Gifts of Courage and Solidarity: A Lenten Journey

I find it interesting that Transfiguration Sunday is the Sunday just prior to Lent. It is the day we celebrate the story of Jesus as he takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain where Jesus begins to shine radiantly. Then suddenly, Elijah and Moses are standing and talking with him. We will hear more about this story at Wellspring on Sunday, but there is this lingering question of why this Sunday precedes Lent.

Historically, it stands where it does because we see Christ who embodies the lawgiver and the deliverer (Moses) and the prophet who beckons nations to God and who has an extraordinary exit from human life (Elijah). This is the Christ who will make a journey that proves be filled with both darkness and light.

I also experience it as a journey of courage and solidarity as Jesus demonstrates the power of the heart to hold in tension the darkness of human violence and suffering and the hope of light that is greater than darkness … life that is greater than death. It is Christ who stands in solidarity with those who endure systemic suffering and violence, and it is Christ who stands with us in our own darkness, suffering, and grief.

As we planned this year’s Lenten Devotional, I made the decision that I would write the devotional for Wellspring this season. In the past, we have chosen published works (in the form of books or devotional guides) and we have had individuals from Wellspring write reflections, as we did in Advent 2018. The devotional is printed in booklet form for people to pick up, but I have made the decision to share it in my blog, as well.

Each devotional will be scheduled to go out in the early morning hours of each day in Lent. Those who subscribe to my blog will be notified by email, but we also will make an effort to include the link on the church’s Facebook page, as well.

Thanks to the many people who have challenged and supported me in producing this devotional. My prayer is that, as the Spirit spoke to me, the Spirit will speak to you by adding your own narrative and experience of Lent as we celebrate the Gifts of Courage and Solidarity: A Lenten Journey

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Fruitful Grain

My grandfather was a wheat farmer. His annual struggle was to get the ground plowed and get the wheat in the ground. Then it was in the earth’s hands … God’s hands … as the prayer for rain at the right time became his daily utterance. Then the grain grew. Then the harvest. Then repeat.

Some summers in my teen years, I would spend some of my summertime in the Texas Panhandle. I would plow behind him as Grandpa drove the combine to bring in the grain. On more than one occasion, I can remember holding wheat grain in my hand and thinking that each of these kernels can produce a plant that can grow lots more kernels, and all it took was putting it into the earth … with maybe a little well-timed rain.

Jesus said this was like death. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) I’ve been pondering that in recent days. It really doesn’t sound logical, does it? What is the connection between death and fruitfulness?

Jesus doesn’t stop there: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:25-26). This seems to be leading us deeper into the darkness of the grave … of hate … of loss.

As is usually the case, there is so much more here to give us hope. We tend to be such literal folk that we often miss the deeper meaning of what is happening in this text. Any good Methodist will probably recognize this section of John 12 as being a formal part of our funeral liturgy. It is tied to death in such a way that we see it as a person’s lasting legacy that outlives our frail human bodies. It is used as a call to see the many ways that the individual has influenced friends and family … to see love that is transmitted from person to person long after the loved one has died.

While this isn’t a “wrong” use of the text, I would dare to tell the editors of our United Methodist Book of Worship that we might be missing the deepest point of this text.

You see, John is talking about this Christ who, to use Father Richard Rohr’s description, is universal … cosmic. The Jesus of John’s Gospel isn’t just asking us to give him some time … or money … or to lend an ear … and then get back to business as usual. Jesus here is asking for all of us … everything we have … our souls. Further, he is asking us to give up the notion that this is all about the individual.

Individual rights … individual strengths … individual talent … individual souls.

We think we have overcome this by the notion of how we need each other … as our sports teams need teammates to succeed in their endeavors.  We often hear, “There is no ‘I’ in “team.'” And that sounds wonderful … right up until we hear that there is a “V” … as in MVP (Most Valuable Player). It is then that we realize it is still about the individual … the hero.

Then we look up and here comes Jesus. It isn’t as much about the individual as our western culture would have us believe. It is about being folded into the whole of creation. The idea of the individual grain, as Jesus implies, is that its ultimate purpose is to be folded into the ground … into the larger whole.

When Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal life,” he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling. As a matter of fact, in the midst of the funeral service, I have, in the past, tried to lessen the blow by saying “do not love their life” instead of “hate their life.” Hate sounds harsh  … like when Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel to hate father and mother, brother and sister.” Where are you taking us, Jesus?

To make it even worse, it isn’t just that we are called to hate our “life” in this world … we are called to hate our “soul.” In John 12, the Greek uses two different words for “life.” The first is ψυχη (psükā) from which we get our word “psyche.” It isn’t our “life” we are to hate in this world. It is our “soul.”

Jesus then tells us that this is so we can keep it for ζωην αιωνιον (zoān aōnion) … eternal life. And ζωη … zoe (pronounced zoā) … has to do with life that is connected … collective … abundant. The human soul is the grain of wheat that, if it is to bear fruit, is folded into the universal zoe … the richest definition of life!

The individual soul finds its life only in the collective life of the divine!

Because our English is limited to using the word “life” for both of the two Greek words for life in this passage, we easily miss the deeper implications.

We live in a culture so focused on individuals that one of our primary motivations for being faithful members of the institutional church is so we can save our souls. It is certainly part of my Wesleyan tradition where even our founder, John Wesley, was so concerned about the experience of salvation that he spent many anxious moments wondering if he would ever experience the assurance of salvation.

In The Universal Christ, Rohr shares an insight revealed through John Dominic Crossan’s study of Eastern and Western images of the resurrection, through which “we have two extremely different theologies of its very meaning. The West declared, ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ as an individual; the Eastern church saw it in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ.” (Rohr, The Universal Christ, p. 105)

In my mind, we have so over-localized the experience of salvation that we have missed the harm we have done … to people … to animals … to our planet … all because it is about “me and my salvation.” Wesley’s own journey, when understood in his larger narrative, was the journey of folding his own life into the greater collective and, therefore, into the most abundant life God could offer.

Wesley understood the path of salvation to be the continual outpouring of himself into the poor, the disenfranchised, the people for whom church had become an empty shell. The message of Jesus is unmistakable here. When we pour our “souls” into caring for others … for the earth … for all of God’s creation, we will discover a fruitfulness unlike we ever thought possible.

Jesus was speaking, not only of his own death, but his own life as being folded into all things in the cosmos. The way Jesus understood life was zoe … not the individual soul, which, at best, is a single grain of wheat. He understood life from the perspective of God … the divine Trinity … as being infinitely more abundant through the sacred community of God. And community is not an act of heroism or individuality. It is an act of faith.

The problem here is that the human ego will always prefer individualism over community. Later in John 12, Jesus is fully aware of this truth when he “departed and hid from them.” (John 12:36b) In this hidden place he realizes that his disciples … like contemporary Christians … have a really hard time understanding this. The ego just doesn’t want us to go there.

And as the reality sets in for Jesus, he cries aloud … he doesn’t whisper … he shouts: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” He is asking us to see him, not as an individual savior or hero, but as a pathway into the community of the Trinity. This journey into divine communion can be disorienting … it can feel like darkness.

That’s where we find ourselves when we fall into the earth and die … when we find our souls folded into the wholeness of creation … it feels like death and darkness. But on the other side of death is resurrection … not life as we have known it … life as God intends it.

So with every act of solidarity … with every act of mercy … with every act that creates beloved community, we fold ourselves into the sacred wholeness. Into the life of God. It is there that we will discover life that is brighter and richer and more fruitful than our souls could ever imagine!

We will have become fruitful grain!

Witness

Witness. The seeing … perhaps even examination … of something other than the self … is to be a witness. It might be a witness of an event … a life … a divine truth.

In our western culture, we have mistakenly made witness (whether the verb or the noun) to mean verbal testimony. Verbal testimony has its place … if it is not coercive or abusive or lacking respect of the hearer of such testimony. But the testimony itself is not what it means to witness.

To witness a thing … an event … a life … is to be in the moment. It requires a presence that is participatory and not just self-absorbed or self-focused. A witness is one who sees … really sees … the other.

A witness is one who is transformed, sometimes in subtle and not-so-subtle, ways … for better or for worse. The experience may be momentary and fleeting or it may be timeless and profound, but it will always have some effect on the witness.

Sometimes it has an adverse effect on the witness … as we know from people who witness death or tragedy or war or abuse. At other times, it is positive and enlivens the spirit of the witness as we witness lives well-lived or acts of generosity, care,  and courage. In each of these scenarios, the witness is forever changed … for better or for worse.

The truth is that both such scenarios offer opportunities for wholeness and growth, whether in contrast to … or in harmony with … what we witness … especially when that witness is lived out in a community that encourages growth.

ana-toma-qB3VY0kfFOQ-unsplashBut a witness is not the only one who is transformed. Witnesses, by their very presence … seeing … examination … can affect that which is witnessed.

Just as our witness of a fresh snowfall inevitably leaves our footprints on the landscape, so too, our witness leaves an imprint on the scene … no matter what it is. Our very presence, as implied in what it means to witness, brings the witness into the narrative itself. In the face of evil, the witness is unwelcome … in the face of goodness, the witness finds a welcoming home.

Being a witness is ultimately an act of community. It is one key aspect of our shared life together. It is bound up in the notion in the second creation story in Genesis 2, that it is not good that anyone should be alone.

For so many people who are invisible … the poor … the marginalized …  partners in struggling and broken relationships or marriages … the witness can be transformative. These are people longing to be seen.

Jesus opens the eyes of the blind not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the community. When our eyes are opened and we see one another … really see one another … we become the witnesses who are both transformed ourselves even as we offer transformation to those who are invisible.

When we see those who are invisible, we are mirroring back to them the Christ within them.

This is the gift of God in the midst of our shared living. For in our relationship with God, we discover it is God who sees us. That is a key aspect of the incarnation as we move into this season known as Epiphany in the Christian church. It is the revelation of Christ Jesus as God living among us … seeing us … but it is also the revelation of the Christ who is within us!

And it happens by mirroring. In Jesus, God mirrors to us the divine that is cast within all of creation. It is God who sees us … all of us … as the authentic children of God, born of both water and the Spirit. When that reality awakens within us, it allows us to see God in every thing and every person in the created universe. As Jesus demonstrated for us, in God’s vital presence in all of creation, no one is invisible.

There is an eternal, divine witness that mirrors back the essence of the divine in us. In you … in me!

Our very seeing of and being seen by God then has its own effect on others … it becomes a living testimony of the divine in our midst. And it rarely needs words.

How do we witness the unseeable God? Our witness of God is as simple as seeing God in the world … in the other … and we are back to the beginning. This is the circle dance … the perichoresis … of the Trinity, and it is most profoundly revealed to those who have dared to open their eyes … to witness … to examine … and see God in every moment of every day!

Open your eyes and see! Be witnesses, my friends. You will change the world.

Discovering the Third Way in the New Decade

The older I get, the more I am awakening to the reality just how many of my life experiences and learnings continue to shape my life. I sense a growing awakening … a growing wisdom … that, as I have suspected for many years, finally comes down to letting go of my need for control and seeing just where my life’s mentors and instructors … whether they be people, nature, or instructional moments … can lead, if I will only let them.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the theologian, Walter Wink, who in his book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, describes Jesus’s Third Way. In this section, Wink shares three key teachings of Jesus … to turn the other cheek when struck on the right cheek thereby forcing the one doing the striking to see them as equals … for the debtor who, because of unjust usury, is being stripped of the outer garment to give the undergarment and stand naked at the hands of the unjust creditor thereby bringing shame on the creditor … and for the person forced to carry the soldiers pack beyond the first mile to the second, thereby bringing a harsh discipline to the soldier.

[For a full reading of this Walter Wink’s work on this, click HERE]

As Wink walks us through these teachings, he is introducing us to a new way of speaking truth to power without resorting to violence either in our rhetoric or in our actions. This is the basis of non-violent resistance as lived out by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu. It is the practice of a resistance like Jesus practiced. And in beginning to see Jesus through deeper teachings in the gospels, we see Jesus, neither as a warrior king nor as a submissive, passive peasant. Jesus invites us to live in a third way.

Brené Brown, in her work, teaches that the narrative we are most likely to utilize during stressful times is a simple (often wrong) dualistic response. She rightly demonstrates how such narratives are formed more from our brain stem whose job it is to keep us safe … from a perspective derived from ego-based fears. That part of the brain, she says, only accepts answers that are “good or bad, safe or unsafe, friend or foe.” It is that part of the brain that works in a binary way, and it is incapable of incorporating the nuanced variables in any given scenario. Fear creates its own narrative in the lower brain and drives us to a choice between two (often polar) opposites.

As I have gone much deeper in Richard Rohr’s thought in the last several months, I am struck with something I read in The Divine Dance. In this excellent work on the essential nature of the Trinity and our essential need to live into this reality, he invites us away from dualistic thinking. When we live with fear of scarcity, we resort only to that part of the brain (in keeping with Brown’s teaching), and we become reactive and incapable of considering a third perspective.

In our digital world of 1’s and 0’s (think binary code), I have come to think of this as binary thinking. We live in a world where we only see things are true or false, wrong or right, on or off, good or bad … and, in some very real way, we lose our minds and our souls when we get stuck with only two options.

Rohr invites us back into the the holy relationship in the Trinity. It is a place where we discover the power of Three. I shared on Christmas Eve how powerful this image is for me. Every atom in the universe contains three particles: proton, electron, and neutron. Robert Oppenheimer’s work demonstrated the devastating consequences of forcing these particles apart with the development of the atomic bomb. But these three particles, working together over days and years and millennia and eons in the evolution of the universe, become the building blocks of life itself … certainly life as we know it.

God is most fully known through the power of three … and it is my thinking that the way of Christian spirituality is a third way of being.

Father Rohr relies heavily on Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, and with it, invites us to consider what it means to be the fourth person at the table … the fourth part of God in the circle dance. We are invited to witness the divine DNA that is within us, if indeed, we can come to see that we are part of the creation that God called “good” … and then “very good.”

So what does that mean for me in this new decade. As a United Methodist pastor, I found myself reacting at a visceral level to the decisions of the called 2019 General Conference that brought … not healing … but more harm into our shared denominational life. As we have discovered throughout Christian history, when we side with power and give into dualistic thinking and fear (necessary for those holding power to stay in power), we either actively or passively propagate a culture of harm. It continues to be true in the church today.

As I sense the rising tendency within me to move to the polar opposite (reactivity) of this harmful legislation that now overshadows everything that I love about the United Methodist Church, I am resolved this year to live “the way of the third.”

To live the way of the third is to stand firm in my faith in a God whose essence is love … it is to live in the shadow of this radically inclusive God. It is to speak truth to power and still see the DNA of the Christ embodied in everyone … in both those with whom I stand and those with whom I vehemently disagree.  To live the way of the third is to live with this Trinitarian notion that God is way more than a sacred “being” … God is sacred “relationship” … always inviting us into relationships that defy our dualistic notions of only loving those who think like us … believe like us … look like us. It is to tear down the walls that create “us versus them” ways of thinking.

So as we move into the next decade, I invite you to discover with me the Third Way. It is to stand firm against injustice and harm with an attitude of love and grace. It is to live the ways of grace that help us see the essential nature of Christ woven throughout all of creation. It is to live with a hope that is greater than our fear … a peace that is greater than our conflicts … a love that is greater than our hate.

May we then rediscover life in this Trinitarian God of ours!

The Values of Radical Discipleship

I’ve been a serving as a pastor for almost 38 years. During that time, I have rarely reflected critically on my values. I could list several values, among them unity, peace, faith, hope, love, and justice. It isn’t that my values have been wrong, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have come to realize that the stratification of those values is critical to who I am, not just as a pastor or church member, but as a person who believes that Jesus calls us to radical discipleship.

Throughout ministry, I have believed that the number of people who gather in church each Sunday is critically important. I felt the demand to increase attendance in each church I have ever pastored, and that was created by focusing on two key values: unity and peace. Unity itself was my highest value.

My job as the pastor was to straddle a large middle between people who often voted in different primaries and who thought very differently about scripture and what it said about people. My job was to nudge the people to a deeper love, but if I upset the peace in a church, it could go badly very quickly.

Methodism has always claimed to have a “free pulpit,” meaning that the clergy could not be fired on the spot for speaking out on key social issues, but I grew to understand during my years of ministry that there were more limits than I originally thought. If I caused too much of a rift and caused people to write angry letters to the superintendent or the bishop, I might find myself moving more frequently than I would like.

It really wasn’t that much of a concern to me because I was always a centrist. I was the person who fought valiently for the middle ground, and even, at some level, believed that every person retained the right to have their own version of the truth. I rarely stopped to critically evaluate the way I prioritzed my values …

Until last February.

It was after the called General Conference of the United Methodist Church that I awoke to the reality that the middle had dried up. Being a true centrist was no longer possible for me when I began to count the number of people who had been harmed … and literally died … on my “middle ground.” I knew, in that moment, that unity was no longer my highest value, but I was still trying to figure out how to talk about it.

Then two Sundays ago in worship, we read this hard teaching of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke:

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three! (Luke 12:49-52, NRSV)

As I prepared for that sermon, it occurred to me that I had to press the pause button to clarify my own values. What I realized, as I journaled and collected my previous thoughts on values, was that I have four primary values, and if I hoped to keep my integrity intact, they must appear for me in this order: love, justice, peace, and unity.

Leading with Love

This really is not that hard for me. I’m not really sure why I didn’t put this first all along. When Jesus is confronted by us good religious people wanting to justify our ways of thinking and being, he asks us to think about the two greatest commandments. They are love of God and love of neighbor (see Mark 12:28-31, Deuteronomy 6:4, and Leviticus 19:18).

What I have discovered is that, if we fail to make love foundational, any justice quickly becomes retributive, peace is nothing more than an uneasy calmness, and unity is incomplete and comes at the expense of people without power or privilege.

Love (the Greek αγαπη – agape) is the ultimate act of letting go. It is giving ourselves in complete trust and vulnerability to God and neighbor. It is the love of the Christ, and it is how we see Christ in one another.

Reconciling Justice

With the foundation of love, we can then work for justice. This justice is not retributive … it is non-violent, and it seeks to fulfill the calling of Jesus as found in Matthew 25:31-46 … to create community for “the least of these” with the knowledge that we encounter Christ in the face of those who are marginalized.

We often get Matthew 25 wrong by thinking that, when we reach out to the poor and the marginalized, we are being Christ. That’s not what Jesus says. He says that, when we look into the face of those who are poor and marginalized, we will see Christ.

Ours is a calling to create community, and we can only do so when we live into the paradoxical claim that “the last shall be first” and “the least shall be the greatest.” This is the work of justice, and it is only possible when we build on love.

The Radical Way of Shalom

When we think of “shalom,” we often think of peace. The problem for me is that, in our culture … most especially in our denomination … we have sought a certain level of calmness. Justice is a good thing … but more than that, we want peace.

I remember first reading the Alabama Clergymen’s Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was an open letter written on April 12, 1963, trying to persuade Dr. King to desist from direct actions that resulted in conflicts and crises in the Deep South. It led to the foundational writing of Dr. King known as the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

As I read it, I was astounded that it contained the names of two Methodist bishops: Paul Hardin and Nolan Harmon. The letter itself was calling on Dr. King to let calm conversations happen locally without interference from someone outside the state (not that Alabama and Georgia are separated by that much distance).

Speaking as a person who understands privilege and power from the inside out, there is a real temptation and desire for that kind of peace. A calm serenity that, if we are honest, lets privilege and power remain unchallenged.

But I have known for most of my ministry that shalom means way more than a calm peace. I stumbled upon this definition with the help of Wikipedia. In an entry on shalom, I came upon a great quote by Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga, Jr., from his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. The quote reads:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom [God] delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

The thought that this “universal flourishing” is the “way things ought to be” inspires me. It is the natural outward expression of love and justice.

The Unity We Seek

As I have restructured my values, I now find my way back to unity. Unity has always been a positive value … but it has to come after we have laid the foundation and framework of love, justice, and shalom. This unity, however, is not one that comes at the expense of any person or group of persons. It is the “universal flourishing” key to the understanding of shalom.

The unity we seek in our country must be one that places a high value on the most vulnerable people among us. This would include anyone without easy access to privilege and power. People of color, immigrants, people struggling with poverty, and people who identify as LGBTQIA+ would generally qualify here. If there is no place for any one of these siblings of ours, then we do not have an authentic unity.

The same applies for the United Methodist Church. If we let unity be our highest value, there is a strong likelihood that love, justice and shalom are tied up in the trunk.

But when we subjugate our unity to these higher values, then we have a unity that glorifies God and the Christ that is found in each of us.

Where we go from here …

As I consider the future hope of the people called Methodist, I am confident that there is a way forward. From my balcony seat, I think we may be looking at a post-modern expression of our Wesleyan heritage, and we may or may not make this journey as one, big, happy family.

This, however, does not mean that I will not look for Christ in each person … even the people who think very differently from me. It is just that the teaching of Jesus has profoundly influenced my thinking. If I am to take Jesus seriously, especially as it pertains to the care of those who have been marginalized, then it might separate me from those who insist on keeping others in the margins.

Last I checked, though, the universe was a pretty big place. The kingdom of God is even bigger and more expansive.

So there might be a place for us all to live with love, justice, and shalom together … in unity. That, for me, is the way of this radical discipleship.

Living Courageously in a Culture of Fear

Many know that I preach from what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary (most of the time), and it is a series of prescribed readings over a three-year period. While not every pastor does this, there is good chance that if you attend any of the churches in a more liturgical tradition, you will hear some of the same passages read. Our lectionary is also closely aligned with correlated weekly readings in the Catholic and Episcopal traditions, as well.

I do this because it makes me study … reflect … preach on topics that I would just as soon avoid. Often late in the summer and into the early fall, we begin to hit on some of the really hard teachings of Jesus. In the weeks ahead, we will be talking about how Jesus comes to bring, not peace, but division … in families … among friends … between neighbors (see Luke 12 – 14). I’m thinking he might even be talking about local churches and whole denominations.

At one point, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, NRSV). It is so easy for us to rationalize this … somehow to make it a bit more palatable … but the word used is the Greek word “misā” (μισει). It pretty much means “hate,” but I want to clarify that it isn’t hate as we think of it in our culture. It is, in the purest sense, not clinging to … letting go … of people and things that keep us from the hard truths that Jesus teaches.

What Jesus teaches is that God’s love is a radical, inclusive love that calls us way beyond our comfort zones into a faith that is not comfortable for people who enjoy undisturbed power and privilege. In that same large section of Luke’s gospel, we hear that Jesus has brought to the banquet the poor, the crippled, the lame, those who live in the countryside … people who are outsiders. His proclamation that “theirs is the kingdom of God” is an affront to those who have long claimed the kingdom … and religious control … as their own possession.

What was one key way they maintained such power? Fear!

As Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, he knows his controversial message speaks truth to power … confronts fear head on … and offers a new way to live free of fear. And it all begins with letting go …  of the need to be affirmed by others (some of whom we love deeply) … to let go of even our own power and privilege. For the followers of Jesus, it is enough to live unafraid and only with what God provides.

A culture of fear.

Today we face incredibly harmful rhetoric in our country that stokes racism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, nationalism, and any other of our many “-isms” that are used to marginalize people, bring literal physical harm and death to people, and destroy families and communities. For those who claim Christ, we must now speak the truth of Christ. The very people who are forced into the margins … or cages … or behind border walls are the very people whom Christ has invited to the banquet. They are the ones to whom the kingdom of God is given.

What we are told about these very children of God by hate mongers is that they are to be feared. They are here to take our status, our money, and our way of life. They are not welcomed in the world that created Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best (apologies for the dated cultural reference). And while that world no longer really exists across a broad section of US American life, for some reason we have given in to those political and religious leaders who peddle fear in order to maintain some mythical religious, family, and community life that never existed in the first place. In that mythical world, everyone knew their place and no one questioned structures that maintained power and privilege.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, it is time to follow Jesus!

Following Jesus takes courage … it takes heart (literally what courage means) … to stand against a culture of fear and say with Jesus that we will not be afraid. We will not give into the reptilian portion of our brain that creates only fight or flight options for us … we will use heart, soul, mind (the frontal lobes), and strength to love God and love neighbor … even if it isn’t as peaceful and serene an exercise as we would like to think.

Courage wins.

The Reverend Fabian Marquez is the parish priest of El Buen Pastor Catholic Church in the impoverished colonia of Sparks, on the outskirts of El Paso. The New York Times had a great article about his work in the days following the shooting at a Walmart where people were targeted specifically because they were Mexican or hispanic, 22 of whom died in the gunfire.

The article captures perfectly how Father Marquez walked with families through the tragedy. He was the only religious leader who stayed with families all through the night at a school that authorities had designated as a “family reunification center” as they waited to hear about their loved ones. As people discovered their loved ones were safe, they began to leave, and then he sat with each of the remaining 17 people as they were pulled aside and individually told that they had lost loved ones in the shooting.

Father Marquez wrote down each of their names on a crumpled piece of paper and vowed to go to each of the memorial services whether they were part of his parish or not … whether they were Catholic or not. A friend of his was worried about his safety as a religious leader standing with these people.

Then, as clergy well know, Sunday tends to show up with alarming regularity, and Father Marquez had to write a sermon.

He looked first at Matthew’s command to love God and neighbor. He took solace that his faith and the teachings of Jesus had prepared him for such a time as this and that he could respond with a defiant love that is greater than a culture of fear and hate. And when he preached, he used the lection for the day that came from Luke 12  (remember, I said that many of us use those prescribed readings … we read it at Wellspring), and it began with Jesus talking to his disciples about how hard it is to be his followers.

How does that passage begin? “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32, NRSV). And Father Marquez knew that was the message he had to bring to them: “You do not have to be afraid.”

I think the name of his church is signifant: El Buen Pastor. The Good Shepherd. When we stand with the good shepherd, we can speak boldly and courageously against a culture of fear and hate.

Don’t give into fear … el buen pastor is with us!

Aspirations

I was in middle school when I first heard Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, and it touched a place deep within my soul. In it, I learned about keeping my “head when all around [me] are losing theirs and blaming it on” me. I learned that I “could talk with crowds and keep [my] virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch.” In high school, I would actually commit the poem to memory. I learned that all of this was a way to grow into adulthood and be the kind of person who would be a valued part of my community and my world.

The interesting part about this was that it was a poem. It wasn’t a checklist. It wasn’t just a list of rules about how to live. It was an appeal … an invitation … to be the kind of person who would bring honor. It created an image … a narrative …  to which I could aspire.

In recent weeks, I have been doing a great deal of work on the distinction between two different ways we approach the witness of scripture, theology and … perhaps most importantly … the way we do church.

As I shared on Easter, there is a transactional way to think of the work of Christ through his death and resurrection. It is how we often hear people talk about what is known as atonement. Our God is a righteous God who exacts a price on humanity for our sin. The ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to appease God, and the assumption was that it lasted for a time and could atone certain sins. Then people would have to sacrifice again. Jesus then finally came to offer “the ultimate sacrifice.”

The notion of sacrifice … even the sacrifice of Jesus … is transactional. It is payment for a debt that is owed.

The problem here, however, is that Jesus talks about a new form of love, and does not speak of his own death in purely transactional ways. Interestingly, we find people who very easily talk about the “unconditional love of God” only to then turn around and talk about Good Friday and Easter in conditional terms. If not for the sacrifice of Jesus, we would never be able to afford our sin.

You see the dilemma here, I trust.

But when we consider an aspirational approach, we see that the cross of Jesus is not part of a divine transaction to settle up our accounts. As Father Richard Rohr shares in his Daily Meditation for Monday, April 15,

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin of the world (which is ignorant violence rather than not obeying purity codes); by refusing the usual pattern of revenge, and, in fact, “returning their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:27-28); and, finally, by teaching us that we can “follow him” in doing the same. There is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys—in both short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to others around us.

So what would it mean for us to understand the cross aspirationally instead of transactionally?

First, it would mean that we would not see it from a western economic worldview. It is very easy in the American mindset to think of the cross as that place where we get life the same as we get milk from the grocery store. I shared on Easter that we often think of “redemption” in the way that I grew up thinking of Green Stamps. We would collect enough green stamps from the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station, and then, when we had enough, we would go to the Green Stamp Redemption Center and turn them in for various household items. I grew up with a set of dishes and green glasses (which eerily went with our shag carpet) from the redemption center. The cross, however, doesn’t bring that kind of redemption.

An aspirational understanding of the cross would instead be the place where we would “hold the pain and let it transform us.” My doctoral work was centered around the notion that brokenness (specifically in the church) could be that which annihilates us or that which becomes foundational to our faith. Our culture is typically focused on the avoidance of pain and suffering. So much of our medicine, our psychology, our economy, and most especially, our religious life is too easily organized around the avoidance of pain and suffering.

The ancient church never considered the avoidance of suffering to be an option. Early on, suffering became a significant way to connect with Christ. It was not a masochistic suffering brought about by a sadistic God. Instead, it was the notion that authentic life brings with it authentic suffering.

Authentic faith … a faith that understands letting go and letting God … is rarely well-received by those in power because power doesn’t show up well in the light of such faith. Martyrdom (which comes from the word “witness”) was brought on when the Roman government was cast in a negative light by the people of faith … those who believed that the body could be killed but that the soul was outside the grasp of the powers of this world.

A second implication is that we are offered a different worldview than that of power sealed by violence. There are those who believe that Jesus simply gave up his life … passively … and let the world think it had won until God’s violent overthrow of the world should redeem us at the end of the age. This is not the Jesus of the gospels.

The Jesus of the gospels did not show up as people might have expected. He showed up as Dr. Martin Luther King showed up in the last half of the 20th century … leading a nonviolent movement that was contrary to the ways of human power. Jesus did not come as the warrior king. He came as a non-violent messiah who from the cross offered forgiveness for his executioners. He did not come to bring harm though he knew that his movement would not bring peace.

The General Rules of the Methodist Societies reflect this premise:

Do no harm. Do good. Attend upon all the ordinances of God, which directs us to the means of grace.

In the gospels, Jesus is anything but violent, and he is anything but passive. Those who have heard me use Walter Wink’s explanation of Jesus’ Third Way know that we no longer talk about Jesus as a passive victim. Jesus is, in every way, radical … in how he brings a non-violent revolutionary message … in how he stands his ground in creative ways … in how he offers us insight into this redemptive suffering referred to by Fr. Rohr.

Finally, the implication of an aspirational view of the cross comes in how following Jesus can radically transform our world. In so many ways, the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just this message. We can effect a radical change in our world by following the path Dr. King sat before us.

It is true that direct action (active resistance) tends to create crises, but unjust power rarely changes its course when there is no crisis forcing its redirection. The Beloved Community of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke does not come easily (as evidenced by the continuing systemic racism found in every institution up to and including the church), and it will not be possible by keeping our minds focused on a transactional atonement. Dr. King’s is a truly aspirational model.

[NOTE: The next paragraph was not part of the original blog post, but comes as a postscript following the ruling of the Judicial Council of the UMC on Friday, April 26.]

The Judicial Council just ruled that parts of the Traditional Plan passed by the 2019 General Conference are upheld. Those include mandatory harsher penalties to be imposed upon clergy who defy church law and do same-gender marriages and mandatorily override the will of annual conferences who wish to ordain gay clergy and jurisdictions who wish to elect gay bishops. No matter how we try to look at this, there is no way to see that as the work of Jesus Christ, and it has no place in the body of Christ. It seems clear that a division is imminent, and we are witnessing one more time how our efforts at being church does harm to others with the implementation of laws that are unjust.

But as we consider the direction of the United Methodist Church, I think I see a pathway here. We who consider ourselves “progressives” (along with many centrists) have fallen into thinking that the only way to have this conversation was by use of transactional language … just speaking on the other side of it. We have thought that, if we just argue persuasively enough, we would be able to convince the people who think differently to change their viewpoint.

In Fr. Rohr’s language, we have returned curses with curses while ironically hoping that shouting louder might quieten the room a bit. But if we consider the third way … the way of Jesus … we will stand our ground because we know it to be the authentic and best way forward. We will “return curses with blessings,” and find a new way of living into our own authentic language.

An aspirational language that provides for us a different narrative … a narrative that challenges us much like Kipling’s poem challenged me as a child … may well provide us a narrative that is far more insightful and hopeful.

After all, we follow a savior who answered most questions with a story! A story of faith!