MLK, Fuller Seminary, and Affordable Housing

this post is written by Naomi Wilson, who asked me to publish it here. 

It is the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and like many other Christian institutions of higher education, Fuller Seminary has taken the opportunity to post a reflection on Dr. King. It is my firm belief that many of the reflections published by these institutions are not written for the right reasons, whether it be that the institutions have a history of oppression that they have not yet reconciled, or that the institutions publishing these reflections tacitly approve of politicians and policies that are in direct contrast to the vision of Dr. King. The reflection published by Fuller, authored by Dr. Hak Joon Lee, is no exception.

You see, Dr. Lee references Dr. King with regard to Fuller Seminary’s upcoming move to Pomona. For many Fuller alumni, including myself, Fuller’s move to Pomona is a sore spot. The move has been framed as God’s hand at work. The Alumni Council even described it thusly: “During our visit we learned that Charles E. Fuller, the seminary’s visionary founder, attended Pomona College where he played football and met his future wife. In some mysterious way, Fuller moving to Pomona seems to be a part of God’s larger plan for the seminary—“far more than all that we can ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).”[i] The reality, though, is that the move is a result of severe financial mismanagement.

For those not in the know, Fuller has purchased at least five properties in Pomona, including a former Bob’s Big Boy and four other properties that they spent $6.6 million on.[ii] There has been much talk of Fuller partnering with the city of Pomona — so much so that the language has begun to sound like gentrification and colonization. Meanwhile, Fuller’s partnership with the city of Pasadena has been all but forgotten amidst the desire to glamorize the move to Pomona.

Meanwhile, the city of Pasadena is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Fuller already dealt a huge blow to the number of affordable units in Pasadena when it sold all of its apartments on Los Robles, the west side of Oakland, and one building on the east side of Oakland to Carmel Properties, in a desperate attempt to keep the doors of the seminary open. Fuller netted $24 million from the sale. The sale resulted in the loss of nearly 200 units of affordable housing in the city.[iii] While Carmel ultimately sold the properties to another developer, the apartments that have been renovated and are available for rent are by no means affordable. The developer who purchased the building at 296 N. Oakland Ave. (formerly Cornerstone) is renting one-bedrooms for $1,800 and two-bedrooms for $2,200. When Fuller owned the property, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Cornerstone was $950. However, Fuller’s real estate moves do not end here.

One of the next buildings that Fuller is planning to sell is Chang Commons, a set of four apartment buildings located at 261, 271, 281, and 291 N. Madison, in between Walnut and Corson and across from Fuller’s student services building. These buildings are quite new. Moreover, these buildings are unique in Pasadena in terms of how they were built and the exemptions that Fuller received from the city in order to complete them. Fuller completed construction on Chang Commons in 2005. Chang contains 169 units of affordable housing, in addition to 10 units of market-rate housing. Fuller had an agreement with the city of Pasadena that allowed them to circumvent several of the city’s requirements for new housing — an agreement that these units would remain affordable housing in perpetuity. For more information on this agreement, there is a legal document which can be accessed here: https://www.fuller.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Inclusionary-Housing-Rental-Agreement.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2AINWjaW5I2nMs6UAn1icf0Ihv3EQcTs2FAs1KDlfbjspXRnxJfqSpZQg.

Rumors suggest that Fuller is actively looking for ways around this agreement, to exploit loopholes that would allow them to sell Chang the same way they sold previous properties – to whoever will pay the most. The ones willing to pay the most will of course seek to make the most back, by charging well above the affordable threshold. Even if these rumors are unsubstantiated, we have seen Fuller’s track record in this area. Fuller must prove its desire to do the right thing, and prove us wrong.

In the months before he was assassinated, Dr. King was working as one of the architects of the Poor People’s Campaign. Access to housing for the poor was one of the central issues of the Poor People’s Campaign. “The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) was created on December 4, 1967, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor, and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans.”[iv] Moreover, Dr. King spoke often of poverty. In his Nobel lecture in 1964, he said:

“The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.”[v]

In short, I am appalled that Fuller is appropriating the work of Dr. King to tout its move to Pomona, all the while leaving the city of Pasadena in the dust. An organization with any social conscience whatsoever would take steps to make sure that it stewarded the sale of its properties to developers or organizations working for the common good – and there are many developers who are dedicated to building affordable housing who can pay more than what Fuller needs to start fresh in Pomona.

To the city of Pasadena: You have power, and I hope you can choose to use it for good. Hold Fuller accountable. It is not your problem that they can no longer afford to stay in Pasadena. But it is your problem that you have given them so much, and in return they are selling it to the highest bidder. Peter Dreier frames it well, saying “City officials should not be allowed to roll over for Fuller Seminary, a non-profit institution that pays no property taxes but receives many city services.”[vi] I know that each city council member and the mayor himself are focusing on increasing the number of affordable units available in Pasadena, and this would be a great place to start.

To my fellow Fuller alumni: we all learned a great deal at Fuller, and it has formed us into pastors, missionaries, social workers, therapists, teachers, and leaders who care deeply about the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have fond memories of sitting in Dr. Chris Hays’ Isaiah 1-39 class, listening to him say, “If there is anything the eighth-century prophets want us to know, it is that God cares about social justice.” I took an online class with Dr. Chris Accornero about finding God in the city — a formative class which led me to seek justice within Los Angeles. We ought to now hold Fuller accountable to all it has taught us, and encourage them to deal justly with the gifts God has given them.

And finally, to Fuller, an institution that I used to love: if you are going to do harm to the city of Pasadena, please stop using the language of the Bible and of theologians such as Dr. King to glorify your move to Pomona. It is a misrepresentation of who Dr. King was and what he stood for at best, and cultural appropriation at worst. Turn instead toward the many students, alumni, and community members who flooded your campus today to demonstrate their dedication to Dr. King’s legacy and toward God’s justice in your dealings.

Follow their lead, and consider selling Chang Commons to an organization whose mission is affordable housing. It is what the buildings were designed for, it is what you agreed to use them for, and it is my firm belief that it is how God wants them to be used. Be good stewards of the gifts you have been given. Do not leave Pasadena worse than you found it. As Jesus himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Let Fuller’s move be good news to the poor – especially the poor here in Pasadena.

 

[i] AlumNews Email, October 2018

[ii] https://www.dailybulletin.com/2018/07/14/fuller-seminarys-purchases-in-pomona-include-bank-arcade-and-former-big-boy/

[iii] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fuller-theological-seminary-wants-to-profit-from-gentrification_us_58fe9c92e4b0f02c3870edc7

[iv] https://blackpast.org/aah/poor-peoples-campaign-december-4-1967-june-19-1968

[v] https://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/poverty

[vi] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fuller-theological-seminary-wants-to-profit-from-gentrification_us_58fe9c92e4b0f02c3870edc7

 

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Luke 9:12-17 – Accept the Miracle

When I was younger, I remember my grandma telling me about the worst sermon she ever heard. It was on this passage, and the preacher had told the congregation that the miracle of this story is not Jesus multiplying the bread and fish, but that everyone actually had bread and fish but didn’t want to share it. So when the disciples set out the little that they had, everyone who was there chose to share what they had with one another, and the multiplication simply happened because there was already enough food, and they decided to share it in common. My grandma was really upset by this interpretation, because she said it diminished the miracle. In that version, Jesus wasn’t necessary, there was no real act of God, just a humanist sharing. I always remembered that because I was on my grandma’s side; how dare that pastor try to tell my grandma that Jesus didn’t have the power to make more food!

Fast forward a few years, and now I’m in Bible school and seminary and I’m beginning to read the Bible in new ways. I start to learn that it’s okay to not read every passage literally – in fact, it’s impossible to do that. Some books and passages have to be read the way they were meant to be read, not the way I want to read them, by picking up the Bible at a random page and projecting everything I want and believe onto what I’m reading. I think back to this story and passage and begin to wonder, maybe that pastor was right. The passage never says that the bread and fish multiplied, that the fish started separating into two fish and then four and then 16 until there was enough. Like any student who’s first learning something that challenges their earlier beliefs, I fell fully into it. It’s amazing that the historical Jesus inspired a crowd to share what they have. Is it a miracle? Who could explain that?

Years later, I find myself laughing at both extremes. My grandma was right; this was a miracle. The text wants us to know that. 5,000 men, only 5 loaves and 2 fish, and 12 baskets leftover? Everyone was fed? This is a miracle. Did the loaves separate? Did the crowd add some of their own food to the communal pile? I don’t know. Even if they did, is that less of a miracle? Do we not believe that every good gift comes from God? Maybe God multiplied their bread the day before, for them all to bring with them? Maybe God slowly and methodically blessed those in the crowd to have more than enough to bring to the gathering that day. Maybe it was both. Maybe it was neither. But everybody had enough, because of the blessing of Christ. When God blesses, there is enough.

A beautiful poem by Mary Oliver really helped me unlock this passage. Sometimes where Bible  scholars and historians and scientists fail, poets help us read scripture; so much of it, after all, was written by poets. Mary Oliver writes a poem called Logos, and it says this:

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

Accept the miracle = it was all things, plain, mysterious. I understand why she calls the poem logos, because this intermingling of reality and mystery is most understood in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the word of God made flesh, fully God and fully human. Try formulating a thesis on that one. And so it is no surprise that this divine and yet fully historical, real and mystical Christ would deliver a miracle that feeds a crowd literally, and feeds us today spirituality. When God blesses, there is enough. There is more than enough. There are leftovers. I’m reminded of when Jesus turns water into wine. There’s an extra detail that the wine Jesus made was better than the wine they had already, even though they didn’t need that. When God blesses, there is more than enough.

We can’t separate this miracle from the miracle in the Exodus desert. When the Israelites were stranded in the wilderness, God gave them enough to eat. They were not allowed to take more than they needed, or it would spoil and make them sick. God was blessing, and there was enough; and God was also teaching that to take more than you need is to make a community sick. To take more than you need, even when there is more than enough, is to violate the generosity of God. Again, we get this great detail in Exodus that the manna tasted like wafers made with honey. They didn’t need to be sweet in order to sustain their bodies, but you see the extra blessing of God in the sweetness of provision. When God blesses, there is more than enough – not just enough to sustain, but enough to bring joy. When God blesses, there is abundance.

And yet, we live in a world where many go hungry. Many do not have what they need. There are some who do not have enough bread to eat. There are many who I see every day who don’t make enough money to live, or to have shelter. We are told there is a shortage of affordable housing. We live in a world, even in a country, where there does not seem to be enough to go around.

Is this passage wrong? Is God wrong? When God blesses, there is more than enough to go around, right? So why does it seem there is not enough to go around? Where is the missing abundance? I think we all know the answer to that. There is, of course, enough. But like a game of telephone, it doesn’t seem to make it all the way around. 1/3 of the food we purchase in America is thrown out. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is the worst it’s ever been in America, and is among the worst in the whole world. Units and rooms in houses and hotels and apartment buildings sit empty every night, while 50,000 people live on the streets or in their cars.

It is true that God has richly blessed America. Any time there is enough, any time there is an abundance, it is a miracle, just like my grandma said. But if there is more than enough, and yet all do not eat, or all are not filled, then we have not done what God has blessed us for. We have taken more than our daily bread. We have taken someone else’s bread. If there is more than enough, and not everyone is filled, we have cut others off from God’s blessing and hoarded it for ourselves.

When God blesses, there is more than enough. For some of us today, we are in search of enough, and the Gospel offers us comfort. It offers a mystery and a miracle, that the bread and fish will multiply. For those of us who have had our daily bread, or maybe a little more, the text beckons us with a challenge. Will we add what we have to the gathering? Will we accept that if God has multiplied our blessings, it is so there will be more than enough for everyone? As we move to the table and accept the bread and the cup, notice that for whoever you are, and however much you have, and however much good or wrong you have done, the same amount of Christ is offered to you, and it is more than enough.

Why I’m leaving the ordination process

This is hard for me to write, though not nearly as hard as it has been to process and live. As of November 30, 2018, I have withdrawn from the process of ordination in the Church of the Nazarene. This is a process I’ve been in since 2008, and is an extension of a call to ministry I experienced back in 2002. Suffice to say, the better part of my life has been spent in this process or anticipating it.

It’s with so much regret and sadness that I withdraw. In a lot of ways it feels like it’s not my choice, although it’s in my hands to make it official. There’s a lot of story to tell, and you’re welcome to ask me about more details, but I’m going to do my best to summarize.

As part of the process toward ordination, every year I go before a committee who asks me questions about my ministry, assesses my calling and essentially checks in to see how I’m doing in the process. They also remake the decision each year to renew my district license, which grants me the privilege of serving in ministry and performing some functions like weddings, and communion under supervision.

In the last couple years, this process has felt more intensive. Whereas before these committees were interested in how I perceived and discerned my call, and my views on essential church doctrine like holiness and discipleship, these last couple years have felt more like an investigation. Without it being stated this way, it has become a process of them asking, “Where do you stand?” and “Are you one of us?”, with the implied answer being “no”. In the process, the daily work that I do in homeless services day to day has been ignored, if not outright dismissed. I certainly understand that it may not count technically toward my ordination, but it has become an essential part of who I am and how God has called me, and the lack of interest in that is a deep source of pain for me.

I want to be honest though, and also clear. I have experienced a lot of hurt through this process. I also have a lot of anger that I’m working through. But I’m not leaving because I’m hurt, and I’m not leaving because I’m angry.

While it feels a lot bigger than this, the essential issue that the denomination has dug into is my being affirming of LGBTQ+ identities. The last thing I want to do here is present an argument about my views on that. If you are open to a conversation about that, let’s get coffee sometime. But several years of learning, researching, and meeting people and sharing stories has led me to the conclusion that to be gay, or lesbian, or any gender or sexual minority, and to live into that identity in loving and monogamous ways, cannot be a sin, and more so cannot be a barrier to the full experience of God’s love and saving grace. I know that this is problematic for a lot of people, but I cannot deny the grace of God I’ve seen and experienced in coming to this conclusion.

At last year’s renewal meeting, I was cornered into expressing clearly and articulately my view on this matter. I made every effort to both be honest at where I was at the time on my thinking, while also affirming my commitment to the denomination and my posture of humility and unity. After several gracious meetings with the district superintendent, and a long period of waiting, I was told by the DS that my license would be renewed, but that my stance on this matter, in the direction it was heading relative to the direction the church is heading, would indeed be a barrier to my ordination. So I’ve been left with a choice of three options – be dishonest or disingenuous about my beliefs, push through the process until I’m ultimately denied, or withdraw myself from the process. I never seriously considered the first option, and I’ve been operating under the second until recently, when through a lot of prayer, counseling, and dialogue, I have arrived at the third.

One of my SNU professors, who is more conservative than I, once looked at our class, knowing that we were on an intellectual path that might be different than his, said with a lot of hope: “I hope the Nazarene church is big enough for you.”

I’ve spent the last 8 years believing that it could be, and hoping that it was. It breaks my heart to be told that it isn’t, because I believe in my heart that it can be, and I still believe that it is. But I want to be really clear that I’m not leaving because I have “outgrown” the church. I’ve spent the last several years trying to tell the church that my theological differences are not irreconcilable, that I’m not here to stir up trouble, and that I can participate faithfully and humbly despite my differences. I’ve been told, with a lot of kindness and sincerity for which I am grateful, that the church disagrees; I no longer fit.

A lot of anger and hurt comes from the fact that I know that’s not true. I know ordained pastors and leaders and teachers who hold my same belief, who find themselves on the inside because they weren’t asked the same way I was, or perhaps their beliefs have changed since their ordination. I choose to set aside my envy, and the anger that comes with it, because my heart and my prayers go out to them. My heart breaks more for the people still in my recent circumstance who are stuck in the limbo leading to an ordination that may never come; not because they’ve decided they are too big for the Nazarene church, but because the Nazarene church has decided to change the rules for entry.

There’s a part of me that wants to go on a tirade here… stuff about how the church ought to care as much about the disenfranchised as it does about who loves whom; that it ought to not fear disagreement but welcome it as a necessary component in the pursuit of holiness…. I’m not able to do that yet without my anger overcoming the love that I am called to, and that I do feel at my best moments for the church that raised me.

Maybe in time I will be able to do that, but for now, I want to simply say this. I have loved the Church of the Nazarene for 28 years, and it has loved me back. It has loved me and poured into me at times that I didn’t return, and I have loved it at times when it broke my heart. I choose for right now to be one of those moments.

I don’t write this to encourage anyone to do anything differently. If you serve the Church of the Nazarene, I implore you to steward her well. Even now I don’t want to stir things up, or cause any ill will. In fact, I write this because I know that there are so many Nazarenes in Arizona, Oklahoma, California, and countless other places who still care about me enough to wonder what I’m up to, and to wonder what happened here. You all deserve to know, because you invested in me and loved me and raised me to be the person I am today. I hope that doesn’t change. I still need you.

But Jesus is leading me elsewhere. I’m not quite sure where still. In my daily work at The Center, I believe I am wholly where Jesus has led me, and I believe I am doing the ministry Christ has called me too. If you disagree, I suggest you take that up with God, because my heart is at peace.

I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve hoped for a couple years now that I would be able to serve the poor and also serve a church, and that my life’s vocation and calling could merge into one. I still love to go to church, and to write and teach and preach. I hoped it would be with the Church of the Nazarene. It seemed like that’s what God had in mind. Maybe I messed it up. Maybe someone else did. I just don’t know, and maybe never I will.

The hardest and scariest part is realizing that this decision puts that dream far out of reach. Despite the emotional and personal things I am letting go of, I’m losing an entire course of study, and 100’s of hours of pastoral experience that were counting towards my ordination. To begin that process somewhere else feels impossible, especially because I have no intention right now of leaving my church home, even as I step out of the ordination process.

So if you can, pray for me. Even if you disagree with me. Even if you think I’ve been led astray, and/or that I’m “playing” this wrong. Pray that God finishes what God started when I felt called to ministry 15 years ago. I’m going to keep going where I find Jesus, and everyday I find him in the work I try to do in helping the most vulnerable people in my city. Maybe I will spend the rest of my life doing that. Maybe I will find a denomination or a church that sees me and my work and my heart and wants to invest in me again. I will always hold that hope and will remain open, God willing, to say yes.

Black History Month 2018 – Syllabus

Last year in February, I committed to reading books, watching films, and engaging other mediums to honor Black History Month. I read and watched some amazing stuff, and have continued to pursue learning and exposure to make me more educated on race, and a better ally in anti-racist work, which I’ve come to believe is among the most crucial work that Christians in America should be up to.

This year I’m diving in again. My hope is not that you will read this and say, “Wow, Kevin is so ‘woke’, look at him!” This is an invitation, actually. Pick one or more of these things and do it with me! The best learning is done in community, and any one of these resources will be great fodder for conversation.

One thing that I’m doing differently this year is pursuing stories by black storytellers that aren’t specifically or primarily about race. Part of being anti-racist, I am learning, includes not letting racism and oppression be the only stories we allow people of color to tell. So a few of the books and many of the movies are by black authors and filmmakers, but are memoirs, or superhero movies. In this regard, I want to spend my life dismantling white supremacy by studying racism, but also by exposing myself (and those around me) to stories through non-white lenses.

I also this year am including a podcast that everyone should listen to, and “Black History Flash Cards”, a really cool product from Urban Intellectuals that allows you to learn and memorize Black history in a familiar way, to supplement our predominately white-centric historical education. Check them out here.

To that end, here is my syllabus for February and beyond:

Books:

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Dubois Gilliard

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Films

Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler)

Love & Basketball (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Medicine For Melancholy (dir. Barry Jenkins)

The Watermelon Woman (dir. Cheryl Dunye)

Belle (dir. Amma Asante)

Other

Black History Flashcards (Urban Intellectuals)

Seeing White Podcast (Scene on Radio)


Again, please pick one or more of these to partake in this month, and let me know! We can get lunch or coffee or Facetime about it.

Peace, and happy Black History Month.

“A Word to Sustain the Weary” – a sermon on Isaiah 51:1-6

(If you prefer audio to reading, this sermon was recorded here.)

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”

Good morning everyone. I’m so grateful to get to come back and preach for you again. The last time I was here, I started my sermon by saying that it was an honor as well as a responsibility to get to preach during such a tumultuous time, to bring the word of God to a world in distress. Few of us likely would’ve guessed that six months later, things would have gotten so much worse that it would make six months ago seem like a utopia. To preach today is that much more of a blessing and a burden, and I’m thankful to be here.

I bring up the state of the world right now not to simply clear the air or cause nervous laughter, but because it is crucial to how I read this text this week, and how I think we are all able to hear it today. This text from Isaiah is really good news; extremely hopeful, optimistic, and inspiring. As it took me on a journey this week, though, I experienced a lot of different emotions. The first one is what I want to confess to you this morning, because you might relate to it, and that’s that this scripture made me angry. I scoffed at this passage, and these promises. Partly, because I had a really terrible week at work. I work with people who are currently and formerly living on the streets in Hollywood, and the first two days of my week were spent encountering the devastating realities of homelessness, and the systems that are supposed to be helping. I saw over and over again the way that we fail the least vulnerable in our society and make it nearly impossible for them to succeed or get help, even when they desperately want it. Suffice to say, by only Tuesday afternoon, I had sufficient evidence to conclude that this world is too far gone, that all the systems are broken, and that there is no hope.

I don’t tell you this to bum you out, but to simply be honest about where I’m coming from. I think my reaction to this text may be extreme, but I wonder if it doesn’t resonate with some of you all too? Zooming out from my own work, it’s hard to find hope in the big picture right now. Lines are being drawn in the sand right now on racial politics, and a lot of hate is boiling to the service. As one of my friends and pastors wrote this week, “This is a war for the very soul of this nation.” These last few weeks it has felt like racism is winning the war. Similar exasperating things could be said about our tensions with North Korea, and the negative impacts of climate change on the developing world.

When the news around you is really bad and you read a passage like this, it’s hard (at least for me) to take it seriously. When I read about wildernesses being made into beautiful gardens and God’s victory and triumph, it’s easy to say, “Sure, God, but when? When are you going to do that, because right now feels like a pretty good time, but these promises always seem farther and farther off.” At first, I had no plans to preach on this text for that reason, thinking “Yeah, that’s nice and all, but we need something practical, for right now, that we can really work with.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe good news when the news around you is so bad.

But I was reminded this week of the world into which this prophecy was first proclaimed. The Israelites had lost everything; their land, their religion, their social structures, their whole place in the world. And here comes this word of promise… I wonder how ready they felt to hear it. As I think back to all the times in scripture where these prophesies were made about the future victory of God… Isaiah 2 speaks of an end to war and weapons being beaten into tools for agriculture; Revelation 21 speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where every tear will be wiped away and no more death… All of these passages were originally proclaimed during these times when it was the hardest to hear and believe them, during exile and persecution and devastation. God offers these words at times like these on purpose. The good news that God offers at times like these is not “too good to be true,” they are not empty promises, and most of all, they are not far away. Once I believed that these words might be for me, and for us, today… they began to preach to me in a way that I hope they can preach to you as well.

Now that we’ve spent enough time in our world, I want to read this passage one more time so it’s fresh in our hearts and minds. Try if you can today to hear these words as one author wrote: “A word to sustain the weary.” If you feel tired this morning of all the injustice and hopelessness in the world and in your life, this word is especially for you today.

[Read text again]

A few observations that jump out as we hear this a second time, specifically related to the language that is chosen. (1) There are a lot of imperatives, a lot of commands. This text is urgent. So if we are tempted to believe that this passage is simply some nice things to think about and meditate on, we are missing out on its call to action. (2) The tenses of the verbs change throughout from past, present, and future, active and passive… meaning that this is not a passage only about stuff that’s going to happen later; it’s about stuff that has already happened, and stuff that is going on right now, too. Already, this passage defies any criticism that it’s impractical or too good to be true.

The proclamation begins by calling on those who pursue righteousness, and who seek the Lord. Now, I know enough about this church to know that this describes you. You are a church that loves to do what is right, to talk about justice, and do the hard work of reconciliation. You don’t need another sermon telling you to “do justice”. You’re doing it! Today’s word is for you, and it’s a word of encouragement. An author I read this week correctly pointed out that those who pursue justice are very often prone to discouragement. So for all of us who love justice and feel like we might be losing hope, Isaiah 51 is a word of hope.

The first offering of hope that God gives us is to look to the past. The Israelites are reminded to look back to Abraham and Sarah and the fulfillment of the promises that were given to them. God promises Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and God will bless the entire world through him. This is a beautiful story for the Israelites to remember, and is crucial to their theology and history. But anyone familiar with that story knows that promise was not simple or easily fulfilled. God made Abraham that promise, and then ten years passed with no children. They tried to take matters into their own hands by having a child by a servant, Hagar, and that did not go very well. It wasn’t for another 15 years that Abraham and Sarah finally had a child… almost 25 years since the initial promise! Can you imagine having to wait that long? Could you imagine finding a genie lamp and making a wish, and then waiting 25 years for it to finally happen? I give myself about 2 months, tops, before I would think I’d been tricked. Being called to remember this story is a reminder that God’s promises may be a long way out, but they are still dependable.

Another aspect of this verse is particularly meaningful for those of us who feel hopeless in our pursuit of justice. This verse acknowledges that Abraham was “but one when I called him, but I made him many.” For those who pursue justice and are asked to wait, it can be a devastatingly lonely experience. Throughout the centuries, some of our best exemplars of justice in the Christian faith have struggled with profound feelings like isolation. Dorothy Day titled her memoir “The Long Loneliness”, and other phrases like “labor of love” and “the struggle” accompany these stories. It is so easy to feel alone when we seek God a world like this. The word of God for those of us who feel this way today is that we are not alone; God has made us many. We can look around this room and see those who are with us. We can look to the past and see those who gone before us.

And we can look to the future and take courage that this is all headed in a good direction. The Lord will comfort Zion, which is the word used to describe the future city of God’s people. God will comfort all the waste places, and the wildernesses will be like the garden of Eden. There will be joy and gladness and thanksgiving! This is the part about the future, and seems at first to be a little out of touch. It’s easy to read this part and say, “How do we get there from here?” How does a desert become a garden?

There’s no simply answer to that, other than to say, we will get there from here. As certainly as God has gotten us to this place, as certainly as we can believe anything about God, we must believe that this is where God is taking us. It may not feel like it in 2017, or even the 2010’s, but if we look back, to the rock from which we were hewn, we can see that the world is on a trajectory to peace and justice. For those of us who dare to believe, we can see the world undergoing transformation, and rest assured in the promises of where this is all going. Is it going to take a lot of help from God? Yes. But God has already started, a truth that this passage can’t wait to tell us next.

God says to listen again! God is going to send out a teaching of justice that will be a light to all people! This next part is so great: “my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” Did you catch that? God’s salvation has gone out, already! God’s teaching has gone out! On this side of history, we even have the Gospels that proclaim the teachings of Jesus, God’s justice made flesh! It’s already in motion, in the church, outside the church, in the world, in our lives. Monuments to racists are being torn down. People are packing up their tents after years on the street and moving into supportive housing. This week a client who has been waiting for housing since the day I started working there moved in to his place on Thursday. The forces of chaos and destruction and racism and hopelessness are putting up a hell of a fight, but they are losing, even now. Even in 2017. Jesus, who loves quoting Isaiah, will later echo this idea when he says “the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” All these promises we’re waiting for are already here, working beneath the surface and breaking through in unexpected places until it reaches to the ends of the earth and back again.

But this salvation is also loaded with language of victory and triumph. Other translations use the word triumph or victory instead of “salvation”, and when scripture talks about God’s “arm”, it always refers to strength and might in the sense of a battle or war. I don’t know about you, but I always get a little nervous when God and battle or war get mixed together. We have all kinds of evidence in scripture and church history that says those things don’t always go well together. But we should be reminded that Israel is not at war, because the book of Isaiah goes so far as to talk about Babylon as God’s instrument.

The victory in this passage is not against an army or a people, but victory in a struggle for justice. And it’s important to use the language of victory and God’s “arm” because it reminds us that in struggles for justice, God takes a side. In light of what’s going on in the world, it’s important to acknowledge that God is not neutral on matters of justice. To be clear: we should always be questioning ourselves to ask if we are on the same side that God is on, and we should never take that for granted. But don’t let anyone suggest to you that God is not interested in the struggles for justice in this world. This text and many others remind us that God has an agenda, that others oppose that agenda, and that leads to conflict. God is not going to swoop in one day and make us all feel silly for our squabbles. No, this is a God of victory, triumph, success… the battle is not arbitrary. We don’t fight for nothing. Our struggle for justice is not in vain. Making sure we are on the same side as God is crucial, though, because as we’ve already said, we know who wins in the end.

Finally, the passage asks us to look at one more thing… or rather, two. ““Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath.” This is the ultimate call of this passage. We should look to the heavens, and also to the earth. We can’t only look at one. So much of what goes wrong, I think, with how Christians relate to the world is that we find ourselves in different camps, some looking too much at the heavens, and some looking too much at the earth. If we look only at the heavens, then we forget about the world and its injustices where God is deeply concerned. You might find yourself saying that God is going to take care of all that and we don’t need to worry about stuff like that. If we look only at the earth, we miss out on the promises of grace that God has proclaimed are coming, and are already here. We find ourselves believing that the world is too far gone, and that there’s nothing worth celebrating. This week, I found myself unable or unwilling to look to the heavens, and to see heavenly things shining underneath the earth.

But we are called to be people who look back and forth to the heavens and to the earth constantly. We must be people who look at texts like these that promise us a beautiful future, and then immediately look at the hopelessness in our world, and then watch them collide. We must constantly live and look between heaven and earth until the two become one. We are people who live in between these two realities, between the old that is passing and the new that is arriving, between the now and the not yet. Until every wilderness is a garden, we must constantly look at wildernesses in search of water, anticipating the water that is coming, carving out pathways and channels where it could one day flow; planting seeds in belief that water will come soon to nourish them. The promise –  is that water will one day flow, and that earth and heaven will be made new as one. The call – is to hope with our hearts and our minds, with our hands and our feet.

May God grant us ears to hear, eyes to see, mouths to proclaim, minds to imagine, and hearts to hope; may God embolden our hands and feet to begin moving and acting in the belief that everything God promises will come true, and is already coming true. God, thank you for your word of hope to sustain those of us who are weary in our seeking for justice. Grant us faith to believe it a little more each day. Amen.

BHM 2017: What I Learned

Admittedly… I was a little over-confident about what I could accomplish in one month.

Four books, six movies, a TV show, with short stories and podcasts for good measure, was a little too ambitious. To be critical of myself, though, I did fail on many occasions to choose something to watch from my syllabus rather than something else. I certainly think I could have done more. Next year, I think I will ease up a bit on the “historical, non-fiction” requirements and allow more entertainment from black artists. At times, it was hard to choose a history lesson, (as artistic and beautiful as many of them were,) over less mindful entertainment.

I accomplished reading two of my books cover to cover, and starting the other two. (I intend to finish reading them both before I begin any other books.) I watched four of the movies, prioritizing the ones helmed by black directors. Additionally,though not on the list because I had already seen it, I watched Moonlight again during February. I realized during the first week that I did not actually have any access to watch Atlanta as I had intended, so I began watching Blackish on Hulu. I did follow through on reading lots of short stories from Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, among others.

I could go on and on about what I learned, and not cover it all since it was such an immersive experience. But one by one, I would love to highlight something important I learned from each thing I took in.

BOOKS

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

A must-read for educators and parents, but probably too much of a deep cut for everyone else, this book taught me about identity development for people of color (specifically African-americans, but it does also address other groups). Racial identity development is something that I absolutely took for granted as part of the dominant social group, and it’s profoundly important to recognize what a privilege that is and why it’s so hard to even imagine walking a mile in the shoes of someone who did not grow up white (and male.)

“Democracy in Black” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Wow! This book routinely gave me chills, and at a few points I was audibly reacting during reading. This book is a fiery manifesto, and I wish it could be required reading.To pick just one thing I learned… I had been wondering why it seemed that only in the last few years the racial tensions, especially as it relates to police violence, had escalated so much. I started asking, “Has it always been like this and we’re only now paying attention, or has something changed recently that made it worse.” This book helped me understand that it’s both. Of course, social media has opened channels for sharing local stories, but the economic collapse of 2008 was especially devastating to Black Americans, who were barred from participating in the rebound that the rest of the market took in the years following. This increase in poverty, coupled with an increase in policing, has heightened that already existing tension to the boiling point.

“The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist

I am only a third of the way through this long work, but already I am becoming painfully aware of the deep economic roots of slavery. This book tells the story of enslavement not from a moral or political perspective, but rather tells the economic history of slavery. This “half of the story” is rarely told, as the title eludes, because we as Americans are too proud to admit the great economic system we built and modeled to the world was built entirely by and on black bodies. And when we fail to acknowledge that and simply offer a moral apology and political equality, we intentionally cut the people who built our world off from participating in its spoils. State lines, banking policies, credit swaps, supply-side economics, and countless cogs in our economic development were created to serve, perpetuate, and expand the enslavement of human beings. This book, as I continue to learn from it, heightens my awareness that we are not a country built on freedom, but a country built on self-interest.

MOVIES

Malcolm X 

Admittedly, this was a basic history lesson for me. I knew next to nothing about Malcolm X, except by comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who I of course learned a lot about. Malcolm X, because of Spike Lee’s depiction and Denzel Washington’s portrayal, is a complex, flesh-and-blood figure to me now, and one I want to know a lot more about.

I Am Not Your Negro

I had a hard time keeping up with this film,  perhaps because I had been watching “O.J. Made in America”, which is a very linear and chronological documentary. “I Am Not Your Negro” is based on notes by James Baldwin that were intended one day to be shaped into a larger work, and my brain was sadly unable to think abstactly in the format. However, an interview with James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show was worth the price of admission, and I intend to read lots of James Baldwin’s (completed) essays.

Fruitvale Station

A heart-breaking movie that depicted exactly how a situation can escalate between police and young black men, and how easy it can be to make assumptions and put people into categories. It hurt my heart to feel a sense of relief that the cop in question was actually charged with the wrongful death of Oscar Grant, especially since his sentence was laughable. These days we hardly see charges filed in these cases, and never are they found guilty. This movie is a tragic and beautiful reminder of the cost of our prejudices.

O.J.: Made in America

If there’s one reason why I failed to watch six movies this month, it might be because this one is the length of six movies on its own. But I do not regret that I spent eight hours with this story, because I learned more about race in Los Angeles, (the place I call home,) than I’ve learned in several years living here and trying to understand it. This documentary is brilliant, informative, thrilling, and thought-provoking. The most terrifying thing I learned is that public outrage, even righteous and noble outrage, can be used to do evil. It also reminds me that some wounds take a long time to heal, and that living in and love Los Angeles means coming to terms with its deep racial history.

SHORT STORIES

I won’t write about every short story I read, because they were many. I lead a group at work once a week called “Short Stories”, where I pick a story and we (myself and people experiencing homelessness), read it together and discuss it. This month, we read only stories by black writers, and I had to read about 25 stories to pick out the four we read in the group. We read:

Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes

On Being Crazy by W.E.B. DuBois

Act I: Scene III from Fences by August Wilson

The Book of Harlem by Zora Neale Hurston

I learned two things in reading these stories with this group of people. The first is that there is so much engrained and unintentional but starkly real racism in our adult population. But the second thing I learned was that the reason to emphasize these stories is not to cure or lessen the racism of my white participants (though I do hope this happened.) The major accomplishment was that my black participants were able to connect deeply to stories and authors they had been denied access to before. Some of my black participants were finding deep connection with the racism, the father figures, the sense of pride mixed with anger, and other unique characteristics of these stories that they had not otherwise before experienced in my group. It was an important reminder that Black History Month is not simply for white people to learn more, but to validate and enrich the experience of Black Americans. Imagine that… Black History Month is not about me.

I suppose this blog post sort of works against that notion. I hope that I haven’t made Black History Month about myself in doing this. I only share it because I learned a lot, and while the world may not hinge on my learning and waking up, it may remove me, and others over whom I have influence, from being an obstacle to the flourishing of my black brothers and sisters. I hope I am less in the way than I was in January, and continue to get out of the way more and more each passing month.

Inner Righteousness and Preventative Justice – a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

Good morning everyone! It’s really great to be here with you this morning and to have an opportunity to preach the Gospel to you today. I don’t currently serve in a preaching ministry, and at times like these when it seems like the world is going crazy, it’s a high honor and responsibility to open up a portion of the Sermon on the Mount before you, so thank you so much for this opportunity.

To be fair, though, if I had the option of which portion of the Sermon of the Mount to preach to you all this morning… I might have gone a different way with it. It’s just my luck that the lectionary dropped a 16 verse-long bomb on us today, about murder, adultery, divorce, gouging out your eyes and swearing by your head. This text is a long and challenging one, and if I’m being honest I’m not going to be able to touch on all of it this morning. After spending a lot of time with it recently and spending a lot of time trying to keep up with what is going on in our world right now, I hope this morning to offer a perspective on this teaching of Jesus, that challenges us to do right by the world that God loves, and to imagine new ways to seek out God’s vision for righteousness and justice in it. My belief is that this difficult text is not a fierce declaration of a newer, harsher standard of judgment, but a reframing of old concepts for what it means to do right and to be righteous.  

Now before we get really into this, I have to say something outright about a really dangerous way this passage is sometimes interpreted. I’ve heard this and seen this on social media, when a Christian is trying to confront social injustice like greed or consumerism or racism or sexism, someone will inevitably say something like, “This is not a [blank] issue, but a sin issue. The world doesn’t need [blank], it needs Jesus.” Now…you won’t hear me say that the world doesn’t need more Jesus, but please let me say this today: if the world had more Jesus, it would have a lot less greed, a lot less consumerism, a lot less racism, a lot less sexism, and if we suppose ourselves to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we might just find ourselves working against those things, not just in people’s hearts, but in our laws, in our systems, in our media, and in our public discourse. When Jesus says, “you’ve heard it said do not murder, but I say to you do not even hate,” he isn’t saying that the murdering part is okay! Just because Jesus wants to go a little deeper doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t concerned with the rest of it. So please, don’t be deceived into believing that Jesus is so small that he only wants to work on our personal morality. But equally this morning, Jesus calls us to not be deceived that the only morality to be dealt with is out there.

For when Jesus says “do not even hate”, he calls us to evaluate not only the outward actions of evil, but to look inside ourselves to see the origins of it in our own hearts. And isn’t that refreshing, in a world full of posturing and politicizing… I almost imagine Jesus stepping into all the nonsense and saying “What’s really going on here?” Jesus has this almost superhero power sometimes in the gospels where he knows what people or thinking, or the text will say “He knew what was in their hearts.” We really could’ve used that in 2016, I think.

But let’s not totally pass the buck here. Because unfortunately, the moment that we look at someone else and say, “I bet Jesus knows what’s going on in their hearts,” we’ve forgotten that Jesus also knows what’s going on in ours. And then we start to get a little nervous, right? A friend of mine said this really well this week, he wrote, “When we see the wrong in someone else, we demand justice. When we see the wrong in ourselves, we demand mercy.” And while many interpret this to mean that we should have mercy on those others for their injustice, (and we should show mercy,) the opposite is also true. Instead of demanding mercy for ourselves, we ought to demand justice of ourselves.  Jesus is asking us, each, individually, to take a step of self-evaluation, of self-awareness, beyond what we do on the outside, to ask if our motivations, our thoughts, our preconceived notions, our unconscious bias… if these are congruent with who we say we are, and who Jesus is.

One key example of this discrepancy between outward action and inner injustice is the way we handle and talk about racism. We find ourselves this morning in the middle of February, which is Black History Month, and 2017 is a good time, and church is a good place to take that seriously. I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that racism still exists, and that that conversation is as important as it’s ever been. And while I don’t claim to be an expert in the area, I have tried to become educated and to listen and learn more. And what I’ve been hearing and learning reminds me of this passage. This same distinction that Jesus makes between outward acts and inner thoughts is very true and dangerous when it comes to racism. While most Americans may not actively or intentionally participate in outward forms of racism, sociologists have shown that even children have an unconscious bias to perceive white people as superior, as less dangerous, as more successful. And these inner perceptions survive into adulthood whether we like them to or not, and I confess to you this morning that I have notice them and experienced them in my own heart – these little moments where I prejudge a person differently because of the color of their skin. And it matters! Throughout American history,  many great victories have been won on a systematic level, from abolishing slavery, to voting rights, desegregation, and affirmative action. And yet, it always seems that a new system of oppression always replaces the one that came before it. If you haven’t already done so, please watch a documentary on Netflix called 13th and you will understand what I mean when I say that. And it is imperative that we call for change when change needs to be made on a systemic level. We must stand up when it is time to stand up, and now may again be that time. But this battle against racism takes place also in our own hearts, and that remains a place it has yet to be fully won. I suspect in this passage when Jesus says “do not hate”, he recognizes that hatred and anger arise within us against our better judgment and our will. But Jesus still holds us accountable to what we do in that moment to catch ourselves in the act, even if no-one ever sees or hears it. Jesus grants us the mercy we ask for, but calls on us to demand justice of our own hearts in those moments. We are called to self-awareness, and to self-betterment at the deepest, internal level.

As much as this sounds like a hard word of judgment, I actually see it as a call to re-understand righteousness. I truly don’t believe that Jesus is taking this list of things not to do (don’t murder, don’t commit adultery) and adding to it (also don’t hate, also don’t lust, also don’t curse…). I don’t believe that Jesus is trying to make the list longer. I think Jesus is calling into question the very purpose behind the list to help us understand what righteousness looks like in any given context. Jesus invites us to go beyond the list of things NOT to do and is teaching us what it means to do good. (Rather than NOT doing bad.)

I come from a Holiness denomination called the Church of the Nazarene, and at its best, holiness churches are about this idea of constant self-betterment; a quote that some of us hold dear is “you look at yourself, you look at Jesus, then confess the difference.” But at our worst, we can be heavy on the rules and the “thou shalt nots”. Along the way, my denomination has had rules against dancing, public swimming, going to movies, and a variety of other things, some of which are still on the books.  And I do think it’s very often true of all Christians that we can become known more for what we “don’t do” or who we “don’t like” than anything else. We’re not unlike the religious people Jesus is talking about in this passage. You’ve heard it said… don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do that… as if that sums up what it means to be God’s people. You can almost hear the sarcasm in Jesus’ voice, as if people were standing in front of Jesus saying, “I’m a good person!… I don’t murder people!” As if Jesus is going to throw a holy parade for all of the non-murderers! I think Jesus might be saying, by going a little deeper, that our standards are too low.

If we define ourselves by the things that we don’t do, what good is that to the rest of the world? Is the Christian life about making sure that we have a personal clean slate, or about setting God’s righteousness loose on the world? This is Jesus’ mission in Matthew, not to go around setting everyone straight, but to announce “the kingdom of heaven is near”. This is the first and most important message in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is here to get something new started. And kingdoms are not built on inaction.

Participating in this new kingdom requires action, and that action entails that we confront big issues. The religious leaders were certainly concerned with the big issues: Murder! Adultery! Divorce! They made sure to be firm and swift on the big issues. Jesus wants to do something more than that.

It’s not unlike what we see today, right? We live in a very reactive culture, and again, before I point the finger, I have to preach to myself here. Social media gives us new things to react to and be outraged about on minute by minute basis. Sometimes I catch myself refreshing my feed thinking, “Okay, what am I mad about now?” I’m sure I’m not the only one. And it’s important to stay informed, but it can sometimes come at a cost. My sister recently did one of those things where you can temporarily change your profile picture, where it’ll keep your picture but put a border around it that says you stand with refugees. And she was really dismayed that Facebook had a time limit of just one week where it changed back! That’s how fast these issues come and go, that standing with refugees has an expiration date! I was also reading recently that Flint, Michigan STILL does not have clean drinking water! My first thought to that was, “Wasn’t I outraged about that almost two years ago!”

And we should be outraged about all these things. And when these things happen, Christians should react Christianly, whether by voting, protesting, donating, or speaking out. But if we’re being honest, we can’t properly react to everything. At some point we end up choosing our battles, and we all do that in different ways. Some focus in on a key issue they are especially passionate about, others simply surrender and feel powerless. It’s exhausting, and it’s disheartening.

But perhaps Jesus’ teaching this morning can be a fresh word of hope. When the religious leaders cry in reaction to the biggest outrages of their time, Jesus calls attention to the small things over which we have control. Hatred. Curses. Unreconciled relationships. Lust. These are the small but very real things that lead to the big things, and he calls us to work them out at that level too. And he makes that task urgent! When Jesus says to gouge out our eyes and cut off our limbs, I think we can all agree this is not literal, or we are all going to have a painful afternoon with the sermon application. I think the point is two-fold: that it is seriously urgent, and that it is proactive.

The call to deal with the internal and unseen root causes of evil is as urgent as a finger on a trigger. The need to confess and turn away from the evil inside of each of us is dire. It seems innocent or unimportant, like when your car starts to make a funny noise and you think, “I’ll just wait till that really becomes a problem before I take it into the shop.” Jesus is saying take it into the shop. As I’ve been learning this February, sin that is not dealt with can span generations and truly devastate people despite our best intentions.

You have to admit: cutting out your hand or your eye is a pretty proactive approach to dealing with the problem. As we look at everything that is wrong in the world, and our Facebook feeds fill up with things to be outraged about, what if we took a step back and asked where the root impulses and origins of injustice are? What if we spent our energy in a proaction instead of reaction? Whatever injustice we see in the world that we feel particularly passionate about ending… they don’t come out of nowhere. They have roots, they have origins that begin at the ground level.

We ought to be like doctors who not only treat symptoms, but also offer preventative care. There are a lot of symptoms in the world to deal with, and in many instances it is necessary to stop the bleeding. But through prayerful consideration we might find ourselves called to preventative justice care. My wife is a teacher, and at first glance that may not seem very social-justice-oriented. But to be able to shape the hearts and minds of children, before they’ve formed prejudices, while they’re learning how to treat one another… this is frontlines of justice and righteousness. She has a daily opportunity to offer the world preventative care for all the things that go wrong in the world.

But we don’t have to quit our jobs and become teachers or social workers to live this out. I believe that in each moment, in every thought and deed big or small, we have the opportunity to choose life, to contribute proactively to God’s kingdom in seemingly small ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as usual, says it best: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  I’ve come to believe that every thought, word and deed that is done in love is an act of proactive justice; justice that goes into the world, establishing God’s new kingdom, and driving out the old one.

If we take Jesus at his word that every hatred, every curse, and every look of lust contribute to the harsh injustices we see in the world, then the opposite is also true. When a kind word is spoken, when a relationship is reconciled, or the dignity of another is upheld, the old kingdom of injustice is dealt a blow and denied a foothold in our lives and in the lives of those around us in ways we may never fully understand.

So may we be people who address the wrongs in this world not only by calling for justice in others, but seeking justice within our own hearts. May we people who not only react when things go terribly wrong, but who do justice proactively in each moment that God grants us. May we be people who do justice and love righteousness. May we be people who choose life. Amen.

Black History Month 2017: My Syllabus

I’ve taken quite seriously for a long time, especially on this blog, that belief and faith are both expressed in culture and also learned there. Most of what I end up writing about on this site is pop-culture – movies, tv shows, coffee shops and holiday seasons. This is because what we consume and participate in, sometimes inadvertently, shapes who we are and what we believe about the world and each other.

Tomorrow begins Black History Month, celebrated every February. There are a lot of great ways to celebrate this month and to expand our horizons of what we know and understand of the history of our Black brothers and sisters. It’s not an excuse to ignore Black History or Black stories for the rest of the year, but an opportunity to focus and be intentional about remembering things we’ve implicitly been taught are better to forget.

I have chosen a cultural, immersive approach to being educated this month. For me, this is an opportunity to intentionally curate what I’m going to be shaped by in the Month of February. I’ve chosen an audacious amount of things to really challenge myself to take this seriously. 

I call this my Black History Month syllabus because it is a personal educational journey, and because it is unique to me and what is missing from my understanding and education. I’ve seen, read, and experienced a lot. But February is the month that I’m going to intentionally fill in the gaps with some of the best film, television, literature, and history the world has to offer related to Black History and contemporary Black experience.

With that, here is my syllabus:

(4) books:

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E Baptist

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

“Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul” by Eddie S Glaude Jr.

“Walking With the Wind: a Memoir of the Movement” by John Lewis

(6) films – all focused on Black History, with an emphasis on Black storytellers (though there are two White directors) 

Malcolm X (Spike Lee)

Glory (Edward Zwick)

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)

OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

Loving (Jeff Nichols)

(1) TV Series

Atlanta (Donald Glover)

Additional Resources:

Short stories, poems and essays from black authors like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, etc. 

Podcasts focused on racial concerns, like “Code Switch” and “Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood”.

Friends, I share this with you for two reasons. 

First, so that now I am accountable to this. It’s not wishful thinking or something I hope I can do. I’m committed to this, and want you all to make sure I follow through. I plan to write a reflection on this experience in early March, even if it takes me that long to finish. 

Second, I hope you’ll join me somehow. Make your own list, or just pick one or two of these things to experience this month and let’s have a conversation about it! In the comments section, or over a cup of coffee. 

We simply have to start carving out space to hear stories different from our own. This is one small way I’m trying to do that.

How to Vote with God – an election day message from Jeremiah

Tomorrow is the big day. We will all vote and bring to fruition this 18 month-long election season, which has been divisive, anxiety-inducing, disturbing, and unnerving. We’ve seen the worst in each other, the worst in ourselves, and will have to come terms with the outcome; which, at this point, very few will be able to take any satisfaction in. I wish I could say that this will all come to an end tomorrow, but I think we all know that’s not true. There will be some fall-out, some hard feelings, and backlash.

I’ve been fairly opinionated on who and what I support, and I understand if some of you are coming into reading this with suspicion, that I’m going to lay out a biblical argument for the candidate I have chosen, or particular propositions. But this post is not for that. This post is something of a sermon about what should be on the minds and hearts of the Christian who walks into a voting booth tomorrow. It’s a sermon about how to live in a place and participate in its well-being. As the reader, it is up to you to interpret how this applies to your own ballot, to your local elections and measures, and ultimately to your candidate. I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s vote with this sermon. If anything, I hope that it will only change your posture: the way you see yourself as participating in the process of voting, in engaging with the world in a political way. If we agree on nothing else, I hope we can all agree that we want to vote in Christian kinds of ways; ways that make this world that God loves more like the one God is reconciling us to become. Voting is only one tiny part of how we do that, but it is a valuable one.

As we anxiously enter our polling places, maybe the comforting words of scripture come to our minds. I know that many of us, when we need a verse of comfort, often turn to Jeremiah 29:11. Most of us can quote this on command:

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is great news for a country in a state like ours, and no one could blame you for quoting this to yourself this week, or at any other period of stress in your life individually or in our shared life politically. It’s important to remember that God is pulling us toward a better future, and that there is always hope. God is not crumpling us up like a failed art project to start over, but is always finding new ways to work with the mess we’ve made to bring a hope and a future.

What is a huge bummer, in my opinion, is that everyone quotes Jeremiah 29:11 and never reads the rest of Jeremiah 29. It’s common Christian practice to take a single verse and make it into a mantra or “life-verse”, and I do think this has some value. But often it robs the verse of much of its meaning, because the Bible is not a collection of helpful sayings and sentences, but a dynamic collection of various writings that bear witness in hundreds of different ways to the work of God in history. When we take out a sentence, we sometimes take it from the middle of a poem, from a letter written to a specific audience, from a history book or a parable. At worst, we can end up believing some terrible things because we don’t do diligence to the source of our “verse”. (This is called proof-texting, and has done immeasurable damage to Christians and those they encountered for thousands of years.)

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context is so much better. You find out who it was originally intended for, what it meant to them, and you can see yourself even better in it. And then you come to discover that these promises of God have been fulfilled in the past, and you learn exactly what it is that God expects out of us in order to find this “plan” that God has laid out for us.

What does this have to do with voting? Well, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the people of God who are in exile. And I have come to believe, and suspect that you might too, that our current situation as Christians in America can best be described by this same narrative: exile. We are strangers in a land where we once had a foothold, a primary seat at the table, and now we are all scattered and disillusioned and fiercely divided. Now, we can argue about how we got here. (I’ll save that sermon for another time, but if you want my thoughts, read the book of Micah.) But at the present moment, in America, we Christians are in Exile! There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and everything in between, none of whom can really get along at all, and our leaders don’t really stand for any of us. As many news sources have announced, (and many great scholars have been saying for fifty years,) the Evangelical political machine has all but died, and we’re all left not knowing quite how we got here or what to do about it. It’s a horrible situation. It’s what has caused our churches to die, for young people to leave church altogether, and for an election like this one to even be possible. Something is dying.

But the news is not all bad. For one thing, we’re not the first people to go through this, and now more than ever we can look to the part of our Bibles we’ve been neglecting and see teachings that have long been forgotten. (Trust me, those pages aren’t as crinkly as the other ones in American Bibles.) Secondly, it’s okay not to be afraid that something is dying, because we happen to be people who believe in a God that brings things back from the dead. (Your mind might jump to the Resurrection of Jesus, but you can stay in the prophets and read Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones and get a sense that God can even bring Exiles back.)

And Jeremiah 29 is specifically written to those in Exile who are asking this important question: “How do we live, as people of God, in a place and a time when being the people of God doesn’t carry as much weight anymore?” I think if we’re honest, this is the question of this election.

If you feel so bold, take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you want, read all of Jeremiah 29, or read all of Jeremiah! It won’t disappoint. But I want to highlight a few messages for Exiles like us from this letter of Jeremiah, from the words of God to God’s people who found themselves in a similar situation. Each one will first be a word of what to do as people who find themselves in exile, and the second one will be a word of how to participate in that by how we vote.

1.  Get Comfortable, and Be Present. God says to those in Exile that it’s going to be a while. Verse 5 says to build houses and plant gardens. In other words, this Exile might be for a while, and you’re not going anywhere. One thing you will learn if you spend time in the prophets is that, for God’s purposes, the Exile was not an accident. It was a judgment, and the Bible bears witness to God letting the Exile happen as part of the journey of the people of God. It’s not a time to get angry or cast blame as to how we got here. It’s a time to build houses and plant gardens. Get comfortable in this place that God has led us to. We may not be a “Christian nation” anymore, but God is still God, and God is just as much God in Sweden, in Iran, in Russia, in Australia and Austria as God is God here today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and God has led us here. 

To be honest and obedient in where God has led us is to be present and local in our participation. It means that where we have found ourselves matters, both in place, and in time. Don’t spend your time longing for a bygone era, wishing to go back there. Don’t flee to another place where you think God might be more God in. Be where you are, be when you are, and seek God there. Pay attention to local elections and measures, and seek God’s best in the minutiae. Chances are that more of your neighbors’ lives be be affected by the Propositions that you didn’t research than by who gets to live in the White House.

2. Invest, and Think Ahead. Verse 6 expands this idea by telling Exiles to get married, to have children, and for those children to have children. It makes this point again that this Exile might be for a while, so put down roots where you are rather than being anxious about where you wish you might be. More so, it is a call to invest in the future. Maybe the hope that you have may not come to fruition in your lifetime, but the choices that you make now will affect how many will experience God in the future.

Thinking ahead means voting in such a way that goes beyond the immediate moment and its needs and asks what kind of world we are creating for our children and our grandchildren. It means not only caring about how candidates and propositions determine the things that we think are the most important, but how they will come to affect multiple generations ahead of us. What world are we creating for them? When they read the history books, what will they think of the decisions we made?

3. Everyone’s welfare is your welfare. This is the most important teaching that I think the prophet Jeremiah has for our political engagement as people of God. When we quote Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we are hoping for God’s prosperity and welfare. When the verse says, “plans to prosper you”, a better translation is “plans for your prosperity/welfare/peace”. That word is a noun, and it’s the Hebrew word “shalom”. You’ve probably heard of it. It has a wide meaning, but is often translated “peace”. More than that, it means God’s perfect peace realized on Earth. And that is what we’re all after, isn’t it? Well, earlier in the passage, God actually tells us exactly where to find that shalom. Verse 7 says, “Seek the [shalom] of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [shalom] you will find your [shalom].”

Boom. Wow. This is the message of Jeremiah, the hope for participating where we feel exiled. This is fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11. Every time you’ve quoted this verse seeking God’s plan for your welfare, you were only four verses from its fulfillment. Do you want God’s peace on you, on your family, on your church or on your country? Seek God’s peace for everyone in your city, and you’ll find it. This should come as no surprise for followers of Jesus, and yet it always seems to still catch us by surprise.

As people in Exile, the way we find God’s favor for ourselves and for our country is by seeking welfare for everyone. This is not Welfare with a capital ‘W’, though that may be part of the answer. But as people of God who enter a voting booth tomorrow, please remember this if nothing else: if you vote for your own welfare, for yourself or your own betterment, and you are not also voting for the benefit of everyone who finds themselves in your city – you will not find your welfare there. You will find peace and prosperity for yourself and your family when you seek it for everyone else, especially the least among you. This is the lesson that Israel forgot and brought them to Exile. This is the lesson that America forgets time and time again.

4.  Ignore False Prophets. It’s interesting that when we name the famous prophets of the Bible, we name Jeremiah and Isaiah and Micah and Ezekiel. The truth is there were tons of prophets at that time, and those four were some of the least popular. For the most part, they were hated and despised, because they told the actual word of God, rather than what people wanted to hear. There are prophets who feed into what you already believe and your current prejudices, who stir up things in you to get you riled up for a cause, or distracted from another one. The prophets who are truly from God don’t tend to get much credit until long after their time, and sometimes not even then.

This election, we’ve seen religious leaders, pastors, professors, and candidates spout religion and quote verses in support of their candidates. Both of the major candidates profess Christianity at their convenience, and otherwise fail to uphold anything remotely close to it. You can Google a Christian defense of Trump, Hillary, and everything on the ballot. However much it is possible for you, tune these people out. Seek out Christian leaders who you trust, who you actually know, not just ones who made videos you used to watch or pastors a big fancy church you’ve heard of. If all else fails, seek out true prophets of the past, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Jesus. Study them, and see if you don’t find them speaking truth into your ballot.

And finally, remember to hope. Exile may be for a while. Whoever is elected, whatever gets passed or not, God will be God, and God is bending this whole world toward Shalom. This passage brings this message in full force for those of us who need to hear it, that if we heed these words and at the end of our Exile:

“When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will give heed to you. You will search for me and find me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the Lord – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you – declares the Lord – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

As you vote tomorrow, vote with hope. Vote knowing that however fed up you are with how things are and how they’ve become, that God is still God, and you are here to seek God’s best for where you are. Seek God’s best for your city, and you’ll find God’s best for yourself. Seek God’s best for the generations who will come long after you’re gone, and you’ll find it for yourself. Seek God’s Shalom in the voting booth, and everywhere you go afterwards.

Peace, my friends, and Godspeed.

I Am Racist

I am racist. Lord, have mercy on me.

As a white, male person, I certainly feel that there are plenty of “me” out there being vocal and loud about race and police shootings. I try pretty hard not to be “that guy” on social media who always has something to say, who thinks that my view is the definitive voice of reason in a sea of chaos. A lot of times, I think it’s better to be silent and create space for people’s voices who are less often heard or listened to.

At the same time, I also see the need for advocacy, the call to speak up and stand in solidarity. I see my black brothers and sisters on Facebook and elsewhere clamoring for people like me to take a stand.

I’m writing this for them, but to the rest of us – the white people, who feel really uncomfortable, defensive, and freaked out by all this. I’m writing because I relate.

But I also write because I feel that there is something that needs to be said by me and by us who are white, a deep Truth with a capital “t” that is going unsaid for fear of shame or criticism. I believe this because there was a time before I believed in institutional racism, and there was a particular line of thinking that helped me change my mind. Maybe it will help someone else change their mind, and I feel compelled to share it now because it has literally become a life or death situation how we wrap our minds around this issue.

Yes, my title is a little click-bait-y, but I do actually mean it.

I am racist. So are you, actually. I wish I could say it’s okay, but it’s obviously not. It is not okay, but it’s also not our fault. What we choose to do about it is, though. Let me explain.

I am racist.

I believe that all people are created equal, that black and white and brown are all beautiful and beloved children of God, and should be treated with respect and dignity. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a hate-group, and have never committed violence – physical, emotional, verbal or otherwise – against a person because of their race. I hope that anyone and everyone reading this would say the same. Most of you probably are wondering why, then, do I call myself racist?

Most of us, I think, would be able to emphatically say, “I believe all people are equal regardless of race, and I am not a racist,” and pass a lie detector test. When the word “racist” or “racism” gets thrown around, most of us have defined ourselves as definitively not racist based on our beliefs. So when we are confronted with accusations of racism, from the black community, we are immediately defensive, because we do not believe we are racist.

The problem is, I think we’ve come to use the words “racist” and “racism” incorrectly. I don’t think that racism or being “racist” has anything to do with our beliefs, or our actions. Beliefs and actions can come as a result of racism, to be sure.

But I’m starting to think that maybe we need a new word, or to repurpose a word like “bigotry” to mean what most white people mean when they say or hear “racism”. Maybe we’ll create a combination word, “race-bigotry”, since bigotry is not always race-related. We need a new word because when some people say racism, they mean intentional belief and action, and I think what our brothers and sisters are trying to get us to see is something else. So let me try and set the terms up this way for arguments’ sake:

Race-Bigotry: active, intentional hatred and violence against a particular race of people based on the notion they are lesser

Racism: engrained, passive, and/or subconscious assumptions that particular races are lesser which shape our thoughts and behaviors.

If we understand and possibly agree to these terms, maybe we can listen to each other better. Fellow white-people: when a person of color calls you racist, or refers to your actions as racist, or calls the country, the criminal justice system, the police force, or anything else racist, they do not mean that you or the institutions are card-carrying members of a hate-group, who secretly believe in racial cleansing (though these people and groups do still exist.)

What I have come to learn is that racism is within me and you, and especially within systems – revealed not in intentionally held beliefs and actions, but in deep-seated reactions, compulsions, subconscious beliefs and stereotypes that often bubble to the surface despite our better beliefs and judgment. This comes to us as a legacy in a society that is predominately white, in a country that was founded on the backs of slaves, that has routinely stifled the humanity and equality of black people through Jim Crow laws, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and mass incarceration. It doesn’t matter that we weren’t alive for some of that. It is our history, our legacy, and it affects everything about you. The amount of white superheroes on television, white politicians in office, the neighborhood you grew up in that was likely segregated at some point in history to keep others out, the schools you went to that are often charted to avoid particular “neighborhoods”… This is our legacy, and I think if we are honest, we feel it and hear it in our hearts sometimes.

This is the world I was born into, the culture that surrounds me. I can’t escape it. I inherited it. I grew up in Arizona, which has a whole other history of racial tensions with the Mexican community. I knew exactly where “they” lived, just north of a particular street, and I knew without anyone ever really telling me not to drive up there.

All of these cultural forces, from a legacy that I did not choose, have shaped my patterns of thinking whether I like it or not.

And they have shaped my imagination in ways that I despise. I feel ashamed to admit some of these things, but I do it in the hopes that some of you might admit (even just to yourself) you have thought these things too.

Despite all of my better beliefs, I have found myself thinking things that are racist. I work with people who are homeless, which can sometimes be an unsafe line of work. I often encounter new people I have never met before, and I am sad to say that I often catch myself feeling more unsafe with a new person of color than with a white individual. It is almost instinctual, and it is horrible.

I used to work in hipster coffee shops and oftentimes made huge presumptions about what type of customer they would be because of their race. I caught myself being “surprised” when a black customer who didn’t fit the hipster mold ordered a specialty beverage.

I have found myself nervous late at night when a person of color is walking my way. I don’t tend to be a fearful or anxious person, but I’ve even crossed the street a few times to avoid them.

I am not condoning these thoughts. I hate that I did that, and more so I hate that I thought the way that I did. By talking about cultural influences and subconscious, implicit learning, I don’t mean to shift the blame away from myself. I may not be in control of the forces that shaped me, but it is my job to become as aware as possible about those things and retrain myself in the opposite direction. I acknowledge that I am at fault for the way these have bubbled to the surface and caused me to walk across the street, to drive home a different way, to be surprised at a coffee order, or to stand further away from a new person I’m meeting. I am truly sorry, and beg the forgiveness of my brothers and sisters. They did not reflect my beliefs about you, and I hope that I can run with you in the opposite direction against these assumptions.

Which brings us to Terence Crutcher. When we talk about this incident, or any other shooting, we have to talk about it in a way that acknowledges racism and its scary prevalence in our own hearts and imaginations. I am ashamed to say this – but I know because of how I have sometimes reacted instinctually that, if I were a cop, I might be more on edge with a black person than with a white person on the job. In those split second decisions, I wonder sometimes if that same engrained racism that causes me a split-second of fear or prejudgment might be much more problematic in a life-or-death situation. I am certain that for those in law enforcement, if we don’t admit those forces of racism that shape our imaginations, we are in danger of letting them boil to the surface in tragic ways. We are seeing this again and again and again.

When this police officer pulled the trigger, I don’t think she was a race-bigot in the sense that she actively hated black people or believed that he was more deserving of violence than a person of a different race. I believe she was racist in the same way that I have painfully come to find myself racist – being unintentionally more on edge with a person of color than with a person of my own race. (And how much more in Tulsa, where there is an especially horrifying history of violence against the black community.)

However, I do think it is fair to say that she chose a profession where those split second judgments can end or save a life. We NEED to hold our officers to a high-standard of moral judgment. Which is why we need to talk about real racism – the kind that creeps in against our beliefs – that in the moment of peril can cost someone their life, and cost their family a husband, father, and son.

[As an aside, this point is especially clear in the helicopter-angle video. Many have noticed that the officer in the helicopter, hundreds of feet above the scene only able to see the man’s race and size, commented that he looked like “a bad dude”. This officer likely would not identify as a racist, is likely not a KKK member or a bigot. And yet, we are able to clearly hear in that moment these cultural, imbedded notions that a large black man is, from hundreds of feet away, “a bad dude”.)

This is why we can’t “wait for the investigation” to be outraged. The details are not the point. The point is that we know that we were born into racism, and that nobody is admitting it; and by refusing to admit it, innocent young black men end up dead in the streets. No matter what the details are, we heard the racism in the pilot’s voice. We know it’s there, because we know it’s here, in ourselves… if we’re honest.

In training our police officers, we cannot afford to pretend we are “color-blind”. I fear we spent the last 20 or 30 years making sure that none of us were race-bigots, an era that many of us have called “color-blindness”. We saw it and heard it on television. It led many of us to conclude that racism is over. But we simply can’t believe that is true.

Let’s quickly assume that you and I both agree that a black child and a white child who are both born at the same time are equal, and therefore equally likely based on their race to go to jail or not go to jail. We can agree right?

Well, for the past 60 years, black people and white people are not imprisoned at the same rate. Not even close. The black population of the US is around 13%. In prison, it’s 40%.

So ask yourself, why is that? If you keep asking yourself that question, believing that all things should be equal, you can’t get away from systemic racism. If you think that black people commit more crimes, and that’s why, you have to then ask yourself why black people commit more crimes. You might blame it on their parents, or their neighborhoods, but then you have to ask yourself why those families are broken up and why their neighborhoods are so impoverished, or why their schools are less funded, and the list goes on and on and on.

If you believe in equality, you have to believe in institutional racism.

At some point you either have to admit that you don’t actually believe that the color of your skin doesn’t make you more or less, or you have to admit that after being born equal, forces outside of one’s control, the product of hundreds of years of racism and race-bigotry, have come to bear on this individual and changed their life and will continue to shape their lives as many of these institutions persist to this day. There are still laws on the books that target black communities for jail and prison. Black people are still more likely to be arrested, convicted and harshly sentenced than their white counterparts who commit the same crime. And schools are still underfunded, neighborhoods are unrepresented and left to ruin. And this all comes to a crux the moment a police officer, white or black, pulls a trigger or administers a choke-hold that ends the life of a black human being, when such force was truly unnecessary if all things were truly equal.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. I know it was a lot. I can’t be silent anymore. I don’t write this as though I think anyone has been waiting for my voice, or that my voice is somehow more important or definitive. If anything, if you are reading this, please receive this as a minimal contribution to the conversation, and let me encourage you to move on from reading this by reading something written by a person who experiences the consequences of all this more directly. Listen to our black sisters and brothers, especially you Christians. They have been saying this for a LONG time. If you need a personal recommendation, my friend Delonte Gholston has been writing excellent pieces on Huffington Post. Find them, read them, engage with them. That’s way more important than reading another white male “weigh in”. But for what it’s worth, this white male is saying that I am part of the problem, and the only way that I know how to solve it within myself is to confess it, to God and to everyone I can, and run hard in the opposite direction. If we keep thinking racism is active hatred, we will always call someone else a racist and let our own deep-seeded prejudices go unchecked. (I think this is why Jesus said that people who lust are as bad as adulterers, and people who hate are as bad as murderers .)

So, fellow white-people. Please join in admitting that we are racist, that we inherited an upbringing and a legacy of inequality – that we confess it and will do everything we can to reject it and run in the opposite direction. How much would it fundamentally change the conversation in this country if we all admitted that we are racist? If more white people – liberal, conservative, religious, secular, whatever – to admitted that racism is in our hearts. What if we admitted that we are racist, that we need forgiveness, and we need to change?

For those of us who are Christians, we believe that confession leads to forgiveness and then to healing. And not just for individuals, but for nations too.

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Confession is always the first step. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Heal my heart. Heal our land.

 

The Sabbath is For Freedom: A Sermon on Luke 6:1-11

LUKE 6:1-11

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. (NRSV)

At the end of this text, the Pharisees don’t know what to do about Jesus. As blasphemous as it may sound, I confess this morning that I kinda know how they feel. In these two stories, I wasn’t sure what to make of the way Jesus is behaving. I mean, at first glance, this is a classic healing story, with a little controversy sprinkled in. setting up the conflict that will lead to Jesus crucifixion. But when we take a closer look, some of this just seems so… unnecessary. In the first story, why couldn’t Jesus have stored up a little food to prepare like everyone else did? Not to mention, Jesus might be trying to justify his actions by some good old-fashioned proof-texting. And in the second story, this man with the withered hand seems less like a desperate, pleading figure who we have compassion on and more like a pawn in a political chess match between Jesus and the Pharisees. When you read the story, the man never actually asks to be healed. And the Pharisees might have a point: can’t this healing wait until tomorrow? Why does Jesus choose to make this a battleground – where there could have been compromise? As I prepared for this sermon, I found myself a bit frustrated with Jesus. Ultimately, in light of all of these issues in the story, I had to be convinced that Sabbath was worth all of the trouble. I’m happy to report that I was convinced, and for me it all hangs on this one: The Sabbath is for freedom. I’ll unpack that as we go along.

The first lesson I had to be reminded of concerning this particular text is that it comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s gospel is incredibly political! In Luke, Jesus constantly confronts the political and religious and social structures of oppression in the world. Many scholars have noticed that the Gospel is built around Jesus’ self proclaimed mission statement early in the work: Jeus says, quoting Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the story of Jesus in Luke, overthrowing and renegotiating power structures in favor of the oppressed. It’s likely that none of us have made it this far in seminary without reading or at least being familiar with John Howard Yoder and his most famous work The Politics of Jesus. I was reminded that this foundational work on Christian ethics is actually something of theological commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Yoder points out that this proclamation of Jesus is really about the year of Jubilee, the time designated in Leviticus when slaves would go free, debts would be forgiven, and God’s people would truly rest and celebrate. This is what Luke is about, and so our passage today must be read through this lens: Jesus has come to proclaim freedom.

Our passage contains two stories about Jesus breaking the Sabbath – but what I hope we see is that the stories are not about who gets to break Sabbath… or even when – but rather, who gets to interpret Sabbath. The first story finds Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath taking grain to eat from a neighboring field. The Pharisees accuse them of doing what is unlawful to do on the Sabbath, under their interpretation. The Mosaic law is rather unclear whether plucking grain and threshing it in their hands counts as work, but over time, the Pharisees had come to believe and enforce that it was unlawful to do that on the Sabbath.

And Jesus responds by telling them an Old Testament story– one that has nothing to do with Sabbath, but is actually just an instance where someone was hungry and a rule was broken. On the surface it sorta seems like Jesus is saying, “David did it! Look at the Bible!” If this were true, Jesus would be guilty of the cardinal seminary-sin known as proof-texting, whereby someone uses a Bible verse or story out of context to defend themselves or their own argument. Sadly, the Bible can and has been used to justify just about everything, from infanticide, to homicide, genocide… pretty much all of the –cides.

But when we read Jesus’ next statement, “The son of man is Lord of the Sabbath”, the message becomes clearer. He’s not saying, “David did it, why can’t I?” Jesus is claiming authority, as a descendent of David, to be the proper interpreter of religious law. The Pharisees were enacting penalty and shame based on their interpretation of Sabbath law, but Jesus is the son of man, and has come to interpret the law correctly, Sabbath included. The David story is an appeal to authority, Jesus flipping the script on the Pharisees, asking: “Who has the authority to interpret scripture?” or “Who properly represents God’s will?” Jesus claims that he does. And he has already been doing it: back in chapter 4, on the Sabbath, Jesus casts out a demon and heals Simon’s mother-in-law – which causes the entire town of Capernaum to bring their sick to him for healing, all before the day is through. Jesus has authority to interpret what the Sabbath means, and to Jesus, Sabbath is a day to carry out his mission of freedom.

And so the stage becomes set for the second half our story, where once again the Pharisees try to control their interpretation of Sabbath. The Pharisees have heard about Capernaum. They were taken aback at his claims in the grain fields. Here Jesus is in the synagogue to teach, and the Pharisees are there to trap him. The bait? A man with a withered right-hand. What will Jesus do? Jesus also knows what they’re up to: so if Jesus does fall into the trap, it will be on his own terms. But this is an odd healing story, because the man with the withered right hand is not a main character. He does not ask to be healed. He seems like a prop to be used by both the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus even tells him to stand in the middle, as if to make a show of him.

Now, a withered hand is nothing to scoff at. By a show of non-withered hands, who here has had their arm in a cast or sling before? …. I’m sure that during that time you realized how many mundane activities that you take for granted require the use of both hands. How much more in an agrarian society 2,000 years ago? Even within today’s text, we remember the disciples, who rolled the grain in their hands to get the edible parts out of it. This man could not even do that. Moreover, we are told it is his right hand, which served a social function too: you would offer your right hand in greeting, and not show your left hand, as that was the hand you would use for, let’s say, “personal hygiene”. So in addition to the frustration of not being able to provide for yourself and do basic tasks in that society, you would also experience shame in every public setting as you had to greet everyone with either an unclean hand or a withered one.

That all being said, a withered hand is not life threatening. I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Pharisees in my early readings: can’t this wait until tomorrow? Jesus has the option of compromise. He can heal the man the next day, and also maintain the dignity of Sabbath. The Pharisees, by most accounts, are not being unreasonable. In their eyes, this is not a good enough reason to break the Sabbath, and by their definition, they’re right. “When is it okay to break the Sabbath?” This is their ultimate question. But the question itself is built on a lie that the Pharisees and people have all accepted: that the Sabbath is this big test to prove whether or not you are faithful and obedient to God. “When is it okay to break the Sabbath?” This is the question that the Pharisees believe they are masters of, because they control the answer. What they don’t realize, though, is that the very question itself has enslaved them. Like an alcoholic who clutches a bottle, not knowing that, actually, it’s the bottle that clutches him.

So Jesus, instead of playing into the false question, destroys its power by asking his own: “I ask of you… if it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead, Jesus is asking, “What is Sabbath for?” After all, this is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus has come for freedom, release, forgiveness and restoration!

Jesus’ response is not that, “It’s okay to break the Sabbath if what you’re doing is good.” The Sabbath was made for doing good! The very idea of Sabbath, a rest on every seventh day, is inextricably linked with Jubliee! The seventh day of rest for God’s people becomes a seventh year of rest for the land in Leviticus. Then, out of that, after the 49th year, 7 times 7, comes the year of Jubilee, in which all debts are released, slaves go free, and land returns to its original owner; a year of complete rest. Since Jesus has come to proclaim Jubilee, of course Jesus must heal on the Sabbath! This cannot wait another day, because the Sabbath was made for things like this! The man’s hand was a barrier from full participation in life, in society, and in God’s blessing. What better day to be released from such bondage?

And though they did not mean to, these Pharisees were acting as barrier themselves to the healing of this man… all in the name of God. Again, I think we all need a heavy dose of sympathy towards these Pharisees, who were trying to do what was right, and were trying to honor God. And Jesus’ question is puts it in pretty black-and-white terms: there are two options, to save or to kill, to do good or evil. Ultimately, there are two options: are we aligning ourselves with God’s salvation purpose for the world, or are we acting as barriers to it? While this might not be the only question we ask in any given situation… perhaps it ought to be the first one. And every day in the news we see things that are obviously antithetical to God’s saving purposes. Everyday we have opportunities to love and maybe even to save. And sometimes, in those instances, we do what the Pharisees did and make it about something else. All the while, the real story is staring us in the face: there is God’s saving purpose in the world, and there are those who act against it, even if they don’t realize it. Oh how we still need Jesus to break through the nonsense and help us ask the right kinds of questions.

The Sabbath is for freedom. Jesus has come and inaugurated the year of the Lord’s favor, forever reminding us of the saving love of God and setting us free. Whatever religious rights or traditions or beliefs that we hold dear, if they do not contribute to the good work of God in the world, then we are doing them wrong. There is no discrepancy between the mission of God and the practices of God’s people. May we be in accordance with God’s saving purpose in the world… not barriers to it. And may we always find our mission in the mission of Jesus: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Amen.

Isaiah 58:1-12 – an Ash Wednesday sermon

(Try reading this text out loud – it is most impacting as a vocal cry)

Isaiah 58:1-12 (Tanakh translation)

Cry with full throat, without restraint, raise your voice like a ram’s horn.

Declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek me daily; eager to learn my ways

Like a nation that does what is right,

That has not abandoned the laws of its God.

They ask me for the right way,

They are eager for the nearness of God.

“Why when we fasted did you not see?

When we starved our bodies did you pay no heed?”

Because on your fast day, you see to your business

and oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast and strife in contention

And you strike with a wicked fist

Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

Is this the fast I desire; a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast? A day when the Lord is favorable?

No.

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke

It is to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the wretched poor into your home

When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin

Then will your light burst through like the dawn

And your healing spring up quickly

Your vindicator will march before you,

The presence of the Lord will be your rearguard

Then when you call the Lord will answer,

When you cry he will say, “Here I am!”

If you banish the yoke from your midst

The menacing hand and evil speech

And you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature

Then will your light shine in the darkness

And your gloom will be like the noonday

The Lord will guide you always

He will slake your thirst in parched places

And give strength to your bones

You will be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters do not fail

Men from your midst will rebuild ancient ruins

You will restore foundations laid long ago

And you will be called “repairer of fallen walls”;

“Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Sometimes, as a preacher, (and I do use that term loosely, as I rarely preach,) you come across a text that dares you to preach it. I don’t mean the kind of text that is really hard to understand, and requires a preacher with intimate knowledge of dead languages and ancient near eastern culture to dazzle the congregation with something they never could have known on their own. I’m talking about the kinds of texts that just preach themselves. Some texts, like ours today, don’t really ask for much explanation or second opinion. Some texts just dare you to read them, and then drop the mic like you just won a rap battle. Believe me, I kinda wanted to walk up here this evening, read this text and return to my seat, to see if it would hit you the same way it hit me this week – which was like a ton of bricks. But aside from the seemingly obvious reason that I would fail the class if I did that, I also think the text dares us further to ask hard questions, exploring its context and our own, looking for patterns and similarities that might lead us to draw some conclusions about ourselves and our world. My hope is that as we approach Ash Wednesday, and the season of lent, that we will take this message at its word, and proclaim a season of fasting; but the kind of fast that God desires.

First, we turn to the context of Isaiah. This passage comes from the third portion of Isaiah, as many scholars divide up the book based on its relative chronology. To put it crudely, First Isaiah is dated before the exile, Second Isaiah during, and Third Isaiah sometime after, but all of it was assembled to reflect a larger theological purpose. The reason this matters is because the issues, raised here in Isaiah 58, are not new issues in this body of work. Yet they are being addressed, still, at the latest part in the story. And in case we were in danger of missing this huge point, the assemblers of the larger book of Isaiah conveniently placed these same social justice concerns all the way back at chapter 1. Chapter 1 reads almost identical to 58, though it substitutes “sacrifice” for “fasting”:

Stop bringing worthless offerings.  Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly— I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

Second Isaiah is also riddled with calls for justice. Isaiah 45 rings with a beautiful verse about God’s justice descending on the earth as it says, “Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them! I, the LORD, have created this.” So, in summary, what the larger book of Isaiah wants to tell us is this: Israel was sent into exile because she didn’t practice justice. Israel remained in exile until she could learn to practice justice, and upon finally returning, in our passage, Israel will not be able to rebuild her cities and restore her foundations until she can learn to practice justice.

One of the harder tasks sometimes for a preacher is to take something from scripture and find a way to apply it to our lives today. But it’s always a sure bet that if a particular problem occurs over and over again in scripture, like Israel’s inability to learn to practice justice, it isn’t because they were just poor learners – it’s probably because it’s telling us something about who we are and the types of patterns we always fall into. Neglecting justice, lacking compassion for the poor, neglecting to feed the hungry and clothe the naked are continued marks of the Church today just as it was for Israel throughout Isaiah.

To paint a very broad picture, researchers estimate that by 2016, the wealthiest 1% in the world will own more of the world’s wealth than the rest of the world combined. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But let’s focus in even more on the United States, where our poverty rate sits around 15%. In addition to poverty, we have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, and the African-Americans and Hispanics represent almost 60% of the incarcerated while only representing 25% of the general public. Injustice abounds, even as we focus more closely on Pasadena. While there are laws in place for the development of low-income housing, entrepreneurs continue to open luxury apartment buildings at an alarming rate with no penalty or prohibition. If you don’t believe me, just take a walk down Walnut… or Union… or Colorado… or Fair Oaks… just about any street in Pasadena, and you’ll find a building project for luxury condominiums in development. All the while, homeless service are filled to capacity and more and more men and women take to living on the streets (the other thing you’ll notice walking around Pasadena). We see not only that our systems make poor people poorer and rich people richer, but unjust laws and their enforcement keep it that way.

So what do we do? Do we ever break the cycle? How do we keep falling in to this mess? The interesting connection we saw between Isaiah 1 and 58 was some sort of religious ceremony involved that God was rejecting, for the sake of a renewed interest in justice. In Isaiah 1 it was sacrifices and offerings, and new moon festivals. In Isaiah 58 we read of the people asking God to notice them because of their fasting, and God tells them what kind of fast is interesting to God. Every time that the people of Israel are missing the point about justice, they always seem to replace it with some sort of spiritual, ritualistic practice that actually serves them, and not God or the people God has told us to serve. Israel was so good at misunderstanding the purpose of rituals and traditions and twisting them to serve themselves.. Publically drawing God’s attention is a lot like drawing everyone else’s attention. But I’m sure that these things have nothing to do with us, today, right?

This text, which comes from the Lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, hit me like a ton of bricks this week. After all, Ash Wednesday is less than a week away, so for this little worshipping community we’ve formed over the last few weeks, this very well could be considered our Ash Wednesday service. And before I get myself into any trouble, I want to say that I respect Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season, and intentionally align myself with churches who care about the Church year. What I’m speaking about here is my own experience, and if that’s all it is, then that’s okay. But I have a suspicion that many of us share the experience that I had with it, and it went a little something like this.

Somewhere around 2002 or 2003, the Evangelical church rediscovered the practice of Ash Wednesday and the idea of giving up something for lent, like the way a middle aged man rediscovers his high school letterman’s jacket and begins wearing it everyday. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I remember my youth pastor getting really excited about it and started telling us about this “Catholic” tradition where you would give something up for forty days to get closer to God. After a lot of concern, he convinced us that doing this would not make us Catholics, which at the time we all believed to be a synonym for “sinners”, so we dove in. As a youth group student, I was interested in the idea of sacrifice for forty days, but I was also a teenager trying to impress everyone. So I remember I always tried to give up the biggest thing in the group, which was easy to do since we would nail them to a cross for everyone to see. I wish I could say this behavior ended after Jr. High, but I can’t truly remember a time I gave up something and didn’t have an ulterior motive. Even towards the end of college I remember I gave up going out to eat. Secretly, and maybe even subconsciously, I really wanted to save money and lose weight. Yet all along I was able to convince others and even myself that I was being pious, when actually I was just coming up with creative ways to serve myself using God and religious ritual.

Again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up something for lent, or that all Lenten commitments are inherently selfish. However, the liturgical calendar has brought before us this text for Ash Wednesday: not a text about sacrificing, not a text about Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness – this text, about giving up on self-serving religious rituals and serving the poor, is our calling this year for Lent.

This is the fast God desires: to hear and be dismayed at all of the issues related to justice in our world, in our country, and in our city, and to act. Just like Israel found themselves in the midst of an exile with no land to call their own, so the Christian Church in America struggles to find its voice at the table again. But God will rebuild our foundations if we learn to practice justice once more. Could you imagine how the world might change if every believer, for forty days, committed to this kind of fast, the one God desires, instead of giving up red meat or television or Facebook? What if the Church declared a Lenten season of compassion for the poor, or freeing people from the oppressive yokes of gang-violence, incarceration, slavery, or trafficking? What if the Church decided that in the forty days of Lent they would seek to clothe everyone who is naked, or feed every person who is hungry? Instead of depriving ourselves of something that we don’t need, what if we stood together to oppose systems that already deprive people of the things that they need?

It is a pipe dream, to be sure. But it starts with us. It has to. Isaiah challenges us to redefine fasting, and Lent is the time that we hast. For forty days, let our minds be on serving the poor and redeeming Pasadena. We could have a conversation with a homeless person, serve food at a shelter, donate to a program, babysit free for a struggling family. We could educate ourselves about local politics and seek out candidates and legislation that promote justice and equity. We could donate blood to a hospital, or tutor children forced to go to bad schools because of where they live. Maybe just this year, or every year, we can repurpose Lent as the kind of fast that God truly desires, and find God’s blessing amongst our sisters and brothers in the city God has placed us. As I close, I would like us to read the second part of this text again, and I encourage you to let Isaiah preach to you throughout Lent this year.

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke

It is to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the wretched poor into your home

When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin

Then will your light burst through like the dawn

And your healing spring up quickly

Your vindicator will march before you,

The presence of the Lord will be your rearguard

Then when you call the Lord will answer,

When you cry he will say, “Here I am!”

If you banish the yoke from your midst

The menacing hand and evil speech

And you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature

Then will your light shine in the darkness

And your gloom will be like the noonday

The Lord will guide you always

He will slake your thirst in parched places

And give strength to your bones

You will be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

Choose Life – A sermon on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity; death and adversity, in that I command you this day: love YHWH your God, walk in God’s ways, and keep God’s commandments, God’s laws and regulations; that you may thrive and become many in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured away to the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you will surely perish; you will not prolong the days in the soil you are crossing the Jordan and entering to possess. I call as witness against you this day heaven and earth; I have put before you life and death; blessings and curses. Choose life! So that you and your descendents may live, by loving YHWH your God, by heeding God’s commands, and clinging to God, for God is your life and your length of days, to be settled on the soil that YHWH swore to give your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Continue reading “Choose Life – A sermon on Deuteronomy 30:15-20”

Reclaiming Creation – a Sermon on Genesis 1:1-5

Genesis 1:1-5 (The Schocken Bible)

1            At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth

2            When the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Ocean, Rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters –

3            God said: Let there be light! And there was light.

4            God saw the light: that it was good.

5            God called the light: Day! And the darkness he called: Night!   There was setting, there was dawning: one day.


I want you to imagine the most beautiful photograph you’ve ever seen. What do you see? Maybe it’s a beautiful nature scene. Maybe it’s architecture. Maybe it’s a person, someone you know, a loved one. Or maybe it’s someone you don’t know, but the way the photo is taken makes you feel like you might know them or something about them. Keep that picture in your head. What do you like about it? Is it the way that the object is imagined, the way they are positioned, the way that light hits them or doesn’t, the movement or the stillness– when you imagine a beautiful moment or object captured, you quickly find that you are captured by it.

Now I want you to imagine you are standing in a gallery, and the picture you’re imagining is in a big frame on the wall. You’re trying to look at this picture, and two people are standing in front of you. And they’re arguing. The first one says, “Clearly this picture was taken with a Canon DSLR 28mm lens.” The other responds, “You fool! That is clearly a Nikon wide-angle lens, 70mm with a low aperture!” And before you know it, everyone else who was standing in the gallery has taken a side and joined the argument, and you can barely see the photograph through the crowd. You ask them if you can see it, and they say, “Only if you tell us what camera lens you think they used!”

I believe that when we come to this story in Genesis, the creation story, we face a similar predicament. What we have before us is a beautiful picture of God at the beginning of all things. It’s the type of picture that deserves to be stared at, awed after, meditated on. It’s a picture of God creating and moving and redeeming and delighting. Like a photograph, light shines in a particular way, movement and stillness are captured and charged with meaning, vast landscapes and small moments of intimacy are brought before our eyes; and yet somewhere along the way we’ve lost the privilege of looking at this breath-taking picture without choosing a side – creation or science? Literal days or figurative days? Is this a poem or is it a narrative? Which camera lens do you think they used? If we actually take time to look at this picture again, we are given such a profound look at who God is and how God sees the world. But we are somehow lost arguing about how or when it happened, when the picture is begging us to see why and who. So I ask you tonight to look at this text with me with fresh eyes, the same eyes that imagined the most beautiful photograph you’ve ever seen, to suspend the debate, and let this Genesis story capture you, so that we can reclaim creation, or better yet, let creation reclaim us.

We begin at the beginning, where before anything else God is a creator, working from outside and inside creation to make all new things and to make all things new. The sad irony of trying to step away from the creation/science debate is that even within our own camps, we can’t agree about anything in this passage. One of the biggest debates is whether or not God creates out of nothing or whether God creates out of the formlessness void mess that was already present. You may have heard the term creation ex nihilo, meaning “Creation form nothingness”. And while most Christians would affirm this as a theological truth, many still wonder if that is what this text is saying. The problem is that the text kind of says a little bit of both. Another problem is how God works in creation: does God come from outside the creation or from within it? God speaks into creation, but it also says that the spirit of God hovered over the face of the Ocean. Many churches, denominations, and believers have divisively split over issues like this one. Even in our own camps, we quarrel over form instead of substance. And maybe the reason that the text leaves so much wiggle room is because these are all ways that God truly does work.

Sometimes we need a God who is completely outside of a situation to come in and make a difference. When things are confusing or people need a mediator, we believe in a God who is outside of our own biases and shortcomings who can enter in to a situation and bring healing. At other times we need a God who has been hovering on the surface all along to make the spirit known to us and act for the sake of the world. Most obviously we see that characteristic of God in Jesus, the incarnation, that sometimes we need God to show up within the world to save it. And whether God creates out of nothing or out of wild and waste, I think we can all imagine times in our lives where we have come to God with absolutely nothing and asked, “God, can you make something new?”. A transition in life, a new job or relationship, where we come to God with a blank slate and hope that God can make something wonderful. And then there are other times where we come to God with a huge mess, wild and waste like our text says, and wonder, “God, can even you make something new out of this?” Relationships become broken, systems become broken, and beautiful things turn into messes, and we hope that God can do something with that, too. The picture of God in Genesis is that God can make all new things, and make all things new, from outside with power and from the inside with compassion.

And when God creates, God speaks into the world an invitation, and responds with intimacy and affirmation. The pattern of creation reads like a call and response. God said let there be…. And it was… God called it… and saw that it was good. If you think about it, God doesn’t have to speak to create, nor does God have to use language like, “let us” or “let there be”, which sound inviting and inclusive, but God does. The story depicts a God who speaks instead of simply willing it to happen, and uses particular words that sound like calls for response. God also does not have to name things. God calls the light “day” and the darkness “night”. And God doesn’t have to evaluate each day. Who’s going to argue with God? But God calls each creation good. God is passionately involved in this project, and has a stake in the outcome. This is unlike so many other ancient stories of the beginning of the world. In most other ancient civilizations, the earth comes about because of wars between gods who create out of spite or out of boredom or by accident. This God creates on purpose, out of fascination and participation, and even takes delight in it! I think it’s easy to miss when we read this story that God seems to really enjoy creating the world! God names everything that is made, and I know that any would suggest that has to do with taking ownership of it – that if God gets to name it then it belongs to God. And while I don’t doubt God’s dominion over creation, I wonder if there’s more to it than that.

I have a three-year-old nephew who lives in Phoenix with his sister and mom. I only get to see them once or twice a year, so being a good uncle I try to bring gifts when I do. On the drive out to Phoenix there’s a rest stop that we usually stop at that has one of those claw-machines where you can get a stuffed-animal, and of all the possible skills that God could have chosen to bless me with, I have the odd fortune of being really, really good at claw machines. It’s become something of a tradition to get a stuffed animal for my nephew at this rest stop and give it to him when I get home. So this year when I brought him a stuffed animal, the first thing he screamed, because he’s a three year old, was, “Mine!” And he snatched it up before he even knew what it was. Now, that was taking ownership. However, once he knew that nobody was going to take it from him, and he began to play with it, I bet you can imagine one of the first things he did. He named it. He took ownership of it right from the get-go, but he finally named it once he knew that he liked it. Now I’m not trying to say that God is just like my three-year-old nephew. (We’re all in trouble if that’s true.) But I do think that maybe when God names the different parts of creation, it’s because God likes them. And when God calls them good, we truly see the intimacy and attachment that God has with this world.

And as the first day of creation ends and the second begins, we are invited to believe in a world that is always moving toward hope, toward redemption, and toward a new day. Many scholars have run their pens dry wondering why each day ends with this phrasing, “there was setting, and there was dawning”, or many translations read “there was evening, and there was morning”. Didn’t they know they have it backwards? Morning comes first, evening comes second. Some have even tried to argue that maybe for the Hebrews, a day actually went from evening to morning, but the rest of the Old Testament doesn’t really support that theory. So why does this picture have evenings moving towards mornings instead of the other way around? Why would a photographer take a picture like that? Why does any evening look forward towards a morning? Maybe because an evening is particularly difficult – sometimes a morning feels like a fresh start, like pushing the reset button. I know I’ve said many times, “I just want to go to bed and start again in the morning.” Maybe another reason we look forward to a morning is out of anticipation – like a child on Christmas Eve who can’t sleep because she knows what tomorrow brings. Either way, in God’s good world, every dark evening looks forward to a bright new morning. Every end leads to a beginning, not the other way around. You’ve heard the saying, “All good things must come to an end.” But Genesis says it’s the opposite. After evening comes morning. All bad things must come to an end. And that is really good news, because I don’t know if you felt this as hard as I did, but 2014 was a really long, hard evening for the world. Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson, torture-reports, mid-term elections… So many dark evenings. But Genesis insists that out of darkness there is light, and for every evening there is a new morning, a new day, where God will be creator and Lord.

I want to be a creationist. I want to look at this story and declare its truth to a disbelieving world. But I think it means something different than what we’ve taken it to mean. To be a “creationist” is to believe that God has called the world good; that God is intimately involved with creation, inviting and naming from the inside out, bringing new days out of dark evenings, creating new things out of nothing and beautiful things out of ugly things. Sadly, I know many who call themselves “creationists” who don’t share these commitments, and yet they are the beauty of the creation story they defend. True “creationism” might lead you to believe that God is always creating, that God is first and foremost The Creator, who cares about the created world and wants to see it flourish, which is the foundation for all the good news of the gospel. And really, to believe THAT… is so much more profound, so much more counter-cultural and so much more controversial than to believe that the world was created in six days. It is truly the message we need to hear and need to believe in our lives and in our world. Being a creationist doesn’t mean you believe the literal words on a page, but that you believe into what the words are trying to teach you. That’s what it means to believe that this text isn’t just data but it is the inspired WORD OF GOD. The hope for any of us and all of us begins at the beginning, where God first acted in love and excitement to make new things and to make things new; and any good news or gospel is only possible because of what God started here. May we never forget to let the stories of God capture us and overwhelm us like they once did. May we learn once more to see the beauty before our eyes. And may we reclaim creationism and announce to the world that however the world was made, we know who made it, and we have a glimpse of why, and both of those answers are really good news. Amen.

Rehearsing the Song of God’s Future – An Advent Homily on Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. And it will be in the days after the mountain of the house of YHWH will be securely set at the head of the mountains and be lifted from the hills and all the nations will stream towards it. Many peo ple will go and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and let us go in his paths.” For from Zion will go out teaching, and a word from YHWH from Jerusalem. And he will judge between the nations, and he will adjudicate for many people; and they will crush their swords to plowshares and their spears to pruning hooks; a nation will not carry a sword against a nation; and no longer will they learn war. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

The word of the Lord.

The year 2014 is nearly behind us as we approach Christmas and then the new year. Perhaps some of us have had good years; celebrated milestones, new relationships, reconciliation or accomplishments. Some of us may have had bad years; losing a loved one, economic hardship, the end of a relationship, personal failures. However we would sum up 2014 in our individual journeys, I think we would be hard pressed to celebrate this year on a national or global level. 2014 was the year of ISIS, Ebola, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and growing tensions and a faster growing death toll between Israel and Palestine. In the last month, we witnessed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the acquittal of the police officers who took their lives, showcasing the wild racial injustices still present in our legal system. And just days ago, the CIA released the Torture Report that revealed in gruesome detail the ways the U.S. has interrogated prisoners through torture in the name of safety. This was a dark year, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that more will happen in the weeks before 2015 begins that will make us yearn for a clean slate.

And he will judge between the nations, and he will adjudicate for many people; and they will crush their swords to plowshares and their spears to pruning hooks; a nation will not carry a sword against a nation; and no longer will they learn war. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH. The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

The word of God concerning 2014.

Isaiah spoke into a dark world. As happy and promising as this text sounds, it comes from a context of darkness as well. Assyria, a terrifying global superpower intent on expanding its empire through force, grew more powerful by the day. Our text begins in Isaiah 2, but Isaiah 1 was a lot of bad news. The people of God are being accused of having become a sinful nation, full of injustice, lacking in righteousness. As soon as our passage ends, the rest of chapter 2 isn’t any more encouraging. Verse 6 begins by saying that the Lord has abandoned his people.

The book of Isaiah will later go on to detail the types of injustices for which they are being condemned. The rich take advantage of the poor. They increase their wealth at the expense of the needy. They overwork their laborers for their own profits. Isaiah looks at his world and sees injustice and darkness, and tells them that they will reap the consequences of that injustice. I think we can relate.

This year we tortured in the hope that it will keep us safe. We have applied the laws of justice unequally based on the color of someone’s skin. Young black teenagers have gone to prison for minor crimes and rich white CEO’s crash world markets have gone freely home to their mansions. Ebola threatened our entire planet as early as February, and we only raised an eyebrow when it crossed our border, and forgot it just as soon. In our own churches, pastors were accused of abuse and bullying, and some of even worse. Our churches often felt as dark as our world. Things will likely get worse before they get better.

But yet:

It will be in the days after the mountain of the house of YHWH will be securely set at the head of the mountains and be lifted from the hills and all the nations will stream towards it. Many people will go and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and let us go in his paths.” For from Zion will go out teaching, and a word from YHWH from Jerusalem. And he will judge between the nations, and he will adjudicate for many people; and they will crush their swords to plowshares and their spears to pruning hooks; a nation will not carry a sword against a nation; and no longer will they learn war.

This song of hope and justice and light and peace was sung by the prophets. These verses occur almost identically in Micah 4. Rarely do we see the same exact words of God on the lips of multiple prophets. Many wonder who got this word first: Isaiah, Micah, or a forerunner of them both? Did this word from God all upon them at once? No matter when or how this word from God came, the prophets sang it in unison, and we ought to join their song.

And it will be in the days after the mountain of the house of YHWH will be securely set at the head of the mountains and be lifted from the hills and all the nations will stream to:wards it. Many people will go and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and let us go in his paths.”

One day, the whole world will see the wisdom of the Lord and learn from it. As Christians we believe that we have borne witness to the Word of the Lord incarnate in Jesus Christ, who taught us to love our Lord and our neighbor and our enemy more than even ourselves. And yet this love does not flow perfectly from God to the world. It goes through the church, it goes through us, and we often betray it. The ways, paths, light and love of God meet us and we in our feebleness attempt to share them with the world as God has desired, and we succeed and we fail and we do great justice and we do great harm, and we lift the name of the Lord high and we use that name in vain. In the power of the spirit and in the fragility of our brokenness, we communicate but a distorted picture of the greatness of God that we have seen and felt and experienced. But one day, we will all together seek the Lord humbly, directly, and we will walk up the mountain to seek and back down to live in God’s wisdom.

For from Zion will go out teaching, and a word from YHWH from Jerusalem. And he will judge between the nations, and he will adjudicate for many people;

One day, every nation and every people will seek the Lord, and the wisdom of love and the Lord will be the judge of all our conflict. One day the Lord will adjudicate between Israel and Palestine. One day the Lord will be the Grand Jury overseeing racial injustice.

One day the nations will look to the Lord when crisis strikes and we seek refuge. All thenations, and all the people, like a river will flow up the mountain to seek the Lord, while teachings and words flow down like a flood. One day, the teachings of the Lord, the words and life of Jesus will reclaim the earth for YHWH and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

And they will crush their swords to plowshares and their spears to pruning hooks; a nation will not carry a sword against a nation; and no longer will they learn war.

There will be no cries for war, no propaganda, no draft, no terror alert level, no terror.

Veterans will not come home to poverty because they will never leave home in the first place. Uncle Sam will no longer want you for the U.S. Army, but Yahweh will want you for the coalition of peace. There will be no military school or just war theory, for war will no longer be in the curriculum. When once it was patriotic to conserve and recycle metal so that it could be used for weaponry, one day we will see all of our weaponry stripped for parts and built instead into playgrounds and medical equipment and art pieces and homes. One day, an officer will have no weapon to fire and Michael Brown will have no need to steal, and Israel and Palestine will not carry a sword or a rifle or a missile against one another, and we will not torture our enemies because the Lord has spoken.

We will rip up our textbooks of warfare and disarm our bombs together.

House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

The Lord will bring this day, but this day must begin with us. Those of us who carry on the teaching of the Old Testament into the New and into today, those of us who have been reared in that teaching must begin to walk in this new light. God’s glorious future of peace and justice is a light that breaks through in our world for us to search for and walk in. This is not a future to “ooh” and “ah” at, but a song to sing early and often and loudly in our world today until it becomes the chorus of the universe. We will not create this future but we can surely miss out on it, and it often feels like we’re trying. This is not a possibility, or an option for the future of the world but a promise, a guarantee, a sworn oath by the only One in the universe who can keep every promise ever made every time.

This is a trajectory, a final destination, a telos, the final stop. It is the ending of the story that is currently being written.

House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

The end of the story has already been written, and we know the direction the arrow is pointing. Do we live our lives to the same trajectory? Do we write our laws in the direction of God’s justice? Do our stories read with the same ending as the story of God’s great plan for the world?

House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

Church, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH. Let us sing the song of the prophets and of Christ. Let us sing the song of justice and peace for all. This Christmas, we sing that song together.

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

Isaiah saw a word. This would be strange language if we didn’t know it already. On Christmas, we celebrate the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. At Christmas, we celebrate a Word that became seen, and that Word lived in justice and peace and showed us how to do the same.

As Christmas comes and goes, as 2014 becomes 2015, may we learn to begin walking in the light of YHWH. May we begin to rehearse the song that will be sung forever. May we begin to seek God for justice instead of ourselves. May we begin repurposing weapons of evil for instruments of good. May we develop propaganda for peace. And may we learn to walk humbly with our neighbor and our enemy to receive teaching and a fresh word from the endless storehouse of wisdom from God.

Amen.

I am Mark Driscoll, and I Need to Change

I confess a bit of reluctance in writing a post about Mark Driscoll. Considering the speed at which big news travels, is dissected and responded to and gets forgotten, I may have missed the boat. Mark Driscoll is so two weeks ago; I won’t get many impulse clicks on this article. Mark Driscoll isn’t “trending” anymore.

However, this is exactly why I feel compelled to write this. I hope this blog never becomes “click-bait”, however much I do hope to have an audience. I chose to write this because I think we have moved on too quickly from what happened with Driscoll and Mars Hill, and are in danger of missing the warning bell that should be ringing loudly in our ears.

Over the last several years, Driscoll has been slowly laid bare before us. Starting with former clergy members sharing their stories about being pushed out and shamed before their communities, to the revelation of his expensive, morally suspicious book promotions, the availability of his sermons, talks, book and comments and their aggressive, abusive, sexist and narcissistic nature, and finally done in by comments he made under a pseudonym years ago that broke the camel’s back – his last few years have taken, proverbially speaking, the sheep’s clothing off of this wolf. The church responded accordingly, collectively sighing in relief at his “sabbatical” and then his dismissal. The resulting disbanding of his church networks and organizations show the true consequences of pastoral abuse, and how much damage one leader can do if left unchecked. Some very beautiful things have come out of this, with church elders issuing apologies to those who were abused and reparations have been sought.

My concern, though, is that we aren’t taking this seriously enough. I’m afraid that the Church would crucify Mark Driscoll and pretend that he is one individual who has gone astray, rather than acknowledge the terrifying but glaring truth: the issues for which Mark Driscoll went down in flames and took countless others with him are rampant in all our churches.

Narcissism. Sexism. Domination. Aggression. Abuse. Bullying. These are not just attributes of Mark Driscoll. They are attributes of mainline American Christianity. Mark Driscoll is, of course, an extreme manifestation of this and should rightly be disciplined for his actions and his behaviors. And the Church is certainly a better place without Driscoll in a position of power.

However, if we can’t look at ourselves and see even the subtle, subliminal, and subconscious ways that we are like him, we have no chance of learning the lesson that this situation can teach us.

For those who follow the Christian blogosphere closely, something fascinating and amazing happened in September. Popular blog nakedpastor.com author David Hayward published a cartoon/article called “Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What Came First, the thug or the theology?” The article was a response to Tony Jones, another well-known Christian figure, who wrote an article about Driscoll’s toxic theology. Hayward questioned whether it was merely Driscoll’s theology or whether it was his narcissistic personality that led to the abuse. His cartoon (a take on “the chicken and the egg”) and article both suggest that it is a both/and, one feeding the other. Jones commented arguing that his article was being portrayed unfairly.

But the amazing thing that happened was actually in the comments. (You know, the part that no-one ever reads.) All of a sudden, people started to come forward who had suffered abuse not at the hands of Mark Driscoll, but Tony Jones. Over the course of the month, the comment section of this article became a confessional, equalizing safe space where people who had suffered abuse at the hands of the formerly popular Emergent Church movement, especially Jones’ ex-wife who was divorced under, to put it lightly, suspicious and abusive circumstances.

It came to light that many members of the Emergent Church were involved in abuse, some knowingly and others who were just doing as they were told. This coming from the church movement that influenced me and many others greatly to be more charitable, gender-inclusive, community-oriented and decentralize the power of the Church back to the people. All along, many of the people propagating that message were the ones most in need of it. While these things began to surface, countless Christians around the world found the comments sections to be a safe space to talk about the ways they had been abused by various churches in their lives, and something of a community began to form around truth-telling and shared pain.

In every denomination, and I would argue in every church, these issues are in play. There is no perfect church, and no perfect pastor, and when we see these huge figures in our faith go down in a blaze of un-glory, we should be terrified. Any pastor, anywhere, could be Mark Driscoll, because leadership itself invites and develops the types of personalities that lead to abuse. As a student at a seminary along with hundreds of other people who want to be pastors one day, news like this should scare people away from being pastors. It should make seminary enrollment drop, because we are all Mark Driscolls in the making. (It almost made me give up and pursue a career in coffee – there are many narcissists in the coffee world, but they don’t tend to abuse people by the thousands.)

But I actually believe that there is a healthy response when these things happen. (What good would our faith be if human failure, no matter how great, was the end of the story?) And I think that our best way out is confession.

Our response to Mark Driscoll needs a second part. I am proud to be part of the Church that first acknowledges: “Mark Driscoll is wrong, and justice is due.” But if we stop there, we are doomed to repeat. A second movement needs to happen for all of our ministers, all of our leaders, and everyone who follows Christ that acknowledges: “I am Mark Driscoll, and I need to change.”

I will start.

I am a narcissist. I have not been diagnosed or anything like that, but I am more often than not guilty of thinking that I am better, smarter, and more astute than everyone else in the room. I am prone to sit in the back of churches and critique the pastor and the worship leader and everyone else in the room while patting myself on the back. I have the unfortunate delusion that “were I in charge” or, worse, “when I am in charge”, things would/will be far superior. This blog itself has veered towards narcissism at times. When I am in an argument, I use words and sarcasm to not only make my case, but to try to make others look foolish. I am wrong, and I need to change.

I am a sexist. While in college, I experienced a change in how I viewed women. I became a feminist and have tried in a lot of ways to raise my voice for equality in the church and in general society. However, I have also observed in many situations my engrained sexism resurface. Sometimes it happens when I am being instructed by a woman I disagree with and realize that my response is far more visceral than in the same situation with a male instructor. I’ve noticed that I am faster to “agree to disagree” with males but be completely dismissive with females out of disrespect. I also see it resurface in how I relate to my wife. My wife and I have the same level of education, professional experience, and value. Yet I often treat her like I am smarter or know better than her in a lot of instances. (This could be narcissism again, but it’s likely an unfortunate cocktail of the two.) I am wrong and I need to change.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg of my confessable flaws. And I’m not necessarily encouraging everybody to broadcast their shortcomings on the internet (though it’s not the worst idea.) But I think we should all look at the dangers of these behaviors and confess the ways we are similar, and do it out loud. Confess them to your spouse, to your pastoral staff, to your small group, to your congregation. The act of confessing them to someone who loves you and can hold you accountable could be the very act that keeps those traits from defining you, and hurting yourself and others. It might very well save the Church.

What Churches Can Learn From Local Coffee Shops

The director of an SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) symposium said in a recent article, “One of the great things about coffee shops is they are assets to the community: they serve as meeting places, a kind of a third place, not where you work or live but a place you can go to spend time and interact with people. People need that.”

I’ve worked in quite a few coffee shops over the years. And while no coffee shop is created equal, and while some succeed at this more than others, community seems to form around coffee. Shops become epicenters in certain cities, towns, neighborhoods and streets. People come regularly to the same place, meet other people that come there regularly, including the staff, and relationships are formed. People have their “loyalties” to certain places, but still like to shop around and appreciate what’s going on elsewhere. Before I ever worked in coffee, one of the main reasons I wanted to start was because of how much I loved going to coffee shops and experiencing this. Even now, I frequent several coffee shops beyond the one I work at, because in the particular niche of coffee I work in, there is actually community between shops. I can go into many shops all over LA and be welcomed and embraced just by telling them where I work. And the best coffee shops will make me (or anyone) feel that same way no matter where they work.

In another lifetime, I think churches used to be like this. Not that there aren’t some still out there; I make generalizations based on my experiences, not all-encompassing claims.

Churches used to be gathering-places where community was experienced. The local church used to be truly that “third place” where people would meet together and form community outside of work and home. If something was happening in the city, the church would know about it and be somehow involved. Churches supported creativity and the arts and education, using their facilities for community events during the week.

Now, before you start blaming culture for the Church losing this position, I want to make something very clear: I believe the Church gave up this position of its own accord. I do not believe it was taken from us.

But to talk about that, we have to talk about coffee again, and about waves.

—–

In specialty coffee, we talk about three “waves” or periods of cultural trend in the way coffee has been consumed, purchased, and a part of American culture over the last eighty years or so. The “first wave” was fast, convenient coffee at home. Folger’s and Maxwell House were some of the biggest companies involved in this first push. Coffee went from being something that some people drank to the beverage that every person needed to have every morning in order to have a good day. Their marketing was aimed towards the convenience of making coffee at home, in your kitchen, or quickly at the office in the break-room. Coffee was moved away from the coffeehouse, starting coming pre-ground in a uniform size, and the sales of coffee-makers went through the roof. This coffee wave excelled, and continues to excel, because it makes coffee cheap and convenient and at-home for consumers.

The second wave began in Seattle, as a few different companies became famous for reinventing the coffee-house. Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and The Coffee bean and Tea Leaf are the best examples of this phase. They created a version of coffee that could not only be mass-produced but reproduced. They instantly became global chains, and you could get a coffee in Portland or in Hong Kong that tasted exactly the same, with your name written on the cup. These coffee-houses excel at making your drink, giving you so many options for each beverage that Starbucks boasts 87,000 drink possibilities on their menu. You can use any variety of syrups or milks in any sized cup you can imagine, ultimately needed to cover up the taste of their coffee, which has to be roasted so dark so that it will taste the same all over the world. This coffee wave excelled and continues to excel because of mass-production, personalization, and giving the general feeling of (and sometimes real experiences of) a community coffee-house.

The third wave is harder to nail down in terms of origin, but it was mainly pioneered by a few companies that began to take coffee back to its origins. Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture were among the first to begin to treat coffee again as a crop and not a shelved-good. They began to highlight the quality of coffee that can be achieved by sourcing it directly from great farmers, roasting it lighter and serving it within a reasonable timeframe after roast. In addition, they were all dedicated to a higher level of ethics in their coffee buying, which I’ve written about more extensively here. If you haven’t heard of these coffee shops, it’s probably because you don’t live near any of them. When you pay attention to quality and sustainability, it’s rather difficult to achieve growth at the same exponential level as a shop from the “second wave”. For the most part, these shops stay local, or if they do expand, the new shops tend to take on aspects of their new location. Intelligentsia started in Chicago, but in Los Angeles, where they’ve been for ten years, you would swear they were natives. These companies, and smaller shops like them, excel because they highlight quality and issues of justice.

So what does this have to do with the Church? Well, I’m no sociologist, but as an observer of both of these “markets” (if you will), I couldn’t help but notice they followed similar trends. My friends of different studies could probably tell you better why this is the case, but I believe that both the Church and the coffee industry have been affected by larger cultural shifts that they then reflect. If you look at Christianity in America over the same time period, you could quite easily point out similar waves. (Although, as is usually the case, the Church is about five to ten years later than the rest of the culture to adapt these trends.)

Like Folger’s or Maxwell House, the first wave moved Christianity outside of the churches. This is what I would call the “evangelist” phase. Famous preachers like BIlly Graham would go around the country, and be on your television, preaching sermons and leading revivals. Crowds would come by the tens of thousands, and countless more would tune-in to have the evangelist preach a sermon that seemingly gave them what they needed to be Christians without the inconvenience of leaving their homes on a Sunday morning or going more than once a year to a Crusade. While I of course believe these evangelists were well-intentioned, they may have sent the subliminal message that Jesus/Christianity/Church was something you could experience or have at home, by yourself, without anyone else around you. In addition, in order to preach to the countless amounts of people that they would never meet, these preachers had to preach sermons that were necessarily general and all-encompassing. Like the grind-size for Folgers in a can, these sermons had to be uniform so they could impact everyone equally, never-mind that the Gospel is intended to impact us in local, tangible ways. The Gospel is about a God who took on a flesh and walked among us, but out of necessity these evangelists had to preach messages that applied to everyone who listened, from the powerful CEO to the homeless individual to the single-parent. Just like the first wave of coffee, this wave may have ultimately “got the job done”, but it did so in a way that lacked flavor; and may have been inadvertantly sabotaging the very thing it was trying to distribute.

Like Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the next wave of churches intended to be hip, personal, and mass-producible. Churches that became successful started being begged, “What’s your secret?”, and the “answers” were turned into best-selling books. “The Purpose Driven Life” led to “The Purpose Driven Church” led to a billion books on Ten Easy Steps to Exponential Church Growth. Churches began to believe that what works in one place will obviously work in another, and church-planting became less about “this community needs a church” to mimic corporate-expansion. Churches began to broadcast their pastors on television screens across the country so that their brand could still be uniform across the entire chain. Churches were built to look and feel like movie theaters and rock concerts, and growth did happen. Just like Starbucks, these churches boomed and expanded and continue to do so. But like Starbucks, do people go because they love the main thing, or do they love the things you’re using to sell it to them? Many of these hip, rock-concert churches spend a lot of money on trying to get you in the door and then making you think they’re cool. Paid, talented musicians… attractive, young greeters… 50 year old pastors wearing skinny jeans… all contribute to the people in the door, but do they contribute to the Gospel? These churches do require attendance, but very little engagement. You could arrive, stay, and leave week after week without ever interacting with another human being. Is that Church? I would argue that a service at one of these churches contains about as much Gospel as a Caramel Macchiato contains coffee. (read: very little) These churches succeed in getting people in the door and planting other churches that do, but struggle with the same issue as the first wave of over-generalization; and while they look and taste good, you’re not tasting the Gospel – you’re tasting the sweet, sugary additions they’ve drowned it with to cover up that their gospel doesn’t really taste good as it should.

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(Side-note before I discuss the third wave. I think it’s important, in coffee but especially in the Church to say that I don’t think we’ve arrived. While I no-doubt prefer and will argue for the merits of the types of churches that are coming on the scene, I recognize that my generation will not be the one that “finally gets it”. We will get lots of things wrong, and my future kids will undoubtedly write snarky pieces like this one about the failings of my generation to be true to the Gospel. Nevertheless, I believe whole-heartedly that the things I am arguing for are an essential step for the Church to take in order to be as faithful to the Gospel as we can be right now, to a generation that needs a fresh look at the Gospel to have any chance of taking it seriously.)

But like the third wave of coffee, some churches are starting to look at what the Gospel is away from all these other things. Various church movements have encouraged us to strip away a lot of cultural notions, look to our international neighbors, and discover what it essentially means to be Christians and try to celebrate that. And if you’ve ever been to a third wave coffee shop and had a cup of black coffee, or an espresso with just the right amount of perfectly-steamed milk – it can feel like experiencing coffee again for the first time.

Churches like this care about many of the same things as these “third wave” coffee shops:

  • Localness – expansion is secondary to being the best, most welcoming place on the corner that they are at. They take on the traits of the neighborhood and allow their ministries to reflect the needs around them. Like a coffee-shop in a largely latino neighborhood might add a spiced-mocha or cortado, the truly “local” church sees the culture of its neighborhood and allows that to dictate who they are.
  • Quality at its root – instead of feeling the need to dress it up in fancy cultural clothes, these churches dig for a Gospel that is beautiful and resonant on its own. Not that culture has nothing to bring to the table, as I don’t believe that culture = evil. But like a latte made with excellent espresso, you can’t sacrifice the core piece in favor of the addition. The milk and the espresso work together to form something new and beautiful.
  • Justice – Whether or not we truly are able to do anything about it remains to be seen, but it is obvious that this new generation of churches care about social justice. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have become central to many churches who believe Jesus’ words about helping the poor and the orphan and the widow are meant to be taken at face value and met with obedience. Like the shops described here and here who are pushing the coffee industry towards fair practices, the new generation of churches are pushing the Church toward the highest standard of engagement in an unjust world for the sake of the Kingdom.
  • Community – So what do you get when you combine localness with authenticity and mutual passion? You create a small community that moves together, believes together, and lives life together. These churches don’t tend to become mega-churches like their second-wave counterparts – that would defeat the very purpose! Rather, small churches of people who know each other and love each other grow deeply together. And if they do grow in size, their first thought is that it might be time to plant another church, so that this same level of deep community can be experienced by a larger number of people without losing the essential local, passionate, and communal nature of the Gospel.

I think more churches ought to be like this. They are out there. I believe I attend one of them. Perhaps you do too. Many churches start out this way and are tempted to become like their more famous or convenient counter-parts. For the love of the Gospel, I urge them not to. Another many churches find themselves in the second category and are trying to find their way to the third. This might be the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for it to turn into just one more marketing scheme to get a new group in the door (like Starbucks advertising “single-origin” coffees). I think it requires stripping a lot of things away and simply asking, “What does our gospel look like on its own?” It’s amazing to me how many mega-churches have affiliations and beliefs that their members don’t even know about. I’ve had far too many conversations with vibrant, strong Christian women who didn’t know for a long time that their churches actually don’t support women in ministry.

Local coffee shops may not achieve success in the same way as Starbucks does. Some of them have tried, and are still trying, and I think they will regret it. (At least, if they care about the coffee and not the bottom-line.) Churches are no different. If you want your Church to be famous, and your pastor to sell books and your Church-name be plastered across the world, then so be it. But I promise you that, along the way, no matter how much good you can do, you will lose an essential part of the Gospel.

Churches, I encourage you to think smaller. Be everything you can be to your neighborhoods. Care about your core, your teachings, and your authenticity. Care about justice and equality and righteousness. Develop real community among the few whom you are entrusted and seek to engage those nearest to you. And know that your success will not come in numbers, or flashiness, or billboards or book sales, but in truth, justice, peace and love.

And, after church, go have coffee together at local coffee shop. You know you want to.

Read more about God and Coffee HERE