On Fig Trees

Something I didn’t include in my sermon for this last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.

Jesus tells his disciples a short parable, about discerning the signs of the seasons from the trees — knowing when the summer is coming when the trees put out new leaves. So, we should also know, from the signs of war and in the skies, and the very sea itself, we should understand the Kingdom of God is coming.

At the same time, Jesus specifically mentions the fig tree — a tree that bears fruit. “Look at the fig tree [συκη], and all the trees [δενδρον].”

Now, Luke lacks the story of Jesus cursing of the fig tree right after his triumphal entry in Jerusalem present in both Matthew (21:18–22) and Mark (11:12–14). (MORAL: God hates figs.) This is a story, I think, designed to show what is about to happen to Jerusalem. It will be judged, and become barren. It will no longer yield fruit, and we know what happens to such barren trees — they are cut down and cast into the fire. (Matt 7:15–20)

Luke, however, does have a fig tree story. Long before the triumphal entry, Jesus tells his disciples the following parable:

6 And he told this parable:“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6–9 ESV)

There’s a whole host of meanings in this parable (patience and persistence, as well as hope, but also right judgment — some things cannot be saved), but I think the primary intention is to consider the coming fate of Jerusalem.

I think Jesus bids his disciples to consider the “fig tree” at the end Luke, despite not cursing the fig tree, very deliberately. Not only are we to consider the signs of the coming age just as we discern the seasons from nature around us. We are also to consider that some things have run their course. They bear no fruit, and thus they will be cut down and cast into the fire. Figs are not gathered from thornsbushes, and grapes are not cut off brambles. (Luke 6:44) The judgment of God is coming, and in the case of Israel, as the armies of Rome to destroy the city — take down the tree. Only those who discern the signs right are going to escape that judgment.

SERMON — Nothing to be Afraid Of

I didn’t preach on Sunday — instead, I played some original songs for the folks of Payne AME Church in Chatham, New York — but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 1 (Year C)

  • Jeremiah 33:14–16
  • Psalm 25:1–9
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
  • Luke 21:25–36

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable:“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36 ESV)

And there will be signs. In the sky. On the earth. The very creation of God will be in turmoil, the highest heavens and the sea itself bearing witness to what is happening. To what is coming.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here of fear. Paralyzing fear. Conquering fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that leaves us incapable of moving, of acting, of thinking. Of even paying attention.

Fear in the midst of violence and terror. Fear in the midst of war. A war the Jesus says will befall Jerusalem, a war that will come in “the days of vengeance,” a war that will be wrath against the people of Jerusalem, and the city itself. And those people — God’s people, God’s stiff-necked, unfaithful, disobedient people — will, according the words of Jesus, fall by the sword, be led captive and scattered among the nations of the world, and will be trampled underfoot.

We’ve seen cities burn. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen cities burn. From war, terror attack, riot, and uprising. We’ve seen cities burn. Across the Middle East, cities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya smolder and crackle under the weight of siege and aerial bombardment. We fear terrorist who have so successfully — but very sporadically — unleashed violence in our midst, attacking us in our very own cities. Not quite laying waste to them, not quite surrounding them with armies, not quite leaving them desolate. But terrifying us anyway, leaving us uncertain about some of our neighbors — can we trust them? — and what the future holds in store.

Well, let me put you at ease. There will be more. More terror. More war. More death. More desolation. Lots more. The killing and the dying and violence will continue. Feel better now?

Do not be afraid. God speaks these words, or some version of them, more than any other in scripture. Do not be afraid. And God does this when Israel, when the people of God, are most afraid. And honestly, their fear is most warranted.

The time God says this the speaks to me most clearly is that moment when Israel, fleeing from their slavery in Egypt, is caught — water in front, Pharaoh’s army closing in fast. Nowhere to go. No forward, no backwards. Nothing is left. There is no future, just desolation, despair, and pending doom. “It is because there are no graves in Egypt that you, Moses, brought us out here to die in this desolate place?” Afraid, angry, desperate, Israel has lost all hope. There is nothing left to hope for.

This is when Moses speaks the words of God — “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. … The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Fear not. Words spoken to a frightened people, a hopeless people, a people so overcome by fear that they have given up any sense they have a future.

This is when God speaks these words to us. Not on calm and peaceful mornings, not when life is secure and we are confident, but in those moments when we have lost all hope. In those moments when it seems most clear there is no hope to be had. Fear not.

Luke’s Gospel almost begins with this admonition, do not be afraid, spoken by an angel to Zechariah when his is told he and his wife Elizabeth — they had been long unable to conceive a child of their own — will have a son, John, who will become John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” And again, to the young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who hears these very same words, “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Fear not, Jesus tells his tiny flock in chapter 12, for it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. This after a long sermon telling his disciples not to be anxious, not to worry about their futures, about where their daily bread and their clothes will come from. God knows you need these things, Jesus says, and God’s got it. God has got you. God has got us. The kingdom is ours, and we who have been called to follow Jesus will have treasure that cannot be stolen and cannot rot or rust.

Fear not. Do not be afraid.

I know, this is easier said than done. I have been overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, and sometimes I have been truly convinced I have no future. I don’t get excited much about current events anymore — about wars and rumors of wars, about signs in the skies — and I don’t do a lot fainting with foreboding over what is coming in the world. I do, however, sometimes wonder if God has led me all this way — through Islam, as a witness to the attacks of September 11, 2001, through seminary and the humiliating and painful mess that was candidacy for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — through all off this simply to die in some forgotten corner of the world, alone and unwanted. I wonder. I truly do. Because it has seemed, at times, like there is nothing left.

Nothing to hope for.

It’s in this moment Jesus tells us — stand up straight, raise your heads, look up. Your redemption is at hand. This is not the end. You do have a future! Walk and live with confidence in the midst of the violence and meaninglessness of the world. Your redemption — our redemption — is at hand.

Stand up. Walk confidently as men and women who know you — all of you — have lives that matter to God. All of you have futures. All of you have something to hope for. And someone to hope in. Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Stay awake, straighten up, and live. Like the redeemed people we are.

Sheep And Goats

Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:

The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.

The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.

Perriman continues:

The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …

When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.

As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”

For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.

Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.

God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.

What Exile Looks Like

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog asked,

Charles, what would exile look like today (or in the future). Can you sketch out what exile would (will?) look like?

I think I can, and I would like this to be my contribution (such as it is) to the conversation on The Benedict Option — the talk about what preserving the church from an age of “barbarism” might look like.

First, let me say this: I don’t like the term “Benedict Option.” I don’t like the term because, while it draws from church history — specifically from the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman state — it doesn’t draw enough (or at all) on the biblical story. It sees the situation the church is in as something potentially preventable (in the ways that the collapse of Roman civilization could have possibly been better managed), and thus the product of bad policies. It doesn’t diagnose the problem, the situation the church finds itself in, properly. It is, sadly, little surprise to me that the Benedict Option was concocted largely by Catholics more interested in the teaching and history of the church than the story of God’s people in scripture. Because the Bible isn’t so much a story of a people and their encounter with the divine, but the foundation for a series of moral and philosophical precepts.

Exile, however, draws upon a rich and deeply meaningful biblical story. It tells us who we are, who God is, and how to cope and have faith in the promises of our God in the midst of our inevitable and inescapable failure. It also helps we know how that story ends. So we do not need to to worry in the interim about our clear and apparent defeat. It is not a permanent thing. We know that our redeemer lives. And that we are redeemed.


What follows is a sketch, and the product of roughly eight years of thinking about this on my part. This isn’t as systematic as I would like, nor as thoroughly researched. I don’t have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The most important thing to remember is that exile is the end result of God’s judgment upon Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. Israel, through it’s worship and service of false, foreign gods, will suffer God’s brutal and violent judgment. This is laid out in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28–30, again in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In each of these, Israel’s future is laid out, blessings for Israel’s obedience and curses for Israel’s disobedience. In both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–30, the curses are far more detailed (war, death, destruction, deprivation, suffering, slavery, expulsion from the land), with Deuteronomy contained both/and language — that Israel will be both blessed and cursed but after all is done, Israel will be redeemed. This is not, as it first seems, an if/then set of promises. Rather, it is a forecast of the entirety of Israel’s coming future. Blessings AND curses, not blessings OR curses.

So, the coming judgment of God on Israel’s faithlessness cannot be escaped. And it will manifest itself in history as Israel is conquered, plundered and ruled by its enemies (Deut 28:45–51). It begins during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the period of the Judges as Israel refuses to fully drive out the Canaanites (whatever that might mean, anything from expulsion to extermination) and instead simply enslave them (Joshua 16:10). (Actually, God promised to do the work if Israel made the effort. Israel stopped trying after a bit.) The failure to expel or exterminate the Canaanites mean their presence in the land will be a constant distraction for Israel — including that of their gods (Judges 2:1–5). Thus, Israel falls into a pattern of serving Canaanite gods, יהוה gives Israel over to its enemies, and then after a time, יהוה hears Israel’s suffering and raises a redeemer to rescue Israel. This is the pattern for Israel’s history and ours — God gives, Israel eventually responds faithlessly, God imposes judgement and consequence, and then hears Israel’s groaning and redeems Israel, frequently violently judging those who were the very agents of God’s own violent judgment upon Israel.

This is the history that matters. And it is the only history that matters. Jesus altered how this works, bringing it to a final end, and I will get to that. But when we who are Christians look at history, we need to remember that this is the only history that contains any meaning. It is the only history that has any real moral value for us. Everything else might be a good story, but no other history truthfully tells us who we are, whose we are, what we are promised, or where we are going. If we fail to read the history of the church in light of this story — in light of the truth — then ST. Benedict doesn’t have much to tell us.

Eventually, after the united Kingdom of Israel collapses in rebellion and civil war, God adds a rejection of David and his patrimony — through which the promise of final redemption of Israel (and eventually the world) is made — to the things that will curse Israel. The northern kingdom, formed by the rebel Jeroboam, rejects David utterly (1 Kings 12:16), and goes its own ways, worshiping false gods in much the same way Israel did in the wilderness while Moses was atop the mountain engulfed by the Glory of the Lord. Kings of Israel and Judah were frequently faithless, sometimes faithful, and their conduct could determine the fate of the nation for a generation or two. Eventually, Israel succumbs to the Assyrians, and disappears from history.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. … 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:7–9, 22–23 ESV)

Exile and annihilation are the direct consequence of Israel’s idolatry.

Judah eventually suffers this consequence at the hands of Babylon, a promise God swears for Judah despite the faithfulness of King Josiah, who cannot — despite his efforts — undo the faithlessness and idolatry of a previous king, Manasseh:

And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:27 ESV)

2 Kings ends with the conquest and exile of Judah’s elites (the poor were allowed to remain to till the land) after Babylon successfully besieges, captures, loots, and destroys Jerusalem. It is this long war against Babylon that several of the prophets — particularly Jeremiah — address. And I will get to that in a bit.

Israel’s story is our story, the story of the church. If we are facing conquest and exile — and I believe we are — it is because we are dealing with the consequences of our idolatry. Nothing can be done to escape this.

What do I mean? Enlightenment and modernity are false gods, idols to which the church has committed itself to serve. I don’t mean just some portion of the Enlightenment or modernity — I mean the whole damn thing, from the nation-state to economics to the social sciences to progress to the sexual revolution. The church could no more accommodate modernity, or come to terms with it, than Israel could successfully defeat Assyria and Babylon. As church, we grew comfortable with our wealth and power in Christendom, and like Solomon, we modern Christians were careless and promiscuous in who we “married,” allowing and accepting false worship (of science, of moral progress, or reason — name your idol) of gods who could do nothing for us but demanded much bloody sacrifice on our part.

There is no saving the church. Not now. Babylon is at the gates, surrounding the city. Like Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem, and as Jesus repeated, anyone with any sense will flee. Will surrender. Because there will be nothing left when the Babylonians are done with their siege. Resistance is futile.

Now, at this point, I need to say that this reading of our history is purely metaphorical. It’s a metaphor because I think history — in the sense I’ve outlined it here, as the story of God’s redeeming acts in history — came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no new redeeming acts to follow. Everything was accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. We await the promised new heaven and new earth, but in this long moment between the ascension and the parousia, nothing else can or will happen. No judge will redeem us. No king will rule us in justice and mercy. Human history is fun and interesting and effectively meaningless.

Nonetheless, I do believe the crushing forces of modernity and enlightenment on the church do represent God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church. We will, at some point, stand powerless before our conquerors, and we will be sent into exile. This is has been long coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.


This realization frees us, I think, from thinking we need to save ourselves. That somehow we can. There are several ways to approach what living in exile means, and I think all of them will and should work.

The first is contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in their Babylonian settlement of Tel Aviv in Jeremiah 29:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)

This letter comes a response to false prophets who are predicting a quick return. That everything will soon be as it was. God, speaking through Jeremiah, says it will not. Do not live like a people waiting. Wait like a people living. Because even as an exiled people, God tells Israel:

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14 ESV)

Patience. In the meantime, live like this place of exile is your home.

This is not a small thing. When God calls upon exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God is asking Israel to seek the welfare of the very people who have captured and enslaved Israel, who taunt and demand songs! (Psalm 137) Seek the welfare of your enemies, your conquerors, your captors, your tormentors. Not for their good (we are asking God to bless their conquerors, remember?), but for ours. And our posterity. Because our children may inherit our captivity, but their children (or some descendant of ours) will be redeemed. Will go home.

Then there is the call of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria, the enemy of conqueror of Israel, to preach doom. And Nineveh repents! (Nahum lays out the sins of Nineveh in great detail, and it is worth reading his small book.) It is possible that our enemies may hear sweet reason, may understand and take to heart the warning of God, and turn their lives around. Enough so that God will relent. Because God cares even about a corrupt and idolatrous modernity. So, there will be those called to speak words of judgment and impending doom to the modern world — it may be they will listen. (It is likely they will not, but we cannot simply take that for granted.)

Finally, and most intriguing for me, there are the examples of Elijah and Elisha, who as prophetic figures spend most of their time engaging the enemies of Israel rather than Israel itself. This shows me that we can be the faithful presence of God amidst our enemies — people at war with us — and yet still be grace to and for them.

In the call of Jeremiah to live ordinary lives, the preaching of Jonah and Nahum, and the deeds of Elija and Elisha, I see Jesus — we are called to be Jesus in the world. Not a kind, generous, compassionate world of friends, but a world in which we face murderous enemies bent on our destruction, enemies who have conquered us and torment us, enemies who do not share our faith or our understanding. We are not to be defensive, or combative (I know Catholics and Orthodox have Bible books that go beyond Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, to show God present in Maccabean war of liberation against the Seleucids, but I’m not sure that understanding of our fate is all that helpful or hopeful, given that ends up with Roman occupation and the eventually destruction of Jerusalem), but rather hopeful, humble, and faithful. Our attempts to save ourselves through the deeds of our own hands end in failure and tears — our history shows us this. We are to wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing we already have both the reality and the assurance of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Toward that end, I see several characteristics of an exile church.

First, we are to lives intensely and intentionally relational lives with each other and with those around us. One of modernity’s great sins — a human failing that mass, industrial modernity amplifies a thousand-fold — is that human beings are mere things to be managed. Objects to be used and discarded. It is not to be so among us. We must be fully human and fully children of God to each other. This will be hard, and we will regularly fail. But in order for this to work, the structures we build must be small, places where we can purposefully engage each other as persons united in and by Christ. It may be we are going to create networks of small churches, communities, businesses — an easy thing to do in any age, but especially in ours. We won’t all like each other, and we won’t always get along. But it is important that we not treat each other or ourselves as things for pleasure or profit.

Which means we need to reclaim Christian friendship. And deal with the tyranny of the erotic that so defines our age by learning to properly restrain our passions. (Note: we will fail.) I think the fictive family that life in Christ creates — “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” — is the place to start with this. Conservative Christians have idealized and focused so much on the biological family that they cannot appreciate the tragic aspect of family life. The fictive family, created by (likely informal) adoption and acclamation, united in friendship and common love, becomes a place where the unwanted, the unloved, the abandoned can find a home and belonging.

Second, we are not to care about the political order of the world. Because our salvation and redemption does not lie in governing arrangements. Partisan politics in the United States has long been a dead end. I personally do not vote, and have not voted for years. I won’t recommend that, but I will suggest it. This does not mean we do not work with government, to seek protection for ourselves and our institutions, but we do so remembering that the city whose welfare we seek is the city of our conquerors, and we have little or no say in its governing arrangements. As Christians, we are free riders on the order of the world — we have no obligations as citizens even as we have obligations as Christians to love our neighbor. We are solely to be subjects of order, and not participants in crafting it. The realities of exile will make this easy and likely make it very clear.

Which means we are called, I believe, to live profoundly non-ideological lives. Ideologies are incomplete truths, and they tell us almost nothing worth knowing about the world. They can be useful — like the other tools of modernity and enlightenment — but they pretend to be truthful ways of explaining how the world does and should work. An exile church should be neither conservative nor liberal, progressive nor reactionary, in any meaningful sense. An exile church should have no partisan political attachments or desire a say in how political or social power is used. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is our call to show the world there is another way to live, a way of life grounded in the truth of a God who sacrificed himself for us, rather than demanding we sacrifice for him.

Power is being taken from us. So, let us lay it down our own accord. And walk away from it.

Third (and I forgot this initially), we need to embrace liturgy and the unreasonable/irrational things our call imposes upon us. And proclaim them. Jesus was God, he died, and he rose from them dead. He will come again. Every claim we make in the Apostles Creed is an absurd faith statement, none of which can be supported by anything remotely resembling reason or evidence. Too many Christians, from argumentative Evangelicals to wanna-be Thomist Catholics believe our faith is rational and reasonable — in fact, Christianity is the definition of what is reasonable. It is not. Nothing we believe is reasonable. And we should revel in that fact.

As part of this, we need to stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic church — that practiced by the church catholic and apostolic. This way of worshiping is as old as the church, and the form keeps us linked to each other in space and time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, time ceases to exist, we are one with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, and one with the church triumphant. Again, nothing about this is reasonable, but everything about it is true. Liturgy is a drama and story telling that connects us to God and to each other, a truth we tell every week that forms us as a people who wait like we’re living. Our redeemer has come. And he will come again.

Finally, we live with hope, knowing that if Enlightenment and Modernity are God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, then our descendants will be redeemed. Babylon fell to Persia (it was Persian soldiers bashing the infants of Babylon against rock!), which allowed Israel to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rome, which was God’s judgment on faithless Israel, fell to the church. (This, I have come to believe, is the promise of Revelation.) We have both the promise and the realization of redemption in Christ, and we can know faithfully that modernity, enlightenment and secularism will themselves be judged, and will fall. This is how our history works. Even if Christ brought an end to any meaning in secular history, we still have the story, and we still know that the history that matters is shaped that way.

Exile, as I envision it, means living purposefully in the world and with each other. It means living know we have a redeemer, a future, and hope. We plant trees, beget children, and love our neighbors and wish the best for our enemies knowing that what is really important all belongs to God.

Teaching the Faith

A short note on the subject of داعش Daesh (The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) and how it recruits young people from across the West (and likely the world) — because it is something I will come back to again and again as I consider the overall failure of the church the catechize, to instruct the young, on the faith.

Scott Atran was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday last week, and he had this to say about how attractive the idea of a restores Caliphate is even to Muslims who do not support داعش and its war making:

Well, so far, the counter-radicalization or counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I often tell them, don’t any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? And they’re all often repetitive, mass messaging and lecturing at young people, whereas the Islamic State takes a very intimate and personal approach. They look at each individual and sometimes spend hundreds, even thousands of hours drawing out their personal grievances and frustrated aspirations and trying to link it to a larger story of how the world should be and what they can do to contribute to it. … [W]e’ve got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that’s hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don’t provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don’t even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

Give the whole thing a listen. It’s worth the time.


Karen Armstrong, whose work on Islam and the West I’ve been reading for more than 20 years now (along with Dilip Hiro, she’s one of my favorite authors on the Middle East and Islam), echoes something similar in a recent piece in The New Statesman:

Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. [Emphasis mine — CHF] Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning.

I’ve thought a lot about how churches teach the faith to the young. (Because I’ve done some of it.) The process of catechesis (at least in the United States) is generally a product of Christendom — it’s structured like school (books, assignments, papers, curricula, programs — none of it hefty in my experience, and little of it terribly impressive), it’s an adjunct to the worship experience, it’s largely impersonal, and it assumes a Christian/Christendom community that can otherwise support faith instruction. It assumes — and rightly, I think — that faith is learned everywhere, but that what is studied in church is supposed to give shape, sense, and comprehension to a generally already “Christian” culture and “Christian” community.

Even then, I would argue that the catechesis used in America from the 1950s onwards wasn’t much help in preparing American Christians for the things they would do and experience. As Christendom was unraveling, ways of teaching the faith did not keep pace (the WWII generation was almost completely unable or unwilling to show what it meant to live and have faith in a violent world, and that puzzles me), and thus a sense that the church had anything important to say about the meaning and purpose of life, especially life in difficult or troubling circumstances, slowly unraveled as well.

Daesh shows how to do this. We build relationships, one person at a time, slowly, faithfully, purposefully. Not to do violence, but to live out what I think is an adventure — the love of neighbor as Christ loves us, a love that takes tremendous risks because it loves enemies, goes after the lost, and seeks the good of even those who wish us harm.

So, here’s what is bubbling in my mind.

I’m thinking small. A small Bible study that is also a communion service — the simple words of institution that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 10 along with bread and wine passed around. The study of the Bible will focus on the story. Yes, it will be the story as I have come to see it — that of the call of Israel, it’s rise, its fall, its conquest, and its redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible story is a story of new life out of staggering failure — the conquest of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the death of Christ. Because my hope is to find and gather the lost, the lonely, the unloved, the unwanted, to show them just how they are God’s people — how they are part of this story of new life, of resurrection.

We’ll do this by meeting people where they are, listening, empathizing, and accompanying. We do this slowly. Despite all that has happened to me, I am theologically, confessionally, and liturgically Lutheran (for the most part; please do not ask me about Law & Gospel, I’m liable to get all unorthodox on you, and then you’ll just hate me) and this worship community will reflect that. We focus on grace, on God’s unearned gift for the world, and the response to that grace of love and faithfulness to God. God meets you where you are, but God won’t leave you there. We will also remember, however, Israel’s story of repeated failure. Of Israel’s constant need for redemption. This is why we are utterly dependent on the faithfulness of Jesus — because we cannot be faithful enough ourselves.

My hope will be this study and this worship will equip the people I teach to go out themselves and find the lost, and begin this process again. And again. And again. I am most interesting in reaching out to people no one else seems interested in, and hope to find people who can and will do that to. I’ve said this before, but I will say it again — love will be both means and end for us.

This is not a program. I do not know how it will work, or even if it will. I don’t think a lot of the catechetical materials I’ve seen take young faith seriously. And I want to take young lives — and young faith — seriously. We are failures called by God to great work and actually empowered to do that great work. That, to me, is the amazing reality of our encounter with God.

Right now, I am in upstate New York. I could try to do this work here, but our being in and around Albany is something of an accident. After more than a year, I finally have a job — a serious job, one I would never have sought but something I think I can do and actually be good at — it is seasonal (the work ends in late April, though I will continue with the company if they like what I do), so I’m committed to being here. In New York. For the duration.

But I have fostered some close and very intense relationships with young people out West (one of those relationships has given me renewed purpose, has made this vision entire vision of ministry possible with a clarity I utterly lacked before we met), and I my hope is to move out there and begin this work with them.

Mostly, though, I want to build the kinds of relationships that will help people looking for purpose and meaning in their lives to find it in the Gospel, and in a community of people committed to living out the gospel call to love and find the lost and feed sheep. To use what I have started online and see if it can happen in the real world. Love as means and end.

But there’s also more work to be done online, too. I’m not sure what that might look like, or where we’d even start that. In part, it would be good to have a network of support, people praying for the success of By The Waters of Babylon, for all the people we meet, minister to and with. There may also be a place for an online Bible study too. I don’t know how many people, if any, would be interested in that. (I’m not looking for financial support yet because I’m not ready for it.) I started with online relationships, so that should continue. I know I have to be careful how many of these relationships I personally try to maintain, especially when I’m working full time.

Whatever it looks like, we will worship God, proclaim Christ crucified and risen, teach the faith, and meet people — one soul at a time.

Love as both means and end.

The Good Shepherd

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about this ministry I do, about these amazing kids I have found — who have found me — and the bond we have forged over the last few months. I fear this is conceited, but it strikes me as so beautiful that it brought me to tears. It’s from the Gospel of John:

2 “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:2-5 ESV)

SERMON — What Have You Done?

I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Lectionary 34 / Christ the King Sunday (Year B)

  • Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
  • Psalm 93
  • Revelation 1:4b–8
  • John 18:33–37

28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:28–40 ESV)

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to Bethany, an extraordinary young woman who has been through some of the worst that our foster care system — I’m not sure the word care has any meaning in that phrase — has to offer.

I told you how Bethany and her brother Andrew ran away from a horrifically abusive foster home, and how she single-handedly arranged for another home — a safe one. Something no child or teenager should ever have to do.

I wish I could tell you more about her, but I can’t yet. Then you would know just what a staggeringly impressive young person she really is. When I speak of her, and some of the other kids I am involved with, I will be vague about details. Because these kids’ safety and lives may still be at risk. Because they deserve some privacy. And, after a long time of almost unspeakable abuse, they deserve a chance to just be kids.

Which is why I truly admire Eric and Debbie, the couple who took Bethany and Andrew in and decided to adopt them. That took a lot of courage, to basically embrace two kids who literally showed up on their doorstep (Bethany knew who they were) one day and said, “will you take care of us?” Eric and Debbie took a leap of faith, acted on compassion, did a kind and decent thing by giving these orphans, Bethany and Andrew, a home. Something they hadn’t had in a long, long time.

But I suspect there have been moments when Eric and Debbie have looked at each other and thought: what on earth were we thinking?

Because — and I need to be a little blunt here — adopting these two kids has brought a lot of trouble into Eric and Debbie’s lives. More than they could have bargained for, I suspect.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bethany and Andrew more than I can say. They are both very smart, sensitive, and charming. Andrew is amazingly self-possessed and self-aware for a young man of 16, and Bethany is wise far beyond her 15 years. But they are troubled too. By nightmares, by panic attacks, by sadness that sometimes paralyzes them both. Andrew has been plagued by mysterious health problems that have ended up with the entire family in one or another emergency rooms wondering — and not ever knowing — what is wrong.

Trouble has also followed Bethany like a dark cloud. You see, the people who held these kids before, who used and abused and exploited them, are not happy they absconded. And several times, they’ve tried to teach Bethany a lesson — there is no running away, no place safe enough, no sanctuary secure enough, that she can’t be found.

I’m being vague, I know. I want you to imagine the worst. Because you won’t be far wrong.

So, I suspect that Eric and Debbie, the last time Bethany was found and returned home, were both grateful and exceedingly releived. I know I was. But also I suspect that, in the back of their minds, was that question Pontius Pilate asks of Jesus today:

“What have you done?”

Because that, sisters and brothers, is how the kingdom of this world works. Almost no one standing in front of a magistrate, or a judge, or answering the questions of a police officer, or staring at the possibility yet again of horrific violence, gets there without at least partly earning it. Or deserving it. That’s what we think. That’s how we work. If you’ve been charged with a crime, chances are, you are guilty. If you’ve been beaten senseless, cast off, abducted and raped, followed by misfortune and trouble, well, that’s all on you. You’re the wrong kind of person. You have it coming. Maybe all of it.

Because good, decent, innocent, well-behaved people don’t find themselves in front of judges pleading to charges, facing time in prison, or having to field the questions of angry police officers with their weapons drawn. Good girls aren’t kidnapped. People who make wise choices don’t make mistakes, don’t experience misfortune, don’t fail, and certainly don’t sin.

John relates this in his Gospel. I’ve added a bit to the lectionary reading. When Jesus is taken to the governor’s palace, Pilate wants to know exactly what the accusation is. They — it’s not specified here who “they” are, but I’m guessing from context we’re dealing with Annas and Caiaphas and the other high priests — don’t really answer. But their response is a perfect statement of how the world really works:

If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.

That’s the kingdom of this world. The justice of this world. The deeply felt prejudices of this world. If Andrew and Bethany really were good and decent kids, well, they wouldn’t have health problems and face the threat of kidnapping. They wouldn’t have ended up in foster care in the first place. If Jesus really was innocent, he wouldn’t be standing before the Roman governor in the first place.

It’s not an answer. But it is a very deeply held human sensibility. Troublesome people have earned and deserved their troubles. And whatever consequences we dish out to them. Jesus clearly has it coming, merely because we’ve said so. Because we brought him before power and said, “he’s trouble.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What have you done?” He speaks instead of his kingdom, and how it is not of this world.

What is it Jesus has done? If we take John’s gospel as a guide, he’s been proclaimed lamb of God by John the Baptist, he called disciples to follow, was called “King of Israel” by Nathaniel, changed water into wine at the wedding at Cana, tossed the money changers out of the temple, confused everyone by telling them they must be born again, spent time at a well with a woman in Samaria, healed a few people, fed a mess of other people, walked on water, said he was the bread of life, forgave the sins of a woman caught in adultery, claimed to be the light of the world, said he was older than Abraham, that he and the Father were one, raised Lazarus from the dead, proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life, wept over the city, entered Jerusalem, washed his disciples’ feet, told everyone to love each other as he loves them, and said he is the way, the truth and the life. There’s some other stuff Jesus did, but I think you get the picture.

Is this troublesome behavior? The kind of thing you put someone to death for? The Jewish leaders — the high priests and the pharisees — certainly thought so. A dark cloud followed Jesus around, and it was clear to some that Jesus was nothing but trouble. “If we let him go on like this,” the high priests told themselves, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) Jesus is trouble, more than they can handle, the leader of a coming revolt that threatens to destroy everything.

“It is better … that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” says the high priest Caiaphas, not quite knowing just how much truth he’s speaking. (John 11:50)

Jesus never answers Pilate’s question, anymore than his accusers did. They offered as evidence the accusation — we wouldn’t be bringing him to you if he weren’t guilty. Jesus tells Pilate he has a kingdom (though he doesn’t explicitly say he’s a king), but it’s not of or from this world, otherwise his followers would be fighting to save him. Or to free him.

And they aren’t. We aren’t.

And yet … Jesus is our king. To him belongs the glory and the dominion, forever and ever. He is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler over all the kings of the earth. Kingdom is a word John hardly uses in his gospel, but Jesus is clearly a king. He has done the deeds of a king, and more — things no mere monarch or potentate or president or prime minister could ever do.

He has also done troubling things. He raised the dead. He walked on the water. He fed the multitude. He washed his disciples’ feet and then told us if we don’t let him, and then do as he has done, we have no share in him. He said God loves the whole entire world, but added that no one gets to God except through him. He commanded us to love each other as he loves us, and told us people will know we are his because we love as he loved.

Yes, our King and our Lord is trouble. He lived a troublesome life and caused no end of problems, especially for those with power and authority. That he is our king means we are caught up in and commanded to embrace the trouble he causes — this dead-raising, crowd-feeding, sheep-tending, foot-washing, table-tossing trouble. And make it our own. Because this kingdom of risen life and love is troubling to a frightened world that deals death to feel safe and secure, to maintain a good and stable and untroubled order.

I suspect every morning, Eric and Debbie wake up, think of Andrew and Bethany, and sometimes wonder — “what fresh hell will today bring?” Because it’s hard to embrace the trouble when it throws such costly and traumatic chaos into our lives. And no doubt their neighbors and others shake their heads. A disorderly and chaotic life — a troubled life — is surely a sign something is really wrong. What does it say about someone when they so willingly accept that trouble?

Especially when that trouble came to them and pleaded: “Will you love me?”

Brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to lead troubled and troublesome lives. We have been called by Jesus, who reached out to us — some he called softly and tenderly, and some he struck blind in a devastating act of terror — and made our trouble his. And his trouble ours. That’s what his love for us — for the whole world — does.

“Do you love me?” our king asks each and every one us.

I have only one answer. “You know I love you Lord. Trouble and all.

Trouble and all.”

Some Thoughts on Vengeance

I went to bed last night thinking about vengeance, and what role — if any — thought and desires for vengeance can or should have in our individual and communal lives as Christians. (It turns out I preached on this once — a sermon that was not well received.)

I was thinking about vengeance because of a situation that arose with one of the young people I minister to online, Bethany, the subject of my “sermon” a few weeks ago. Bethany now has a home, and parents who are working to adopt her, and this is all very, very good. She was being visited by a friend she met online — I’ll call her Zoë. Zoë lives far away from Bethany, in another time zone, and came a long way to visit Bethany and her family.

Zoë is 16, and she’s also in foster care — we’ve become acquainted online, and while I don’t have very many details about her life, Zoë told me that she hopes never to meet her biological parents.

This week, Zoë got a phone call from her foster mother — “Don’t come home.” And if this wasn’t a enough, a friend texted her soon after — “Why is there a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of your house?” That friend jimmied open Zoë’s bedroom window to find the place empty and abandoned. Zoë is a wreck right now, in a near catatonic stupor after having spent hours on the phone to the police, her case worker, and the judge overseeing her foster care in the state she is from. Trying to find out what is going on.

Trying to find a home.

I thought, in dealing with Bethany and the young woman my wife and I wish we could adopt, Molly, that I’d seen the worst kinds of abuse, mistreatment, and utter neglect that people could dish out to foster kids. (Molly is a truly amazing young woman, and she has some astounding gifts of empathy and compassion for the ministry I hope we can do soon, ministry Bethany has told me she’d like to be a part of too.) But this abandonment … honestly, if there were people fit for a millstone to be hung around their necks and tossed into the deepest sea, if there were people who had plague and darkness and Babylonians coming, it is these people who simply absconded and left Zoë to her own devices.

Last night, I prayed with Bethany. For courage and strength for Zoë, that she knows she is loved, and wanted, and is not alone.

But I also prayed for vengeance. “I will wait patiently upon your vengeance, Lord, but please avenge Zoë.” And this, I think, is a perfectly acceptable thing to pray for.

We don’t like vengeance as Christians. At least good, liberal Christians don’t. Instead, we like justice. We like universal ethics, an impartial right and wrong, and vengeance, well, vengeance is too tribal, too messy, and too partisan for our tastes. We are people of the categorical imperative, of the bureaucratic state of rules and procedures, of reasoned and reasonable objectivity. And vengeance, well, that’s for lesser people. Passionate, intemperate, uncivilized people.

Granted, scripture talks a lot about justice — far more than it speaks of vengeance. (Though not quite in the way we do.) But as I have gotten older, the appeal of universal ethics — a solid, concrete, objective right and wrong that applies equally to all in every time and every place — has really dimmed for me. Partly it’s a sense that when the universal proclamation — “Thou shalt not kidnap and rape teenage girls,” for example — meets the reality of power, position, and privilege, as well as the limited nature of state resources and competence, and mixed thoroughly with our pre-existing and very human assumptions about what constitutes guilt, blame, and proper behavior, it becomes clear that some teenage girls can be kidnapped and raped without much consequence. They do not matter.

(In fact, I’m pretty well convinced there are parts of the country where this kidnapping and raping of young women is a competitive sport.)

Instead, what has replaced this universal ethic for me is something akin to the morality expressed by Andrew Vachss in his series of Burke novels, where the main characters created a tightly knit “family of choice”: Threaten or hurt someone we love, and you will pay. You will pay in such a way that all will know there is very high cost associated with hurting us. 

I’m not convinced this is the ethic of scripture — while it fits some of Old Testament story, it doesn’t quite fit with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But scripture does have something to say about vengeance — something interesting, and something closer to Vachss’ notion than to the universal ethics that is actual historical teaching of the church.

If there is a governing passage of scripture for this, it is in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19–21 ESV)

Here, Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32, the long song of Moses laying out Israel’s coming history, its calling by God and its falling into idolatry and complacency. The passage Paul is quoting (Deut 32:35) very likely refers to God’s judgement against God’s own people Israel — what awaits Israel after it abandons its God for the idols of its neighbors. The sentiment of vengeance percolates through the rest of the song. God says He will take “vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me,” which though a generic warning to all who might oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it likely still applies to the judgement and violence faithless Israel will face. The song ends with “He repays those who hate him, and cleanses his people’s land,” and it must not be forgotten that Deuteronomy 28 makes a very specific curse about the removal of Israel from the land of promise should it fail to follow the covenant (Deut 28:63). It is very likely that at the end of the Song of Moses, the land is being cleansed of God’s very own people.

So, as we think of God’s vengeance, we need to consider — it may very well be against us.

But Paul is also counseling something else. He does not say, “do not desire vengeance,” but rather, “do not avenge yourselves.” It is okay to want vengeance, to have that feeling, but not to actually have vengeance itself. The psalms bear witness to this, especially one of my favorite bits of scripture, Psalm 137 (which has also given me the name of my ministry), where Israel laments its exile along the banks of the Euphrates River, and yearns to be avenged against those who have conquered, plundered, and enslaved them:


8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalms 137:8-9 ESV)

“Blessed shall he be,” not “blessed are we.” Israel wants to be avenged, and hopes that vengeance comes, but isn’t looking to actually do the work itself. This is both utter powerlessness and tremendous trust, to put faith in God that we who have been wronged will have that wrong avenged. Not by our own hands, but by the hands of God, who will act through others. In effect, when it comes to vengeance, the people of God are supposed to be free riders.

This is hard for me, because no one who has wronged me — not school bullies, fifth grade teachers, or Lutheran bishops — have ever appeared to pay a price for wronging me. There was never a cost to wronging me. Granted, I doubt they believe they ever did. (But then, Babylon wasn’t convinced it had wronged Israel, or been God’s judgment upon Israel, either.) So I don’t know if there’s really any vengeance. I know I should trust God. I’m just not sure I do.

Finally, there is the small matter of how God actually accomplishes vengeance. I think you could make a case that Jesus meeting Saul on the road to Damascus and effectively telling him, “now you belong to me,” is a form of vengeance. Taking an enemy and making him a brother becomes a specifically Christian form of vengeance, one that requires we who were enemies — who wronged and were wronged — now live as sisters and brothers, united in baptism to the same Lord.

So, we approach the subject with humility. In love. We know we have been wronged, and we ache for retribution. Knowing that a lot of vengeance in the story of scripture is either God getting “even” with His people, or simply ends very badly (such as Absalom avenging the rape of his sister).

In the meantime, know that we can pray for the vengeance of God. We can wait upon the vengeance of the Lord. I can hope for millstones to be hung around the necks of those who abandoned Zoë, even ask God to bless those who do violence to them. But I also know there are any number of ways God’s vengeance can play out. Including reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness. And I accept that possibility.

But I still pray hard for millstones. And the deep blue sea.

How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.