Archives For Donald Trump

Since The Donald ascended to the oval office in January, I’ve heard progressive Christians yearning for a contemporary incarnation of Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian who can offer, with clarity and conviction, a Christian critique of the current regime. I’ve also heard fellow clergy ask- with not a little self-seriousness (myself included)- if the threat The Donald poses to America is sufficiently analogous to the threat posed to Germany by Hitler such that what the Church in America needs now is another Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a righteous voice to lead a confessing minority of Christians against a contagion of fascist ideology.  Increasingly, I’m convinced the Church in Trump’s America needs neither a Niebuhr nor a Bonhoeffer and that the longing for either may be self-righteous to the point of obscuring the Gospel which we’re called to proclaim in word and deed.

Last week the progressive pastor Rev. Dr. William Barber made news by arguing on MSNBC’s AM Joy that clergy who prayed for or with The Donald committed “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Conservative clergy responded in kind that Barber’s assertion did not project love for his Christian brothers and sisters. In response to the story, pro and con tweets followed by Christians all over social media, each abiding by the red or blue hue of their flavor of Christianity.

In a blog post earlier this week, I noted how both Rev. Barber’s critique of The Donald and Trump-loving Christians appeared to have little use for Jesus, who commanded us not only to pray for our enemies but to forgive them and, even, to love them.

More than a few readers messaged me to extol Rev. Barber’s “brave Christian witness against the Powers” and his “radical politics.” It’s possible I failed to articulate my point with sufficient clarity; it’s also possible that progressives have become so enmeshed in their own blue-hued, generic civil religion, too enthusiastic about their own State Church of the Left, that my point was too specifically Christian to be obvious to them.

Rev. Barber’s politics are not radical enough.

Christianly speaking.

I don’t think the Church in America needs a Niebuhr or a Bonhoeffer because I worry The Donald is a character of such exaggerated and self-evident flaws he’s exacerbated our very human and (sinful) tendency to draw lines between moral and immoral people, as though the line between good and evil dotted the borders of mutually exclusive ideologies rather than running through every human heart.

Christianly speaking-

You cannot have a truly radical politics without a radical doctrine of justification by grace.

As my friend Dr. Jeffrey Pugh mentioned in passing during our recent live podcast, what the Church in America needs is not a Bonhoeffer nor a Niebuhr nor does the progressive wing of the Church need a blue-hued version of what it detests on the Right.

Only an understanding that ALL are under the Power of Sin, all stand condemned, NONE is righteous, and that there is no distinction between any of us- only such an understanding can produce a radical politics.

What the Church in America needs Jeffrey observed is another Will Campbell.

And I couldn’t agree more.

For those of you who don’t know, “Brother Will,” who recently died, was a controversial figure- just note that fact, the “radical” Rev. Barber is not at all controversial among progressive Christians.

Originally from Mississippi, he returned to live there after graduating from Yale Divinity School, and he founded an organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization published a journal called Katallagete, which means “be reconciled.” Brother Will was one of the very few white people who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was also there when Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Will Campbell believed with all his heart in the cause of Civil Rights. But he also believed, equally firmly, that Christ died for the racists as much as he died for the victims of racism.

Fleming Rutledge tells this story about Will:

“Will attend[ed] the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home.

At the Mississippi trial held almost 40 years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time.

A baffled reporter asked him why he did that.

Will growled:

“Because I’m a damn Christian.”

When his fellow activists got angry with Will for spending time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said:

“I’d identified with liberal sophistication, and had lost something of the meaning of grace that does include us all.

I would continue to be a social activist, but came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

It’s laudable, for example, that Christians and clergy near my alma mater in Charlottesville recently protested against the presence of the Klan, but- I wonder- was their witness radical? Christianly speaking? Might a more distinctive witness been offered, one made possibly only by faith in the Gospel of grace- had some Will Campbell Christians, protest signs in hand, also embraced those on the other side?

In his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell writes of watching a documentary of the KKK with a group of like-minded progressive activists:

“I felt a sickening in my stomach [to the viewers’ response to the film.] Who were they? Most of them were from middle and upper class families…they were students or graduates of rich and leading universities. They were tough but somehow I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch.

For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right. If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him.

I began my speech to them, saying: “I’m Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansmen because I’m pro-human being.”

His “radical” audience all left, outraged, threatening him harm. Will concludes his memory saying:”

“A true radical would ask how do we humans get to be the sort of humans we are.

Just four words uttered- pro-Klansmen Mississippi Baptist Preacher, coupled with one image, White, had turned them into everything they thought the KKK to be- hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational.

I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansmen is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, the other with an ideology.”

Not Niebuhr.

Nor Bonhoeffer.

I yearn for a truly radical voice like Will’s.

My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

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I made an offhand comment this past week while my friend Scott Jones interviewed me for his podcast Give and Take. I said that Christians need to countenance the possibility that God could be using Donald J. Trump (who, let’s be clear and honest, is in NO way a Christian) as a Cyrus-type character.

Apparently Scott’s podcast has as many listeners as he tells me because in short order I was besieged with apoplectic responses to the contrary.

My good friend Brad is a political adman and strategist presently working on a book about the Trump voter. He’s narrow-focusing on those voters, who had voted for Obama but voted for the Donald in ’16, in the few districts in the MidWest that swung the election. Brad tells me that most Trump voters generally and Evangelical Christians in particular were under no illusions about the Donald’s character or his pretense at Christian discipleship- nor did they have any real expectations the Donald would deliver any concrete policy accomplishments.

Evangelical Christians primarily were driven by animus to vote Trump; that is, evangelical Christians knew (correctly, I’d concede) the same people who hated Trump hated them too.

A few of them- but not as many you’d guess- Brad tells me, hold out the possibility that Donald Trump is a Cyrus-like leader.

Cyrus, for those of who you skipped Sunday School, was the (pagan) King of Persia who (unwittingly according to Isaiah’s prophecy) freed the Israelite exiles from their captivity in Babylon, delivering back to the promised land and, even, helping them rebuild their razed temple in Jerusalem. In scripture, Cyrus stands as paradigmatic of God’s active but unseen agency, directing history to God’s chosen ends.

Cyrus knew not God but the Living God nonetheless used him for God’s own ends.

Might the orange-hued president with the little hands and even slighter control of his compulsions prove a different sort of Cyrus for a unique time?

Might God be using this p@##$-grabbing pagan leader to deliver God’s People from the exilic captivity of nihilistic secularism and into a new Promised Land? Or simply to appoint a pro-life court?

I get the urge- the visceral urge- to say hell no. The mere hypothesis angers my wife. A man who hated his way to the White House, often demonizing immigrants who look like my own Hispanic children, CANNOT be God’s vessel. He is anathema precisely because he makes everyone counted under Matthew 25 anathema to America.

I get the urge to say “No way.”

But-

I wonder. Does the black/white, absolute, reflexive “No” betray another conviction; namely, that God is dead or, if not dead, at the very least not an active agent?

I wonder if those who dismiss outright even the possibility of Trump being Cyrus do so because they believe to the extent that the Kingdom of God is furthered in the public square it’s up to them alone to bring it.

I wonder because- Donald aside- so much of the way we speak Christian does not rely upon a living God being the subject of our sentences.

In my parish, we will celebrate confirmation next weekend at Pentecost, and, in preparing, I’ve noticed how the baptismal vows in the tradition have “evolved” over the years.

For example, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the questions posed to godparents came with this God-dependant answer: “I will, God being my helper.”

Here and throughout that prayerbook there was the awareness that faith itself is the creation/result of the agency of the living and active God.

By the 1978 revision of the Book of Common Prayer that same profession had been neutered to: “I will with God’s help.”

Notice how the change in the language invests considerable more trust in confessor’s unaided human ability to be faithful. Already we’re far gone from the language of Romans where only the faithfulness of Christ can elicit anything resembling faith on our part. Farther still is the phrasing in the United Methodist Book of Worship which omits the agency of God altogether from the baptismal vows. There’s only a semantic change between ‘God being my helper” and “I will, with God’s help.”

In the United Methodist Church’s Baptismal Covenant, the human being is the only active agent:

“I will.”

This is a far cry from the old Catholic rite that so believed in the Living God and God’s Enemy it included exorcism and placing salt on an infants tongue to preserve them from the forces of Sin and Death.

I will is indistinguishable from ‘I am able’ and apparently that I is capable of resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms (we’re afraid apparently of saying ‘Satan’). That I is capable unaided to repent of sin and put our whole faith in Christ and serve him through the Church.

“I am able” in now way corresponds to the language of bondage and rectification and gift in the New Testament. Nor does it cohere with the language of the Holy Spirit which at Pentecost reverses our proclivity for idolatry by compelling faith in Peter’s listeners. Whenever the Old Testament mentions the Holy Spirit it does with verbs; the Spirit does because without it we cannot.

How ‘I will’ is any different than Pelagianism I’ll wait for someone to email and explain it to me.

I wonder if we resist the notion of the Donald being a Cyrus because we’ve lost our theological nerve when it comes to God being an active agent in the world?

In the mainline church we’ve certainly not failed in offering people a Loving God but have we, I wonder, offered them a Living God?

 

In the age of Trump does America need a new public theologian? Someone like Reinhold Niebuhr?

Jason caught up with Martin Doblemeir, the founder and president of Journey Films, to talk about their latest project, “An American Conscience: The Niebuhr Story.” Jason took the name of his blog, Tamed Cynic, from Reinhold Niebuhr’s memoir, a book first given to him as a new Christian by his mentor Dennis Perry.

From Journey Films: “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story examines the career and global impact of renowned American-born theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who became a voice of conscience to a country reaching the pinnacle of its economic and political power. As the Great Depression gripped America, he rocked the liberal Christian community with ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society,’ which challenged the idea of inherent progress and justice in history. During and after the war, Niebuhr helped establish the infrastructure that gave Christian churches and thinkers a voice in postwar politics, and proved instrumental in the effort to form the World Council of Churches.”

Check out the film on Journey’s website. It’s currently on tour and airing on PBS.

Next up: conversations with man Stanley Hauerwas says is the best theologian in America, Robert Jenson, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame as well as Carol Howard Merritt about her new book.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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As I’ve repeated these last weeks, I believe the Gospel creates communities where there is neither Republican nor Democrat. The Church, however, is political in that it subverts the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy found in our politics. Like the community we call Trinity, the Church is a community of both difference and peace, which is an ongoing–and not always easy–process that Paul calls the discipline of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a discipline that requires the habit of listening to those with whom you disagree.

To that end, I offer this challenging reflection from my friend David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago and a theological brother from another mother. David is the author of the new, damn fine book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Get it here. No, really, get it now.

I think it’s a peculiarly relevant critique given that abortion is the particular issue on which many conservative Christians rationalized their vote for a candidate whose character would have otherwise disqualified him among those very people.

What if many Christians voted for Donald Trump hoping for a pro-life administration, yet Donald Trump will always be more pro abortion than President Obama?

Here’s David’s piece:

“To change behavior by law has never been the Christian way. A country may be preserved by laws but cannot be redeemed by them. The law has limited effect.

Even Luther and Calvin agreed on the law’s limits. Evangelical protestants (of which I am one) who claim we are saved by faith not by works would also seem to agree. Instead, people are challenged by culture, a way of life, by examples of a life well lived, not being told what they can and cannot do.

This we hope leads to a saving faith, not mere comformity to rules. There is nothing remotely pro-life/anti-abortion about a nation that legally prohibits abortion but promotes a culture that sexualizes and abuses women. It is this sexualizing misogynous culture that promotes abortion.

This is why I have never taken lightly the way the way a leader lives his/her life morally before a country (I couldn’t support Clinton).

Ultimately President Trump, even though he appoints a pro-life judge, is a pro-abortion president.

By his example (the locker room talk, the groping-and maybe assault, the sexualizing of women, the multiple divorces, the misogynous comments toward women, the multiple scandals) he promotes a sexualizing-of-women culture through his own example and the people around him.

The most pro-life thing Donald Trump could do is visibly repent of his behaviors before a listening nation.

You can have all the laws in the world, but if the (young) men of this culture see that these are the values that ‘successful men’ in USA live, the Trump presidency is a complete failure on the pro-life issue.

He is ultimately more pro-abortion, less pro-life, than President Obama ever was. And for this I grieve.”

With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.

I’m just gonna keep repeating myself:

I believe the Church is called not to make the world a better place but to be the better place God has already made in the world. I believe the Church is that better place when our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ.

Such a community, one like the Trinity of difference and peace, is made possible only by listening to those who are different from you.

I last posted a rebuttal from the Right regarding our Pastoral Letter on the Executive Order on Refugees. Now, I thought I would post a rebuttal to the rebuttal, from one our (majority conservative) congregation’s leaders.

At a time when a lot of Christians are lamenting how the protests against Trump make them feel, I think it’s especially urgent to clarify how the Executive Order (and Trump himself) makes other Christians feel.

Again….deep breath…to be the Church is to listen peaceably to those different from you.

“I wanted to give you a quick series of thoughts on some of the recent discussions regarding the Executive Order.

Recently the vibe I’ve gotten is that the direction people want to take with this is to stay out of it because it’s too political, and to talk about this stuff in a church context is impolite.

I’m fine with that as a leader.  I can see the argument as to how that’s better for the church and its mission in the long term. I am not OK with that at all personally.  As you know, my wife and oldest son are immigrants from Muslim majority countries.  This very easily could have impacted them and our family had George W Bush done something similar after 9/11 (with far more justification).

I also have lived and worked with literally hundreds of Muslims.  I count many of them as close friends.  All of this is to say, I have very close personal ties to this issue and I will never be OK with any version of God that might countenance this, or even countenance not speaking out about this.  You can say I have strong feelings on the issue!

As I am in the minority, and as I have to respect the decisions of the rest on this, I will just kind of check out of discussions around this topic in the future.  I will be present, I will listen, but I won’t invest a lot of emotional energy in them as the result is it just makes me sad and angry by varying degrees.

And I am going to have to stop reading Jason’s blog for at least a little while!  I am not disappointed or frustrated with any members of our church – I have simply had different life experiences than them.

I have personally appreciated Michelle Matthew’s strong stand on this issue, and also the stand of the United Methodist and wider Church overall. And I hope and pray that I am wrong about our President and his motives.  Hopefully this whole issue blows over quickly, either because the courts strike it down or because it really is just a 90 day pause, and not a ban.

OK, long ramble over!

Thanks,

 

John Nugent convicted me I was wrong about the Executive Order.

How?

How about choice quotes like these:

“Christians have NO biblical mandate to tell the Powers how to protect their borders”

“America does need a Confessing Church because America doesn’t have one State Church but two State Churches, the State Church of the Left and the State Church of the Right.”

Boom.

With every Christian in American debating the fidelity of the Donald’s (so-called) Muslim Ban, I thought it a perfect time to chat with John Nugent about his new book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. The premise of John’s argument is that the Church is NOT called to make the world a better place; the Church is called to be the better place God has already made in the world.

We’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk,  Mandy Smith, and Alice Connor. In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of  Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rohr, and Scot McKnight.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

“….and it’s Christians who are bringing it.”

For Episode 77, our guest, Mona Reza, discusses the consequences President Trump’s Muslim travel ban has had and will have on her and our fellow Muslim American brothers and sisters.

With all the talk of travel and immigration bans there have been real consequences. American citizens who are Muslim have been forced to have tough conversations with their neighbors and children. Xenophobia is creating fear throughout our nation rather than embracing the diversity we have in our country.

Mona is my wife’s close friend and colleague. In addition to being a Catholic-educated, cracker-jack lawyer, a stellar mom, and a hardcore patriot, she’s also a devout, practicing Muslim.

Mona recently shared her thoughts and fears over Trump’s Ban in a post you find here. In a fractured and polarized culture, Christians can be a community where there is neither Republican nor Democrat only when they listen (to understand) to voices other than the ones they self-select to hear.

Let us know what you think of the conversation with Mona. If you’d like to hear more from her in the future, we’ll work to get her on the docket.

We’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk,  Mandy Smith, and Alice Connor. In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of  Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rohr, and Scot McKnight.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

 

Like the community we call Trinity, I believe the Church is constituted by the sacraments in order to be a community of both difference and peace. I believe the Church is called not to make the world a better place but to be the better place God has already made in the world. I believe the Church is that better place when our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ, when we’re a place where there is neither Democrat nor Republican for we are all one in Christ.

It would be naive to suppose the local church can be a community of such character without intentionality.

Surely a requisite step to becoming a community of difference and peace is to (peaceably) listen to those who are different from you.

Last week here on the blog I posted a pastoral letter we emailed out to my congregation regarding the executive order on refugees. Nearly 1,000 people read the letter, almost a 50% read rate. Of those who responded to it, 81% were positive and affirming while 19% were negative or critical (or, to be no-bullshitting-honest, xenophobic).

Among the critical responses, I received the rebuttal below from someone I consider myself lucky to count a friend, someone who works in politics professionally.

As much as I think many Trump supporters need to get out of their echo chamber, I think progressive Christians right now would be well-served to hear how their cries of outrage are heard by conservative Christians.

In the spirit of aspiring to be that better place that is Christ’s fellowship of differents, I post it here so the cloud of witnesses on this issue has more than one blue hue:

1. Your letter to the congregation took a great deal of effort and perspective and risk and I appreciate that, not only from a detached theological perspective but from a personal one as well.

2.  I am of course pissed you wrote it now because we didn’t do this kind of thing when the previous President legitimized the most murderous regime in the world. Or when he put two supreme court justices who have a callous disregard for human life. Or when we allowed Christians and Yazidis to be slaughtered in Syria AND THEN REFUSED TO ADMIT THEM AS REFUGEES. (True story…you know how many Syrian Christians Obama admitted as refugees at the height of the crisis? Look it up. It’s under 500. And Christians are 10% of the population.)

Why do we now feel like this is the first time in this decade we need to weigh in? (this is a rhetorical question – I realize the pressure in your profession is immense, internal and external, and I truly do appreciate the risks you are taking, as is.)

3. I think a deeper pause is necessary than most protestant organizations, including Southern Baptists, have given on the refugee EO. There is no refugee “ban.” Read the EO itself. It is a 90 day pause, for seven countries – with “countries” being an incredibly generous use of the term to describe Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya since the term “country” would imply a functioning government.

Throughout our history political refugees have been people who were clearly fleeing oppression from a center of government power, but in none of those cases except Iran does any center of power exist on a consistent basis. IT IS POSSIBLE that after 90 days the President proposes something that is completely unacceptable.

But it is also possible that the “extreme vetting” his career state department bureaucrats will design will be a real improvement on the disastrous situation we have today, with not enough vetting, or the wretched European system of no vetting whatsoever to decipher refugee from jihadist.

WHY SHOULD WE, ALL DENOMINATIONS, HAVE VOMIT HATE TOWARD OUR NEIGHBORS DOWN THE STREET over a policy that is not even designed yet, much less implemented?

I realize that the issuance of an executive order on a Friday  night, with confusing language about green cards holders which was easily misunderstood by customs agents worldwide does not inspire confidence that these new procedures will be good. But they are not even yet in existence. And let’s all be honest that our current system is a disaster – with Yazidis and Christians slaughtered in Syria because they are too afraid of lax security in United Nations camps that they decided to stick it out and take their chances in their homes against ISIS than be raped under the auspices of UN protocols, waiting helplessly for an Obama administration that was doing nothing meaningful to get them out of harm’s way.

4. The failure to acknowledge that the pain and suffering and atrocities around the world due to US policies did not begin on January 20, 2017 is perhaps the most irritating thing about all these protests and whining and self-righteous calls to “stand for justice.”

Where have these people been? Why are they suddenly triggered? What makes the PhD students stuck in the Dusseldorf airport more sympathetic than the Yazidi woman raped because we wouldn’t enforce a redline we drew our own damn selves?

The idea of the novelty of the outrage is just too much to take. Plenty of us have been outraged for years and we did not take to the streets to try and tear our culture asunder as a result, or accuse those in the next pew of being unChristian.

The Left, and the professional clergy corporately, sure are not affording those of us on the Right the same presumption of purity of motive that many of us (most of the time) gave them – or at a minimum the same civility.

The glaring lack of that makes me appreciate your efforts at balance more.

This is a post from my wife’s close friend and colleague, Mona. In addition to being a Catholic-educated, cracker-jack lawyer, a stellar mom, and a hardcore patriot, she’s also a devout, practicing Muslim.

In our present polarized climate, where so many of us have retreated to our own ideological ghettoes where we can hear only what reaffirms our preexisting politics and worldview, I think it’s important (for Christians at least) to listen with charity to those whose experience and view might conflict with yours.

In a climate where xenophobia is thick and, one could argue, legitimated by our leaders, I particularly think it’s urgent for Christians to listen to the testimony of Muslims, for Christ’s command to love the Other necessarily implies that we will work to keep others from becoming Other.

As my wife, Ail, writes of Mona:

“She’s a beautiful person in all ways, and she and her husband, Raj, have raised strong, intelligent daughters here in the DC area. Mona and I share a lot in common–we’re both attorneys, her youngest daughter and Alexander are the same age, we share the same values, and we both enjoy that we can talk openly about our faiths with one another in an increasingly secular society. Please read all of what she says here with an open heart. If you react with anger at what she is saying instead of compassion and tears, then you aren’t listening.”

Here’s what Mona has to say:

We are getting so mixed up with everything thrown at us I think that perhaps one thing we all agree on doesn’t seem to be clear.

We would like our country to be safe and we would like to see ISIS eradicated. What we disagree on is how this is going to happen. What is alarming is the attempt to couch any disagreement with how it is done as a failure to care about the safety of Americans. That’s ridiculous.

You know why I oppose waterboarding? Not because it’s cruel or unconstitutional, but because experts say that it does not work. If one of my daughters disappeared tomorrow and you told me that you had a suspect that you wanted to waterboard I’d say I’ll do it myself if that means we’ll get answers. The reason I wouldn’t do that is that there are better ways to get the answers we need.

We don’t want to give ISIS propaganda tools not because we are catering to them, but because research has shown that this is what they want. We need to play the game in a way that we are going to win. It’s fun to say we’re going to “knock the hell out of ISIS” but it only matters if your tactics work. Republicans are not the only people who don’t want another terror attack. Don’t you think the children of liberals go to malls and zoos and movies? Not one sane person in this country is willing to risk another terrorist attack if we can prevent it. The discussion is, how do we prevent it.

I posit that American Muslims would like everything possible to be done to stop a terror attack, perhaps more than the rest of you because God help us we get it from both ends. On the one hand we are the victims of the terrorist on the other hand we get the backlash. It is absolutely disheartening that after the shooting in the Canadian mosque last night by a pro-Trump white nationalist most people lost interest in the shooting completely, particularly our new administration that is so laser focused on terrorism. It was only interesting when the perpetrator may have been a Moroccan immigrant. Both ends. We get shot while praying and we are accused of not caring about terrorism if we say please don’t assume I’m the shooter.

The only silver lining I’ve seen in the last ten days is people moving beyond their own personal interest. Call it intersectionalism or whatever, it’s something I have shared with my friends for years. God is the same no matter what language you use to pray or faith tradition you follow, black lives have always mattered, who you love is your business, and reproductive rights are personal. Whether you’ve been pushed into this way of thinking by current events or you have always felt human first and that God gave each of us free will for a reason, your support now is so welcome and I will continue supporting you. And to the white women (and men, but as always women get the worst of it) out there who don’t always have a dog in this race but march, and post, and protest, and many times lead the fight? Thank you. The implication that you should feel that it is not your right to do so irritates me no end. Many of you have been my best allies for years now, not just when it impacted you directly.

The events of this weekend have shaken me up. Again, not because I want unvetted refugees to enter the country or visas given out like candy to foreign nationals (I don’t) but because the broader implications of an administration that disregards checks and balances and acts without counsel and refuses to concede valid points of criticism is pointing us down a dangerous road. We are moving there at breakneck speed.

My conservative friends have (mostly) stayed quiet and I will tell you it hurts. After the election an article was sent to me by a friend who worked in the Reagan administration to assuage my fears. In relevant part it stated “Born or naturalized Americans, working or studying on a proper visa and abiding by American laws, whether Muslim, Mandarin, or Martian, should understand that they have nothing to fear.” I haven’t asked him (yet) if he still feels that way.

Your silence hurts me because I am at an anxiety level where I panic at the grocery store not sure how much longer I’ll be able to buy produce outside of an internment camp (or worse). I try focusing on work but I feel like I should be planning an “out” for my family for WHEN this administration chooses to attempt to suspend the rights of Muslim Americans allegedly in the name of national security. The only thing that gives me comfort is all of the friends and family who have stood up for our rights and I believe will continue to do so. If you asked me last year if that included you my conservative friends, I would say absolutely. We grew up together, went to college or graduate school together, we raised children together and sit on the bleachers and complain together. There is no way you think that what is happening right now is o.k. I tell myself. But you know what? I’d like to hear that from you. I’d like to hear you call out crazy when you see it, because unfortunately the only voices this President hears is those of his supporters.

In such divisive, chaotic times and when policies impinge on our ability to welcome the immigrant and refugee, it’s tempting for Christians to think we’re called to make this world a better place.

It’s just such thinking as this and in such times as this, John Nugent argues, that the Gospel becomes endangered.

In what Nugent calls the “Kingdom-Centered Gospel,” God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People. God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel. God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King. And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People. 

And this is the plan God continues in Jesus.

God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts. Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future. Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

From the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom. The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom. They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

It’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait.

New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve.

And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

That’s the Gospel.

 

As John Nugent says:

The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our political party than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture, more invested in diversity as a political value than in the rough and tumble process of being a congregation with people we think are crazy.

 

John Nugent warns that when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the political means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world. We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

More so than simply arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community who confesses, unashamedly so, their sin on a weekly basis, even our sin of racism, a community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Economic policy, the Supreme Court, National Security- they’re important, sure, but they’re not the Gospel. We’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage. We’re supposed to be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community. We’re supposed to be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

In such divisive, chaotic times it’s tempting to think we’re called to make this world a better place.

We’re not.

We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

As a pastor in a congregation split down the middle, we’ve got all the work we can handle just trying to be who God called us to be.

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

     It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? 

     I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. 

     You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. 

     Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’ 

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

     If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford. 

     The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

     No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

   That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs                                                      not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

   That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin. 

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says

All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

     if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

     Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure. 

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

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“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

Pretty damn clear.

And, it should be noted, that’s a warning that comes from Jesus in his last teaching before the Passion, a teaching about Judgement Day.

It’s ironic to the point of paradox that today many Christians will demonstrate to advocate the sanctity of life while nary batting an eye at The Donald’s announcement that he will order the construction of a Mexican border wall, the first in a series of actions to crack down on immigrants, which will include slashing the number of refugees who can resettle in the United States, and blocking Syrians from entering. Of course, it should be noted, President Obama was hardly more ‘Christian’ on the immigrant and refugee issue.

That refugees and immigrants (to say nothing of death row inmates) are invisible on the ‘Pro Life’ continuum nor even countenanced among the ‘Every Life Matters’ rhetoric is but an indictment on the extent to which we’ve traded, possibly unawares, our baptismal charge for a particular political ideology. 

The theologian Robert Jenson complains:

‘The institution we call the church has been and usually still is one of the chief bulwarks we erect to defend our status quo against the threat of God.’

‘But,’ Jenson happily notes, ‘it is the oddity of the church that the communication- namely, the word of God, by which it lives fights against the stasis to which the church, like all communities and nations tend.’

As if to provide Jenson with anecdotal illustration of his critique, many evangelicals are happily acquiescing to Trump’s move to disqualify any refugees from being welcomed into our borders. Never mind that America could barely field a football team with the paltry number of refugees we’ve allowed up to this point.

We all know The Donald says the Bible is his favorite book and he’s made it his mandate to protect Christianity and make it strong again so I couldn’t help but wonder what passage inspired his America First policy.

Leafing through my own Harper Collins Study Bible, I think found his memory verses.

“When an alien resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them picket them with dehumanizing, xenophobic slogans, arrest them without cause, publish species crime reports, and ship them back to their impoverished, violent countries as quickly as possible where conscription into a cartel or rape likely awaits them.

The aliens residing among you must be treated as your native-born prisoners, their children as criminals and their home countries as places completely unaffected by your trade and foreign policies.

Love them as yourself Detain them on military bases and in prisons, speak of them in town halls as though they were plague-carrying rats, and have your first impulse be how to avoid any moral obligation to them for you were once aliens in Egypt this is your country and they should go back whence they came.

I am the LORD your [America’s] God.

If they cry out to me, then (too bad for them) I will certainly hear their cry reward your self-righteousness and unfaithful fear of scarcity.

My anger will blaze against you [those who advocate for marriage equality,] and I will kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless uh, I think that about covers it.

– Sincerely,

God

from Leviticus 19 and Exodus 23 (no seriously, it’s in the freaking bible)

With Christmas not that far in our rearview mirror, it would behoove Christians to recall that the God who commanded his People to care for the poor and the refugee among them (Exodus 23) became, in Jesus Christ, both poor and a refugee.

Of course, the rub is with that modifier ‘his People’ because those of us who count ourselves among God’s People have other obligations upon us than what the constitution permits and goals other than the pursuit of material happiness.

Sure, I’m no different than the Donald. I’d prefer to feel secure in my community and, because I’m a sinner, aside from token expressions of concern, I’d rather remain safely distant from the problems and pain of the world. But, as Robert Jenson notes, I cannot because of the bible I read.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t require comment, but the real tension exposed by the refugee question is the extent to which, for many of us, we’ve made being an ‘American’ equivalent to being a ‘Christian.’ If we’ve not made them equivalent, then the refugee crisis also reveals how, really, the former is more important to us than the latter.

When push comes to shove, its the logic of country, not the gospel, that determines our speech and actions.

In the name of security and ‘realism’ we excuse views contrary to the commandments. We do not declare that, because Christ is Risen, God will ultimately beat all our swords into ploughshares; therefore, we can take risks and welcome the stranger among us.

Not only are ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ not equivalent identities, they are, on more occasions than we care to countenance, conflictual identities.

While Americans have no primary task other than, each, the pursuit of our individual autonomy, the primary task of the baptized, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, is ‘to stand within the [violent] world witnessing to a peaceable Kingdom which reflects the right understanding of that very world.’ Even more important to our task as Christians is to remember that the peace to which we witness ‘is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior.’ 

Many Christians will object, as many of our presidential candidates do, that in the quote end quote real world we cannot afford the luxury of heeding the demands of our baptisms. Such objectors, however, forget, as only the comfortable can, that:

There is no morality that does not require others, including ourselves, to suffer for our convictions.

Christians who happen to live in America, then, seem to face an impossible dilemma between a posture of hospitality towards the stranger who may also be an enemy and a political crisis that seems to have no simple remedy beyond the nativist one.

Fortunately, scripture does not ever command Christians to accomplish anything, for, if Jesus is Risen, it’s not up to us to make the world come out right.

So the choice for Christians is not between doing nothing or attempting to do everything.

The choice is the one put to the first disciples: ‘Follow me.’

And in following, in our ordinary attitudes and deeds and within our communities of faith, we trust that the world of violence might have its imagination freed for a Kingdom that, if Jesus is Risen, is in fact the ‘real world.’

Just as the kingdom of Egypt welcomed the holy family who were strangers among them, we Christians (should) witness to the Kingdom of God by welcoming strangers as if they were the holy family.

 

If this sounds like an extreme liberal position to you, check out this video from the Jesuit Editor of America Magazine, Father James Martin.

Or, read this editorial by the conservative evangelical leader, Ed Stetzer, in Christianity Today.

 

 

9781501824753Bishop Will Willimon, author of Fear of the Other, was our guest preacher the Sunday after Trumpocalypse. His text was Romans 5. Not only is the book dedicated to Donald Trump (…without whose xenophobia ‘I wouldn’t have been asked to write this book.’) it’s an incredibly timely book for those who are repulsed by Trump and how we’re to love the ungodly which surely includes even Donald Trump.

“We’ve got to love the ungodly…even an ungodly liar like Donald Trump.”

Listen to it.

 

 

Original Sin

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2016 — 2 Comments

160921160806-03-adam-rhew-charlotte-protests-large-169According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.

According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.

According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.

And then the many memes:

The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.

A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.

Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.

We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.

The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”

Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.

But, lately, I wonder.

As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).

So I wonder.

I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?

I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.

Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.

Is from God.

Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.

If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.

He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.

And through cross and resurrection all of us, good or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’

And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

Wild Goose Week

Jason Micheli —  July 20, 2016 — Leave a comment

wildgoose-webbanner-2015-v2Crackers & Grape Juice descended upon the Wild Goose Festival in the North Carolina mountains a couple of weeks ago and grabbed a party bag’s worth of interviews with an eclectic group of speakers. For those of you who don’t know, Wild Goose is like a Woodstock Hipster Paradise for Theology Nerds. If that’s not clear, then you can check it out here.

Since C&GJ interviewed so many folks there, we’re posting a couple per week in the dog days of summer. The first two are Alicia Crosby and and Sarah Heath.

Alicia Crosby is the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Inclusivity in Chicago. In our interview, she talked a lot about expanding the concept of church. She makes the point that while Jesus spent some time in the temple, most of where he did church was in people’s houses and on the streets. Alicia discussed what holiness looks like for an inclusive Christian and how the church should be responding to police violence against black people.

Sarah Heath, the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Costa Mesa, California. Sarah’s pure, Christlike heart is contagious. She talked a lot about the beautiful, eclectic mix of people in her church and how sad she would be if the United Methodists decided to split.

While I’ve got your attention, my dear friend Clay Mottley, whom you know from our theme music on Crackers & Grape Juice has just released his third full length album, Best of Days. It’s really good.

You should check it out here: http://www.claymottley.com

We’ll be doing an interview/solo show with Clay for the podcast next month so be on the lookout for him to share about beauty, aesthetics, and the creative process.

Lastly-

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Here’s Episode #20 of our Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast. Who the hell knew we’d make it past #4?

When we spoke to Fleming Rutledge for this installment of ‘Fridays with Fleming,’ it was Omar Mateen and Orlando on our minds. Just after the Nice attack and a week after the Dallas massacre, Fleming’s thoughts on praying for victimizers and victims is just as timely and convicting.

We’re quickly nearing the point where the podcast comes with some costs (audio storage). To help support Crackers and Grape Juice, we hereby invite you to get in on the ground floor of some C&GJ Swag:

The “Make the Gospel Great Again” T-Shirt.

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Buy it for near cost and the extra couple bucks will go to help us keep the podcast going.

It’s Christmas in July. Get it for that husband or grandkid you can’t convince to go to church on Sunday, wear it while you’re shredding at Crossfit or while you eat a tub of ice cream at 10:00 PM – it’s all for a good(ish) cause.

And for all you thee-hipsters reading this, the T-Shirt will be American Apparel so it will go nicely with your Grizzly Bear concert tee.

Order your T-Shirt here.

You won’t get charged until we hit our minimum number of orders for a printing.

Doubtful, I know.

Here’s the permanent link for you cut and pasters:  https://teespring.com/Makethegospelgreatagain#pid=6&cid=619&sid=front

 Alright, back to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store hereGive us a review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.