Archive for the ‘Things of Faith’ Category

Jesus First

Posted: September 7, 2017 in Culture and Faith, Things of Faith

daca-rt-jpo-170901_12x5_992As I was perusing my Facebook feed this morning, I came across the following quote from a former colleague and friend:

 “In this time of DACA and immigration, a personal testimony: in a previous appointment I came to know a few illegal male Mexican immigrants who had come to the area seeking work to send money back to their families. They had come to the U.S. seeking to provide for their families. As a husband and a father I understood that. Did I turn them in? Nope. Why?
Because… I am not an American first. I am a Christian first, and from my study of the Gospels over the years, I could not imagine Jesus turning in anyone for the high crime of trying whatever they could to send money back to their families so they can eat. I will not suggest how following Jesus should be an instrument of foreign policy, since the American empire is essentially pagan; but as a follower of Jesus, I will follow Jesus. If I wore a ball cap it would say, “Jesus First.”… and that would mean Jesus is first and foremost for everyone.” (Alan R. Bevere)

To say that this past week has been troubling would be a severe understatement. When I returned to pastoral ministry 15 months ago I published a blog post that talked about the personal nature of this topic. In this country we too often politicize social issues to such an extent that the human factor is removed. Moreover, topics such as “immigration” is framed within a rhetoric of fear in such a way that the subjects concerned are marginalized to the “extreme other.”

What struck me about Alan’s post was that it consisted of the most basic common sense perspective of one claiming a Christian faith. The unfortunate reality for most self-proclaimed Christians in the US is that their faith has been so syncretized with the national religion that it is nearly impossible to separate faith and nationalism. What Alan is getting at is the necessary re-contextualization of North American Christianity in contrast to “powers and principalities,” and in this case the empire.

Any institution that propagates violence and coercion for the benefit of an institutional state can be considered a power or principality. One that has overwhelming power and influence over and against other such states through the framing of a metanarrative which exceptionalizes said state can be considered an empire. It is when we come to the understanding that Christians have always lived within this type of context that they can begin seeing themselves in contrast to it. Regrettably many Christians in the US perceive themselves in such a way that merges their faith identity with their geo-political identity.

This, I believe, is why so many self-proclaimed Christians so easily support a national policy that treats undocumented people in a way that contradicts God’s mandate. Nationalism is so strong that one’s identity is primarily articulated as national identity. Thus, a person’s faith identity is secondary and subordinate to one’s national identity often being tainted in such a way as to cease resembling any connection to Jesus’ teachings.

My Christian faith requires that I identify primarily as a “Jesus follower.” The implications of this is that I am ever bound by his life, teachings, death and resurrection. What this means is that I will always identify with the “other” as I am required to lovingly serve them. Faith in Jesus ultimately means standing in contrast to any such “power or principality” that sets out to exclude, marginalize, evict, or unjustly treat any human being. Like Alan, if I were to wear a hat it would say, “Jesus First,” not out of a desire to push a national policy, but as a reminder and proclamation of my allegiance. This requires one response and that is to love the other regardless of what the law of the land is.

lightning_hits_treeIt was a sunny day with fluffy white clouds and a small warm breeze. Not long before I had gotten out of the pool, dried off and sat down to catch up on some news. Years ago I would have had a newspaper sitting beside my chair. Today I simply pick up my iPhone and open a news source app. Well yesterday was one of those days. I had been trying to keep up with the news in Palestine and Virginia. I had heard of violent clashes in Ramallah and had been praying for the people there. I had also heard about the protests and counter-protests in Virginia. I was looking for updates.

Sometimes when you have an agenda things don’t go the way you’d hope. No sooner had I started looking at the news and scrolling through the twitter lines a thunderstorm blew in and with a loud crack we lost our internet and satellite television. It was about that time twitter lit up with reports of a car driven into a crowd in Virginia. Images started to come online of the violent scene. Images of an angry crowd. Armed militia dressed in military fatigues and carrying riot shields marching down the street. It was deeply saddening.

With the ever increasing political divide in this country, last Fall I had decided to enter a season of prayer and silence (attempting to use less words). I did not want to contribute to a culture that was so deeply divided that hate was imminent. I have been determined to step away from the sphere of national politics and intentionally work at being a Jesus follower. I am convinced that when my life is most fully rooted in the narrative of the one who laid down his life as an indiscriminate outpouring of love that my responses tend to be more reflective of that.

As I was trying to hear and read what was going on, one lightning strike cut me off fromhttps3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f5623942f3d0a6db5-d0e6-4bff-a60d-3c9aa5693517 the streams of news that was already shaping my opinions. The most immediate response was to pray, “God have mercy!” With the little information I was able to read and the twitter responses I caught and heard reported about politicians, it was clear that this was more than another reflection of political divide. These are the symptoms of a disease that goes much deeper. What we are witnessing is the underbelly of a system that has taken centuries to build and vast fortunes to defend. It is a metastasized cancer on this continent. It is a demonic movement of hate and violence. It sets out to destroy discriminately dividing God’s creation (quite the opposite of Christ’s love).

There is undoubtedly racism that veins through this cancerous culture. Yet the insanity of the violence and hatred that it births transcends racism. In the midst of reading about the events unfolding, I found myself caught up with feelings of anger so deep it was moving me toward hate. This is a cancer that threatens to kill all that is good. It is darkness that sets out to extinguish the light. It is in this context that the followers of Jesus must be present. timthumb-php_

I am well beyond my limits for tolerating voices either denying racism or minimizing its effects. It is especially conspicuous for descendants of northern European peoples who have never experienced the ongoing traumatic effects of chattel slavery (nor the traumatic effects of the holocaust) and systemic white supremacism to make such claims. What has become most disturbing for me is to see people I care about making these comments on social media exposing their lack of self and social reflection. Many of those same folks claim to be Jesus followers, all the while side stepping the truth of complicity. I am convinced that the North American Christian community is incapable of speaking any word regarding racism so long as it refuses to repent (i.e. admit its complicity and inability to fix it). As a middle-aged white man who has been raised with all the privileges afforded that standing, I am thoroughly ashamed of my own voluntary and involuntary complicity to this mess. I am keenly aware that the color of my skin and my gender have afforded me certain privileges. By accepting those privileges I quotevoluntarily participated in the cultural system designed to keep certain people groups in their place. I am also involuntarily complicit as I have no control over my gender or family lineage and yet regardless of the circumstances I have been nonetheless complicit. I suppose the anger I feel finds its roots in this shame. My first instinctual response is to deny or downplay my complicity. My second instinctual response is to point my finger at everyone else. In this way it takes the attention off my own complicity. The one response that is not instinctual is to simply admit it and then turn away from it. This is where I have found peace. Not a passive peace but one that calls me to those places where Jesus would go outside the camp to stand with those who are suffering. The only path that the white church in North America can take is that of repentance. There will be no peace among Christians without it.

My earnest prayer is that the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to our corporate sin and bring us to our knees in repentance. May it be so in the name of Jesus.



maundy-thursday-backgrounds-3This morning I began to intentionally set my mind on the special service my congregation will have this evening. Every Thursday before Easter Sunday we celebrate what we call Lovefeast & Communion. Essentially this is a time to gather for self-examination (confession & assurance of forgiveness), feetwashing, a simple meal around the table together, and finally the Eucharist. This sacred event serves as one of those liturgical practices in the church that reorders our life together in relationship to God through Jesus.

The examination is nothing more than our realization and admittance of our inability to see, hear and live in the way that Jesus taught. It is both a confession of our failures as well as a profession of our faith in Jesus. What this time does is to tenderize our hearts (our desires) in preparation for re-formation. In terms of worship, we are posturing ourselves in submission to God in preparation to give and receive the love and care that exalts Jesus.

Having surrendered ourselves to the reality of our finite and flawed existence in the presence of infinite perfection we take up the towel and basin. There are two points in this part of the ceremony that require more reflection. John 13 begins with Jesus preparing to demonstrate the full extent of his love to his disciples. Now this is meant to be interpreted two ways. One that in the event around the table this will be expressed. And secondly the ultimate expression of this love occurs in his glorification on the cross. Now I’m convinced that we cannot understand the latter interpretation unless we get the former. Often times, chapter 13 is simply interpreted as Jesus providing an example of humble service. I have even heard it used as a means of describing servant leadership. While there may be some aspect of these expressed within this passage, more significantly it represents a living parable of life together as disciples. Jesus is pouring out his love through an act that symbolically washes away sin. There is a definite connection between this cleansing and the cleansing of baptism. However, while baptism primarily attends to the vertical relationship between the Creator and the creation, feetwashing provides the symbol of cleansing of communal brokenness. It is necessary to sit vulnerably open to being washed (confession) by sisters and brothers as well as washing (forgiving) the feet of sisters and brothers. In the church this act is sealed with an embrace (a holy kiss in some congregations) expressing the unity that reconciliation brings.

Once the feet have been washed then the brothers and sisters are prepared to sit at theshutterstock_44110603 table and share a simple meal at which they break bread together. This meal not only looks back reflecting upon the last supper, but more significantly looks ahead to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In contrast this is a simple meal (not a literal feast) that is shared remembering that we are living in a world where not everyone has food to eat. It sorrowfully acknowledges those currently suffering, but doing so with full gratitude for the table set before them to share the necessities of life.

Finally, while seated around the table, the brothers and sisters take the bread in their hands, break it together and confess in unison that the bread they break is the body of Christ broken for them. In much the same way, following a blessing they take a cup and with a similar confession drink from the cup. This is followed by a song and a benediction after which some leave to their homes and some remain to clean up.

What I find so significant about this sacred time is that in the mimetic exercise of this drama my “heart” is in some way re-formed. It is not merely an intellectual change of mind. I can experience that by reading a well formed argument. It is far more in that it to some degree transforms my life, my posture, my desire, my attitude. In ways that escape words, I sense that my life becomes a little bit more like that of Jesus. In his little book, Shaped by the Word, Richard Mulholland describes how religious icons are created in a way that moves the mind from the intellect to the affective part of the brain. In this way it changes the perception of the individual in such way as to move beyond trying to control the text to being shaped by it. In much the same way this symbol is iconographic in that it requires us to transition out of the left side of our brain that examines and analyzes to the affective side that becomes open to the formative experience of participation. While my Anabaptist sensibilities resist this terminology, I am convinced that in this way this symbol is sacramental disseminating the loving grace of our Lord Jesus upon the community transforming the current context into the eschatological hoped for community—even if only for a moment.

spin-doctorA few weeks back I met with a group of folks who are predisposed to a missional perspective on ministry. Our topic for the day was “What does ministry and mission look like in a Post-Truth Culture?” It is obvious that the current political atmosphere was one of the basis of this topic. First, let me say that this
group of women and men all serve in some form of leadership role within their worshiping contexts. There is certainly reason for concern when truth and facts are manipulated and lies become categorically euphemized as “alternative facts.” Secondly, the purpose of the conversation wasn’t about becoming involved in a political debate, but intentionally opening a dialogue concerning ministry in a culture where lying has become mainstream.

For the purpose of this post, I will lay out my argument that Christians have a particular role to play in this society. This situation in which we find ourselves has in fact been developing over several decades. I remember a time in the late maxresdefault90’s when cheating on tests in college was at times rewarded as being innovative problem solving. People lying on job applications was rewarded as being creative. Deception and lies are as old as time. If this is the case, then what is it about right now that is most troubling? If I were to look at it from the dichotomy of national politics, I would most likely point out the blatant ways in which lies are told to shape a desired “truth.” I would point out the use of “convenient truths” that help to construct perception. For me the temptation is to throw my hands in the air and exclaim with Pilot, “What is truth?”
What I find most clear is that this “Post-truth” culture is not limited to any political categorization. In fact I see it as the logical progression of Modernity. Philosophically speaking, with modernity came a shift in emphasis to facts that support truth statements. Therefore when Kant proclaimed “Think for yourselves” he was essentially calling on the masses of society to check the facts. Question the authoritative statements made by the church and don’t simply accept them as true. What Postmodernity does is take this simple skepticism to the extreme and call all truth claims into question. Some claims that society affirmed as factual fifty years ago, regardless of being simply theoretical in nature, are now recognized as being in error. The perception then is that in the postmodern world facts change. Where modernity emphasized objectivity and empirical evidences, Postmodernity calls into question all factual claims that support truth statements based upon these perceptions. Moreover, with Postmodernity comes an extreme emphasis upon human agency and choice to the degree that one now has the ability to choose what reality, truth, or even facts she wants.

In light of the children of Modernity (capitalism, democracy, etc.) comes the means to create your own personal reality. There is no more emphatic lie than to manipulate stories and facts for the purpose of creating a desired reality. This phenomenon reached its pinnacle in the nineties during the Clinton administration as the sitting president then frantically 535190b95c52e00fc716274e7b3d5316-cfsought to defend himself from a political onslaught. Thus the term “spin” became the term choice as society sought to reframe events to their own liking. As it is now predominately accepted that perspective shapes perception (see Gadamer, Derrida, etc.), it becomes impossible to make truth claims without attaching the Postmodern qualifier “for me.” Admittedly, all objective truth is interpreted subjectively. Where we have gone wrong is with the desire for truth itself. People now believe that they can create truth (as well as facts) by manipulating perception.

Here is my argument. Looking back on the emergence of society’s obsession with fame, one cannot miss the use of lies and deception to create personas that are more spectacle than real. What western culture discovered was that if a person became famous a brand was created that could be used to generate wealth in the media market. A timeless truism is that with wealth comes success and power. Lies are often used to build up a person’s image for practical benefits. However, what has become most striking in western culture is the desire to create reality by means of manipulating facts to create a desired perception. Part of the logic behind this finds its roots in the marketplace as massive campaigns have sought to strike at the hearts of the masses for the purpose of selling them a product. This logic goes as follows: if you tell the lie convincingly consisting of just the right amount of truth; and if you speak it loudly enough; and finally if you speak it enough times it will become the governing reality. In the mind of such logic, perception is everything.

Unfortunately, this is where we are as a society. So the question (at least in my mind) is what is the role of a Jesus follower in such a culture as this? Going back to the conversation of those leaders, what seemed most important was to be representative of “the Truth.” And how does one be such a representative? In spite of the overwhelming obstacles this culture is providing, being a faithful presence, practicing simplicity, and especially emphasizing Jesus’ teaching to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” But this in itself is not enough. It is not enough to merely speak out when words no longer hold meaning. I am convinced that those who confess that they follow Jesus are essentially called to live according to the truth. What this means is that as a disciple conforms to the teachings of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), that disciple’s life will essentially become a living embodiment of the Truth. Therefore a faithful presence is nothing more than living a life that is consistent with the belief claims that the disciple makes. It requires an intentional focus upon the one who claims to be truth. The response must be one where the disciple rolls up the shirt sleeves and begins the difficult work of serving the widows, orphans and aliens in the community. It means that it is time to go to work becoming the truth that our neighbors and world desperately need. In a culture where words have lost their meaning, more is required.