Would You Stand With Mary? Musings on the Death Penalty

The mother stands with tears streaming down her face. The sobs have stopped now. She is no longer wailing, for she knows her son’s fate is sealed. Still, however, she cannot stop the tears from flowing freely from her eyes. She no longer has any hope of holding the hand which once fit completely inside of hers. She no longer has hope of kissing the lips that once pulled sustenance from her breast. She understands that her son’s life is about to be taken. Will you stand with her?

She is convinced that her son is innocent, despite the majority opinion that he deserves to die. Will you stand with her? She has resigned herself to the fact that she will never be able to prepare her son his favorite meal again, but she cannot resign herself to the belief that her son is worthy of the penalty he is about to pay. Will you stand with her? Will you stand with Mary as her son asks that His Father forgive us? Would you have stood with her?

I am sure most of us would say that we would have stood with Mary. We would say that because we have the advantage of hindsight on our side. We know, in the twenty-first century, that Jesus was innocent. We also know that there have been many people wrongfully executed in our nation. Perhaps you read that last sentence and thought to yourself, “Many is a relative word.” I would agree with you. My question would be, how many innocent lives is too many to pay to keep our vengeance alive? One? Five? Twenty? More?

The example above that I gave came out of a meeting I had recently with Jason Redick, who is the North Texas outreach coordinator for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In my meeting with him he showed me many different perspectives on the evils of capital punishment which I had never considered before. None, however, were more powerful to me than the question, “would you have stood with Mary.”

Let us set the scene. Picture yourself as a 1st century Jewish man or woman. Perhaps you had heard stories of this man named Jesus. Let us imagine you had never met Him. You possibly would have heard some stories from some people that He has great power and has been able to heal people of various illnesses. However, your local Rabbi and priest tell no such stories. When His name is mentioned in their presence they refer to him as a troublemaker, a drunkard, a glutton, a sinner and worst of all, a blasphemer. You are not quite sure what to make of this man but whatever He is doing does not directly impact you so you do not give it much thought.

Then you are visiting the temple during Passover. This is the most holy time on your calendar. For an American, think the combination of Easter, Christmas and the 4th of July altogether. As you approach the temple to make your sacrifice you hear a commotion. Your first thought is that those filthy Romans are picking a fight with your people. “Not now!” you think to yourself, as all the emotions of your oppression and your desire to be free, as well as your desire to just worship your God on this most holy of holidays, come rushing forth. You begin jogging and eventually break into a sprint to the temple. There, in the middle of the temple is this Jesus you have heard about. You don’t know how you know it is Him, but you know. He has a whip in His hands and He is driving the sacrificial animals out. He has turned over the tables and is blocking the whole process from happening. In this moment, you realize your Rabbi was right about Him. You are shocked that a fellow Jew could do something so cruel and disrespectful. You walk away from the temple disheartened.

The next day you hear that Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night. How do you feel? Perhaps you heard that Pilate had him sentenced to death. Does He deserve it? You caught wind of the time and place of the execution. Will you attend? Many of your neighbors are going to watch this man who led such an amazing movement carry his cross up to Golgotha. Will you go with them?

Now let us imagine you are there. You see Jesus hanging on the cross. Out of the corner of your eye you notice His mother. She is one of a very small group of people weeping. How do you feel about her? Should she have spanked her son more? Should she have taught Him more respect? Do you notice the absence of a father and believe that is why Jesus acted so rashly? Do you cast judgement on her parenting? Do you feel bad for her but believe that her son should have made better decisions?

Maybe you feel great compassion for her. Is it enough to go put an arm around her? You see, this is how the scapegoating mechanism works. We get swept up in the crowd and even if we feel compassion for the victim, we are extremely unlikely to go stand with the victim, or the family of the victim.

Scapegoating is a mechanism in Rene Girard’s mimetic theory which allows a community to temporarily come together around a false sense of peace and security after executing the scapegoat. In America, we have overwhelmingly made the poor, as well as racial minorities, our scapegoats.

People believe that the death penalty makes them safer. It does not. There is absolutely zero correlation between death penalty states and safer states here in the U.S. Statistically the facts are overwhelmingly against the death penalty doing anything that advocates for the practice claim it does. It is far more expensive to execute someone than even to give them life in prison. Execution generally takes ten years or more so it actually delays finality for the families of victims. No one benefits from these state sponsored revenge killings…except our psyches.

If we buy into this scapegoating mechanism, if we buy into the rhetoric that every person on death row is a monster, then we can find some temporary peace when our government sacrifices yet another victim to the American god of peace of mind. The only logical reason I can see for the continued implication of the death penalty in America is that it makes us FEEL safer. There is no statistical evidence to back up those feelings, but that does not matter much. What matters is that we as a community feel safe. But here is a problem. There are many different communities within our nation. The problem with our scapegoating mechanism is that it makes the wealthy and the white feel safe, but not so much the poor or the racial minority.

Would you be willing to break from popular opinion to stand with Mary? Jesus exposed the scapegoating mechanism on the cross. Jesus put it out in plain view for us all to see. Jesus beckons us to stand with His mother. Jesus calls us to leave the mob. Jesus shows us the way out of negative mimesis and into a life of faith, love and justice.

Will you break the cycle of mimetic violence?

Will you stand with the oppressed?

Will you stand with Mary?

 

Thank you to Jason Redick for insight on the death penalty I had not had before and to Michael Hardin for helping with the mimetic theory side of this. I am so grateful for these friends and I recommend following them on social media if you are not already. You can see more of Michael’s work at http://www.preachingpeace.org and you can learn more about the organization Jason works with at http://www.tcadp.org

Resurrection Day: Life Springs From Death

Last Easter I was a pastor.

I miss the tiny house church we pastored in Alabama. We had so many beautiful moments with them that I will never forget. Not least of which was Good Friday and Easter Sunday 2015. I believe Easter Sunday was sort of the apex of our time in Alabama. I began to think that maybe, just maybe our hopes and dreams would come true in Foley, Alabama.

You see, Karen and I moved to Alabama with our son Joshua in January of 2015 with a dream of bringing a global perspective and a fresh message of the gospel of Christ to my hometown. I quickly realized that our message would not be received by the masses, and even many of our own close friends. By Easter, however, it seemed like we had some momentum going and there was an excitement about the work we wanted to do there.

Several factors, one of which being my own shortcomings as an organizer and pastor, led to us losing whatever momentum we had built and just a few months later we were moving to Dallas. I felt the sting of letting go of dreams that I had. I do not know if I will ever be in full time ministry again, and that hurts, even today.

In a small way, I believe I understand what some of the disciples felt on Good Friday. All of their hopes and dreams had died with Jesus on the cross. They were left with great sadness and confusion about what to do next, as was I.

I think, however, that there is always a silver lining in these things. Obviously when Jesus rose from the dead he met and surpassed all the disciples’ expectations in a way they had never dreamed of. In small ways, I am already seeing Jesus do that.

I learned about a church in my hometown, Gulf Shores First Presbyterian Church, which is carrying out much of the mission I hoped to carry out when we moved home. Leaving Alabama became easier knowing that someone else was accomplishing the goals I dreamed about. One family who was extremely special to us has found a home in GSFPC as well, and every single time I see a picture from that church with one of these people in the background somewhere my heart is warmed beyond measure. Life bursts forth from the death of my dreams. Resurrection is happening.

Karen and I have found amazing community here in Dallas. First, with my good friend Eric and his wife Jill who welcomed us into their home with open arms. I do not know many people who would make the sacrifice Eric and Jill and their two girls have made for our family. We have become like family. Our conversations late at night after all our children have gone to bed have nourished my soul in a way I never thought possible. New life, springing from the death of my dreams.

We have found a church here in Dallas that is passionate about the things we are passionate about. Northaven United Methodist Church was and continues to lead the way in LGBTQ inclusion, they are on the front lines in the fight for social justice in our city, and our pastor has been arrested for protesting on behalf of immigrants in Washington D.C. We have a newfound excitement about going to church that I was beginning to doubt I would get back. New life, springing from the death of my dreams.

There is still pain and struggle for us. Oh how I long to be in vocational ministry once again. I do not know if that will ever be my lot again. I am still trying to come to terms with that and yet still find myself hoping, maybe hoping against hope, that this will happen somehow. But regardless of that I am able to look around and see new life springing up all around me. People told me the things I thought and spoke about were un-Christian, but I have seen without a shadow of a doubt that they indeed are not. I have a community. We will figure out our path in community. I believe that is what Resurrection Sunday is all about. Our paths may not be what we thought or hoped they would be, but we will figure them out, and we will journey them together…with Jesus at the center…and a community surrounding us.

Happy Resurrection Day my friends.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

 

What is so good about Good Friday?

Good Friday

What can possibly be good about the day we humans did the worst thing we are capable of? This is the day we remember our deicide. This is the day which highlights the capacity for evil which lies within each of us. This is the day which shows us our propensity to join the mob who shouts “crucify!” This is the day which highlights our cowardice that even the most avid followers of Jesus would abandon and deny Him. So the question remains, what can be good about this most darkest of days of remembrance?

This day does not highlight our goodness. That much is for sure. What is good about Good Friday? God is good. God shows us just how good God is on Good Friday. We thirst for blood. We shout for death. We demand that the violent leader be given to us because the revolutionary teacher of love would rather heal the enemy than fight for the cause. We beat and batter the embodiment of love and grace and mercy. Good Friday shows us God’s response to our evil. While we are still sinners…while we still take part in deicide…while we cast lots for the garments of the Son of Man…God, with our nails in His hands, says “Abba forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In many Protestant circles Good Friday has been reduced to a day of hopelessness. Our dreams of a Messiah have been crushed and we do not know what to do. Yes, there is some of that present in Good Friday, but that is a very shortsighted way to view this day of remembrance. Look upon the cross my friends. Look at our messiah. He was not a messiah in the way the Jews expected a messiah. Nor was he a messiah in the way many Christians expect Him to return one day. There is no violence in Him. None, that is, except for the violence He inflicts upon the institution of violence.

You see, in violence we feel we can put down or silence an enemy. This is why the cross was such an utterly tortuous experience. The Romans not only wanted the people on the cross to suffer, they wanted everyone who saw the crucifixion to draw back in terror. Jesus annihilates the institution of violence by willingly stepping into it. Jesus annihilates violence by taking away its power. By forgiving us in the midst of the worst act humanity is capable of Jesus robs violence of its greatest power. Jesus shows us light in the midst of our darkness. Jesus brings love to our hate. “While we were still sinners, Christ…died…for…us.”

This was not some cosmic balancing of the scales of justice where part of the Holy Trinity uses another part as His own sadistic sacrifice. No, this was God the Father, in God the Son, with the Holy Spirit, loving us while we hate Him. This was God showing us the full extent of His forgiveness and how He responds to evil. God responds to evil with love. This is God’s character. God’s character is never more fully revealed than it is as Jesus hangs on the cross.

So on the darkest of days for humanity, we see God more clearly than any other day. On risk of being called a heretic I’m going to disagree with a scripture here. “No man has ever seen God,” ah, but I see my God today. I see my Lord so clearly through the lens of Good Friday. I see my redeemer meeting hate with love. I see my messiah with love flowing from the wounds I inflicted with mercy and hope in His eyes. Hope for me…hope for you…He believes in us…He sees the best in us even when we are at our absolute disgustingly worst. I see my savior rejecting the entire establishment of worldly justice and retribution and instead pronouncing His love and forgiveness over us. Oh, my friends, do you see our God?

Holy Week: Via Dolorosa

It is Holy Week. This is the week we journey with our Lord Jesus towards the cross.

This morning I awoke to stories of bombs in Belgium. My heart hurts for the people of Belgium. My heart is also fearful. As someone who once traveled a lot and hopes to again one day, the bombing of any major international airport really hits home. The thought actually crossed my mind that I should take note to avoid the Brussels airport in any future travels.

Isn’t that where our heads always go? If we can just avoid the trouble spots we will be safe. If we can just keep “those people” out of our country we will all be ok. But is the gospel about safety? If at no other time of the year, surely during Holy Week we can understand that worshipping safety is one of the most anti-Christ things we can do.

So in our meditations during Holy Week we must ask ourselves, “what can we do to combat the violence we see in our world without hiding from it or becoming a part of it?” First and foremost we must choose love. We must love the perpetrators of violence as much as we love the victims of violence. The person who strapped a bomb to themselves in Belgium this morning is just as much a dearly loved child of God as you or I. Had we grown up the way that person grew up, perhaps we would have chosen the path they chose. Recognizing this is our first step in our own via dolorosa.

The next step we must take is to choose to stand with our peace loving Muslim brothers and sisters. As of my writing of this it has not been confirmed that it was a Muslim terrorist organization which enacted the attacks in Belgium, but that is already the belief here in America. No matter what comes of the story in Belgium, the climate here in America is to blame all Muslims whenever something like this happens. Make the choice to stand with your Muslim brothers and sisters.

Finally, and honestly, this may be the most difficult step in our response. We must choose to walk against the tide of fear. We must choose to visit Belgium or Turkey if that had been our desire before this. Fly through Brussels if that is the route Expedia suggests. Do not allow violent fear mongers to control our actions. In the same way that we must not allow our own politicians to make us fearful of Muslims, we must not allow terrorists to make us fearful of traveling. If we cancel our trips or pay more to fly around certain countries, the terrorists win. If we choose to hate or live in fear of certain groups of people, the terrorists win.

We will not be intimidated, even though my heart feels very intimidated. We will not shrink back and allow violence to win the day. We will move forward with love in our hearts and prophetic imagination on our minds. Choose to dance when the world tells us to hide. Choose to plant a garden when the world tells us to build a bomb shelter. Choose to give food to the homeless when the world tells us to stockpile our goods. We combat evil with love and love will win the day.

Take note, however, that this is a via dolorosa. Fortunately, we know that in Christ, even in death, life is found.

Let us continue to journey together on this via dolorosa we call Christianity.

Peace to all.

Amen.

 

 

Atonement: Lent Week 6

Dictionary.com defines atonement as, “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.”

So is Jesus satisfying or repairing a wrong or injury that was done when He dies on the cross? If so, who was wronged? God? Us? The Universe? Why must this wrong be paid for with death? Is blood the only way God can forgive? Is innocent blood the only thing that can put us right with God?

These are all questions we should be asking when we come to the subject of atonement. I will approach this subject from a belief I have come to hold which says that God’s atonement was not to satisfy a Divine need for justice or for blood, but ours. I believe we are the bloodthirsty ones. We are the ones who need sacrifice. God has always provided the sacrifice so that we humans can feel worthy to approach our Papa. However, the more perfect way, is that we learn to approach Abba without sacrifice, without the bridge, rather that we approach God as children running to their father with hope in our eyes and love in our hearts.

I believe that sacrifice is a human institution. I believe there is something within all of us which feels we must pay a price to approach whatever god it is we serve. Human culture is embedded in this idea of an economy of exchange. I once saw a Facebook post from Caleb Miller which said, “If we could get an economy of exchange out of our religion we would be a lot better off.” That has really stuck with me.

“But there is so much sacrifice in the Bible!” you say. This is true. Sacrifice is all through the Bible. But is it possible, that maybe…just maybe God has been trying since the dawn of humanity to pull us out of this sacrificial idea and into the knowledge of God’s immeasurable goodness and love?

Let us take the story of Abraham and Isaac. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. I used to find it peculiar that Abraham did not argue with God about this. We see plenty of places in the Abraham story where he argues, debates and even tries to make deals with God. But when God asks him to kill his son, no questions asked. Why do you think that is? You see, in Abraham’s day child sacrifice was a normal thing for gods to ask of you. At that time Abraham had no reason to believe the god he was communicating with was very different than the gods he had heard about most of his life. He was, however, about to find out how radically different his god was from those other gods.

So Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain and just when he is about to murder his son, God stops him. Now, most times when I hear this story I have heard people say that Abraham is a foreshadowing of God the Father while Isaac is a foreshadowing of Jesus and that God the Father will sacrifice Jesus to save us from our sins. But that is not how this story goes is it? Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac. I believe that Abraham is a foreshadowing of all of humanity. I am Abraham. You are Abraham. We stand at the mountaintop with a knife in our hand ready to sacrifice all we hold dear that we may draw near to God.

What does God do? God stops us from killing one another. God provides the sacrifice. The story of humanity is that WE are the killers. WE are the ones who need blood. God gave Abraham a ram and from that point on people knew that the God of Abraham and Isaac did not desire human sacrifice. Over time God began to send prophets who tried to tell the people that this whole sacrificial system was not something God desires. But we did not listen. Once we had our plan laid out as to how to approach God and how to keep the “other” from approaching God we ran with it.

So finally, the Word of God becomes flesh. God enters our world and begins picking apart all the things we have taught ourselves about the Divine. See I believe the injury that must be repaired was done by us…and to us. We injured ourselves. We taught ourselves that God was like us. We convinced ourselves that God needs blood and justice to be with us when the whole time God is trying to scream to us JUST LET ME LOVE YOU!!!

So God puts on flesh and atones for us by becoming one of us. God walks around as a vagabond preacher telling us deep truths of what God is really like. God atones for us by letting us make God our sacrifice. God atones for us by forgiving us even as we brutally murder the Divine. God atones for us by defeating death. That while God reigns over death that we too, would also reign over death. God atones for us by sending the Holy Spirit that we may be able to, as Jesus did, “do only what I see my Father do.”

Jesus came to completely and utterly destroy the sacrificial system once and for all by allowing us to make Him the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus was the ultimate Trojan horse in a sense as He entered into the most toxic belief we as humans hold, and annihilated it…or at least, I think, that was the hope.

So as we enter Palm Sunday and Holy Week we must remember that Jesus came to pull us OUT of this idea that we must give something to get something with God. That is not God’s character. God is a perfect Father AND Mother. We are drawn into the presence of God with laughter and dancing and singing and rejoicing.

Remember this friends, God has ALWAYS been FOR you. The entire Biblical narrative is about God opening our eyes to see that fact. Let your eyes be opened this Lent to see that God is for you. God is with you. God longs for you to see the perfect parenting which emanates from the heart of God.

Perhaps that is why Jesus only refers to God as Abba, or daddy. Jesus was trying to remind us of who God is. Remember who God is.

God is love.

Amen.

 

 

I must give credit where it is due here. Many of these ideas are ideas I have gleaned from many different authors. If you would like to look into any of them I suggest Rob Bell, Jeff Turner, Michael Hardin, Rene Girard, Brian Zahnd and many others. These are just a few whose words were at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this blog.

Engaging The Powers: Lent Week 5

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

-The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

 

As a kid who loved to read, this poem captivated my imagination and I believe, spoke to the deepest parts of my soul. I have never been very interested in following the crowd. I have often made decisions that are unpopular in whatever group I am in. I have always seen beauty in the road less traveled.

There is a problem with this, however. The powers that be in our world want us on the well-traveled path. A mob is much easier to control than free thinking individuals who support one another’s free thoughts. The powers want you to conform, to fall in line, to not rock the boat.

As a young man, I somewhat glamorized this poem in my mind. I remember being struck by it in eighth or ninth grade when I heard it for the first time in my English class. Though I can’t remember exactly what grade I was in, I do remember the classroom and the teacher like it was yesterday. I remember Mrs. Stanton reading this poem to us and I remember never having felt the power of literature before the way I felt it that day. Take the road less traveled…it will make all the difference. I do not believe that poem convinced me to live my life a certain way, but I do believe it awakened something which was already lying dormant deep inside my soul. This is what great literature is supposed to do to us.

As I entered my twenties I began to think that as I ventured down the road less traveled people would follow me. Surely by the time I reached my thirties people would follow the example I try to set of not bending to societal expectations. Unfortunately, I must tell you that in general, the opposite is true.

There is a great cost which comes with following Jesus. There is a great cost which comes with challenging the ruling powers and authorities in this world. In the moment it may not seem worth it. In the moment it will likely feel lonely and futile. But history remembers.

History will not remember those who go with the flow. History will not remember those who simply stay out of trouble and follow the status quo. Make history friends. “Be the change,” as Gandhi would say. Be the change in small ways and be the change in big ways. Do not remain silent when racism is spouted around you. Do not stand by when someone, anyone, is being spoken down to. Look that homeless person on your corner in the eye. Acknowledge everyone’s humanity.

We challenge the powers in our society by being kind to those who are overlooked. We can challenge the powers in our society by giving dignity to those society tries to strip it from. Here I think of orphans, the elderly, the homeless, those in prison, addicts. Any of us can show love. This is a big way we can fight the power.

How far will we go to stand with the oppressed? How much are we willing to pay for doing what is right?

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo he can take the blue pill and wake up tomorrow as if nothing ever happened, or take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. This is the option we have once we begin to think about engaging the powers that be in our world. We will either take the red pill, or we will have to try desperately to forget the red pill exists. If we take the blue pill we will find ourselves being angry at those who suggest there is something going on behind the curtain. We will fight to maintain the mirage of the blue pill. We will join the mob. The mob shouts for the release of Barabbas.

If we take the red pill our life will be changed forever. If we take the red pill we will find ourselves unable to look the other way when we see injustice. Once we see the truth of the matrix in our world and we see the way the various systems of our world push some down while propping others up we will find ourselves looking for ways to make a difference. We can make a difference friends. Another lie the powers will tell you is that you are just one person and cannot make a difference. Do not listen to that lie. Push against the powers with everything you have. Choose to love and care for “the least of these” with every opportunity you get.

Do not give up.

They will try to discredit you, they will try to shut you up and they will try to decrease your influence. But don’t give up. The powers will tell you there is no hope for that woman pushing a cart. The powers will tell you if that homeless man is on drugs he does not deserve your care. The powers will tell you murderers and sexual offenders are beyond redemption. The powers will tell you Muslims are your enemies. The powers will try to encourage you to hunker down in a bubble and protect your family from the world.

Do not hide. Do not turn away. Engage the powers. Prophecy the love of the crucified God to every demonic force which seeks to take advantage of the weak. In the words of the great poets Public Enemy, “Fight the power”! A single small candle in a pitch black room will change everything. So, in the words of another of my favorite philosophers, Bob Marley, “light up the darkness”.

Bring beauty where everything is ugly. Bring light where everything is dark. Bring truth where there are lies. Do not ever let the powers silence you. Do not ever let the powers break you.

Stay strong.

Change the world.

Peace be with you friends.

Disappearing: Lent Week 4

“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

This line from the gospel of Luke tells us of the path Jesus chose as He faced every principality and power in His culture. In the time of Jesus’ life that we see in the gospels Jesus was constantly challenging presuppositions about what God was like and what following God looked like. What we see in the gospels from Jesus is unparalleled patience and kindness and gentleness.

I believe the only way we can be that sort of patient, kind and gentle with people is by withdrawing from people occasionally to meditate. Meditate on God, meditate on life, ask God about yourself. Perhaps you will hear no response, but the key is to withdraw and find serenity. Try not to pressure yourself. If you fall asleep, that’s ok, if your thoughts drift, that’s ok as well. Time alone should not be another burden where we force ourselves into yet another agenda.

We must learn the art of disappearing.

About six months ago my friend, theologian and author Michael Hardin came to visit us in south Alabama. He gave some amazing talks that benefitted us and others in our community who were able to attend, but I believe the most impactful thing I heard from him that week was on my back porch, as my wife and I talked to Michael about some of the difficulties we had been having in our deconstruction.

You see, both Karen and I had become fairly charismatic in belief. As we began deconstructing some of the myths and untruths of our faith we, more specifically Karen, began to feel that some of the precious things she loved about Jesus were beginning to slip away. She shared these fears with Michael that day and I will never forget what he told her. He said that Jesus was not capable of miracles and such because of the fact that He was fully God, but rather because of the fact that He was fully human. Michael said that he believed that God has given us humans all power and authority (I think he got that from a book somewhere…can’t put my finger on which one it could be though), and that when we are looking for what our Father is doing, we will follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

That is somewhat of a long story to make this point. If we truly want to be followers of Christ, we must understand ourselves. If we want to be people who do “greater things” than Jesus did and if we want to impact the world for love and peace and mercy, we must be in touch with what is going on inside of our own souls and we must know who we are.

Too often the world around us tells us who we are and what we should do and how we should dress and how we should behave. This is why the art of disappearing is so immensely important. We have to, not should, we must break away from all the hustle and bustle and accusation that the world throws at us and allow our souls to be centered by the Prince of Peace.

In our first week we talked about repentance. If we do not learn the art of disappearing the world will never let us enter into that deep healing with Jesus that we so desire. In week two we talked about forgiveness. If we do not learn to disappear we will hear nothing but the world’s cry for vengeance. The world wants the scales of justice to be balanced, God desires mercy. Last week we spoke of uncertainty. Uncertainty will always bring anxiety unless we can get alone and find some time to embrace it.

Solitude is a necessity for each and every one of us. Even if you are an extrovert, you still need time alone to get away from the voice of the crowd and understand the voice of the lamb, the voice which comes to us in our dreams, or in the ripples of a creek, the peak of a mountain, the song of a blue jay. The voice of Jesus is the voice of peace. Let us become familiar with it this week friends, as we, withdraw to lonely places to pray.

Uncertainty: Lent Week 3

This week we embrace the darkness. This week we will do our best to let go of our fear of the unknown. This week we will try to learn what it is to rest in the tension of the mystery.

We can never fully figure out everything in the universe. We can never fully understand God, who created all of this which we see around us. Unfortunately, these two facts have been used to discourage seeking and discovery and questioning for a long time. I believe God wants us to constantly be seeking and digging and questioning. So if that is my belief, how can I possibly say for us to learn to rest in the tension of the mystery?

I would say there are levels to uncertainty. There is one level which can inspire awe and questioning and desire and passion, then there is the level upon which fear and anxiety and stress come from. These levels differ for everyone. The level of uncertainty which inspires fear and anxiety and stress may or may not be healthy for you. This is something you need to discover for yourself. I am not going to say where I believe uncertainty leading to stress and fear is unhealthy because it can indeed be different for all of us. The one thing I will say is that anything that inspires fear, stress, anxiety or dread within us deserves further examination as to why it inspires those emotions.

Now, for the other level of uncertainty, it is quite possible that even questioning our religion or our worldviews could cause fear and anxiety. My question would be, “why should it?” Religion, philosophical understandings of the world and various views on those things have been evolving since the beginning of time. Even in the Bible we see an evolving perspective on who God is. Never in the Bible did anyone discourage people from digging deeper to understand God. I believe the reason is that they knew that God was big enough to handle our questions.

If God is real, and I believe He is, then there is no question we cannot ask, there is no thought we cannot think. God is all in all, and He is present in the darkness. Here we find something else that has inhibited our searching. Traditionally, we have understood darkness to be something bad, evil or frightening. I would say darkness is something we can embrace. If we begin to see darkness as the presence of mystery, then in the darkness we can begin to seek out the greatest mystery we have ever known, the face of the Divine.

I love the boldness of Moses, “show me your glory!” I resonate with that. I want to know God. I want to see God. I want to experience God. I have grown sick of the recipes for these things however. I no longer experience or learn much about God in church. Don’t get me wrong, I love church. I love meeting people and singing songs with my friends and I love teaching whenever that opportunity presents itself. But I think, just personally, I am in a place where I learn much better through reading than through listening to sermons. I also seem to experience God much more when I am with the oppressed, the castaway, the poor.

I seem to experience God in the places where I often find myself asking, “God where are you?!” I wonder if the finding is in the question. When we find ourselves wondering where God is in this situation or that place, if we look, that is when we will find the face of the Divine.

So here I am in the midst of a blog about uncertainty, trying to tell you where you will find God. Isn’t this always how it goes? We start off wanting to embrace the mystery, and we wind up creating a formula so others don’t have to. My instinct is to erase everything I’ve written above and start over, but I’m not going to. I’m going to leave it there because I believe this is a great example in what comes natural to us. Sometimes the hardest thing about embracing the mystery on our own journey is embracing where our friends and family are on their journeys. Sure we want to offer resources and help to our friends as they search through the darkness. But we must also be patient. Never write someone off because of where they are in their journey. Embrace everyone’s darkness.

There is so much uncertainty in our world; it is only natural for us to try and make the uncertain certain. That is not a bad thing. However, we must learn to be ok with the tension as we search. We must learn to be ok with the tension in others as they search through their own darkness. Things may not be as any of us think they are. We may get to the end of our lives and find we are radically wrong about a great number of things. If certainty is what we need then we have problems. Embrace uncertainty friends, even as we press on for answers.

Forgiveness: Lent Week 2

Betrayal.

Abandonment.

Injustice.

Mockery.

Abuse.

These are a few of the things most of us have experienced and find difficult to forgive. These are also things we read that Jesus experienced in the hours immediately following His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Betrayed by Judas. Abandoned by His closest friends. Unjustly tried and convicted. Mocked and abused by soldiers and various onlookers. This was Jesus’ final experience of humanity before His death.

A God of wrath would lash out and rid His creation of these monsters who so horribly mistreated His perfect Son. A just God would have sent fire from heaven to burn up these mockers where they stood and proclaim that Jesus is indeed king. Unless….perhaps God’s justice does not look like our own.

“Yes, God is merciful but He is also just.”

Anyone ever heard this line before? As if God’s justice is the opposite end which balances out His mercy to keep us all from going too wild. But Colossians 2:9 tells us that, “in Christ, all the fullness of the Deity (God) lives in bodily form.”

Think about that for a moment. In Christ, ALL THE FULLNESS OF GOD LIVES in bodily form. Not just the yin side while the father brings the yang/hammer. ALL…every bit of the fullness of God is revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

So when Jesus responds to the most evil act ever seen throughout human history, the murder of God, with forgiveness (Luke 23:34), we can rest assured that this is how God has, does and will always respond to evil. In the words of Michael Gungor, “His judgement comes to us, and His judgement is love.”

We must not take another breath without realizing that this is the essence of who God is. God is not at His core, forced to balance some cosmic scales. God is at His core, seeking relationship with His children. The scales will be balanced and justice will be served when God can hold all of His children in His arms.

“Oh but those people have to get what’s coming to them!” Who? Me? I hope not. I have done my share of dirt. I was once a violent young man who preyed on those I perceived to be weaker than I. When I realized God forgave me for all of that it absolutely demolished everything I used to be. As Romans 2:4 tells us, “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.”

Kindness, forgiveness, tenderness, loving wisdom. These are the traits I desire as a father of two small boys. I want my boys to grow up saying that this is the kind of father they had. I believe being that kind of father would be a good gift to give to my boys. Let us hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:11, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!” God is an infinitely better Father than I could ever dream of being. His forgiveness has no end. When we shout for justice, God shouts for mercy. Mercy is the very essence of who God is. Healing, love, redemption, reconciliation, mercy…these are the things at the center of the divine.

So what does this say for us? Well, a few things. First, we must know that we are forgiven. Sometimes, receiving forgiveness is the hardest thing in the world to do. Know that you are forgiven friends, and release yourself from the weight of past transgressions. Unless we forgive ourselves for the things we have done, we will never be free.

Take a minute before we finish. Step away from the computer or put down your phone. Wherever you are, step away from the action of the world going on around you. Close your eyes and inhale God’s goodness and forgiveness and affirmation of you, then exhale all the things you have held onto that you have said or done that were destructive. Do it again. Inhale God’s mercy, exhale your sins. Inhale God’s grace; exhale your judgement of yourself. Hear the voice of the Father calling you, beckoning you to come and rest on His lap. Feel His breath on the back of your neck. Know that God is with you. Know that God is for you.

Now, the other thing this says for us is we must release those who have sinned against us. That pastor who abused their authority, that parent who abandoned you, that man who hurt your friend, all of them. We have to. It’s the only way to walk in freedom. Now you may say, “I’m just not ready to forgive them.” That is understandable. But I honestly do not think we are ever “ready” to forgive. Not really. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness does not mean bringing toxic people back into our life. Forgiveness means that we hope the best for them. Forgiveness is to let go of our desire for worldly justice or karma to come to this person.

No matter the situation, no matter how deep the pain or how long the scar, forgiveness is a part of the path to healing. Our God is a forgiving God. Let us ponder His goodness this week as we both receive and give away forgiveness. Breathe in. Breathe out. Give mercy, as mercy has been given to you. Amen.

Repentance: Lent Week 1

Repent! Turn from your wicked ways! Ask forgiveness from your sins. Repeat this prayer after me.
These may be a few of the phrases we think of when we hear the word repentance. Also the similarities between the word penance and repentance sometimes cause us to feel we must pay some price to arrive at a place of forgiveness. However, as we enter into the first week of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, let us attempt to free our mind of these culturally conditioned ideas we have of the word repentance. I believe that if we can enable ourselves to take a fresh look at repentance it can be something that enriches our lives, relationships and our walk of faith.
So the first thing that skews our understanding of repentance is a poor understanding of sin. Let us talk for a moment about what sin is not. Sin is not this dark cloak that separates us from God. Sin is not falling outside of a cosmic list of rules handed down to a desert nomad thousands of years ago. Sin is not something that God cannot look upon. Sin is not primarily about our actions. I believe God goes TOWARDS us in our sin, never away.
So what IS sin? The definition of sin that I work off of is one I heard from my friend Michael Hardin which he heard from a minister named Denny Moon which says that sin is the destructive way in which we handle our pain. If this is true, and I believe that it is, then sin is when we do violence to our own souls. When we operate in a self-destructive way, (addiction, greed, self-harm to name a few) we injure our own souls. Similarly, we also do violence to our own souls when we operate in destructive ways towards others. If I murder a man, I may destroy his body, but I also inflict deep wounds to my own soul. When I gossip about and slander another person, I may do damage to their reputation, but I also inflict wounds upon my own reputation and my own soul.
God is in the business of holistic healing. Repentance is our choice to enter into this healing Abba offers us. Repentance is when we recognize the violence we are inflicting upon our own souls and begin the journey towards healing. Repentance is not a single moment. Repentance is a process. Repentance is not beating ourselves up over the wrongs we have done. Repentance is seeking healing from the wounds our wrongs have created.
Our reading this week is the famous parable of the prodigal son. Obviously this is a story Jesus told with many layers of points but let us imagine for a moment that the prodigal son was a historical account. Let’s call him Luke since his story is found in the gospel of Luke. If Luke were a real person then the decisions he made with his inheritance would have surely been influenced by the inner pain he had been carrying with him for who knows how many years. Even when Luke could no longer stand the pain of eating pig slop, he still acted out of his pain as he returned home just begging for a job. Luke recited his apology to himself on his way home. He still believed he was only worthy to be a servant in his father’s home.
His father, however, had been repeatedly going towards him. The passage in Luke tells us the father sees Luke “while he was still a long ways off”. That only happens when you are looking for something. The father had been looking for his son, probably on a daily basis. The son says he is no longer worthy to be called son. Luke is still responding from pain. The father shows him in several different ways what he believes is true about his son. I believe the repentance in this story takes place not when we have traditionally been told it takes place, at the moment Luke decides to return home. The repentance takes place when the son receives his father’s embrace, when he receives his father’s robe, sandals and ring. Repentance took place when Luke entered the party his father threw him. Repentance began when this son allowed himself to be a son and not a servant.
We are sons and daughters of God. May we enter into repentance this week for treating ourselves or others any differently. May we enter into the healing that comes from recognizing the thumbprint of the Divine upon our own souls, as well as upon those with whom we interact with.
I leave you with a few questions to ponder. How have I considered myself as “less than” recently? How have I considered others as “less than” recently? What, if any, mentalities and perspectives do I need to begin journeying away from? What areas of my heart are wounded and in need of care?