The Golden Rule Still Applies

Well … THIS wasn’t supposed to happen.

And yet it did.

I confess, I thought the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States nigh near impossible. I didn’t believe Americans — particularly so many white Midwesterners — would make that choice. Turns out, I was wrong.

There will be many things to say over the next few years, about race and class and elite failure, but I’m not going to worry about any of them today, except to note a tweet from a Trump fan who follows me:

Turns out that “you’re a racist/sexist/bigot” STILL isn’t an argument.

No, it isn’t. Progressive talk on race and gender not only failed to convince, it angered and alienated what is, right now, a majority.

I don’t know how Americans who stand on different sides of this talk to each other — frankly, I doubt we will, and the slow-motion civil war we’ve been living through gets a little faster and a little warmer. The time of talking is likely done.

I won’t expect much from a Trump regime, being as it will be staffed with the most amazing collection of third- and fourth-rate intellects the modern world has seen, save for a kind-of official or legal lawlessness, a desire to expand power and use it as capriciously as possible and as viciously as what decency remains will allow. But the GOP (such as it is) controls Congress, the presidency, and soon the Supreme Court. They will get their way. According to our rules, they have earned it.

Neoliberalism has failed us. Utterly and completely. And with it, much of liberalism — the governing creed of the mass, democratic, industrial West — stands discredited. Liberalism has discredited itself. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

My reasons for thinking this belong to another day.

To the matter at hand. At some point in any seminary class on ethical actions, particularly the effectiveness and morality of violence, the discussion will usually get around to someone asking, “But what about Hitler?” Because it can be assumed that no amount of linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome” will defeat the Wehrmacht. And no doubt, if life in Trumpestan becomes as bad as many fear, that question will come to be asked about our world as well.

“What if love is not enough?”

Assumed in the question, “What about Hitler?” is the idea that while Jesus spoke nice words, he didn’t have to face modern evil. Mechanized, industrialized, mass evil justified by ideology. This is nonsense, of course, and his death proves otherwise. The Romans knew how to kill, and how to dominate, and how to enslave, and they knew how to justify it all too. They were good at it. They conquered the Mediterranean and maintained their dominance for more than four centuries that way.

But it also ignores where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Great Transformation (I think), speaks of The Axial Age, that five century period from 800 BC to roughly 300 BC when nearly all of antiquity’s major civilizations discovered some form of the Golden Rule — love as you want to be loved.

If I remember correctly, Armstrong points out that the Golden Rule became the preferred response to violence, unrest, instability, and uncertainty in by people who were at risk, suffering, and facing death. It was not the response of a comfortable people who felt safe and secure. And it was one of that age’s great discernments.

Israel is given the command to love God and love neighbor in Sinai, when it is a scattered collection of people still lead and fed by God as it wanders aimlessly through the wilderness. Israel is told to find a home in exile and work and pray for the welfare of the place and people they have been hauled off to. Jesus reiterates this invitation — this command — to a conquered people who live under occupation, an occupation that for Israel will not end (and, in fact, will only be intensified following two failed revolts).

We are not commanded to love because it feels good, or because life is easy and comfortable, but because love is the right response — God’s response — to our violence. It may convince oppressors and win them over, one soul at a time, but that is a secondary (and only potential) benefit. The real reason we love is because we are called to. Because God loves even as he surrenders to our violence.

Because the violence of the world is not all there is, and is not all there will be.

Conservative Christians have opted to conquer. They have opted for violence. They have opted for Satan’s bundle of temptations in the wilderness. Despite this, they will find themselves unfed, powerless, and unprotected. The rest of us have to love in the face of what will likely be many difficulties. It will not be easy or pleasant. There is much at risk, lives and wellbeing at stake. And often, love will not seem to be anywhere near enough.

We are still called to love.

Some Thoughts On Governance

So today is election day, and quite possibly the most ugly election in modern American history is going to more or less come to an end.

I say more or less, because if Hillary Clinton wins as forecast, I suspect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), will not go away. He will linger, and likely proclaim himself the aggrieved victim of some kind of fraud, and then launch into his next venture as the “President” of some kind of ersatz, make-believe “government” that will feature itself on Trump TV.

Or whatever it will be called.

He will play at governing for television, second guessing every decision the Clinton White House makes. Even if congressional Republicans don’t impeach Hillary Clinton, the country will rather quickly slide into ungovernability, Clinton unable to accomplish much (at least legislatively) and Trump able to play at being president without having any real responsibility for anything.

It won’t quite be the worst of all possible worlds. Trump won’t hold real power. But the sense of resentment, and entitlement, on the part of his core supporters is real, and it won’t go away. They want an America ordered differently, ordered in their favor, and they believe that the country will be lost if they don’t get that order. That’s a motivation for drastic action. It won’t simply be content to lose an election.

I’ve long believed that, as Americans, we have invested so much in politics, as part of our sense of justice, good order, and however we identify, that there will come a moment when one side will decide: There is too much at stake to lose.

If this is indeed the Flight 93 Election, then nothing is off the table, not even force and coercion and violence, if the fate of the nation is at stake.

I admitted earlier this year, there were things about Trump I kind of admired. His anti-elitism, especially given that elites across the liberal/social democratic West have so completely failed in the last two decades, resonates with me. And I still admire, kind of, his utter lack of respectability, and his inability to be shamed.

But Trump’s authoritarianism is the kind of thing that won’t save the nation. It will accelerate whatever rot we’re dealing with, from moral failure to elite failure. He is not Pinochet. Trump is too undisciplined to be a savior, and too capricious to lead effectively. In the end, he is all of the failure we suffer from, incarnate.

Hillar Clinton is not much better, for she too is embossed with failure. And she too will govern by decree as much as she is able. We are headed toward dictatorship of some kind (I won’t call it tyranny, since that word is largely empty of any content in the Anglo-American political tradition), the only question is whether we are on a local or an express train. Clinton gets us there just as surely as Trump, though the nature of the dictatorship will look different.

Most people won’t suffer under what’s coming. And that will be true whether Trump or Clinton presides.

I’ve seen some happy Christian posts on Twitter in the last few days reminding everyone that whatever happens today, Jesus is still King. And this is true as well.

But American Christians approach government as if it matters, as if somehow government somehow has to be a reflection of t5he God-given order, or an expression of how blessed the people of God are. There is some of that in scripture, with good leaders — like Josiah — able to temporarily avert the coming judgement of God.

But only temporarily. God’s judgement on God’s people was cast at Sinai, a consequence of their idolatry and their faithlessness.

For much of scripture, including the New Testament, the people of God are governed by conquerors and enemies. This is our condition. Not the Davidic Kingdom (which has been restored in Christ in any case), but Egypt and Philistia and Babylon and Rome. Despite its misuse as a prod to good and loyal citizenship, Romans 13 is a reminder that even conquerors and enemies are “legitimate” authority who can impose good order and even some modicum of justice in the world. When Jeremiah calls upon Israel to “seek the welfare of the city,” he is speaking to exiles far from home to build and love and have hope amidst the people who conquered and oppress them.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar, he speaks not of a co-equal sovereign to whom love and loyalty and bodies are owed, but a competitor, a conqueror, a pretender, a false god, and one who has enslaved God’s very own people.

And one who makes his own claims to bringing peace and salvation to the world.

This is not to say that all political orders are created the same. A Trump victory would likely lead us to places we have not been before, to an officially sanctioned lawlessness that would shred any sense of shared community and solidarity in ways the status quo won’t. A Clinton victory gives us more of the same, and there is a lot to hate about the neoliberal world order. But a Trump presidency would likely be a deluge which would drown all in its path.

It has the potential to be regime change in the worst of all possible ways. And we’ve seen how well that’s worked where it has been imposed.

But the political order doesn’t save us. The political order is capable of giving us only an approximation of justice. The political order can provide some safety and stability that allows individuals and communities to thrive. But it doesn’t always, and it won’t always. No matter how we are governed, or who governs us, we are called to love enemies and conquerors. We are called to be good neighbors to those who oppress us. We are called to have hope in redemption when it seems that suffering and death are the only things that are real. And we are called to do all of things knowing that we may never see that redemption, that we live for children and grandchildren and descendants we will never know.

I know, the spirit of the age, whether we quote Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frantz Fanon, or George W. Bush, or Donald J. Trump, is: “Now is the time, and we are the people.” Maybe.

But we are still only exiles, homeless, a people between creation and eschaton, who live in and with the consequences of choices we never made and hope for deliverance we may never see. Because we, the people of God, are the justice of God, right here and right now, in how we live, how we love, how we hope, and what we hope in.

Not kings and princes and presidential candidates, not greatness and glory or even safety and stability. But love. In the face of violence and uncertainty. And a God who loves, loves us utterly, loves us to the end, and has not left us or abandoned us in our exile, has promised us that even conquerors too will be held accountable. May even become part of the people of God.

Because God so loves the world. A world run and ordered brutally and violently and unjustly. We love. We hope. We live.

The Future of War … And Politics

Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.

The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.

That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.

I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”

Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.

It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.

While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.

To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)

But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.

And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.

It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.

As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.

In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.

We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.

This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.

The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.

GOSPEL Fill Your Lamps, Keep Them Lit

Except that the gospel reading I just reflected upon was from several weeks ago. Oops. My bad.

So, this is today’s gospel reading, Luke 12:32–40, for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:32–40 ESV)

What does it mean to be ready? To stay awake? To be dressed for action and to keep our lamps burning? To fear not?

Sure, it means to pray, and worship, and teach, and baptize — because, as the next section of Luke (which is not included in the lectionary) states, the wise manager is one the master sets over the household, and who treats his calling with the responsibility to merits — caring for the servants under him and “giving them their portion of food at the proper time.” (Luke 12:42)

To stay awake to do our master’s work — to care for the poor, to live in charity with each other, to forgive the sins of our sisters and brothers, to love our enemies and serve them, to cast out demons and to heal, to bear witness to him who came and lived and did all these things among us, to confess that

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

And to trust God in all things. Including our provision.

To be awake, to live without fear, to keep our lamps burning, is to do these things seeing Christ in all we love, knowing the Master will come at any time. Knowing the master may already be in our midst.

To sleep, then, to fail to be ready, is to think we have time to spare, time to “beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” (Luke 12:45) It is to fail to live conscious of both Christ’s presence in our midst and his immanent return (he is both here right now and not quite yet.)

To be ready is not to be pure. It is to love, remembering that we are conquered and occupied, ruled by our enemies. It is those enemies who rule us, brutally, that we are to respond in love to. We cannot be pure — we cannot find a bunker or a monastery or an enclave or a tiny duchy to hide in and hope to live untainted by a fallen, sinful, vicious world until Christ comes. We live in that world, and we love in the world, and while we are to love each other — a mutual self-giving — we specifically love strangers and enemies as a people who will likely not return that love.

Love our neighbors and our enemies. That’s how we get ready. That’s how we keep our lamps burning and stay awake.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

To the Church at Ephesus

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1–7 ESV)

Hate. That’s a hard word, especially one coming from the mouth of Jesus, the first and the last, the dead and the one who has risen and lives forever. Not something Jesus is supposed to do.

And yet here, he does. But note what he he hates. Not the Nicolaitans themselves — whoever they were and whatever they believed, for that specific information has been lost to history, and all we have is speculation — but their works. Their deeds. And whatever it is they confess. There is a difference, and Jesus knows that.

Jesus tells the church at Ephesus that he knows what they do, how they confess. He speaks of their works, their patience, their persistence, their determination to bear whatever burdens they bear. And all of this he commends. But they do so without love — αγαπε — and without that love, they are incapable of “the works they did at first.”

Repent, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, and love. It is certainly good to hate “the works of the Nicolaitans,” but this is a church that has fallen because it does not love. It cannot do what it once was able to do because it does not love. Without repentance and love, this church will fail to be light, no matter how patient and persistent the Ephesians are.

Repent, Jesus says, and love.

LENT You Shall Afflict Yourselves

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. 28 And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. 29 For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30 And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31 You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:26-32 ESV)

“… you shall afflict yourselves…”

Literally, “humble the souls of you” [ועניתם את–נפשׁתיכם], bring yourselves low, grovel a while before God, wallow in the mud of your own sinfulness.

This is easy for us, actually, to wallow in our own sinfulness. Easy for some of us, at any rate.

There are several kinds of self-centeredness. There is the arrogant kind that sees no evil and no sin in one’s-self, and therefore needs no repentance and no atonement. A sin that regards one’s self — and one’s people — far too highly. We know this when we see it (Donald Trump, for example), and I think there are times when we even admire it. To act like this is clearly pride, clearly the kind of self-regard that thinks little of the effects words and deeds have on others. People like this are rarely wrong, and could use a day — or two, or many — when they are required to consider their sins, and how they have hurt others, made life difficult and painful and unpleasant and even dangerous for others.

But there is another kind of self-centeredness which always looks inward, which sees a self so damaged and so beyond repair and so lost cannot that it cannot see anything else. That the self is beyond the mercy and grace of a God, a God who never seems to be there and whose love is little felt and little experienced. The sin here is not pride, but self-loathing.

I’m more this kind of person. I have more this kind of self-centeredness, a self-hatred so sharp at times and so curled in upon myself that it has a hard time seeing the world around it, much less grasping hold of anything.

And so do the kids who have found me, who have claimed me as dad.

What does it mean for someone who hates themselves more often than not, who sees themselves not as sinless and justified, but as so sinful God cannot even love them, to “afflict yourselves”? I have visions of flagellants beating themselves bloody and raw, like the Shia men who march in Ashura festivals marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala, filling the streets with their blood as they flail and wail and lament. Only in pain and suffering can I maybe, just maybe, become worthy of the love of God and the love of my fellow human beings.

But that is not how it works. To “afflict ourselves” is to look outside, around, and up, to see a blue sky and feel crisp air. To “afflict ourselves” is to grasp, even for a moment, the love of God that is bigger than ourselves, a love that tell us — “you are worthy of being loved.”

Self-hatred too is a sin. It too must be atoned of. While the arrogant and prideful man must look inward and a see his soul, a soul he rarely gives thought to, we who too often hate ourselves atone of this sin by looking outward, by knowing we are loved, and wanted, and accepted, grabbing hold of that and holding on tight and knowing even a thimble full of love is bigger than an ocean full of hate, fear, terror, neglect, and despair.

We see a world, and all that is in it. And we love.

When asked what the most important commandment of God was, of the many handed down to Israel in the Torah, Jesus said:

“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel:The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 ESV)

God commands self-giving love from us. But not self-negating love. We cannot love our neighbors unless we first love ourselves. Unless we first see ourselves as God sees us — as beloved children made in the image of God, possessing the very breath of our creator, worthy of our humanity, worthy of our calling, worthy of the love.

LENT No Place Left to Run

2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8–11 ESV)

I am broken. I am scared. I want to run away. Far away. To a place where no one will know me, where no one will ask things of me I cannot do, where no one will judge me, where no one will hurt me.

But there is no place to run. Before in my life, I have run halfway across the world to become a new person in a new place, only to find that I’m staring at the same self in the mirror, whether in San Francisco or Dubai or Jeddah or Washington, DC. It’s still me. I cannot escape me.

I have no place left to run. It wouldn’t matter if I did.

Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to Christ. It belongs to him who breathed the world into being, who breathed the Spirit into a huddled group of frightened disciples still unsure of what to make of the fact that he was not dead.

This love, this amazing, astounding, enveloping love — it’s not me. It’s not mine. I haven’t made it. It comes from someplace else, flows through me, seeks the sea. Like water, it mists and flows and babbles and roars its way to an endless, fathomless ocean of love. Where it becomes vapor again, forms clouds, and rains back down upon a parched, desiccated world. Where thirsty creatures, where withered plants, where a dry earth soak it up quickly.

Because there may come a day when there is no more.

We thirst for this love. We grasp and claw and gather and hoard it. We try to make it happen, to fashion it with our own hands in our own likeness and to our own specifications. We try to precipitate it in a lab, engineer it so that it stands tall and strong, speak it into being with our own words. And it sometimes actually looks like this love that falls wet from the sky. But it isn’t. It’s hard and brittle. It rusts. It decays. We can tear it down and blow it up. It dries up and flutters away.

Only this living water that is Christ fills us. Becomes us. Changes us. Makes us people who no longer need to run from our brokenness and our fear. Instead, this love that is Christ — this Christ that is love — makes us people who can look in a mirror and see not our broken and incompetent selves, but the Jesus who rose from the dead.

LENT Love Without Fail

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They have no surrounded our steps;
they set their eyes to cast us upon the ground.
12 He is like a lion eager to tear,
as a young lion lurking in ambush!
13 Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!
Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,
14 from men by your hand, O Lord,
from men of the world whose portion is in this life.
You fill their wombs with treasure;
they are satisfied with children,
and they leave their abundance to their infants.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
(Psalm 15:8-15 ESV)

I love David. I truly do. I love him because he is such a sinner. I love David because God loves him, and chooses him, and does not let go of him, no matter what David himself does. And he does a lot. He rebels against King Saul, he steals several other men’s wives (including, possibly, King Saul’s), he fights for the Philistines — the enemies of Israel — with such gusto that the Philistine king is convinced David is of no more use or value to Israel — the people of God.

David hardly lives an upright life. He is not pure and he is not sinless. David makes a lot of “poor choices.” Yet … God loves him. With an unflinching and steadfast love the likes of which we had not seen in scripture until God met David and, well, fell in love with the ruddy-faced little shepherd boy from Bethlehem.

David spends much of the psalms asking God to keep him safe. Demanding that God act to keep him safe and defeat his enemies (which were legion even before he was king — Saul and his armies as well as various and sundry Philistines). And what enemies he has here, in this prayer for help; the wicked who do violence, arrogant men with pitiless hearts, eager young lions waiting to pounce and ravish and devour.

Mostly, they are men who do not seek the better things of God. They seek all the world has to offer — children and wealth. They have all that the world has to offer, and yet, they continue to do violence. Perhaps that is why they do violence, because they only seek the things of this world. And they are not satisfied.

David lives in a violent world, surrounded by people who mean him harm. Who take joy in the terror and brutality they inflict. In that world, he looks to the Lord for protection and even victory. He prays with confidence, knowing that God has not abandoned him in his suffering and will keep him from death.

In return, he will be satisfied. Not with the wealth and treasure of the world, but with the hope that he shall see the face of God, and that in the morning, when he rises, he shall gaze upon the likeness of the Lord.

This is not the self-satisfied prayer of a self-righteous man who suffers a few indignities thinking it shows everyone he has God’s favor. This is the confident prayer of a lost and desperate man who knows that God loves him unfailingly. And because of that, he knows he has already won, he is already victorious, come what may.

Some Thoughts on the ELCA

It’s a been a while, almost two years now, since the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metro Chicago Synod tossed me out of their candidacy and call process for ordained ministry (okay, truth — the candidacy committee actually did that) because I’d lived a life of “poor choices” and was apparently too much of a risk to be a pastor in the ELCA. That fact that I’m still writing on this subject means it still bothers me, and it still hurts. I’m no stranger to rejection, to not being wanted, but this was immense and shattering.

I’m not sure I’m really over it and I’m not sure I will ever really be over it.

Since then, I’d hoped my book would have propelled me to something else, and created other opportunities for ministry, brought me other kinds of attention, been something I could have leveraged. It hasn’t. I haven’t sold any copies online since late 2015, if Amazon can be believed. The ELCA’s decision has pushed me further into the wilderness, made me more reliant upon God and the kindness of strangers than I ever wanted, and finally forced me to look for work that I can just barely do.

I’m still not entirely sure when the wandering ends.

Am I angry? Maybe. I don’t know. If I am, it’s not the fiery anger of my younger self, an anger that wanted to set the world on fire and dance while it burned. It’s more a sadness — a sadness for myself, yes, because what on earth do I do with myself now? But it’s also a sadness for the ELCA as well, that they have denied themselves my presence in their midst, my gifts, and my witness to a love that is greater than all of us together, a love the reaches through fear, terror, and death to show us what really matters. There’s no guarantee a life as a pastor in the ELCA would have been any better, safer, and more stable. I would likely have been in trouble with someone somewhere — a church council, a bishop’s assistant, somebody. I know I have no choice but to make some kind of future for myself, and some kind of ministry. After all, Jesus did call me, met met in the marketplace while I was minding my own business, reach out his hand, and said: “Follow me.” So, I follow. I wish I knew where.

But I am in a place where I can say something with a rather assured confidence:

I am glad God called me to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And I’m glad God called me out of it as well.

I’m glad called me into the ELCA because it was ELCA Lutherans who taught me who Jesus was — the crucified and risen Son of God, who gave his life and rose from the dead for the salvation and redemption of God’s people and the entire world. That he lives and reigns and is with us today. That we meet him most when we meet the “least of these” — the weak, the suffering, the frightened, the imprisoned, the sick, the lame, the unwanted, and especially the exploited and the poor. In the “Church of Paul and Prophesy” that I had attended for a bit in high school, I had no idea this risen, breathing, living, suffering, redeeming Jesus even existed, much less in our world. Jesus was always just over the horizon, waiting for the right cloud to ride in on. He wasn’t in our world.

I am grateful for all the Lutherans, beginning with Peace in Alexandria, who saw a calling to be a pastor in me. I am grateful for their love and acceptance, and for the patience some of them had to teach me.

I am grateful for a seminary which, more than anything, taught me the Bible. (Because yes, seminaries in liberal denominations actually do that.) Taught me the story of God’s people Israel — a called out, promised, faithless, failed people who need their God and who have not been abandoned by that God no matter what they’ve done and whatever awful circumstances their faithlessness has subjected them to. That story is my story now, and while I struggle with other, older, far less redemptive understandings of my life, I lean on this story. Because it is true.

Because it is the only real truth I know. And the ELCA taught it to me.

I am grateful to professors at seminary who cared — Kurt Hendel, David Miller, Mark & Rosanne Swanson, Linda Thomas, Cheryl Pero, Ray Pickett — and who, despite not knowing what to make of me at first, did not let go (even if they wanted to). They taught me how not to let go, something I am really learning to do in this ministry I am growing into.

And, strangely enough, I am even grateful for my two miserable candidacy experiences. And even the Metro Chicago bishop, who took me on a second time and gave me a second chance when he didn’t have to.

I am glad God brought me to these people, taught me love and steadfastness and faith and courage and even a little hope.

But … I am also glad God led me out of the ELCA.

Jennifer said recently that Lutherans are a small people, and they prize their smallness. I think that is true. And she looked at me — as an adoring wife does — and said I am too big a person, I have too large a personality, for the comfort of most Lutherans. I don’t mean this as a slight, but it would always be confining, having to meet and being judged by social and cultural expectations that I cannot conform to. Not being able to be something I am expected to be.

Because of this, I would not be free — free to be who and what God actually called me to be. I’m a large enough man that four fatherless kids (three of whom have never physically met me, and the fourth only for a few weeks two-and-a-half years ago) call me “dad.” And they mean it. It’s taken me a long time to realize that some people see a strength in me I don’t really know (or don’t really think) I have — a kind, compassionate, empathetic strength that draws some to it. It’s a strength that finds itself in being for others what I can’t have myself.

And Jennifer thinks a lot of church people especially are frightened of that strength. Of me. Because they don’t know what to make of it.

I think Lutherans are afraid of the world, of its rough edges, of dirt and grit, of strange smells, of babbling tongues they don’t understand, of crowded and uneven streets, and especially of dark alleys where life is lived in shadow. Lutheran good works generally involve cleaning and tidying and organizing and installing bright lights rather than meeting people where they are in chaotic darkness and then grabbing hold of them and not letting go. Because of this, I would, as an ELCA pastor, never be free to walk in that world and to witness to the love of God the way that I am truly called to do. The ELCA, for all its professed theological and social progressivism, is at its heart a very culturally conservative community — Lutherans believe deeply in certain social norms and expectations, in a right order to the world, and they harshly punish those who don’t adhere and do not conform. They may genuinely be a kind and gentle and tolerant people, but as a herd, they have the power to crush and destroy and marginalize just as easily as anyone. And they do. Far too easily and far too much.

ELCA Lutherans love, but almost always it’s love in box, love that is bounded, love that knows its limits, love that is well ordered and not allowed to overflow and make a mess. It is love that knows exactly who it is for, and why, and how. In the ELCA, love is only for certain people, who behave themselves, are good, and have the foresight to be born into the right, well-ordered, bourgeois circumstances. I said this in my book, and I will repeat it here — Lutherans may preach unearned grace, but their lived confession emphatically states, “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly have not earned it.”

And I clearly have not earned God’s grace. Not enough for the ELCA.

So, here I am, still in the wilderness, still wandering, still wondering where Jennifer and I will lay our heads. Knowing that if I am called to pastor, I will have to start my own church — an independent Lutheran denomination. So independent, that it’s just me right now. (Well, and Jennifer too.) Which, on the one hand, is very unlutheran (where is the good order in that?), and on the other hand, is about as Lutheran as you can possibly get. (Here’s hoping I meet my Frederick the Wise sometime soon?)1

I am grateful … for all of it. Even the awful parts. Even when I weep and wail and bemoan my utter and complete failure as a human being. Which has been a lot, recently.

Glad I was called to the ELCA because I was taught how to love and be loved. And who really loved me, whose work was in those human hands.

And glad I have been called out. So I can really, truly, courageously love as Jesus has called me to love. As I have been taught to love.

  1. Actually, a lot of people along the way have sheltered us and cared for us and fed us and even come to love us. Someday, I will properly thank you all.  ↩︎