about whether someone had come into our house. We locked the doors, called the police, and nothing came of it.

That is, until a few weeks later. As we returned from church, I saw my young neighbor climbing down a ladder. He was in a real hurry, and I confronted him. “Hey, where are you going with that?” “Oh, the other neighbor said they needed the ladder!” I didn’t buy it, so I asked a few more questions and promptly went inside to call the police.

Sure enough, our home had been entered, at least once and probably several times. And it was almost certainly the same group of kids both times.

A few months later, I finally decided since my hunting career appeared to be going nowhere and my convictions about shooting someone-even in self defense-had slowly changed, I decided I’d sell my gun [responsibly]. I simply cannot read Christian Scripture and square the act of shooting someone, even in one’s home, even in self-defense.

That’s just me, mind you.

Now, let’s reverse to when I was finishing up 8th grade. There’s an NRA catchphrase and bumpersticker that originates in the mid-seventies:

“I Will Give Up My Gun When They Peel My Cold Dead Fingers From Around It.”

Charlton Heston later re-popularized it during a pro-gun speech in May 2000 [8th grade for me]:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!‘” 

NRA.Heston

Unsurprisingly, it showed up on the NRA I read in my home not long after the speech.

There’s a real connection in our country to the 2nd Amendment, and not without some compelling arguments. It’s treated almost as a sacred text in some circles. Among the primary examples is this: if fair gun control laws are extended, criminals won’t obey anyway!

Well if that’s our logic, let’s not have speed limits either, since criminals [and many of us!] routinely disobey those too!

I grew up around a community that embraced this cold-dead-hands attitude. And though I challenge aspects of this mentality, I have respect for those who done the ethical work and searched their conscience to conclude that they would indeed use a gun, in an extreme circumstance. Though I disagree and have lots of reasons for my own beliefs, I respect their conclusions.

They have the right, after all.

Gun Control / Research / My Conclusion

That said, I posit the politics related to taking a closer look at how guns are sold and the 2nd Amendment is carried out [remember, its’ phrasing begins with “A well regulated militia…”!] is a different thing entirely.

There is research that correlates the total number of firearms with total deaths. Go do the search, please don’t take my word for it; but it’s real. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. I recently got some pushback for making this observation, and the line of thinking was this:

“That is undeniable, but it is little different than saying there is a correlation of drowning in countries with higher proportions of pools, lakes or ponds. I think it’s a red herring. …The real question would be: is there a correlation between the total number of guns in a city/state/country and the violent crime rate? Or the total suicide rate? If guns kill people, it should follow that there would be more killing where there are guns, and less killing where there aren’t guns. Similarly, there should be less violent crime where there are less guns. I posit that talk about gun deaths and gun suicides doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we’ve been told to believe.”

These are some great points. To take it piecemeal, at least we are in agreement about the essential facts of the matter. More guns=more gun deaths. But is there higher homicide? Well.. yes, there is, at least according to a study conducted between 1980 and 2010. Read it for yourself.

There’s more pushback, to be sure. There are plenty of stories, as I mentioned earlier, about responsible citizens defending their homes and businesses. It is true that guns can be used responsibly, and this does happen regularly. But that does not outweigh the deaths. This gets interesting, because it is politically charged, and there are agendas at stake. Here’s an article to get some conversation going.

But that’s, you know, “liberal media.” 

Let’s try putting on our thinking caps and seeing this from another angle. Let’s say, hypothetically, we all get our concealed permit licenses and .38s or 9mms or .45s. Pick your style, revolver or modern semi-auto, whatever floats your boat. Would crime decrease? Or would criminals simply arms themselves more heavily and plan a bit better? Would communities come together and begin to trust one another more? Or would society begin to splinter more, even, than what we see presently?

According to the research to which I have alluded, this hypothetical society with at least one sidearm per person would actually have more crime than our current setup. And I dare to say there would be a lot less trust of one’s neighbor.

And I’ll add this: do we really want to live like that? Do we want do distrust our neighbor with such vehemence that we all carry weapons? I get that there are particular situations where this kind of distrust follows logically. Some of us live in unsafe areas. However, of the many responsible gun-owners I know, every single one lives in a safe area. This whole vigilante-justice/defend-my-family scenario rarely happens.

I’ll take that a step further. I often hear suicide-related conversations going this way: “if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll find away; even if they don’t have access to a gun, they’ll use pills or jump off a bridge.” Yeah, there is some truth to that; the human will is a powerful force indeed. Guns make it easier, but if the will is there, it’s insuppressible.

But let’s use that same they’ll-find-a-way logic in the case of someone like Adam Lanza, the perpetrator at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. He killed his mom, then proceeded to use her gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, to kill 20 kids between 6 and 7 years old, plus 6 adults, not including his mother.

Hopefully that point is sinking in: the people-kill-people/they’ll-find-a-way-if-they-want-to logic works both ways. Adam wanted to kill, so he found guns to do it. If we ignore the link between the total number of guns and the total number of deaths, we miss an important point: access to guns makes a difference, even if we’re the good guys. For those of us with kids, the Sandy Hook shooting was terrifying. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I do now, and I cannot imagine the horror involved.

All of this said, I continue to respect the gun owner who keeps their arsenal under lock and key, and who is careful about gun-related security. And as I have also said, I do agree that guns can be a perfectly useful tool. Some part ways with me on this point, but while I don’t particularly enjoy the phrasing of the Second Amendment as a “right,” I have no problem with responsible gun ownership.

It’s just a bit jarring when so much of our world has no access to food or water and we Americans are quibbling about owning guns as a “right.” So many have not the “right” to even drink water while we insist on the “right” to have guns. Maybe we could think of it more like a privilege.

And I do question the necessity of such powerful guns as were possessed by Adam Lanza’s mom. Semi-automatic assault rifles? Is that a real need for the typical hunter? Well, no, it’s not. And I understand they will not be peeled from anyone’s cold, dead hands anytime soon. Shooting guns can be can be lots of fun, I have enjoyed trap shooting and target practice as much as the next person. But that does not mean they are not a liability.

Consider the story of a friend I went to high school with years ago.

He is a veteran, gun enthusiast, and fierce supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That said, his service in the military has for him, as for many, come at a cost. He wrote courageously in a social media thread about his responsible use of firearms during dark seasons in his life:

“…I will say this, personally the times when I’ve felt on edge, when I’ve felt the severe urge to end myself, I’ve given my firearms to a friend until I get back to a better place. And that just goes with good training and knowing oneself. Did getting rid of my firearms for a couple nights make the problem go away? Fuck no. Because I knew there were any number of ways I could still take my life.”

I really appreciate the honesty. And I’ve expressed my sincere gratitude for the sacrifices of veterans in this very blog; my concerns are not about that.

Yet, though I am thankful my friend gave his guns to a friend during a trying time, I fear there are many who share not the same restraint. For example, Devin Kelley, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church massacre who took the lives of 26 people ranging in age from a mother and her unborn child, a toddler, teens, adults, and elderly.

Yes, many of us know that a gentlemen shot at and wounded Kelley then pursued him on the freeway before he crashed his SUV a few miles later. Yes, maybe if people in the congregation were carrying, they could have stopped him.

So let’s all beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears and kill that next attacker..? That is the response of so many, and I see why. There is a potential to save some. But my concern is that what we may gain hypothetically will be lost in reality. 

Despite our concealed carry laws and the staggering 310 million guns owned in our country, not a single mass shooting in the past 33 years has been stopped by a responsible gun owner. Not even Sutherland Springs-they were close, but still too late.

Continuing the vigilante/defend-my-family conversation, here’s something I recently saw on Twitter:

Now this, at least in my experience, is the typical mentality that so often goes into a typical philosophy of self-defense. Rarely is it, “oh goodness, I hope never to have to make the decision to kill, even if it’s in self-preservation.” So often it’s what you see here. So often the American philosophy is, “oh, just wait until I get my chance to show ’em who’s boss.” 

Just like driving a car [especially a powerful one] gives us a sense of control and aggression [consider our problem with road rage], carrying a gun also gives us a feeling of power. And according to a 2014 FBI study, it also makes one 8 times more likely to be shot and killed in an argument than be killed trying to stop a crime.

I guess real life isn’t quite like the movies.

Even Christians have this smug I’ll-stop-the-bad-guy mentality, and as you read above, even pastors. “They better know God because they would be meeting Him that day.” Thanks for capitalizing Him, pastor, that’s grammatically respectful of God. But what’s with the egotistical attitude?

Would that it were not so common.

And I’m not saying he is outside his rights whatsoever. As I said, I respect those who have come to the conclusion that they would, under extreme circumstances, shoot to defend themselves. But I am saying this kind of smug self-confidence fueled by a firearm has absolutely no place among the people of God. 

My hope for the average non-Christian American is to consider the research and go about the conversation thoughtfully. So many are already doing this. My hope for my fellow Christians is to do the same, but to go further by considering the example of our teacher, mentor, and Savior, Jesus, who laid down his life for ours. Keep your guns, if that’s your honest conclusion, but please put away the smug attitudes and remember the false sense of power guns can grant their owner.

Picture Jesus carrying a Smith and Wesson .45 and you have to admit it’s a strange image.   I admit that I wonder what the world might be like if we were as devoted to Jesus’s teachings in the same way we’re devoted to 18th century constitutional literature.

Now let’s go back to personal experience. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “wow, this guy doesn’t even care about his family, he wouldn’t defend them.” That would be a logical thing to wonder. Well it’s not something I have glossed over. True, I have done pretty well over the years. We have only been broken into twice, and it was just kids. I was pushed off my bike a while back, but verbal deescalation did the trick. But I guess I honestly haven’t been in a life-threatening situation.

I’ll gladly answer the age-old hypothetical question by telling you the conclusion I’ve come to based on my convictions and life experience. I’d first do my best to help my family escape a life-threatening situation. I’d try to deescalate verbally. I’d phone law enforcement if possible. I do not keep much cash around or valuables. I’m no Schwarzenegger, but I can grapple and I am trained to physically restrain another person, and in the unlikely event of an attack I have no problem using the physical agency I have been given.

Though all of this is helpful, it wouldn’t help me if I was cornered with my family in my apartment without a phone. If that were to be how I would meet my end, I guess I’d pray in my soul while shielding my wife and our two toddler boys, and do my best to absorb the bullets with my physical body.

And if I didn’t make it, emergency services would have to peel my family members, alive or otherwise, from my cold, dead hands. 

***

 

 

 

*Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 555). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (pp. 342–343). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.