July 2011


“For God so loved the world.”

This is, to me, an absolutely astonishing sentence; nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around.

I grew up not loving the world, but fearing, rejecting, separating from, needing cleansed from, even hating the world. Non-Christians, Catholics, the poor, “townies”, communists, immigrants, the Chinese, Arabs, homosexuals, military personel, casinos, slums, cities, governments, culture, rock and roll… I could go on, were all on the list of unlove.

And so for God to love the world, is incomprehensible! People? Sure. Individuals? You bet. But the world: in all its diversity, pluriformity of cultures, ways of expressing itself, hungers, desires, passions, loves and beauty? That God loves the world is truly the kind of thing that can transform the Church today.

It’s certainly transforming my faith, character, and lifestyle. And thankfully, I’m not alone.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove chronicles The Next American Revival which will connect “the gospel with society’s deep need.” He looks at various movements in history that have believed ”the stuff Jesus said matters not just for the after-life, but for our lives here and now.”  Examples are early American evangelists during the industrial revolution, the “health and wealth gospel” of pastors such as Joel Olsteen, the freedom movement in South Africa, emergent churches, progressives and those labeled “new monastics.” This is a great article worth a read.

Wilson-Hartgrove claims much of these movements have a single event that binds them together: 9/11, the 10th anniversary of which is fast approaching.

Unanticipated in so many ways, that irruption of violence on U.S. soil was a wake-up call to a whole generation that something is deeply wrong with our world—particularly, with its social systems. Of course, the tragic events of 9/11 were only symptoms of deeper problems. But those symptoms opened our eyes to systemic connections between religious extremism and extreme poverty, between unjust wars and unsustainable economics, between dependence on oil and global climate change. Eventually, an analysis of these social problems begins to connect the dots, bringing more and more of us to a frightening conclusion: we can’t go on like this. Something has to change.

I certainly remember how 9/11 shifted the tectonic plates of my young adult soul and sense of vocation. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d be a lead pastor in Houston, Texas had those towers not fallen. And after the tragic events in Norway Friday, I feel the depths of this post more than ever (I originally wrote this Thursday to publish Sunday morning).

But Wilson-Hartgrove is not alone. I’m inspired over and again by the depth and breadth of love I see in followers of Jesus who find themselves on the fringes of dominant Christian culture: Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Shane Hipps, Rob Bell. Many of these names are familiar. Harry Jarrett Jr.’s name might not be. But it should be.

In a confessional, probing blog Jarrett wrestles with our quietness regarding the East African drought in his post: A dilemma of presence: Ours and Gods, Why we need to do something about the famine. Jarrett laments how a group of churches in his area spent 400 people hours on an issue related to the “purity” of the denomination (“What the issue was is not important,” he says). But he laments he has no idea how to spend 400 hours today trying to share water with those in need.

I too feel his sense of weakness at addressing this massive issue. His passion and love for the world shine through his lament. You can feel it dripping through the pixels. Listen to what he says about our world’s great needs:

In the horn of Africa, it is food and water. In Lancaster county [PA],  people are loosing their jobs in droves. Where you live, it is likely something else. I believe God is present there, in those places, wondering why we are discussing issues that will most certainly be completely spoken to when we are dead and gone. I believe that in the end we will know fully, see fully and understand fully, when we stand fully in the presence of God. Why must we resolve everything now when we are told we will get the “right answers” later. Why are we not focusing on loving God and loving our neighbor as our self? What should be so simple as a mission has truly become a mess of interpretive mayhem. We offer a meaningless message to a world in need.

I for one am all for purity: purity of mission, purity of love, purity of participation in God’s mission, purity of being missional, purity of presence. In my view, to be pure (as Jesus was pure) is to focus our 400 on East-Africa, the loss of Lancaster jobs, and the real stuff of life. Some famous guy (was it Barth, Chambers, Bonhoeffer?) said “Purity of heart is to will one will.” If God’s one will is to love the world, how can we call ourselves pure and do anything else?

Thanks Jonathan and Harry for showing me more today than ever before what John meant when he said “For God so loved the world”!

It’s hard to be different. “Dork,” “geek,” and “loser” are the schoolyard terms meant to reign in those who are different. Clothes, gadgets, language, skin color, religion, sexuality all make it hard to be unique. Our culture gives lip service to being unique and authentic, but only tends to enforce sameness.

Swimming against the current

 

But it’s even harder to be hated as different. Take for instance the recent story of a Christian gay man receiving death threats from another attendee at a Christian denominational gathering. Can you imagine clinging to God in prayer through this scenario? This can’t be easy. Or imagine how you would feel as the minority religion in a country and told over and again you are not worthy, you are not loved, you need to leave, and you are hated for who you are. Given the comments on Young American Muslim’s blog, it’s clear many still love to hate those who are different.  

I’m fascinated by the spirituality of these people, people our culture calls ‘the damned.”And by all people who have been set aside: victims of abuse, rape, violence, oppression, wage theft, harrassment, etc…  How do they survive? How do the oppressed embrace “God loves you” when everyone screams “God hates you and so do I!”? How do they cultivate a spirituality of resistance and transformation? What sustains that fish while swimming against the flow? How does spirituality for the dominant differ from spirituality for the different?

I’m living into this question in three ways right now.

First, a growing awareness that Jesus was oppressed and ministered to the oppressed. Howard Thurman, speaking within the black church context, says in Jesus and the Disinherited,  “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” This view is echoed everywhere Christians find themselves oppressed (such as in the birth of Latin American Liberation Theology). As someone who lives within dominant culture (white, male, educated, wealthy, Christian) this has been a deeply powerful new insight.

Second, a growing call to focus more of my own pastoral energies on marginalized communities. In an earlier post I talked about certain groups our world ostracizes, marginalizes, and demonizes, what I called The Community of the Damned. But I’ve not been equipped with a spirituality that can sustain minorities, the poor, victims of abuse, or those ostracized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. Like Bart Compolo says in his latest blog, “Being poor is hard work,” and I want to know and experience a spirituality that will sustain the lives of those who are poor.

Third, My own experience blogging as The Peace Pastor has reminded me again that my own faith tradition is clearly “different” and can make it hard for Anabaptists and Mennonites like myself to want to publicly proclaim the good news of Peace. Here’s some of what I’ve received for proclaiming a third way:

  • Helen says  “you don’t deserve the privilege of living in this country.”
  • El Machete says, “you are a yellow bellied coward who hides behind his religion.”
  • Pdh42 says, “you (IMO) know nothing about the Bible with all of your communist social justice garbage that you preach.”
  • True believer called Christian pacifists “silly people” and my blog a “waste of space.”
  • Carpenter says that pursuing peace is “unrealistic and even dangerous.”

In other words, to be a Christian peacemaker makes one a dork, geek, and a loser. This experience has demanded a refurbished spirituality (one fellow blogger called it “thick skin”) that I am still growing into. Thankfully, I’m reminded Jesus’ original disciples didn’t get this overnight, so there’s still room for my growth. Core pieces of an oppressed spirituality seem to be fixation on the person and humanity of Jesus, belief in God’s abiding presence within us, deep longing prayer, genuine community, honesty about systems and power, an assertion that the world is not as it should be, and a vision of the world as God intends for it to be.

The vision for this blog is to proclaim the whole gospel of Jesus in a context which marginalizes Jesus, justice, and holistic faith. Dominant Christian culture (and its inertia/energy) doesn’t always energize the comprehensive vision of doing justice, loving neighbor, God and self; often it will oppose this voice. Thus the Christian’s pursuit of peace happens in the midst of pressure to narrow our voice. Likewise, dominant secular culture may be open to the quest for justice, but find our insistence on keeping Jesus at the center of our work and words baffling, if not stifling. For this reason, small intentional Christian communities are essential in developing people who can live the life of Jesus in our world. Likewise, introduction to a “missional” or just spirituality has also proved essential for overcoming my blocks to following Jesus and sustaining my call to live a life of just Christianity.  

If you are different, or oppressed, how has your spirituality sustained you? How have you witnessed spirituality give life to communities who are marginalized, victimized, or oppressed? What are the songs, texts, stories and rituals that energize marginalized communities to be faithful to God in a world that is not?

DEAR WORLD:

It’s understandable if you don’t think that we in the church understand you, “get you,” or even like you. After all, you see our Summit-sized buildings, soaring steeples, SUV filled parking lots scattered around our city while Christians lead the fight to eradicate social services that you need to live. With looming budget cuts for schools essential for your children’s wholeness and health, Texas’ Christians instead deemed as “emergencies” legislative agenda you perhaps thought was ridiculously off-task. I would understand if you didn’t think Christians didn’t like you if you are new to the area and came without papers, or if you were born with an “unnacceptable” sexual orientation; because many don’t like you.

As the world rages in turmoil & violence, struggles over limited resources and massive changes in weather patterns, unemployment and foreclosures, we in the church might appear not to notice. Take for instance what my fellow blogger Ken Chitwood points out in his blog this week: that some Christians have decided the core issue we need to catalyze our resources around and work diligently to pursue is whether or not heaven and hell exist. Important, sure. But perhaps, if we listened to you, we would hear this is not the most helpful use of our time.

For all this and more, “We’re sorry.” We haven’t been there for you when you needed help in the messiness of life. You needed a ride to the doctor and we were splitting theological hairs. Your son is scared now that daddy is back from Iraq, lashing out in anger and fright at the slightest sound; and we needed to know who was right. Undocumented, you live in an immigrant community riddled with crime but don’t feel safe calling our police; and we’re concerned about how many chances you’ll get to “receive Jesus” after you die before our god sends you to hell. You’re living in hell as a victim of human trafficking held against your will and forced to perform unspeakable duties here in Houston, the nations slavery capital; but we wonder aloud if your hell will continue after you die.

I apologize. Please forgive us. This is not the way we are supposed to be. You see, our leader and namesake, Jesus Christ, would understand you if he were here. He would “get” that you are ostracized and feel bullied. He would know if the choices you’ve made, even if they are illegal or unethical at times, were the best thing you knew to do to put food on your kids table. He would understand how bad it feels to be passed by on the street and not noticed. He would totally understand you if you told him your religious leaders weren’t there for you.

And, he would like you. A lot. He wouldn’t waste your time with the afterlife when you are consumed with making it in this life. He talked a lot about love. Loving ourselves, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies. He’s pretty good at that. I’m sorry you don’t always experience us, his followers, in the same way. His vision of the world and we humans in it was that everyone would have enough: enough food, enough stuff, enough community and love. Perhaps if we were better at loving you like he asked, it would make more sense when we invite you to love God. Our most important book says that “God loved the world,” and I deeply hope you know God’s love whether you feel love from Jesus’ followers or not. 

If you need anything, let us know.

Sincerely,
A follower of Jesus

The following is a reflection on the Mennonite Church USA Convention theme and key verse (2 Corinthians 5:16-21):
I love my city. I love Houston’s ridiculously hubristic skyline, our underperforming sports teams, our gargantuan flyovers and 20-lane highways, our farmers markets, our bayous and museums, and our longing to be a “real” city.

I love our food. In my neighborhood alone you can find world class Thai, Polish, Mexican, Korean and Salvadoran food. I walk my family to a little Churro booth that holds its own against anything at Mennonite relief sales.

And I love our diversity. Houston’s four million people have no majority population and Houston is home to 325 different people groups. When our family first moved to Houston I remember going to the play-land at a local mall and counting no less than eight languages being spoken by the children there. 

Yes, moving to Houston has helped me to fall in love with diversity. But too often, rather than celebrating diversity, Christians allow it to divide and separate us. High profile cases of Christians judging others who are different (like the Florida pastor who burned a Koran; or the Kansas church known for protesting funerals) or who believe differently (the outrage among Christians towards pastor Rob Bell’s thoughts on hell) or who act differently (homosexuality) embarrass me by how far off the mark they are. Race, legal status, wealth, politics, and faith divide us.

But reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel.

In word and lifestyle Jesus draws his community together, breaking down the boundaries that divide. Drawing on Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (11:6-9 & 65:25), he calls his followers to be makers of peace (Matthew 5:9) rather than judgment and discord (Matthew 7:1), and gives us specific instructions on how to pull it off (Matthew 18:15-20). Leave your worship behind, he says, and go be reconciled to your neighbor – it’s that important (Matthew 5:16-26). It’s also controversial enough he’s almost killed (Luke 4:24-30) just for mentioning the possibility of reconciliation with an outsider.

So how have Jesus’ followers done in emulating his example? The first generation of believers did smashingly well! Paul in particular sees reconciliation at the center of the Christian life, declaring we have been “given the ministry of reconciliation… So we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18,20).”

Likewise, the next generation embraced this ministry of reconciliation. One late second century pastor said Christians “Love all men, and by all men are persecuted… They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect (section 5 of The Epistle to Diognetus).” They were clearly working for the good of all by valuing relationships more than being “right.”

But what about Jesus’ followers today? Is this, my Mennonite friends, how we are known? Are we the glue that binds, or the scissors that divide?

We as Mennonites and as Mennonite churches have a marvelous opportunity to regain that reputation for being reconcilers committed to the dignity and respect of all persons and cultures. Peace, reconciliation, conflict transformation is in our blood. Jesus is our DNA.

As ambassadors of reconciliation (racial, religious, political, economic), our call is very different from civil ambassadors, who work to impose the will of the dominant party on fringe groups. No, our call is the reconciliation of all groups to each other and to God. It is to share one story, one identity in the midst of diversity. Our call is to love, and to empower others to do likewise.

How is God calling you to build relationship in your neighborhood or workplace? As an ambassador for reconciliation, what resources do you need to love, overcome barriers, and stand with those different than yourself? Is there someone in particular that you need to be reconciled to today? Wouldn’t it be great if we Christians were known not for our exclusivity, but for our ability to “love the stranger as you love yourself”?

To all members in our denomination of beautiful multicultural diversity: “Be ambassadors for reconciliation.” Perhaps our political leaders don’t believe in diversity of cultures, but our God does. Love your city, your neighbor, your co-worker, your enemy and everyone you meet. If you do, you’ll be “the justice of God (2 Corinthians 5:21)”!

There is no dispute about God’s imperatives regarding the workplace. Human dignity in the workplace is an essential belief in the Abrahamic traditions. Indeed, over and again we find Godself at work: at work in creation, at work in redemption, at work in the lives of God’s people. So its clear when Pharaoh exploits and hu­miliates the Israelites how completely counter to God’s intentions this is. As was Solomon’s terrible treatment of the kingdom workers building temple, palace, and empire for a man who practiced forced labor and systematic theft of wages. So bad was Solomon’s treatment of the worker that God himself was forced to intervene, ripping the kingdom from the hands of Solomon’s descendants.

The record is not kind to Solomon,  “King Solomon conscripted forced labor our of all Israel, the levy numbered 30,000 men…. (1 Kings 5:13-15).”  In chapter 12 we see the kingdom divided over this precise point: economic injustice, labor rights, fair treatment of the worker, wage theft. How have we missed this story for so long?

Nehemiah too tells the important story of how God’s people pushback against economic injustice. You remember the story: coming out of exile God’s people begin the long, hard work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and city. The upper class begins to steal the vineyards and fields of the people, the currency of the day. But Nehemiah, God’s ordained faith leader, said “We are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves,… we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others…The thing you are doing is not good (Nehemiah 5:5,9).”

No! This thing you are doing, stealing wages, oppressing the poor, forcing labor; “is not good.” Indeed! Throughout the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions you find that the beating heart of God is justice. The liturgies of the ancients are filled with the reframe “justice and righteousness,” justice and righteousness make their way into history, prophets, writings, commentaries and sermons. God, says the prophet, “loves justice (Isaiah 61:8).”

From “Do not steal” (Exodus 20:15) to “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6),” support for the worker is clear.

  • Jeremiah 22:13 “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.”
  • Deuteronomy 24:1-5 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”

When the Abrahamic traditions define the ideal Person, the person we are all to strive to be, they introduce us to the character Job, who is in the incarnation of justice. Listen in to Job 29:11-17

I delivered the poor who cried,
   and the orphan who had no helper.
13 The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
   and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
   my justice was like a robe and a turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind,
   and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy,
   and I championed the cause of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
   and made them drop their prey from their teeth.

According to Eugene Peterson, we find the dignity of work throughout the NT story as well. “Jesus occasionally shows up in synagogue or temple, but for the most part he spends time in the workplace. 27 times in the gospel of John Jesus is identified as a worker. ‘My Father is still working, and I am also working (John 5:17). Work doesn’t take us away from God, it continues the work of God.”

In his greatest sermon Jesus mentions justice 6 times. Jesus tells us we’re blessed if we hunger for it & blessed to be hated for it. He tells us to strive for it more than anything else in our life and cautioned to have more than the religious leaders of his day who tithe but neglect the weightier matters of justice.

Seems pretty important to the guy we call “Lord.” In a blog earlier this week called “My wages are being stolen,” commenters accused me of being a communist, having never read my Bible, advocating for the overthrow of Texas industry, and hating Jesus. Why? Because I talked about pursuing justice. But if Jesus loved it, shouldn’t I?

The work of justice is long, but exciting. That’s why I’m here, to ask you to join the cause, and to equip you for the work of justice. It requires bravery and courage, an understanding of the issues and a willingness to be public. But the most essential element is much simpler than that. The work of justice ultimately demands only one thing from you: that you believe God.