Shelter isn’t Home

I am involved with a non-profit organization called CATCH.  CATCH is a housing-first organization with the goal of ending homelessness, particularly in families. I am grateful for what CATCH has taught me about home. CATCH assists families experiencing homelessness overcome financial barriers to get back into housing. Then it supports them with financial assistance and case management while they build a sustainable future.  Provide a home, train and support people to maintain it, and we find a hopeful future.  Its radically successful.  Perfect?  No.  But by every metric it successfully and efficiently positions people to maintain a job, bank money, and support themselves and their dependents.

This lead me to reflect on the difference between shelter and home.  I used to think ending homelessness meant building shelters.  Shelters are well-supported by many well-meaning people.  And even now I don’t disagree with doing that, life with a roof over your head is better than not.  However, we have to know what we are supporting and what is our goal.  To be clear, shelters aren’t going to solve the problem.  Shelter is a bandage for the wound.  It stops the bleeding, but it doesn’t grant dignity.  It isn’t personalized.  And nothing belongs.

Home is the goal.  And knowing that changes the moves you take to get there.  It changes the problems and solutions when the goal is home, not a roof.  This is the value of housing first.  We don’t try to fix a person and then, and only then, decide they are worthy of home.  We help find a home and support them growing into it.  We try to remove the many barriers keeping people in a state of homelessness.  And in a home, with that sense of belonging and responsibility, we can walk alongside each other addressing the causes and challenges that will allow them to maintain that home.  But without ownership of the goal there is no motivation, dignity, or pride.  Ownership and belonging are necessary to work towards solutions and not just talk about them.

I heard a great anecdote about justice and advocacy. You are standing by a river near a waterfall and people are struggling to swim and about to go over it.  You throw them a rope, grab arms, do whatever you can to get them out.  The people keep coming.  You keep pulling.  And that is good and important work.  But sooner or later someone also needs to walk upstream and find out why people keep falling in.

If we want to create true communities, places of common care and good. We need respite.  We want shelters, hospitals, and emergency aid.  But we also need to fix the systems that cause people to fall down and keep them there.  We need to learn and teach practices of healthy living, and create an environment that offers solid ground rather than lives of crisis management. And along that way we receive dignity, place, belonging, and ownership: we find a home.

My Disease And Better Angels

I am filled with such dis-ease.

When to speak, when to remain silent… am I listening?

I feel I am far to quick to compromise so as not to offend and ‘keep people at the table.’ A value I hold dear but it’s also an easy excuse. I know I have spoken words that closed a door that need not have ended. Sometimes we need to offend each other, but never for the sake of the offense. I catch myself consistently not listening to be changed but just hearing for an opening to convince others. I feel torn in the tension of silent vexation yearning for… better, and impatient for realization, and unsure how much that’s because I have chosen the unwise course…

I grit my teeth, I can’t let go of anger, it effects my family but they love me through it. Why am I so sure others aren’t using the eyes and ears, what conceit is that? Why must others try so hard to give me license to think that… there I go again.

How much to judge, that not all is ok, but not be a heaper of burden and shame on those I would love. But love is burden. A really big burden. One that needs to be chosen to be born.

My anger… my disease… It’s mostly a byproduct of love. But what is the end goal of its expression? Love can become jealousy and hate and oppression if it only seeks to feed itself. I see the seeds of all those things in me. I am not proud; I am not ashamed either. What conceit would imagine I’m not running around as flawed as the next person. But I better name those flaws: early and often. Because that’s what keeps the seeds from taking deeper root and fuller expression.

I struggle to love myself and the journey is reflected in my struggle to love my community and the wider world. A fragment of thought hits me at this very moment and it takes me back to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address as he hoped to avoid the conflict that griped our nation.

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

And as the bonds between us strain under the pressure of turmoil and division (a plight that exists in every age, let’s not allow conceit to blind us to imagine it is any better or worse now than ever) the word I wish to cling to is embrace. May my love move to be expressed as embrace. Let me speak, listen, and act as embrace. Let me abide IN the embrace.

Let us feel the way each other’s heart’s beat. Let us feel the wounds in each other’s souls. Let our hopes and dreams dance together in mid-flight. And may our fears and tremblings comfort each other in the midst of nights. For I need to be embraced, just as I would embrace you. That in mutual love and forbearance we may help each other find those better angels in each other.

We Need to Listen

Two days ago I wanted to find a way to hide comments and articles about Hillary Clinton from my feed.  I am tired of more of the same.  The folks who like her defend anything and everything, the folks who hate her… well hate her. The folks in the middle mostly struggle to find a voice because there is so much vitriol on the subject.

Then yesterday stories broke about the shooting of two young black males.  Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  By the police.  And the world is rightly in an uproar again… still.  Black lives matter.  They do.  All lives matter too.  But Black lives are required to play by a different play book and that is what we need to talk about.  Black lives are perceived as a threat.  And I don’t care what stats you throw at me – that just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

I do not know the full stories here, none of us do.  We will have to wait to hear, and mostly we will never know.  But what cannot be denied is that our black neighbors live in a fear that I just do not have.  I have written about that before.  The onus is on them to not appear a danger.  They are constantly perceived as a threat which gives legal license to shoot (for both law enforcement and the general public).  And I just don’t live with that danger.  I get a very different playbook.  And it isn’t just.

So whatever the stories of these particular cases the reality from where I stand is that we have a problem, we have been talking about the problem, but we aren’t finding common ground for solutions.  And in the aftermath, like with mass shootings and political scandals, we will go to our well-rehearsed responses.  The responses that have not yet changed anything but that we are dogmatically unwilling to change no matter what we see and hear.  We need to start listening.  Not debating.  Not convincing.  Listening.  And when I say listen I mean put aside your right answers, walking into the world of the other person, and simply take in their perspective as if it should be your own.  We need to listen deeply to each other before we ever start talking.

I don’t usually know how to respond in these all too often occasions.  I have several good friends in law enforcement.  People I trust with my life, and who I am completely trust with ALL lives.  Who I believe live that Black Lives Matter.  But I also see them tense up in such moments.  Get defensive.  I see them wanting us to understand another side of the story.  Just how hard it is to be in the cross-hairs all the time.  Just how many shades of grey their job has.  They play by a different playbook too.  And I wish to honor that their playbook is often untenable, impossible.  And when they make a judgement call lives are lost… daily.  That is a lot of handle.  So I don’t speak on this subject.  But I need to, I cannot stay silent in my safety. But I want to speak in a way that listens to both sides and I want to acknowledge that far too few lives seem to matter including the lives of many of our law enforcement officers and support staff.   There are good and bad all around us.  And I know some good ones, actually – great ones.

We need you.  We need you to help us into a productive conversation. We need you to help us understand and we need to relax our anger enough to listen.  But!  We also need to see you listen and working on solutions within your profession as well.

I’m an accountability junky.  I love that I’m held accountability to multiple layers of church governance.  Why?  Because I’ve seen the effects of a pastor who abuses power.  I have seen the effects of a church that abuses power.  And the Church has a lot of work to do on valuing all lives, particularly Black Lives.  And it hurts me.  It hurts my authority, it tarnishes my ordination and the very name of Christian.  But it also hurts me to see that happen.  It hurts the church when its sanctuary becomes abuse, when its “freedom in Christ” becomes veiled oppression.  So I call again and again for better accountability to make sure we limit such abuse.  I want you to have your eye on me.

Every time a Muslim terrorist, mostly these days ISIS, kills and destroys I hear an outcry demanding the Muslim community to denounce those actions.  Muslims have to play by a different play book too, constantly trying to prove they want peace.  Constantly having to disavow themselves from the violent manifestations and political forces that coopt their religion for their own purposes.  Muslim Lives Matter.  And we struggle to acknowledge that as well.  Because we still treat our Muslim neighbors as “them.”  And that is what “Matters” means, I think.  I’m presuming here.  It means not required to play by a different playbook than the protected class.  (And that class is me.)

I believe at its heart what the world needs to hear is that we all have each other’s backs.  That for every bad seed there are far more working for peace and justice.  I believe what the world needs to do to achieve that is to let go our defensiveness, to acknowledge what isn’t working, to acknowledge systemic problems, and to acknowledge sin that we may not commit but we haven’t combated either.  What the world needs is to seek these solutions without doubling down on anger, hatred, and divisiveness.  And that is so very hard – because we need to be heard and no-one is listening.

I feel torn today.  My heart is heavy… again.  And I wrote those words not too long ago.  And a part of me knows that I will always have to keep writing those words because the world isn’t ultimately a safe place.  But we don’t have to try to make it less safe.  And we can try to make it safer.  And maybe I just feel today that I haven’t done what I could, what I should…

So I’m asking my friends to help have productive conversations across our differences.  I’m asking us to acknowledge that Black Lives need to matter more.  Muslim lives need to matter more.  Gay lives need to matter more.  And yes Law Enforcement and Military lives need to matter more.  Because we have treated these groups like disposable parts of our world. And I’m sitting in relative safety tired that this space I inhabit isn’t large enough for us all.

I think it could be, I think it should be.

There is enough care for all that all lives can matter equally. But until that is true… we need to talk, but even more: we need to listen.

One World Family

I have lived in the mid-west, the east, the southeast, and now the northwest. I did a tour in the Philippines for a year as well. Living in all these places has taught me that they each have their own unique flavor, but the people are the same. Everyone wants to talk about their uniqueness. “You know you live in Chicago when the weather drops 20 degrees in a single hour…” Except the weather does that everywhere. “You know that you are in the south when every conversation starts with figuring out how you are related…” Except I run into that more of that in Boise than I ever did in Georgia and Florida. I live in a state now that is so white you couldn’t imagine how difficult it is to find racial diversity… and yet I have met more refugees here than any other place I have lived, and I was standing on the sidelines before my son’s soccer game the other day talking to four other dads and I was the only person for whom English was a first language… in Boise, Idaho!

What’s my point?

On the morning after Great Britain has voted to leave the European Union I reflect on what unites and divides us. And how our pride that we are different (and better) is a religion of devastating consequences. It fueled the Hellenizing impulses of Alexander, the not-yet-over age of Imperialism, and more than one World War. It led to a “third-world” treated as the battle ground of competing imperial ideologies.

I consider that it is inevitable that we will try to unite and divide as nations and institutions. We are not a people constantly getting better. We are individually and corporately broken and seeking wholeness. But I believe in my heart in the interconnectedness of the people that populate this globe. We are one body! I believe in my heart that we are only whole when we form a chorus of diverse but same hearts. I believe that the world will be a far less gruesome place when we cease to put ourselves ahead of others… when our drive for differentness and acknowledged superior view on life ceases to become that cancer that puts us at war within our own body.

This is what I mean when I say, in hope, that love wins.

Today I sent my three older kids off on a hike with their YMCA camp. They each had a backpack, a lunch, and two water bottles (there is NO shade in this part of Idaho). At least they almost all had two water bottles. Meredith, the youngest of the three, only carried one so she didn’t get too weighed down, her backpack is almost her size after all. We told the other ones to share their water with her, we all help each other out.

Those words just echoed again in my mind. What seems so easy (well, not always actually, but more often than not) in my family becomes some hard as the “group” gets bigger. But the ethic is still the same. We are still many who belong to one human family. And we share with one another, we work together, we makes sure no-one gets left behind… even if that “costs” us.

So in the natural and inevitable squabbles that occur between siblings, and sibling nations, denominations, institutions, etc… my prayer today is that we may find ways to remember we are each a gift of diversity to each other – but not so unique and special in our selves. In fact it has always been, through spiritual story and evolutionary triumph, that we have succeed in life when we have figured out how to carry one another through the day. We all need to take turns carrying the water for each other. Because alone? Life is far more bleak.

Today I double down on love. I hope you will too. Because together? We are better.

 

Taking Our Pulse the Day After

I cannot make myself feel good today.  A heavy weight just won’t let me.  Our church has screaming happy kids in it for VBS… but I’m… stuck.  Yesterday our world was shaken once again and I just don’t want to “move on.”  I feel a need to wallow a bit.  I feel a need to confess that its wrong that I can just go on while others are looking around corners and locking doors and feeling once again how unsafe their life is, unsafe because they have a big giant target on their back.  And it isn’t of their making.  I made it… or folk so much like me it might as well have been me.  And I haven’t figured out how to get it off yet… and maybe that’s because I just haven’t tried very hard.

This is what is in my head when these words from scripture come to mind:

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke13:1-9)

What we have here is a little trinitarian moment, 3 stories and one message.

A group recounts to Jesus an act of political violence committed by Pilate.  Pilate appears to have killed a group of Galileans in their place of worship.  The event lacks historic attribution outside of scripture and yet many other such acts by Roman power, including Pilate, towards the Jews are elsewhere noted.  We don’t hear how they present this information to Jesus but based on his response it seems that rather than defend their own they turn on them.  This group that was killed must have done something bad.  They want to frame this in a typical, “if they died they must have deserved it” theology that undergirds the myth of redemptive violence.  Redemptive violence promotes the idea that we can fix the world’s problems by killing the people promoting the problem.  If we kill enough, and threated death enough… people will be good and peace will result.

Jesus does as Jesus does: he ignores the idea of providing an answer and asks a deeper question. Do you really think those that died are any different than you?  This is the type of turn I love about Jesus.  Because he always makes it OUR PROBLEM.  (Hold on to that thought for later.)

Jesus has been talking about judgement in the lead up to this interaction.  And yet…  He is unwilling to judge the Galileans.  He isn’t even willing to judge Pilate.  Instead he looks at those who, perhaps, sought to deflect judgement from themselves and says, “unless you repent (turn around the way you are living your life), you will perish as they did.”  You will perish.  Unless you change the direction we are all headed. Now I think we tend to hear this as divine redemptive violence.  You will be killed for being a sinner too.  But I think we read Jesus and God as issuing imperative commands where they intended indicative statements of cause and effect.  In a world that promotes violent means toward the goal… we will all perish in the end.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… let’s hear Jesus out.

Jesus immediately recounts another incident.  The falling of a tower at Siloam.  (Another incident lacking in historic reference outside of scripture… but again, the event wouldn’t have been rare.  In fact ancient historians talk about the over-crowding in ancient cities that often resulted in habitations falling in on themselves under the weight of its occupants.  Usually this would have been the dwellings of the urban poor… and while we don’t know anything about the tower at Siloam such a reading would make this not simply an act of random tragedy, but a consequence of economic injustice.)  Again Jesus says, “did these too deserve to die? (more than you).  Jesus doesn’t give an opportunity to breath… No.  No they did not.  But if we do not repent (turn around and change the structure of how we live together) you too will perish.

And then a parable.  About a tree… because, #Jesus.

A tree that year after year doesn’t produce (doesn’t repent and change direction).  A tree that is you, and a tree that is me.  Because remember this is Jesus we are talking about and for with Jesus he is ALWAYS going to make this about us.  People are dying.  They are dying at the hands of political power, and systemic sin, and redemptive violence… people are dying and we haven’t produced any fruit to make it stop.  So should the tree get cut down?

No.

Because #grace.  Because #novengence Because #noredemptiveviolence

Let me, the gardener says, work on it for another year.  Give it another chance.

Actually, a group of pastor colleagues of mine (I’ll risk breaking some confidence here) recently noted what he really said was… let’s poor some shit on it.  And let’s sit there in the shit for another year.  And see what comes of it.

Well friends.  We have shit. A lot of it.  We have political violence, we have sexual violence, we have homophobic violence, we have religious violence.  And far, far too often we have a belief that somehow the victims deserved it.  We are as steeped in the myth of redemptive violence and victim-blaming as anything from the ancient world.  And we have proved just as unproductive at turning around and bearing fruit.

Yesterday I sat thinking about the violence that tore apart Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, as many of us did.  Today I’m taking my pulse… because I’m wondering how to live in its wake.  Many of us are.  Again.  We talk about a nightclub shooting, but I heard it as a church shooting, because often enough nightclubs are the only sanctuaries our gay friends and neighbors have available to them.  We have shunned them from all the more typical places to gather.  We have heaped shame on their shoulders to make it hard to be who they are in public.  They have needed to create and seek out their own sanctuaries.   And two nights ago one such sanctuary as that was ripped apart by violence and the blood of a 100 people mixed together in their place of sanctuary.  Did they deserve it?

Hell no.

The victims of Orlando were people of color, were gay, were seeking sanctuary and safety in a world that has denied it to them.  It isn’t their fault.  Its mine.  Its ours.  It’s the world that has shunned people and made them targets.  It’s a world that has made it “ok” to treat women as sexual objects, and gay men as “outsiders and enemies to our righteousness.”  It is also the fault of a world that thinks the problem is Islam, or terrorists, or mentally ill people.  Rather than a world that has taught that value of redemptive violence, take what you can and if you are strong enough to hold it against others than you were meant to have it, and marginalizing certain outsider groups as easy targets to power-needy individuals and systems.  Whether it is the Jews or Muslims, women and children, or gay and queer and transgender strangers we constantly put a target on someone… someone else we can blame.  Someone else… so that it isn’t our problem.

I do not image that I am capable of creating a world without violence.  But I certainly have proven capable of providing targets for that violence.  Every time we “other” someone.  Every time we set apart a group as outside our circle of care, or even welcome.  We are creating targets.  We are justifying that they “deserved” it more than me.  So for today… for this year.  My fruit is this: we need to take the targets off people.  And we need to recognize that every single one of us needs to participate in the corporate act of repenting and changing our direction… or we will perish at the hands of one another.

Too many years now the tree has born no fruit.  Far too many years.  The gardener is weary.  It is time and past time.  So do not look for people to blame here.  Look to yourself and ask: what can I do different, how do I need to change, what fruit can I bear that will take targets off of people.  Because we are all sitting in the shadow of the tower of Siloam.  We put ourselves there, we built the tower… and its up to us to put it right.

 

Wise or Fool?  Building a House on Sand

Even the only slightly biblical literate person is capable of recollecting something about building on rock versus building on sand.  Context?  No idea (the culmination of the Sermon on the Mount).  Citation?  Uh, one of the book with Jesus?  (Matthew 7:24).  Purpose?  Well… that’s what we are going to talk about, but first a story.

This story isn’t important in and of itself. Its one of those stories whose important lay in how its representative of so many stories.  I was sitting in a room of students in the Doctor of Ministry program I was in, a joint class across two different programs with students from two different seminaries.  We had just finished reading books by John McCain and Barack Obama and we were having a conversation on the intersection of faith and politics and one person said, “I just can’t agree with him because of X and because that is not what scripture says is right. And I stand on the Word of God.”

That person all but quoted Matthew 7 in that moment.  I’m building my house on the Word and it’s a rock, its unyielding, its absolute, its right… and everything else is wrong.  But interestingly, and you likely see where this is going now, that person was in the minority opinion in that room filled with people who all: 1) love the Church, 2) work in or alongside the Church (or spiritual care community) for a living, 3) see the Bible as unique and authoritative, and 4) have at least one degree in pursuit of a another in the use of the Bible as an expression of that shared love and for the purpose of that work to which they have been called by God.

The professor engaged that person, “But can you see how someone else might read the Word and come to a different opinion about what it means that might open the door for the candidate’s sense of what is right?”  The answer was no.  This colleague was standing on rock, had built their house there, and could not imagine compromising… because that would be opening them up to consequence of Matthew 7: “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  And on that day I began to realize something about myself.  I have built my house on sand.  It is the only faithful way for me.  And I don’t think that makes me a fool.  Its exactly what I think Jesus’ has called me to do.  So… am I not standing on the Word of God?

Let’s jump again for a moment.  In fact, lets imagine this whole post is building a house and its going to stand on four beams – we have three beams so far.  The first was the Matthew’s parable of rock and sand.  The second is the idea that scripture has only one meaning and we cannot deviate from it.  The third beam lies in the fact that Matthew isn’t the only one who tells this story.  Luke also tells the story of the Sermon on the Mount… except its on the plains, its short and to the point, and it has more woe and punch.  Then it too ends in this parable.  But listen to this difference in what is said:

I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

In this account the difference is not that one builder (the wise one) found a good solid rock surface and built there while the other (foolish) built on shifting sands.  The difference is the work that went into providing a foundation.  “That one… dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock… the (other) one… without a foundation.”  I like to think then that both builders were stuck trying to figure out how to build on sand.  The foolish builder set up a house like the one of the lazy little pigs in The Three Little Pigs… any ol’ thing will do.  But the wise builder knows that sands shift and life brings the unexpected your way and so they dug down into the sands to find where there was rock and sunk a foundation down into it to anchor the house.  After building they both look the same from the outside.  And they are both built upon sand, but the one – the one that will stand through the floods and winds that life brings our way – is the product of deep digging and discerning work upon which we really stand.  And the importance to me is that what was never true here is that there was an unambiguous space of absolute sureness upon which to build.  Hard, interpretive, investigative, agile work was always going to be required to find a way to both “go with the flow” and be anchored in something deep and abiding.

Fourth beam time – bringing it all together.  I always imagine it would be nice to see the world in stark black and white, and to imagine that I could always be right in how I read scripture and even how I read the lay of the land in which I live.  I always imagine it would be nice too if God really did all the work for us by just telling us exactly what to do, think, and believe.  But I’m either deeply unwillingly, and just not wired, to actually see that as a viable way for my life… or even the way God calls me into relationship with God.  One thing that is true of both Mathew and Luke’s accounts of the Jesus’ sermon is that he describes an attitude towards life rather the prescribes an exact set of actions.  Be merciful.  Be hungry.  Take care not to be rich!  Seek Peace.  Mourn.  Don’t be well liked! Taste like me – don’t talk like me.  Forgive. Love your enemies. Work out your faith, but not in ways that call attention to your goodness.  Don’t worry and don’t judge and trust. Above all… trust. (like in something that isn’t so sure….)

These are the stones upon which our house is built.  No good creeds here.  No declarative statements that make life black and white and no exposition of what it means to love, of if he really means that wealth is bad, or how far exactly we have to take this whole meek thing anyway….

We are standing on sand after all.  Deeply anchored… but always shifting.  I can be no other – and on this “rock” I will build my house.

So yes I think I stand on the Word of God… but I don’t think it looks anything like a house built on stone.  I think its shifts and moves underneath me.  I think I don’t always know when I’m inbounds and out of bounds or even if there is such a thing.  I think I can’t always tell what parts are even God’s words and what parts are words I put in God’s mouth.  But I also feel deeply anchored in these words… the good ones and the bad ones and most particularly the hard to live with ones.  And I’m standing on the sandy words of God discerning these good stone foundations upon which we may tred forward with the good news, and I am grateful and needful of all the people willing to dig and discern alongside me to find those stones together.

THIS! is the Word of the Lord, thanks (I think) be to God.

 

 

 

Learn War no More: A Memorial Day Prayer

My attempt to put words to prayer this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend… we do not honor war, we do honor those who lost their lives to end it.
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God of incarnate love and mystery beyond knowing. God of chaos and order. God of creative cooperation and of unrequited shalom.

From the beginning you have bounded a space for us between seas and skies in which life may prosper and we may thrive. You built a garden wholeness, righteousness, and justice. And called on us to live within it in balance and harmony to all of creation. A land where tools are for tilling and gathering in.
 
And yet we make tools for killing and separating out.
 
As early as the first family of your world we have struggled with common life together. We are quick to see advantage and threat. We are quick to claim uniqueness and individuality and in such a worldview we are threat to one another – and your kingdom far too accepting of that which we compete against.
 
And so we know strife… and contest… and war…. All too well.
In the murkiness of our distorted vision we yet endeavor to create a land which knows life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We yet endeavor to extend that hospitality, generosity, and wholeness to all people of all lands, and of all ways. That we fall short does not mean that we fail… it means that have yet more work to do – yet more knowledge of grace and love to learn – yet more transforming of our minds to abide in the interwoven web of all life with peace and harmony.
 
In the meantime God, we are grateful for the people who rise to walk the murky in-between times where chaos and order go to war. We are grateful for those willing to put themselves in harm’s way in the past, the present, and the future. We are grateful for those who have taken up arms, inhabited trenches, walked wildernesses unknown, and entered the chaos of contested spaces to seek to hold back the tides of war. We are grateful for those who gave their lives in service to the welfare of others and the common good of all people. In a world in which we do not seek war… but in which war finds us, we stop to honor those who drawn a line in sand and bound the seas saying, “here you shall not pass.”
 
 
God in unclean lines of daily lives we stop to acknowledge as well that we are at war with ourselves. We see schools become front lines in our dysfunctional relationship with violence. We find officers of peace become targets of blood lust. We find systems of order become sin-ridden ways to separate, demean, and keep your waters of justice from flowing. We turn our inner rage on one another using tactics of abuse and dominance to win a sick sense of personal worth. Our self-righteousness expresses itself in a need to force the other into our way and justify ourselves by demeaning and destroying when conversion is unsuccessful. In a world convinced that the strong survive and the weak may be trampled underfoot… violence becomes, it is, the order of the day.
 
We confess our own complicitness… and our acceptance of the inevitability, or even, necessity of this way – it is not of you God… it in not in your calling on our lives. It is not as we were created to be. We aspire more to be Cain… than Christ.
 
And so we give thanks for soldiers and politicians, police officers, and legislators, activits and every day citizens who seek not to be conformed to this way… but to make a new way in the wilderness of our own making. Prophets who speak to power, and power that seeks to build up the down-trodden, tear down walls, and relieve hostility. We are grateful for those who tear down the systems of sin to seek once more a place for the mixing of the nations – a mixing of the creations of the Earth big and small and as diverse as the stars to come together in mutual love and respect where none is Lord but you… Guide us in that way once more, o Christ who confronted power from the cross, and death with resurrection, and hate with forgiveness, and self-righteousness with self-emptying mutuality, in your name we pray – and in your way we seek to walk, this day and forever more, Amen.

Using the Right Words

“That’s just stupid.”  “You’re so ignorant!”

I have seen an increase in what I consider a disturbing trend, and to be fair I fall prey to it myself – I have no moral high horse to sit on here.  The trend is the equation of intelligence with moral character.  More accurately… that intelligent people agree with me about the correct way for society to order our common life, and dumb/stupid/ignorant people do not.

Outside of a defensive, “I don’t do that,” or a knee jerk response of, “but they are stupid!,” the first response that  I expect many people might have is to say, “why does that matter.”  I’m simply venting my disagreement with the way they are thinking and acting by attaching to it a derogatory statement of their mental processing of life (in this, their intelligence).  Well…. I think it matters because words matter.  Our words shape our reality, they are framework through which we engage and respond to life.

And particularly, how we name a problem alters how we address its solution.

Many of the times we fail to fix societal ills it is because we incorrectly diagnose the problems.  Misdiagnosis leads to bad treatment… EVERY TIME!  You have to ask the right questions to get helpful answers.  Words matter.

When we have a conflict of moral and ethical responses, when we have a conflict of world views… the cause has little (or nothing) to do with intelligence.  We would all like to believe 1) that we are very intelligent and that 2) all intelligent people will thus come to the same conclusions as I do.  But this just isn’t true.  Intelligent people are capable of using that tool for good or ill.  And people who are less intelligent are just as capable of transforming the world with great good.  It is a particular skill (tool) which doesn’t determine how it will be used.

I had the opportunity recently to listen to a couple of people in state government speak about their faith as it applies to their work in government.  They were all brilliant people. They did not agree with me… or even with each other.  Similar faith claims… similar intellect and educational levels… vastly different views of how to get “good” results for the common welfare of all people.  And this is before we even talk about folk who don’t even share “common good” as a goal.  I know brilliant people who selfish and manipulative.  There is nothing inherently good about intelligence… or even education.  We are misnaming the problem!  And in so far as we do that, we aren’t going to come up with any worthwhile solutions.

I consider myself an intelligent person.  I have a pretty excellent education (which has as much to do with societal advantages and my parents as anything about my intelligence).  And I prize both of those things… probably too much.  But when I think of my kids, while I hope that for them as well, these are not my top priorities.  More than anything else I wish to raise kids of strong moral fiber with a love of neighbor.  That doesn’t come with an IQ rating… or get taught in a book.  And if I think it does?  I’m pretty likely to fail in my goal.

And if we want to seek consensus building and shared goals and tactics towards that goals, we won’t get there in demeaning others, imagining that only dumb people disagree with us, and that all intelligence is used for (my) good.

So maybe we can all agree to go beyond the playground insults.  (And I do mean ALL because this seems to be a universal challenge on all sides of the equation.) And start taking a bit more care with our words… that we might take better care of each other.

Go to Hell!

Jesus descended into hell… this, for me, is the most radical theological statement the church makes, and the best good news for us all.

Hell, really more than a place (but even as a place) is the state of those for whom God does not exist – it is a place outside of the presence of God (of life and of love). On the cross God becomes God forsaken. Jesus, forsaken by God, dies and is “cast” into hell – into the land of those forsaken by God and denied the presence of God.

And yet… incarnational theology is almost always all about the yet, and this yet is that Jesus is God. God has landed in the land of God-forsaken by God’s own act, and when this happens what we learn is that there is no place now, no where, no when, no being or state of being or place of being or personhood of being that is denied God! The very place defined by God’s absence has found God right in the middle of it.

What better statement do we have than this: hell is the abode of God!

And what better theological litmus test do we have than this: if your statement doesn’t make sense coming from the mouth of the God who makes hell a dwelling place of incarnate love… well, you are on the wrong track.

He descended into hell. Thanks be to God.

 


postscript: this isn’t my first such post, like I said, it’s important to claim.  If you want a lengthier and older and maybe less direct thought process on the subject of “he descended into hell” you can find more thoughts of mine here: https://akukla.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/descended-into-hell/

Messy Church; Gritty Grace


“This is nothing new or surprising, but in many conversations lately, I have decided that the Church is best when it is a place where grace is both freely given and freely received.”

I have had this quote swirling around in my head for over a week.   It was from another pastor friend on Facebook and to be fair I think she is talking about mutuality and no-strings relationship in which the giving and receiving happens equally on both ends and I couldn’t agree more with those aspects.  So I’m not really talking, from here on out, about disagreement with that sentiment… but its going to sound a bit like exactly that.

When I read that thought initially it just didn’t quite sit right with me.  Not in a that-isn’t-true kind of way… but in a that-is-a-little-too-pretty kind of way.  I’m a gritty church guy.  I have a theology of ambiguity.  I am an admirer of existential angstiness in the likes of Kierkegaard and his modern equivalent in Peter Rollins.  I have a quite low Christology, in that I am far more interested in how Jesus teaches us to be human than anything else about him.  And I desire to do the dirty work of really investing in this world with little care of what heaven is, if Heaven even is… its really rather irrelevant.  Heaven isn’t a game changer.  Incarnating divine word/love is.

I tell my community early and often… that church, like family, is messy.

We love pretty scenes of the infant Jesus in a manger with blue-clad (angelic and pristine) Mary kneeling over him… in truth the stable straw (if you have to believe there even was such) is mixed with afterbirth, sweat, and tears… it isn’t easy birthing the promise of new life.

So I thought about it and decided my version might go something like, “I think the Church is at its best when it’s exhausted from trying to be in relationship to each other, widening the limits we place on love.”

The Church isn’t the church when it gets it right.  The Church is most the church when it’s trying in spite of how it gets it wrong.  Its gritty work, this Church thing.  I’ll say it again… that is why I call this space “wrestling with discipleship.”  Discipleship follows, and endeavors to be that which it follows, in our case Jesus.  But one isn’t a disciple because you ARE Jesus.  You are disciple by your commitment to following in pursuit of Jesus’ way.  Its like Jacob wrestling with God.  We are all wrestling with God – it’s the essential nature of discipleship.

I love the Church and I love churches.  Not for their perfection.  Haven’t found one of those yet.  I love when I see a community truly seeking – body, mind, and spirit – to be Jesus to each other (all the others).  And, all good theology aside, that isn’t free.  And that isn’t easy.  And there is nothing cheap about it.  We walk away from it limping.

So while it is a wonderful thing to behold grace mutually and freely given and received.  Grace is most itself, the Church is most itself (I think), when it’s given in the face of rejection.  That is why I find no more gracious utterance in all the Bible that the words of the prophet Hosea, “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  How can I give you up… My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:7-9)

How easy it would be to reject those who reject you… but the greatest claim of grace is the refusal to respond in kind.  Grace is at its best perhaps when its not our first inclination.  Like God in Hosea, we have to be reminded by that churning gut of gritty love that we are free to choose another way: God’s way.  And return welcome in the face of rejection, love in the face of hatred, mercy in the face of judgment, and embrace in the face of apathy.

I leave you, then, with these final words, oft quoted by me because they give great voice to my ecclesiology:

I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.

–Flannery O’Connor, from a letter written in July 1955, published in The Habit of Being, page 90.

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