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.

IMG_6349
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.”

Advertisements

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.

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.

IMG_6445

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.

fullsizeoutput_a25

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.

***

The World Is Upside Down.

Internally, everyone wants things to be a certain way. Whether in the world, in one’s community, or in one’s own life or even one’s soul, we all have a sense of how life is fundamentally supposed to be like.

As a kid, I remember so vividly the pain my mom experienced after her mom died of cancer. It crept up on her so quickly, and seemingly without any warning. She would be grading papers [she taught Spanish, English, and French] and suddenly she’d be in tears after some small trigger memory of Virginia Kester.

Even when I was little I knew death was a terrible thing. Things weren’t the way they are supposed to be then-and decades later, it’s no different.

And I think we all relate to this in some way or another.

We desire peace when things feel chaotic or violent; we long for harmony in relationships when connections with others feel fragmented; we search for health and well-being when we or a loved one is sick.

There is something within every single human being that desires something different and better. We can tamp that feeling down, suppress it with various means, we can distract ourselves; but when we look into our souls, we desire something different and better. 

Jesus taps into this feeling in his famous Sermon on the Mount. And this world-shaking sermon [I don’t think that’s an overstatement in the least] begins with an sermonic upending of the systems and powers that seem to govern our world.

The term *blessed* means something along the lines of God-favored, happy, and at peace. Jesus is telling us that either right now or in the coming age, we are blessed when these things happen [or we act in these ways].

Take a look [remember, it’s Jesus talking!] ::

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

***

Now if this isn’t the exact opposite of what’s normal, I’m not sure what is. Jesus’s way of seeing things is akin to turning every single cultural value precisely on its head. As an obvious example: when is it blessed to mourn? Or, out of the average 100 people, how many do you think are truly pure in heart [as I write this, I’m doubting whether I would fit the category!]?

A few years back, I saw a map like the one below and thought to myself, gosh, that would be so strange to flip north and south. Then I awkwardly realized that flipping north and south also flips east and west. California would be the east coast, and Maine would be super far west! And Canada looks a bit like Africa with lots of water and ice gaps.

upside.down.map

Just as my perception of the world was radically jarred by seeing from a different vantage point, I recently thought through how Jesus’s words stand so starkly against the way we typically see things in American culture. Here’s my annotated version of the sermon on the mount from my American cultural vantage point [and remember, I live and work in Silicon Valley!] ::

Blessed are the rich in spirit since they’ve obviously got real motivation to press forward with their fitness, career, relationships, and… everything else. #goals

4 Blessed are those who don’t need mourn, because the gods have obviously smiled upon those people so much that they don’t experience any real setbacks in life. #brightside

5 Blessed are the driven, for they will inherit the earth [or at least a good position in the company with some sweet benefits and stock options]. #getitdone 

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for being outwardly seen as a good person, for they will be honored among their peers and in magazines-and probably seen as wonderful, philanthropic people. #humanitarian 

7 Blessed are those who know when and when not to show mercy, for they will be seen as kind and giving people. #love

8 Blessed are those with a pure criminal record, for God will see that and be totally impressed. He’s not worried about the affair that stayed quiet after decades. #sopure

9 Blessed are the peace-desirers, for they stir the pot on Twitter and have just the right thing to say about every news headline; and their sayings make people talk more about justice. #dumptrump

10 Blessed are those who are not persecuted because of anything, for they’re obviously toeing the line and getting along with everyone pretty well. #getalong

11 Blessed are you when people don’t insult you, persecute you, or falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of the things that you stand for. #staycool 

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward on earth, for in the same way the empire prospered in ages past, it prospers now when you follow these key tenets for successful living. #motivation

Not sure if these alternative beatitudes are much of an exaggeration, honestly. If I look in my own soul, I oscillate between terror and frustration when I see my own inclination to my list of *revised* beatitudes. There are some that strike closer to home than others [like verse 10!].

Anyway, I think there’s something within each of us that longs for Jesus’s version to be true, whether or not we even care at all about the guy. We want purity of heart, I think. If God personally offered to offer any one of us the gift of a pure heart, would we not accept it? 

And wouldn’t we all love to inhabit a world where meek people were honored and given a special place? I’ll bet we’d all appreciate working for a meek boss.

That bit about hungering after righteousness, too, makes me imagine what the world would look like if everyone actually lived out lives of deep integrity. Marriages would flourish! Political and business corruption would disappear! Prisons would empty! Racism would be quelled, and marginalized people would be honored.

Imagine if we so elevated peace as a virtue that we finally decided national interest are less important than human lives. Our wars would cease, and bullying would end.

If we imagine deep within our God-breathed consciousness, we can relate to desiring to see God’s kingdom being made real and tangible in our world. We can picture the end results of living as Jesus is inviting us to live: how things are supposed to be.

But, for some reason, it’s so hard to create the kind of seemingly upside-down world that looks like what Jesus is identifying. Thankfully, we also learn in Scripture that God is ultimately making all things new, that heaven and earth will eventually be made one, that the church is the bride of Christ and is set apart to play a key role in bringing about this upside-down kingdom.

We who are Christians believe insist that God is offering to impart the teachings of Jesus to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We actually think God’s kingdom is made visible through such spiritual transformation.

Have you met someone who sees God deeply present in their life even as they experienced a divorce, powerful addiction, or disease?

I’m telling you, this stuff is real.

If we don’t even believe this stuff, we still relate to the desire for Jesus’s way of seeing things to be the status quo. We all have the commonality of imagining how things are supposed to be.

And what if this isn’t all just some strange religious fantasy? What if the beatitudes actually became the norm through the power of God working to make all things new? What if we all just lived as if his teachings were true?

What if the map we’re all reading is upside down?

***

God is Within You.

When I was maybe ten, I learned how my body was [and is, I suppose] a temple for the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians 6:19]. At some point in my early years I was taught that this is one of the reasons not to smoke cigarettes. How that arose as a priority I am not sure, but I guess I could see how the logic works: introducing carcinogens and tar into sensitive human lungs is really bad for us, and since we’re temples for God it’s not a good idea to pollute our physical bodies.

Great point. But I’m not sure if anti-smoking is what the passionate Saint Paul was after. I think there is more to the story!

What’s Paul trying to get at with this whole idea of bodies as temples?

I’m going to take a crack at it. So, at Easter we listen in to a story about a Jesus who dies, then comes back. If you’re part of a liturgical church, you may have followed the church year, journeying with Jesus through his birth, life, ministry, death, then finally-at Easter-resurrection from death.

Well, great!

But aren’t we left with the question of why Jesus ditched us? I mean, wouldn’t it be so nice if we could just go ahead and meet up with Jesus sometime? Might that be an encouragement for those of who sometimes wonder if this great, sweeping Christian narrative might be make-believe?

I thought about this at Easter. Why did Jesus do things this way? Apparently he and God the Father were working together on the whole plan, so couldn’t they have done something to assist with our nagging doubts?

Evidently Jesus trusted the folks who had taken him seriously during his several years of ministry in Galilee and Judea. Clearly he put his faith in a small group of wavering followers [think Thomas] who had to actually confirm that he was, in fact, alive after the gruesome crucifixion.

Those doubting, bumbling, distracted followers went on communicate the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Two millennia later, this message has lasted, and though it has been twisted in nearly every way imaginable, we can still discover a rich, vibrant, faith in the lives of so many individuals across the planet.

Here’s the account we learn of within Scripture regarding why Jesus left. First, at an ultra rational perspective, Jesus would run into trouble at some point connecting with the many people who would love to meet him. Over 2 billion followers of Jesus inhabit planet earth, and that’s a lot of pastoral work for one guy, even if he’s the son of God.

Rationality aside, Jesus tells us he’s going to send the “comforter,” the Holy Spirit [cf. John 14:16]. I suppose he understands our doubts and wants to let us in on why it is that he leaves after doing such amazing things on earth.

Soon, Jesus leaves. Luke’s Gospel does a sufficient job at explaining how this happens, but it’s startling how brief the details turn out to be: Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven [Luke 24:51].

That’s it. Bye, Jesus!

Enjoy the view!

Say hi to God for us!

And he’s gone. Finally-and apparently at the right moment-the Spirit arrives in force [Acts 2:1-13]. Who knows how long the disciples were hanging around waiting for the Spirit to show up? They were worshiping God in the temple [Luke 24:52], so they were certainly convinced that he was legit, but they were still waiting.

Thankfully, the Spirit showed.

Now consider our own context. We’re caught within the matrices of contemporary life, stuck with tax forms, school obligations, vocational discernment, and the host of questions that center on how to be the person we are supposed to be, whatever that means.

Looking deeper, it seems most of us have a sense of how things are supposed to be. Yes, sometimes we see things a little differently than others, but we’d all agree it’s wrong that folks are killing one another; that famines ravage countries and children go hungry; that bullies run not only playgrounds but businesses, militias, and countries.

We all have a sense that things are not quite right, and we all long to be part of changing this.

Some of us are tired of religion, burned out on church, annoyed at fellow church-goers and overwhelmed by the unanswered questions within the life of faith.

And yet, the feelings of desiring a better world persist, so we move to our various ways of accomplishing this. Or, we never had faith in the first place, no religious convictions or faith tradition imparted to us from our family or our community. Yet, we still have a vision for what life is meant to look like. We still have a conscience. We still have this God-given breath, our hopes, our very existence.

We still have humor.

A while back I was at our local park for a few moments with our two tiny boys, Maelin and Silas, and my wife, Kaile. I found a lonely, empty Easter egg and gave it to Silas so he could play with it. Soon, I found a few more eggs. I was stoked-someone didn’t find these eggs. And they were everywhere.

What could be better? Eggs! And all for us!

After a few brief minutes of egg-collecting joy, I realized the eggs were coming from a young couple just around the corner from where we were. A young woman with a large egg basket saw me at immediately took mercy on me for my egg theft. I replaced the eggs I had gathered as rapidly as I could, feeling as ridiculous as ever for failing to realize they had just been hidden.

“I was about to steal all your eggs!” I confessed to the couple, who were still laughing at my mistake.

All of this reminds me that when we learn that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, it has some vast implications:

Can we be temples of God without acknowledging it? 

If we say we don’t believe God, are we still a living account of the God we have disowned? By breathing and existing and living, does not our very existence testify to the beauty of God? 

Could every second of every life throughout all of history become a witness to God, once we see it the right way? 

For Christians, can we listen in to how God has already been at work within us? How do we do that? 

My identity as a Christian-a person who seeks to follow the way of Jesus-consists, at least in part, of a new way of seeing everything. It’s shedding the many corrupting ideas and habits that have entered into my daily life over these thirty years. It’s losing the life I thought I wanted and taking up a new and better way of being the same me. I become more fully human and more alive as I grow slowly into the stature of the biblical picture of new humanity: Jesus.

img_5463.jpg

“People of Color” as a Phrase :: Helpful or Not?

I first mulled over the phrase, “people of color” in 2005 when I was beginning undergraduate college.

This phrase is a current politically correct attempt at succinctly encapsulating the breadth of non-white groups. While some whites have come to find the term problematic because it appears to tacitly suggest whites do not have culture or skin tone [wait-I have a color too!], I do not think this is much of an issue.

The issue is deeper; it’s about the complexity of human culture. I have pulled together five reasons we can find new ways to speak more articulately and-dare I say-freely on these complexities. 

My goal is not to erase the phrase, but to give some nuanced thought on the subject and offer some alternatives that may be helpful. Oh-and it should be noted that I speak from the American context, and this will be evident throughout.

diverse
thanks, Shutterstock [art cred]
1. People of color encapsulates far too many unique human experiences to be a useful phrase. 

Not long ago I attended a conference, and during one of the breakout sessions a woman I know stood up at a conference and begin saying something with the disclaimer, “as a woman of color, I notice that…” She went on to make a great observation on something or other. Now, a word about the woman and her various intersectionalities. She is married, very educated, and quite stable in every external category. And yet, with the phrase people of color, she categorically rolls herself in with African Americans and Latinos.

Did I mention she’s Chinese?

I cannot speak with too much precision on how someone from a background that is significantly more disadvantaged than this particular woman might respond. But it is categorically odd to roll together people groups as diverse as Chinese, Latino, and African American.

In no way was the woman politically incorrect to speak as she did. And I am quite sure she has experienced various forms of exclusion and marginalization, both as a woman and as someone of Chinese descent. But I question how helpful it is to continue using this phrase that is currently in vogue-and so terribly convenient [like on Twitter, where POC is the abbreviation]. People of color is a current attempt to remain politically correct as a society, and respectful of people groups. I grasp the overarching goal, but if deep unity is our agreed [albeit challenging] goal, I am convinced we need something different.

People of color is marginally helpful in its attempt at drawing together people who are marginalized. The goal of being honest about marginalization is excellent! However, I conclude there are better ways to achieve that goal. Assessing intersectionality along with one’s felt position within culture are the more precise and helpful tools for assessing marginalization.

How does a white muslim’s experience the world? Where does a wealthy self-made Korean woman experience exclusion? How does an poorly educated white man from a poor family experience life in 2017? These questions take us on a journey that moves us closer to the root of why and how we feel separated from one another, for they integrate factors that include yet go deeper than one’s phenotype.

Race, class, and gender are the classic sociological lenses, but there are so many more.

2. People of color sounds eerily similar of its etymological predecessor: colored people.

It is incredibly disrespectful to refer to someone as “colored.” We have, as a society, rightly judged this language to be not only arcane but offensive. But our replacement term is, in my view, a stopgap measure on the journey toward greater progress. 

One big pushback to questioning the term is how embedded it is within our language and within culture. Yes, the phrase is popular. It’s quite useful a lot of the time. But that does not mean it’s the best or most uniting phrase for speaking on race.

Interestingly, institutions like the NAACP have preserved the phrase in their title, certainly not because they embrace an attitude of exclusion [this is what they fight against!] but simply because the en-double-a-cee-pee has a familiarity within the American consciousness.

I am not the first to notice the strangeness of the progression from colored people to minorities to people of color. Other observers have seen the same pattern and support people of color as a helpful phrase. And while some seem to resonate deeply with my viewpoint, others are ambivalent. The biggest pushback tends to come not from whites who find the term easy or helpful, but from blacks and Latinos.

And I suppose that’s why I’ve taken time to reflect on the subject and make my case from the white cultural standpoint.

3. People of color places an unnecessary dividing wall between whites and non-whites while propagating a subtle myth of whiteness as superior.

This is where my white perspective and experience speaks directly into the narrative. To insist on using people of color essentially draws a massive line down the center of human relationships, and separates anyone who appears to have primarily European ancestry from every other ethnic group.

I have observed the phrase people of color essentially split a room of people. I have felt it myself! It falsely rolls together disparate ethnic groups and separates them from the general amalgam of white folks. While making white people into one large, monolithic entity, it forces together various ethnicities with essentially no commonalities apart from non-whiteness.

This leads to a subtle Euro-centrism that has unfortunately permeated everything from international politics to colorism, especially within communities of African descent [essentially, the lighter the better]. If white features are seen as preferable, our system is flawed-and people suffer on account of it.

And this leads to the next point.

4. Just like any other ethnic group, not all whites share a similar cultural experience. 

People of color could theoretically be helpful in a context where the population consists of a large white majority and a few pockets of Latinos, Asians, and folks from African descent, but I would suggest that it is becoming increasingly unhelpful if our goal is an integrated society where culture is treasured and differences are appreciated.

Consider a case example.

There is a significant Russian and Eastern European presence in my little corner of Silicon Valley. Plenty of times I have shown up to a playground where I am the only native English speaker, but I share a common skin tone with a pretty decent percentage of fellow tired toddler-chasing parents. There are Asians, Latinos, then… Russians. Or Latvians. Or Belarusians.

This is another situation where people of color, as a phrase, falls flat.

I have very little cultural commonality with a Russian or Latvian, apart from one paternal grandparent who emigrated from Slovenia. Because of a great uncle, I know a couple Slovenian words.

Oh-and I have a similar skin tone.

But that’s it.

Whites tend not to enjoy being rolled together with every other person who looks similar any more than minority groups that are rolled together with other people groups who don’t even look similar.

So think about this: we wouldn’t call a Russian a person of color. And yet, they are indeed linguistically and culturally a minority.

There is a great deal of diversity within the world that lacks melanin. In my own American context, there are WASPs with a massive cultural and economic inheritance from generations; there are poor, under-educated whites who trace their heritage to less-privileged forbears; there are the white persons who are entirely new to the United States, who have strong accents from places as diverse as Paraguay, Russia, France, Argentina, Georgia.

5. There are more accurate and honest ways to communicate one’s identity 

Might it be easier to just get specific?

Hispanic/Latino…

African descent/West African/African American/black…

Italian/Southern European…

Anglo/European descent/white…

Filipino/Korean/Chinese…

Indian/East Asian/Pakistani…

I do not believe it is so difficult to simply get specific. As a culture, our world is primed to embrace differences; in no way should we make it a goal to somehow become colorblind or indifferent to our differences. It is quite the opposite, really-why gloss over the very differences that make our world so fascinating to inhabit? 

Rolling together the experiences of such diverse groups as Asian, African/African American, Latino [and others!] into one simple catch phrase is just…

…lazy.

6. [Bonus!] As a Christian…

I am reminded of a soaring portion of Christian Scripture [Revelation 7:9-10] that speaks on the eternality of cultural differences. Christians anticipate an eternal future that celebrates and includes all peoples:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

 

Christians have no excuse for glossing over cultural differences, for in this text we discover that the new creation God is ushering us into includes all the differences we experience right now! Nor do we who are white and following Jesus have an excuse to secretly prefer sameness to the intricacies of diversity. Instead, we have the great joy of coming together, from every nation/tribe/people/language to extend the kingdom of God.

Whatever our cultural background or color, our eternal future as God’s people includes it.   

New Job, New City / Same Calling.

On May 22nd I wrote a post on how I had lost my job, but not my calling.

On June 22nd I accepted a new position at Palo Alto Vineyard Church, doing almost the same stuff I had been doing at City Church. I’ll be doing ministry with young people, plus some design/visual storytelling/social media/communications/outreach/fill-in-the-blank.

Below are a few of the folks I’ll be working with [though I’m replacing Matt-red shirt].

PA.Vineyard.Staff

My calling continues.

A lot has happened over the past 7 weeks, needless to say! On May 8th, I was laid off, and over the weeks since, there has been a lot of wondering going on in our home-and some stress for sure.

The peace I had been experiencing as I discovered my job was expiring was held right alongside the tensions stemming from the myriad concerns about possible transition. We had plans to consider the possibility of a move back to Michigan slated for July 15th, meaning we intentionally did not talk about this at all even though we planned to begin that conversation mid-summer.

But we are staying here, and it seems things are simply rearranged. We believe God is working through the din and confusion and change, bringing us through to something good and right, to a place where we will learn, contribute and lead.

That place is Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is rather unique in a number of ways. Similar to San Francisco, it has a fascinating history. But instead of the Summer of Love, cable cars, and sourdough [ok, I know there’s a lot more!], Palo Alto has a different edge. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale [where we will likely be living], and their surrounding towns are part of what is referred to locally as “the peninsula.”

Tesla is headquartered here.

The Googleplex, Google’s headquarters and largest campus, is in neighboring Mountain View, where our church office is located.

In Menlo Park, which is adjacent to Palo Alto to the northwest, sits a little [big] campus to a little company called Facebook.

Oh-and just slightly south of Sunnyvale in Cupertino you’ll find Apple’s headquarters. You know how iPhones have a default weather setting for Cupertino? Here’s why!

There are plenty more world-shaking companies around, lots of economic activity, and some strange things I’ll take plenty of time to get used to.

But within all the craziness, within the bubble that is Silicon Valley, people are still interested in Jesus. No matter how advanced the cars and phones and apps, there are still many who are drawn to this ancient Jewish peasant we believe to be God’s son.

It’s fascinating to find ourselves part of a new tradition of Jesus followers. So it’s a Vineyard church, which means they take the Holy Spirit pretty seriously. If you aren’t familiar with Christianity, it’s essentially a greater expectation for God to be at work, a great interest in finding God’s leading.

Coming down to brass tacks, my job will be a bit different than my role at City Church. With more volunteers and a history of lots of volunteer leadership, I’ll be doing far more collaborating and much less spearheading. At the same time, there is a bigger group of students, so I’ll be doing more guiding than building. Finally, the roles I’ll be taking on apart from student ministry will feel new and I think I’ll be challenged in good ways.

We are excited to be staying in the Bay Area; this is what we wanted, and I am pleased to see things unfolding as they are. There are plenty of new challenges, of course. The median income in Palo Alto is $127K [keeping all things in perspective, nearby Atherton’s median income is several times that]. We will be farther from Kaile’s graduate school. Though we found a good deal on a place to live [again, if it works out!], it’s still about 11% more per month.

And yet, we choose to trust that God is at work, bringing us forward in the right paths, walking with us through the ups and downs. Funny, I received this study book on the New Testament book of James right after I was laid off, and it emphasized the key text of the book, verses 2-4 of chapter 1, encouraging readers to commit these words to memory:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Weird, right? So was God the one who laid me off, testing me to see if I was faithful enough? If you read on, you’ll learn that the text emphasizes how trials teach us lessons; yet God isn’t some kind of weird cosmic puppet-master, tugging the strings of human existence and testing us. Instead, God walks with us through trials, challenges, temptations. God’s plan is not around pain, and God’s goal isn’t avoiding loss or grief.

James emphasizes in verse 17 how God gives good gifts:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Simply, when good things happen, we credit God.

When bad things happen, we search for God’s leading and healing.

And in all things, we give thanks. This is really hard for me-I’m the first to admit it. Yes, we have total permission to be frustrated about things, to be mad, to doubt, to get upset with God even [a great place to go for this is the Psalms!]. And yet, we are invited to trust, enjoined to search for the Spirit of God which is at work in us.

Today I’m on the other side of the crazy, floating feeling I had after being laid off; I’ve got a job to do and connections to make. Tomorrow holds, well, who knows what. I can’t be in control of that or worry about it, for I am alive right now.

And today, I say thank you to the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

***

 

I Lost My Job [But Not My Calling]

A number of months ago, I reflected on the intricate steps that led to my family’s first cross-country move. At that time, I was incredibly thankful, encouraged that while I had connected with a strong, mission-oriented church in San Francisco, Kaile was accepted at a very selective master’s program in clinical counseling. She would study and learn, I would lead and shepherd students, and we would together collaborate in raising our two tiny boys, Silas and Maelin. For a year, this is exactly what we did. We slowly learned about our new child, our new church, our new community, our new city; and having just passed our one-year anniversary of living in San Francisco [April 23rd], we both celebrate God’s goodness and God’s presence with us at every step of the journey. 

On Monday, May 8th, I learned that my job will not continue into the Fall. I am laid off. It was hard news, overwhelming news, news that I will surely still be processing for months to come. City Church is restructuring its staff roles, and after some serious discernment, my former pastoral role is becoming a part-time position. With the expenses of a family living in a major urban center, a part-time position simply doesn’t provide enough income to exist-or subsist.    

As I sat face-to-face hearing the bad news from Fred Harrell, the pastor who planted City Church in 1997 and who presently guides the community as its senior leader, I was shocked. But it wasn’t the news about my role as a youth pastor that shocked me, as difficult as this was to hear. Instead, I was shocked-surprised and taken in with a deep sense of peace that permeated my soul, my mind, even my body. The conversation was tangibly gracious; my heart rate was no quicker; my palms were dry; my words were slow and measured-and equally gracious as Fred’s, I hope. 

During our conversation, this moment that neither of us discovered to be easy or natural, I was pervaded by the same sense of peace that I sensed God giving me on October 15th, 2015 [read that story here if you haven’t]. Then, it was a 3am divine intervention, a wakeup call from God that quelled my burning anxieties that stemmed from facing an unknown future. This past Monday, it was a morning conversation with a trusted leader and coworker which featured some very tough news. But the same peace pervaded me, a peace that comes from God’s Spirit. I even mentioned this peace to Fred. I told him I was surprised by it, perplexed but thankful for the sense of centeredness that I was experiencing. 

Going forward, the same realities exist: when severance pay ends, I need new employment, and I don’t want to just do the next thing in front of me, to simply find something that works. Instead, I want to serve God using the very best of my abilities. During the challenge of transition, we need stability and support, and as we look forward, we require equal parts wisdom, courage, and perseverance. I’ve never been let go from a job before, and it’s a new feeling. Though my situation stemmed from budget changes and restructuring, it’s still difficult for me to sit with the reality of the leadership’s conclusion. 

IMG_2785

Sunday night I drove with my family to the home where our community group meets. After only a few minutes, the conversation turned to our situation. One of our church’s leaders was there, and she was closely involved with the difficult decisions that City Church has been forced to make over the past few months. Listening happened that night, and some really honest sharing of our burden. Hard as it is, I was reminded that evening how everyone in our group has challenges. One family is looking for more stable employment; another has a child with very pressing medical needs; yet another is recognizing the nuances of parenting are more difficult than they had imagined.

During our time with our community group, reflected on Psalm 31, especially the first five verses:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God. 

After reflecting on this Scripture, our group prayed for us. Hands were laid on; the scene reminded me of what I picture of the early church’s meetings in Asia minor. These people know us, at least as much as they are able to know us, and they are praying for us still.

All of this reminds me of how God has always been faithful to us, and we trust that this will continue to be the case as we plunge into whatever is next for our family and our livelihood. I say this to be true not as one who has found a new and meaningful job, as one a weary traveler wading through the muddy waters of unknowing.

During our transition, the same challenges that existed for us before the loss of my job continue in the present. Our two tiny boys are as energetic as ever, with just as many needs. They are sensing our stress, and we can see how it is affecting them. It hurts Kaile and me to know that the stresses that we are doing our best to hide from Maelin and Silas are having their effects on our infant and toddler.

Through these challenges, we are leaning into God’s direction for our life journey together. My days have turned to searching for employment, awaiting answers to email inquiries, and grooming my LinkedIn profile. Instead of commuting on my bike to an office, I work from my home office, investing the time I used to spend fostering direction for a ministry into something new: seeking a new place to serve. Since we have grown so deeply attached to our church community, this is especially difficult; it is not only my place of employment, it’s our people

As we walk on, our prayers are just as much with City Church as we perceive their prayers are with us. I lost my job, not my long-term call to pastoral ministry. And now, the elders and pastors are doing their very best to continue in the mission they sense God has directed them into, and I respect them immensely, even though things didn’t go my way. If I could resume my former work, I’d do it in a heartbeat. And yet, this is not how the story is unfolding, and it is time to allow space for the community to proceed in the next chapter.

When it’s hard and when it’s easy, we are resolved to take refuge in God, just like the Psalm says.

After all, we’ve been here all along. 

***

American Christians vs. Christian Americans

A number of years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the military. Even then, I was a pacifist, but I still admitted that if I were forced to enlist via a hypothetical draft, I’d comply. I’ve become even more of a pacifist since then, but I’ve been mulling over what it means to be an American Christian.

There’s a wide chasm, I think, between American Christians and Christian Americans. Recently someone I follow on Twitter compared the “America First” brand of American Nationalism to an alternative kind of worship, an alternative to the worship of Yahweh, the God who we know best through the Son, Jesus.

There are Americans who baptize their unwavering nationalism with Christianity, seeing at as a means to support American ideals. Conversely, there are Christians like me who try to somehow make sense of their nation-state in regards to their faith. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but it’s a starting place nonetheless.

With the premise that every nation-state is merely a construct, an invention, and that the red/white/blue flag represents a narrative that means very different things to different people groups-allow me to attempt to navigate the intricate link between Christian faith and identity and one’s sense of place within the world as it is currently divided into continents, countries, and districts.

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 12.23.43 PM

I remember one Thanksgiving when we went around the table, naming one thing for which we’re thankful. Various siblings, aunts, and uncles, named things like freedom, enough food, a solid job, education.

When it got around to my  grandmother, her answer came without pause: “I’m thankful to be an American.”

I was not yet twenty at the time. Now I’m 30. And yet, as I relive the moment, her words strike me in a very similar way. How many people sacrificed for her to be able to be thankful to be an American?

Native Americans immediately think about a long history of displacement.

African Americans may think about slavery and the civil rights era, and maybe about police violence toward young black men, or about the centuries of marginalization that underlines their American experience.

Japanese Americans might think about the not-so-distant American internment camps where Japanese families were sent during WWII.

Mexican Americans may think about the 8 US states that were formerly territories of Mexico, then again about the irony of “crossing the border” to get “into” the United States. I’m typing this article in formerly Mexican land.

European Americans‘ thoughts might drift naturally and ethnocentrically toward Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln, or other celebrated American leaders who happen to be white.

Any one of these people groups could recall family members who served in the military at any stage of American history. This applies to my own family, and I’m thankful for the sacrifices both my grandfathers made to serve during WWII-an important war even from the vantage point of my pacifist sensibilities. But that is only one dimension of the multitudinous sacrifices made by numerous ethnic groups.

If we’re really honest, we might all be just a teensy bit ethnocentric-and that can be just fine or it can really fog our vision. But my point in bringing up the various ways various ethnic subgroups might understand American history is simply to note how much has happened in this swath of land over the millennia.

So many people have lost their rights, their dignity, their lives in the long journey toward America becoming the nation it is today. So many have gained unfathomable riches from the systems that exist in our nation-state. And yes, of course, the United States has participated in some very good things too-of this there is no doubt at all.

In full disclosure, I benefit greatly at a personal level from the personal and systemic losses of many other people groups. I benefit from the gains too. But at this point, I’m trying to figure out how to be thankful for what I have inherited while rejecting oversimplification and glamorization of the American story.

It’s in only seeing one side of the American story that we become complacent, self-righteous, and unhelpfully angry.

Now, I want to attempt to make a connection. How does allegiance not to country but to Jesus calls us out of this slough of ethnocentrism and national identity? How do we quell the tandem voices of racism and xenophobia? How can live and participate in the world’s unfolding narrative as Americans even as we’re confronted with the bloodshed that laces our history?

I believe transformation comes when we hear our deepest identity: we are sons and daughters of God [Galatians 3:26], made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28], sisters and brothers with Jesus himself [Hebrews 2:11]. More than Americans, more than members of a particular demographic, more than members of a particular orientation, we are united in Jesus. 

Whether or not we believe this matters, I think. It’s too easy to get swept up into the push and pull of nationalist political rhetoric if we lack a deeper spiritual foundation. We Christians believe God has extended us a massive amount of grace and that Jesus has paid an extremely high cost-his life-to conquer death, create reconciliation between God and humanity, and atone for sin.

If we genuinely believe God is at work in the world, and that God invites us to partner with him in renewing the earth, matters of American identity quickly fade in terms of importance.

This isn’t to say our national stories are unimportant or trivial. There are very meaningful narratives that can give Americans a sense of togetherness and build bridges of solidarity.

Just a couple weeks ago I was at the DeYoung museum here in San Francisco. On the second floor, there is a room filled with American art. One piece is especially moving to me. It features John Brown, a radical abolitionist who was on his way to execution for leading a slave rebellion, kissing a child, presumably his own.

That day a couple, presumably from another country [they were not speaking English], were observing the piece. I certainly could be wrong in my language-based assessment. Ostensibly, they misunderstood the gravity of the painting, for they proceeded to take smiling pictures in front of it. As they continued taking smiling pictures, the woman backed right into the painting, her hair and shoulders brushing up against it, moving its frame against the museum wall.

Soon, the museum security was on the scene, firmly admonishing her to maintain at least 24 inches between herself and the art.

Of course they gently complied.

The feeling within me as I observed was a mixture of incredulity and frustration. It seems that a middle-aged couple would know typical rules for an art museum. Much more, taking these kinds of pictures in front of a painting that features an execution is simply disrespectful. And the content of the painting made the picture-taking even more unnecessary.

All of that aside, the narrative of John Brown reminds us Americans of the suffering endured by generations of African American slaves. Yes, John Brown was violent, and we can sit comfortably and have a conversation about how he could have responded, but history is history and this is the desperation Brown felt. Some vilify him as an unthinking terrorist; some consider him a hero and martyr. But regardless, he is an important character in the drama of our nation-state.

In that moment, I felt very American. But I didn’t sense that American sentiment because I’m adoring the image of a country that stands as a shining beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see. I felt American because I have a unique personal connection to the people, places, and experiences of this country; I have lived here, loved here, and am raising my family here. And I don’t think I should be faulted for appreciated the country that has shaped me so deeply.

It’s romantic, this grouping of mountains, rivers, plains, fields, and deserts! The contours of my childhood included the vast forests, fields, and rivers of Northwest Michigan. I remember family trips to Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. I dated an African American for a couple years and felt the tangible difficulty of the American story as our relationship eventually faltered. I live in an area now where one can procure food from just about any remote corner of the world including Eritrea [and there are numerous Eritrean restaurants, not just one!]. This reminds all of us that America can indeed support and include people groups that differ from the earliest European settlers that have culturally and governmentally stayed in power.

As the current political season wanes on, as we do our best to shape our country into the kind of place we think it should be, I pray we remember our long and violent history. And there is no need to compare America’s violent history to other nations, this is unhelpful. Looking past our nation’s many sins can quickly lead us to an unchecked and one-dimensional nationalism that turns us into automatons who worship at the feet of the leader with the most braggadocio. Focusing too much on America’s many problems, on the other hand, can overwhelm us and turn us into self-righteous sidewalk prophets with no sense of gratitude for the good that is, by default, mixed with the bad.

It’s better to know the American stories of heartache and loss, of overcoming and transforming, commending them to honest, realistic memory while searching for true and lasting hope from our Lord, Savior, Brother, and Teacher: Jesus.