As Notre Dame burned….

The Burning of Notre Dame

Very few stories have dominated the news in the past two months like the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It made sense. An iconic building with flames shooting out has a way of grabbing our attention and tugging at our heart strings. In response, people took to social media in unprecedented numbers to share memories and grieve together. There is a feeling that we have lost something as a collective humanity. Some believe our visceral reaction to this event is simply the mourning of a heritage sight. After all, John Stonestreet points out in his fine Breakpoint article, this is the venue where Henry VI, of England, was also crowned King of France in 1431, and Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, and Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909. But I believe our reaction speaks to something deeper than the loss of a historical artifact. The clue of what lies beneath those emotions is the truth that Notre Dame is an active congregation that was preparing for an Easter weekend of worship services. Notre Dame is a sacred place. And that sacred space speaks powerfully about a God who chooses to express part of His character through beauty. And that sacred space says something powerful in us that longs for such places.

First, God seems to express part of His character through beauty. We see this pattern in both Biblical and human history. We see the character of God expressed through the beauty of creation. Before there were relational creatures, God created a habitat for Himself that was worthy of His glory and made a statement about His character. The Psalmist would state it so eloquently, “the heavens declare the Glory of God.”

We saw the character of God expressed in the creation of both iterations of the temple in the Old Testament. No expense was spared for the Temple that would be the focal point of Israelite religious life. The finest artisans were dispatched and no detail was left undone in creating a space for the Holy God of Israel to inhabit.

We see the beauty of God in Jesus. This is the stunning reversal in religious history. God would not be situated in a building or place, but instead of person. Israel would be reconstituted not around a temple sacrificial system with a priest offering sacrifices, but in a person. In the elegant words of John 1 in Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase, “God took on flesh and tabernacled among us…”. The beauty of God would be housed in a fresh expression of God’s love through a suffering servant and ultimately a cross.

But in perhaps the most stunning reversal of all, God’s beauty would be reflected in humanity. We are told that humanity was created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. This simply means that the very best impulses and intentions of human beings would reflect the very nature and character of God himself. Our capacity to create beauty through artwork, our impulse for justice, our desire to love, our valuing of courage, our society’s desire to care for the vulnerable and the weak are all small slivers of a habitation so intrinsically planted that it is almost hidden. We can almost think that this comes from ourselves. But this is not the natural state of humanity. Left to our own devices, human beings are naturally selfish and deceitful…. We are not altruistic. Our hearts are darkened and deceitful. It is the homing device of God’s image that points us in the direction of goodness. When human beings act in accordance to values that celebrate and enrich humanity it is a reflection of our maker. It is also the image of God that prompts our hearts to respond in wonder and awe to beautiful things, both natural and man-made. It stirs something deeper in us when we see cathedrals such as Notre Dame. Regardless of how we explain them those impulses are divine promptings and those promptings hard-wire us for immense creativity.

My tribe, the Jesus tribe, describes this soul-stirring response as worship. When we gaze at something with wonder and awe we are ascribing ultimate worth to it. This comes from the view that God has not only implanted His image but also has implanted His person, His Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul uses this kind of language “….do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you…that you have received from God.” (I Cor. 6:19). It is this same Spirit that has inspired poets, composers, architects, and musicians filled with wonder to create beautiful things for God and then give him credit. It was said that composer Johann Sebastian Bach would sign all of his compositions “Soli Deo Gloria”, Glory to God alone, to give praise God for the beauty he had created. It was in this tradition that the great cathedrals of Europe were created. It was the Spirit of God who lifted, moved, and inspired earthen vessels to expressions of vast beauty.

Conversely, the Christian tradition speaks of something else we need to pay attention to and that is the pervasive power of sin that inhibits creative expression. We tend to think of sin as a list of moralistic rules, mostly relating to sex, that we have to avoid so God will not be mad at us. But the effect of sin is that it diminishes. It takes from us. It makes us smaller people. It inhibits our ability to wonder. Sin corrupts our souls and eventually renders us incapable of wonder and beauty as we become more and more consumed with self-serving and petty pursuits.

As most of you know I recently took a job in Atlanta with my company as a Flight Attendant Supervisor. My company graciously gave me three days to move. I got into town late on the first day so for several days I drove around attending to various details pertaining to moving to a new location: Where will I live? Will I like it? Wow this traffic is ridiculous! Sunday rolled around and in mid-town Atlanta walkable from my apartment were many options for churches of all different ilk. There was a church meeting in a local comedy club that looked cool and trendy. There were others in my home tradition slightly farther away. But then I noticed a grand cathedral of the local Presbyterian Church built in the late 1800’s that inspired awe. It was a majestic building with finely detailed contours of fine stone masonry. The space was intentional and worshipful. It was here that I found a refuge. I listened to the ancient words of the liturgy, the confession of faith, the classic Charles Wesley song “Love Divine All Love Excelling” with those elegant words reverberating off the stained glass and massive pipes of towering spires exquisitely constructed. In this sacred space I was lifted from the smallness of my own life…from my meager and somewhat petty ambitions. I was lifted from the binding downward pull of my own struggles and I was moved once again by beauty and wonder. I was renewed to face my life and challenges from a new and more powerful place. Yes, I understand that the church is not a building, but the people. And I am certainly not promoting one style of worship as more effective than another. But there was something very powerful about this intentional space that was set apart in busyness downtown Atlanta. That intentional space made a powerful statement about a God who can inspire such a place and inhabit it. That sacred space spoke deeply of our human yearning for a space that is sacred and the divine impulse within us to worship in response to beauty and wonder.

We are told that God inhabits the praises of His people. But if we are silent, the stones will cry out.

What I Learned from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’

As a child, I was slightly obsessed with “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

I am pretty sure that my realistic life-goals had to do with driving around in a cool car all day long, wearing skin-tight Wranglers and finding items to jump with that said cool car. This wasn’t a fantasy; it was an option.

I also would proudly proclaim that I was a card-carrying member of the John Schneider fan club.

There was a tree outside of my childhood home that would serve as the perfect canvas to my world of fantasy. What made it ideal were the exposed tree roots that would form perfect grooves for my Matchbox General Lee car. My friend Chuck and I would chase each other’s cars around this tree for hours, kicking up dirt and alternating speeds with all of the sound effects of these non-muffled muscle cars. That tree would provide endless hours of entertainment and enjoyment.

I remember one day, however, when I took my collection of Matchbox cars outside and started running them over those well-worn tree roots, I noticed that something was different: it wasn’t enjoyable anymore. The magic of my childhood was gone. I gently placed my cars back into their cases and went inside. I never returned to it again.

In that moment, I learned an important life lesson: life is largely a lesson in loss. The loss of our childhood is simply a precursor to more devastating losses later–each one incrementally more painful than the one before.

There is the loss of our bodies’ physical vitality as the wear and tear of living takes its toll through aging. The aches and pains become more acute. Eventually, our bodies wear out. Death is, eventually, the ultimate and final loss.

We also will experience relational loss. Some of us will go through the pain of divorce; at some point, all of us will suffer a broken heart. At the very least, we will eventually experience relational loss through distance as the nature of our relationships change.

There is also the loss of something as morally neutral as time. The older we become, the more time seems cloaked in sadness; it inexorably slips away. It is this type of sadness that my Dad communicated to me just days before he died. He and Mom were going through old pictures and in doing so, he was reminded of the good times when my sister and I were children. He reminded me that those are times we will never get back. We live the pain of those words.

Then, there are the hurts, the betrayals and the disappointments that take from us in so many other ways.

Maybe what these losses point to is a loss of “wholeness.” This is the loss of who you were created to be: free and unencumbered by guilt, shame, insecurity; free from the raging fury of our ego fulfillment and our drive to be noticed; free–in our naked selves–to be fully known and fully loved. We feel this kind of loss in our souls.

It wasn’t always this way, of course.

The ancient writer of Genesis tells us of a very different world. It poetically describes to us a creation that was bursting with beauty. It was a scene that was so perfect and so unbroken that every day, we are told, God, the Creator–seeking friendship with his prized creations–would go into the garden in the cool of the day to be in relationship with them.

Loss was a foreign concept during this time; wholeness and perfection were the order of the day. However, love being what love is and not existing without a choice, the first humans were presented with a choice. Adam and Eve had free rein in the garden–except for one tree. They did what humans do: they made the wrong choice. The consequences of that tragic choice haunt humanity today. In a haunting curse God said to them, “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the earth, since from it you were taken; for dust you come and to dust you will return.”

This is our story. This is the brutal reality by which we live, function and reason. As the great Eugene Peterson once said, “this world is no friend to grace.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul referred to this reality as perishable–that which is passing away.

There is another reality that lurks just below the surface of this “seen” reality: It is the realm where love still wins, where forgiveness still frees, and where generosity and grace still lead to human flourishing. This reality is described in many ways. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the “moral arc of the universe.” Others have called it a moral force. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. It is the place where God has authority.

We are told in our culture that the greatest quest in life is to find ourselves or to love ourselves or to succeed in our own personal quest for happiness. Our greatest quest in life, however, is aligning ourselves with the imperishable kingdom of Jesus. The Apostle Paul said it this way: “What is perishable must put on imperishability.”

Standing at the intersection of the imperishable versus the perishable is Jesus. The New Testament speaks of such a reality; it is nowhere as pronounced as in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is different than the other accounts of the life of Jesus. This is because John gives us layers of meaning behind the events. In John, there is no Christmas story. There no lineage. Instead, there is poetry that helps the reader understand the reality of which Jesus was part of from the very beginning. It is the Gospel of John that tells us of the creation story in these terms:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” John 1:1-4

What was John trying to do? He wanted us to know that through the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus, God is remaking creation and is creating an alternate reality. He’s undoing the wrongs of the first humans. What is interesting is that John uses the term “Word of God,” which is the Greek word logos. Greek philosophers saw the logos of God as the power that made sense of the world and kept it going in perfect order. It was the thought and the wisdom of God that spoke forth creation, that brought order from disorder and creation from thought. It was now embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

There are allusions of the creation story throughout the Gospel of John. Theologians throughout the centuries have typically referred to the “seven signs of Jesus,” or the “seven miracles of Jesus.” What was the first miracle? It was when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This miracle corresponded with the first three days of creation when God spoke order into the dark, primordial soup and separated the waters from the expanse and called it “sky.” He then gathered the water in one place and called it “sea.”

After the crucifixion in John Chapter 20, we visit Mary Magdalene. She was standing outside of an empty tomb, crying, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to her. Jesus asked why she was crying. The Gospel of John then added this note: “Thinking he is the gardener….” Why was that detail there? Was it an echo of the Garden of Eden, of another gardener who got it wrong?

Even the Apostle Paul picked up on this imagery in the New Testament where he drew parallels between Adam and Jesus. For instance, in I Cor. 15:22, Paul stated that it was “through Adam all die…so in Christ all will be made alive.” Or in Romans 5, Paul stated that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people because all of sinned.”

Do you see the pattern? Chaos, disorder, brokenness, loss: that is our story. Jesus, however, would step into the chaos and reconcile all things to Himself. He would bridge the gap between light and darkness, loss and renewal, death and resurrection. He would then invite us to partner with him in the work of renewal and reconciliation.

How do we join him? Paradoxically, we die. Jesus said it this way, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.”

What do we have to die to? We die to our ego world: to our false selves, to the invading and pervasive power of sin. We die to the sin that implores us to define ourselves as something outside the beautiful, true love of God. As Richard Rohr says, “our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God.”

We die to our addiction to be noticed and admired. Perhaps you need to die to your online identity and stop building personal online shrines. Do we need to die to our online presence and our obsession with how many likes or shares we get or who follows whom?

We die to our self-made salvation projects, where we convince ourselves we can’t be good enough, moral enough or “follow the rules” enough to earn God’s love and favor.

We die to the financial kingdoms that we create for ourselves. These kingdoms are where we define ourselves by how much money we have, by how many cars we have, by the quality of our vacations or by the collection of more “stuff.”

We die to climbing the ladder of success: doing everything in our power to make sure people see us in such a successful light. This is the same impulse that lead people to give bribes so that their children can attend the top schools in the country.

We die to our proclivity to define ourselves by the “rightness” of our groups, whatever your group may be. You as a white person or as a black person; as a gay person or a straight person; as an American or a non-American; as a Democrat or a Republican. I have said this before: It is partisanship and nationalism that seek to divide the Church and distract us from our mission of making God’s love known. People are entirely more committed to their political ideologies than they are to their faith. Worse yet, they see their faith through the lens of their favorite political parties or politicians.

Do you want to join Jesus in his work of sharing His love and renewal in a world of brokenness and sin? You have to die as well.

When we are willing to die, we open ourselves to the truest of true reality. We open ourselves, fully and completely, to the beautiful and pure love of God. We then begin to take on the character and the attitude of Christ.

What is the character of Christ? I think the book of Philippians sums it up well: Jesus being in the nature of God did not see equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. He, being found in the form of a man, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. What is the character of Jesus? Humble, self-sacrificing, possessing generous love and grace for all of humanity.

I think of the story that Malcom Gladwell told in his book David and Goliath. For years, Gladwell had written insightful books on the social sciences, covering all sorts of topics. In 2014, he wrote a book that was about his return to faith. In the process of writing that book, he went to Winnipeg, Canada, to visit Wilma Derksen. In November of 1984, Candace Dirksen, the 13-year-old daughter of Cliff and Wilma Dirksen, went missing on her way home from school. For six weeks, the Dirksens didn’t know what had happened to their daughter. She had just vanished.

When they found her body, they entered into every parent’s worst nightmare. The details of what had happened to their daughter at the hands of a pedophile would haunt them the rest of their lives. What drew Malcom Gladwell to this story and what would stun the world in the days following the murder, however, was a statement that Wilma Dirksen made at a press conference. She expressed to the assembled press corps her intent to forgive her daughter’s murderer, of whom they did not know the identity of yet. She said, “We would like to know who the person or persons was who murdered Candace so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.

“I can’t say, at this point, that I forgive this person,” she added, with an emphasis on “at this point.”

For Wilma Dirksen, this statement would begin a long road on the path to forgiveness. For Gladwell, it was this story and stories like these that led him to ask the question: where do they find strength to say those things; where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?

For Dirksen, it was her Mennonite faith–her faith in Jesus–that gave her the inner resources she needed to walk that path. It was that example that led Gladwell back to the Mennonite faith of his childhood.

Who does those things? Who can forgive like that? Christians, those whose lives have been yoked with Jesus, do. Christians, who are fueled by the presence and the power of God, refined by hardship, nurtured in worship and grown in community.

In a broken, desperate, angry and divided world, we are–now more than ever– in need of a community of people who will inhabit the values and the character of Jesus and model something different: the values of the imperishable kingdom.

Yes, life is full of loss. We live within the often-cruel paradox of loss and renewal, death and resurrection, light and darkness. But we do so with the confidence that God, in Jesus, is renewing the world.

We also live within this paradox with a trust that God, in the words of the old hymn, “hides our souls in the cleft of the rock.” He holds us in a place where we are safe and secure in the hands of a God who loves us with an infinite and unending love.

THIS is what The Dukes of Hazzard has taught me.

John W. Rosenberger Eulogy

John W. Rosenberger/Memorial Service
December 16, 2018
Asbury United Methodist Church, Maitland, Florida

There is an old story that my Dad used to tell at his funerals of a little boy and an old man fishing along the banks of the Mississippi River. The fishing wasn’t very good that day but the conversation was and before they knew it the sun started to set. About that time there was a riverboat that appeared in the distance and came barreling up the river and as the boat got closer and closer the boy got more and more excited and started jumping up and down trying to gain the attention of the riverboat captain. To the utter surprise of the older gentlemen and delight of the little boy the riverboat pulled out of the channel and along the shore where the captain dropped the gangplank and the boy walked unchallenged onto the boat. As he was about to board the boat he turned around and addressed his fishing companion by saying, “You see, I’m not crazy. My father is the captain of this boat and he is taking me to my new home up the river.”

That story reveals a couple of important truths for us to get our hearts around today. The first is that the boat of death stops for each one of us. There is no way around that. The mortality rate is still 100%. Second, our heavenly father is the captain of that boat. To us, as the community of believers that gather to witness to our faith today we do so firmly rooted within a Judeo-Christian faith of people who have journeyed down this road of grief. They have done so not with a vague notion of who God might be but with confidence of who God is and how he has revealed himself. The Psalmist stood within this stream when he declared, “Lord, YOU are our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born, before you brought forth the earth, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” It is the Psalmist he boldly stated, “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me…your rod and staff they comfort me.” We believe that the God who is our dwelling place is the same God that hung the stars in place and spoke his breath into a formless creation to bring it life is the same God who has revealed himself fully and completely in Jesus Christ. He is the Word that we remember during this season that became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. It is this Jesus who declared in John’s Gospel “…that in my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and welcome you into my presence, so that you can be where I am.” It is this same God who declared to a funeral processional of people grieving much like this one, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” It is this same God who left his father’s throne and fully entered a sin-soaked broken creation groaning for deliverance and made it possible through the cross that we can be reconciled to Himself. In our tradition as Wesleyan Christians we believe that it is this God and His grace that holds our lives from the cradle to the grave and if someone is in Christ there is no fear or condemnation….there is only love. This is the Gospel to which my Father gave his life. This is Gospel that my dad preached, taught, and lived. And this is the truth that he is experiencing in all of its beauty and fullness right now.

There is a verse that I want to share with you today and it is a simple verse out of the Psalms and it reads this way: “Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” Today is a day we weep. We hurt terribly in our souls. This day and the 10 days before it have been filled with a lot of tears. We mourn the loss of my Dad. Nothing will ever be the same. Time is now divided between when he was alive when he was not. My Dad was the patriarch who cut a presence wherever he went and his absence is felt acutely in our homes, in this church, and in the many churches that he served.

But as much as it hurts weeping is a natural thing to do and a very healthy thing to do. Everything has a life cycle. The book of Ecclesiastes says it so poetically, “There is a time and a place for everything in heaven and earth. A time to be born and a time to die.” Everything has its’ season….even death. We understand that this is how the natural world works where the new life of spring brings forth summer and then summer gives way to the chill of autumn and ultimately autumn gives way to winter, the season of death. Our lives work the same way, if we are lucky.

We are grateful to God that my Dad got a full four seasons of life. As painful as this day as this is it is also a blessing. There was never any hospital stay, rehab facilities, or nursing homes. If we had the chance to choose this would be the way we would choose to go. My Dad got 80 mostly good years of life. Most don’t get that. The winter of my Dad’s life cycle was a good one. The last year has been a good one. Back in April we had his 80th birthday day party that was well attended and a day he enjoyed thoroughly. There was the cathartic trip he took to North Dakota over the summer with mom. They drove through Linton which was the site of his very first church and got to spend time on our family farm which he loved to do. I remember that he described the summer after he retired when him and mom spent the entire summer in North Dakota as the best summer in his adult life. A week later I met mom and dad in the Twin-Cities for a wedding that I will look back on as one of the greatest weekends of my life. As the wedding venue in Wisconsin was an hour from the cities Dad and I had a lot of time in the car together. It was there that he told him how for the second straight year I saved his bacon from the collective shuttles to and from wedding destinations and what he called the “cacophony of yacking voices”. It was on this drive he revealed to me how poorly he felt. He told me that he felt his body was falling apart and he couldn’t remember a lot of things. These were things that we had noticed in him for some time. But then the next day was even better. It was just me and him who went to a Twins’ game which we had done many times throughout the years. And at first I was apprehensive about this because in his later years he was extremely irritable about pretty much everything and would complain with a disgusted grunt at every irritation. But that day was perfect. The weather was a picture perfect upper Midwest afternoon. Prevailing clouds gave way to bright sunshine 70 degree day. We were in the first row of the bleachers in left field and I really don’t remember much about the game but what I remember about that afternoon is that we talked like we hadn’t in a long time. He didn’t complain about anything. Even though he had many steps to our seats and it was a struggle for him he never complained. The whole time I kept thinking, this is perfect. This is how it should be. I was proud that he was my Dad. On our drive back to Paul and Paulas’ home he mentioned how much he missed the Midwest. At the end of that day there was nothing that was left unsaid between us. I was also fortunate to make it back to Orlando several times over the last few months most notably I was able to spend the last weekend of my Dad’s life with him. My Dad would have called it serendipitous that we would be together that weekend. And I cherish every memory we made that weekend. We just watched football together the entire weekend. We were able to watch two Iowa basketball games something we had done in the Iowa of my youth. He said numerous times how glad he was that I was home. On our final day together we tooled around town going to doctor’s appointment, Whole Foods, enjoyed hamburgers made by my mom, enjoyed and appreciated the Bush viewing in the capitol rotunda. I remember he mentioned that the day before was the anniversary of the death of his mother 63 years prior. The day ended with Dad retiring at halftime of the Monday Night football game lamenting that I had to leave the next morning. Some of his final words to me were, “I wish you didn’t have to go. We could watch sports together all the time.” That was our final moment.
Weeping may endure for a night. Weeping is good. It is healthy. It is a sign of deep connection. But the second part is the best part….but joy comes in the morning.

Today we know joy. Certainly I feel joy when I think of my Dad and the great memories I have with him. All of the football and baseball games we attended. There were Iowa Hawkeye football games, St. Ambrose football games at John O’ Donnel stadium in Davenport. Summer trips to Minnesota to see the Twins and spend a couple weeks on the farm. The stellar games of hide and seek we would play. We thought that fishing with Grandpa was such a great idea that he committed to going out to buy fishing equipment so we could go and it was uncanny but we never caught a thing. He was a terrible fisherman. I remember the camping phase when he would, without fail, be unable to smoothly put the camper up. He got so irritated. Not surprising that he was not handy. A trait he passed down to me. But he was the best Dad. I have nothing but great childhood memories because my parents committed to giving me that. Even when we all ended up in Florida there were so many great Iowa bowl games we got to go to together between here and Tampa. Driving with Dad was an adventure. He and my sister would drive with the same level of anger. My Dad’s favorite phrase, “Come on you pukes!” “ I can’t believe this!”

I get tremendous joy when I think of my Dad’s sense of humor and the ways in which he connected with people through his humor and nicknames. I was Tonza, Fella, Bubba boy. My sister was Aiya, bubba girl. Mom was Mrs. Ray. He would have songs for us. Mine was “please help me I’m helpless…I can’t! I can’t!” My sister’s song was “please help me I’m a fusser! I fuss I fuss!” Just with family there was Pole, Sorrells, sister hatcher, PJ, BJ, Chad boy, Joy bells. One of my favorites though was a college friend of mine who had 14 kids. I think its 14 because I lost count. Every once in a while he would ask me if I had heard from the breeder lately…. as if I’m automatically going to know who that is. He would have a running joke in every congregation he served that every year on the day of the Super Bowl he would inform his congregation that this was yet another unofficial Super Bowl because the Minnesota Vikings were not in it. I love what Cameron told me after his first Sunday here at Asbury back in June Dad came out and told him, “well, you earned one more week.”
But if all we could say about this day is that my Dad was funny than I think that this day would be very empty. What my Dad would want us to celebrate more than anything was his legacy as a follower of Jesus Christ and a minister of the Gospel. There are very distinct things that I remember my Dad preaching over the years one of those distinct memories was his call to ministry. Dad grew up in a Free Methodist Church that was highly legalistic. Dad would say later that when he found the United Methodist church he found grace for the very first time. And I don’t remember clearly the context but Dad would say as he began to feel the nudge to vocational ministry two things would become clear to him: 1) His life was bought with a price. 2) His life was not his own. His response to that was vocational ministry for 52 years and three states that had a far reaching impact. There are thousands of grateful people who have been the recipients of his ministry that are eternally grateful that he followed God’s call. Here are some of the comments:

“Indeed Pastor John and Lola left their mark in our lives and on our congregation. Indeed he was called by God and was His faithful servant to the end”

“Your Dad was an amazing man, a great mentor to me.”

“Pastor John was a one of a kind; confirmed me, married Jim and I, baptized our oldest son……and he had the BEST sermons! So passionate about his work. Even though we haven’t crossed paths for many, many years, he had a huge influence on my life and I’ll never forget him.”

“He married me in a 3 language ceremony, did the funerals of my nephew, dad and grandmother, and served his community and church to the fullest. Job well done Pastor John! Job well done!”

“He meant so much to both Rick and I. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without the influence of both of your parents.”

“He played a huge part in my youth and young adult years including Confirmation and Marrying Brian and I. He was very influential in the person that I am today. Thank you for sharing him with so many people.”

“I know what he meant to all of your family and to all of the congregations that he served. He was my daughters favorite minister — married Dennis and her and baptized her sons. He was our minister for 17 years and we wept when he left and we weep now.”

“Your words point to a higher calling – one that your Dad followed his entire life. He touched many people, as these comments indicate. At a time of the year where we sit down and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and recognize how many lives are influenced by a single individual, I can’t help but think that my life would be less rich, joyful, and gratifying without your Dad’s presence, now almost 40 years ago.”

“He was a great man, and a wonderful pastor.”

On and on they go. In his final days he seemed to be comfortable with his legacy. My Aunt Sue forwarded an email that my Dad sent to her back in August. In that email he reflected on his legacy when he wrote,“say hello to Pole and his family, to Stephanie and her family. It was a distinct honor and privilege of having been part of the baptisms of your family. It is quite a feat. I can look back and know I gave my life for something higher than myself, and despite my shortcomings and frailties, God used me in his service. Without my sweetheart Lola, I don’t think I could have done it.”

I know that one of great points of pride for my Dad was the fact that my sister married a pastor and had a son who followed him into ministry. In an email he sent me from March of 2002 he said this, “The weather has been cool here with a brisk north wind. Today it is warming up again. It can’t come soon enough for me. We continue to bask in God’s blessings each day; also, to revel in our children’s and grandchildren’s good health and future prospects. We are surely proud of you all. It is with pride we tell people that our children are involved in Christian ministry. If I haven’t done anything with my life, it is the family your mother and I have been blessed with and will endure long after we are gone. And, of course, it is all by grace!!”

AS I followed him into ministry my Dad became a mentor to me as he had for many others. He gave me opportunities to preach and lead. He gave me encouragement at the appropriate times. Then later when I was here on the eve before my first funeral we sat down across from each other at HOPS which was where Olive Garden is now in Winter Park and he walked me through what I should do with a Book of Worship in front of us. Essentially all of my wedding and funeral messages were his because they were so good and he had a whole box full of them. Even his messages I tried to recycle at first but then I realized that his style and mine were completely different so I gave that part up. But I would always look forward to almost a weekly email of encouragement and well-timed advice depending on what was happening in the churches that I served. He was full of wisdom.

I know that some of my best moments in life involved my Dad. In 1999 as I was a young adult delegate and a candidate for ministry in the Iowa Annual Conference I distinctly remember following him around proudly as he introduced him as his son and a candidate for ministry.

In 2003 I remember standing in this exact spot at the beginning of my tenure at Asbury. Dad had started at Bear Lake the week before and the timing of the services meant that it would be a challenge for him and mom to make it to hear my first sermon. As the time approached I started to panic where’s my Dad? Where’s my Dad? Then a couple minutes before I stood up to speak he snuck in with mom and sat about three quarters the way back. And in that moment I was ok because my Dad was there.

In 2010 we had the option of selecting three people who would stand with me in my ordination in Lakeland and I was so proud to have my Dad with me in this momentous powerful moment when the community of believers conferred upon me this responsibility.

In all of those moments there was this powerful realization that I am my Father’s son. And that is biological of course but it is deeply spiritual and emotional. I always sought his approval and nothing meant more to me than that. And I realize that everything good in me is the result not just of the grace of God but the influence of my Father. My greatest regret in life is that I may have let him down.

But we find joy in the morning because of the truth of Jesus’ Gospel. The truth about us is that God made and loves me. The truth about those sitting next to you and those you encounter is that God loves them and they are your neighbor. The truth about the world is that God rules and provides for it. The truth about what is wrong with the world is that I and the neighbor sitting next to me have sinned by refusing to let God be for us, over us, and in us. The truth at the center of our lives and of our history is that Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross for our sins and raised from the tomb for our salvation and that in him and through him as we believe in him, accept his mercy, respond to his love and attend to his command we participate in the life of God. And to those who are in Christ that love and care is not limited to this world and this reality but it extends to the next. For the Christian, death is the final and complete victory. Paul said this, “death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting? ….but thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our ultimate hope is that through and in Jesus God is healing and restoring all things. The final and complete victory is described vividly in Revelation 21. He talks about the new heaven and new earth. This is John’s vision, “I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling place of God is with men, he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who sits on the throne said, “I am making everything new!’ I am the alpha and omega, the Beginning and the end. To Him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” But there is one detail I think is odd. He says there will be no more sea. What would have against water? The context of this verse is that John is in exile on an island probably alone in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. And as he would make his way down to the beach and feel the waves lap up against his ankles he would remember that everyone that he loves would be on the other side of that sea. So when he pictures a new heaven and a new earth he pictures a world where there is no separation. A place where everything is unified and healed like it was in the very beginning.

This is the hope that we cling to today. Dad is finally restored. He can finally hear again. This is our joy that comes in the morning. Blessed are those that die in the Lord for they will rest from their labors. Rest well Dad. I love you.

You Still Believe THAT??

You still believe THAT???

That was the question that was posed to me by a lifelong friend. This friend and I had not talked since I exited ministry so he was curious as to where I now stood with God, the church, Jesus, and all “that stuff”. So the question was posed. The opportunity was there to explain persuasively and eloquently the tragic journey that had led me to this well-worn living room in Central Florida. He continued, “I just thought that when you left, you just left, and you left all that superstition behind.” I twiddled my thumbs, creased the edges of the papers I was holding and averted my eyes as to not make eye-contact. This was a tough conversation to have with someone so diametrically opposed to God and “all that stuff”. As real and as painful as my journey has been and despite the time I have spent thinking about it, praying about it, and replaying the events over and over again that has led me to this place….I could not articulate it. I just mumbled something about having to grow up and other surface-level thoughts. It was a massive fail on my part.

There was much I could have said as so much had happened. I could have talked about the great American cities I have had the opportunity to live and work in. I could have talked about the incredible job I have that has allowed me access to, literally, the entire world. I could have talked about the people who have inspired and taught me about great leadership and stellar hospitality. But the one thing I needed to say I could not say. My sojourn…my exile…had deepened my faith and confidence in God and his grace. I wish I could say that this payoff was the result of a stout and obedient faith but I can’t. The truth is, I moved far away not just for the adventure of it but so I could forget. I didn’t want to be reminded daily of my failures nor drink from the bitter poison of regret. The only way to do this was to move far away. I’m reminded of the great words of Father Richard Rohr in reflecting on his own journey, “The Spirit has always persisted in drawing and pushing me, despite my limitations, my unfaithfulness to what has been given me, and the many times I passionately believed my own message while denying it in practice”. While those words are his those experiences are mine.

Grace is central to the message of Jesus. Scripture writers talk about grace in specific ways and allude to it in many other ways. The Apostle Paul would marvel at grace in these elegant words from his letter to the church at Ephesus, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:6-7) Most define grace as Paul just described, as the work of Jesus on the cross. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense…as I learned in Sunday school. It is God giving to us forgiveness, mercy, and salvation at a great cost to Him but given to us as unmerited, undeserving, and completely free. The founder of my home tradition of Methodism, John Wesley, talked about grace in this broader way as the power of God working in us, through us, and around us. He described grace as the undercurrent, the force and presence that sustains us from the cradle to the grave. It is the grace of God as a mood that creates, saves, sustains, heals, nudges, changes, and guides. Grace has been for me, in the words of one Methodist theologian, a symphony of grace that has framed the entirety of my life showing up in the most unexpected places. It has helped me connect the dots of my experiences.

I am reminded, first, of the common grace of God. It is the common grace that is available to all humankind without distinction. It is the grace that is present in God’s first songbook…the creation, which speaks loudly of beauty and grandeur. It is the humming of a mockingbird, the smell of freshly cut grass, the warm gentle breeze of springtime air, it is the rising and setting of the sun. It is the mystery of love, the connection of friendship, a day at the beach, or a piping hot pizza or ice cold Mountain Dew. It is the common grace that Scripture writers referred to when it stated that God is the one in whom we “live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).” The suffering in our world raises a lot of questions…but so does grace. If the goodness of this world is real as we all agree it is there has to be an accounting for it. There were many times working the early morning shift at McCarran airport in Las Vegas when I would see the day break with light reflecting off the mountains that rimmed the city that I thought that moment was for me. God spoke powerfully of the beauty of his creation which evoked so much gratitude in me.

I have learned much of the common grace of God but what has spoken most powerfully to me is how grace has shown up in my most tragic moments bringing about hope, healing and insight. It has been to me a sanctifying grace that has changed me.

I can relate to the conclusions Philip Yancey drew in his book “Reaching for the Invisible God”. He recalls attending a class reunion of the Christian college that he attended. As they quickly moved past the superficial chitchat he stated that all of them had struggled with faith and all of them had known pain…parents with Alzheimer’s disease, divorced classmates, chronic illnesses, and moral failures. He recalled some of the language they used to describe spiritual experience then almost seems unintelligible now. In theology classes 25 years prior they had studied spirit-filled living, sin and carnal nature, sanctification and the abundant life. While they still all identified as Christians none of those doctrines had worked out the way in which they anticipated. Nor have they for me. I also attended a Christian college and studied the very same things. Vocationally I sought to preach and teach those concepts to the best of my abilities but my greatest challenges have been in the livability of those doctrines to which I have failed spectacularly in both a marriage and career. Like Yancey, those doctrines haven’t worked out as I thought they would but they are just as real and true as they have ever been. The crazy thing about Christian maturity is that it is hardly a straight line that is triumphant and predictable, or even rosy and cheerful. It is jagged. It is halting. There are many stops and starts as well as failures and successes. The sanctifying grace of God does its’ best work in the secret places behind the scenes. It moves and shapes us as we go even when we aren’t aware of it.

One of the more transformative thoughts that gave words to my experience came from Father Richard Rohr in his book “Falling Upward”. In this outstanding book he talks about the two halves of life. He says that the first half of life is about building a container to hold the contents of life. The container is built through rules, structure, traditions, impulse control, and boundaries. The best parents, coaches and teachers teach us these things. The container is about discovering our group identity…our sex, our gender, our race and our ethnicity. This is a huge part of the container and it is necessary but that is just the beginning of the journey. There is a second part which Scripture identifies as Christian maturity. In the second half of life, Rohr explains, we shed the container that has served us well and the circle of our experience becomes wider, more compassionate, more grace-filled, more welcoming. It is the further journey.

Most of us are not that interested in the further journey. We are content where we are UNLESS something happens. What often pushes us into the second half of life is a moral failure, a divorce, a tragedy, a sickness, a wayward child, or the losing of a fortune. For me, it was the sudden and dramatic exit from my life’s work of ministry. Even today, I struggle with the loss of that edenic life and the loss of my specialness. I still ruminate over all the things that I lost and the relationships that are now gone. I still dream about how magical that season of my life was as I discovered my gifts and was loved well by the people I served. I also wrestle with the possibility that I caused damage through my actions and pray often for forgiveness. Sometimes though, failing is necessary. Sometimes the way up is the way down. This is what happened with Peter, with Abraham, with Joseph. This is most importantly the arc of the life of Jesus. Without death, there is no resurrection. In the ways that are most important I have fallen upwards into a deeper experience of truth and grace. Rohr calls it the larger field. The larger field does not deny the tragic sense of life because it is rooted in realism and the truth that we all live out our own story of hardship. It is a field that is so broad and so life giving that, as Rohr explains, it can contain the contradictions of life and the contradictions within us. When we fall forward we start to see ourselves and the world through a more compassionate lens. We don’t always have to be right. It’s a space where everything belongs and there is a sense of okayness about yourself and the world.

Coming out on the other side has led me to a place of deep humility and dependence. The larger field isn’t as much about moral perfection as it is about a poverty of spirit and shedding of ego.

The sanctifying grace of God has also impacted deeply how I see the world. I used to believe that faith was a series of propositional beliefs that are to be defended against the evil encroaching culture. I no longer see it that way. Grace is something to be shared. It takes absolutely no grace to relate to people who are exactly the same as us.

How do we engage the world? This is something that the church has struggled with for 2000 years. If you have seen the movie, Paul the Apostle, this struggle was as old as the church. In the movie there is the fledgling church in Rome persecuted, many are burned on poles as an example. There is a faction of the church that wants revenge and to take up arms against Rome. But Paul points them back to the way of Jesus, the way of love. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let them take your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile with them, go two miles with them. The way of Jesus is the way of service.
But that is not the way of the world. The way of the world is entirely obsessed with who has power and who wants power. It is a place that is graceless and fearful of anything and anyone that is not like us. The world is a place that is obsessed with first half of life issues such as security, protecting boundaries of my group, my ethnicity, my country, and my gender. These are the things that we fight about.

But we are to be different. “See to it that nobody misses the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:25). This is our function as followers of Christ. Show grace. Well, you might say, they don’t deserve it. They are unrepentant, they are mean, they are full of hate, they are liberals who don’t have a clue, they are conservatives who are out of touch, they are radical muslims, they are bullies at school. It doesn’t matter. They don’t deserve it. But neither do we. But God has given to us freely and generously. But we are to give freely and when we do it is attention getting.

Bill Moyers’ documentary film on the hymn “Amazing Grace” includes a scene filmed in Wembley Stadium in London. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa. For some reason, however, the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act. The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd at Wembley Stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns N Roses have blasted the crowd through banks of speakers, riling up fans already high on booze and dope. The crowd yells for more curtain calls, and the rock groups oblige. Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sits in her dressing room discussing “Amazing Grace” with Moyers. The hymn was written, of course, by John Newton, a coarse and cruel slave trader. He first called out to God in the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard. Newton came to see the light only gradually, continuing to ply his trade even after his conversion. He wrote the song, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus sounds” while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. Later, though, he renounced the profession, became a minister, and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. He never lost sight of grace. When he wrote, “….that saved a wretch like me” he meant those words with all of his heart. In the film, Jessye Norman tells Bill Moyers that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves, redeeming the song, just as he had been redeemed. Finally , the time comes for her to sing. A single circle of light follows Norman, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki, as she strolls onstage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more Guns n Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly. Alone, acapella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, very slowly: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!! I once was lost, and now I’m found- was blind by now I see. A remarkable thing happened in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent before her aria of grace. By the time Normal reaches the second verse, “twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved….” The soprano had the crowd in her hands. By the time she reaches the third verse, “Tis grace has brought me safe this far, and grace will lead me home,” several thousand fans are singing along, digging far back in nearly lost memories for words to the song they heard long age. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. I think I know. The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent.

Graham Greene once stated in his novel “The Quiet American” that at some point we all must choose what we believe. We DO have to choose what we believe about God, about ourselves, and where we find ourselves in this world and then to seek to line up our lives consistently with that belief. I DO believe this stuff. In the end, what is the alternative? In the words of the Apostle John, “to whom else should I go? For you have the words of life.”

Revival of Goodness

A Revival of Goodness

Multiple generations will remember Fred Rogers as the creator and star of the iconic kids show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. What many may not know about Mr. Rogers was that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister who saw his show as a way of living out his faith in God. There was something magnetic about Fred Rogers that drew people in and it certainly wasn’t his charisma. I believe it was his goodness. A recent documentary told of an instance when a public television network in Boston decided to have a meet and greet at their station with Mr. Rogers with children and their parents. They anticipated that maybe a few hundred people might show up. Instead, there were lines around the block all hoping for a moment with Mr. Rogers. Toward the end of the documentary the narrator stated the goal of Mr. Rogers was to promote a revival of goodness by affirming in children that they were created in the image of God and because of that they were special and valued. In a similar way two thousand years ago a Jewish rabbi drew crowds to himself most of which were people on the underside of power with a similar message that God’s goodness had come in Jesus. He also came with a counter-cultural message that the good news, the Gospel, could be participated in if they follow Jesus in the ways of His Kingdom which was the way of sacrificial love. One could also say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brought a revival of goodness in a world hardened by political strife, rumors of war, and the devaluation of life.

I write these words against the backdrop of the deplorable state of American politics. The business of politics has never been kind but what is happening today seems different. Thomas Friedman in a recent article suggested that we are on the brink of a civil war. Based upon the viciousness in the tenor of our discourse that is not out of the realm of possibility. We seem to have two different groups of people, right and left, with competing worldviews and versions of reality sparring for power and the right to politically move the country in the direction that fits their worldviews. Each group has their own news sources, their own news channels and web sites and put forth information generally agreed upon by their constituents and defend their truth in a fervent manner. It is almost as if politics is a religion….if we understand religion as that which gives us hope. Instead of believing in God we believe in our party and our leaders to give us hope. And we believe that if only our people were in power than the world would be right. No wonder it elicits such strong emotions when we don’t get our way because that is exactly how many see it, as a religion.

To be clear on my perspective, I love America. Nobody is as patriotic as I am and my roots run deep. My paternal Grandfather was a veteran of World War I(yes, I wrote that correctly). My Father is a veteran of the Vietnam War and my brother-in-law spent a year in Iraq as an army chaplain. I am proud of each one of them and appreciate their service to our great country as I recognize the service and sacrifice of so many who have served and died to defend our freedom. I believe in America and the lofty ideals put forth in our Constitution by our Founding Fathers. The Constitution is an amazing document declaring that our “unalienable rights” as human beings are God-given and the fact that we are all created equal is one of the earth-shattering ideas of history. The government is subservient to those truths and whose role is to protect them. It is those truths that have made America great throughout the centuries, in spite of our failures, as we have struggled to fully live into those lofty ideals. A government by the people, of the people, and for the people is the best idea that has come about attested to by the myriad of brutal dictatorship and socialist systems that have robbed people of their dignity and worth. The crucial and important issues that we face today…issues such as the definition of life, human rights, gender equality, racism, and the role of government…all of these decisions are forming us as a nation either preserving or inhibiting liberty. For those reasons I am deeply vested in the future of this great country.

That being said, my ultimate allegiance and loyalty is not to a flag or a country but to Christ and His kingdom established and inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And while I am deeply concerned about my country I am more concerned about the movement of people that Jesus commissioned, the church. My concern is that this eternal, hope-filled, grace-giving, life-affirming, hell-gates charging, peace-loving movement of people have, today in America, been hijacked by partisan politics. Before you start cheering me on thinking that I am going to jump on the republican or democratic bandwagon and decry the idiots in the other party I am going to say that both sides are guilty. Our country is deeply divided by the tribalism of identity politics we see in culture-right/left, conservative/liberal, white/black, male/female, American/non-American, gay/straight. As the church, I fear that when our true values are peeled back and examined critically and when our true feelings are exposed we generally do not reflect a heart deeply influenced and transformed by God’s love, we simply reveal the same tribalism with a religious layer on top, as Greg Boyd once said. It’s the layer of conservative/progressive, catholic/protestant, evangelical/liberal, and each march lock-step along the lines of party politics. This simply reveals we are way more committed to our political parties than we are our faith. Richard Rohr recently explained this phenomenon when he said that when religion is placed within culture, culture always wins. We are way more shaped by culture than faith and we are Americans before we are Christians. Furthermore, we have bought the age-old lie that the only way to influence people is through coercive power. This is why most of our discourse takes on the same old angry and cynical tone. It never ends. Nobody has anything new to offer.

How do we engage politics and culture in a way that is God-honoring and true to the mission of Jesus? How do we set ourselves apart yet still engage on these issues that are of vital importance? If we want to make an impact in this unique cultural moment we are in it requires a different kind of thinker. It will require us to be, as Jesus said, peacemakers. This cultural moment is ripe for people who are willing to seek understanding and those who are willing to lean into grace while not forsaking truth. Peacemaking is valuing people more than the need of myself and “my group” to be right. It is willing to seek a higher perspective. There is not much room in our culture today for peacemakers. Anyone who seeks to offer honest reflection and understanding is typically shouted down and labeled as a compromiser or scorned for their naiveté. Surely I will be labeled as such depending on your slant. There is such a pull to the extremes that voices of reason are drowned out in the cacophony of screaming voices. But this is exactly what Jesus modeled. The climate in which Jesus was born into, was raised, and lived out his ministry was, at least, as contentious as ours. Jesus navigated through every social arena, every ethnic group, every political party (Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducees) and people of all economic background and they were all attracted to Jesus and his message. Many of the questions that were posed to him were trying to get him to take sides and affirm the rightness, opinions, or beliefs of the asker of the question or their particular group. But almost every time Jesus responded with something that made people think. He presented a better and higher way. He was trying to move people to a greater level of love by challenging their ingrained beliefs. One of Jesus iconic and long lasting stories was The story of the Good Samaritan. This story was prefaced as the man who was seeking to “justify himself” already having figured out his own rightness and the rightness of his group. But Jesus turned the story on its’ head telling a story about a man who showed compassion and making the hero of the story an enemy, an outsider, a half-breed….a Samaritan. They were a group who had the wrong blood lines, worshiped wrong, talked funny, etc. This was a story that so angered this righteous Jewish man that when asked which one showed compassion he was so full of contempt that he couldn’t even verbalize the word “Samaritan”.

In addition to this, time and time again Jesus refused to delve into the politics of Rome or side with any group that would cozy up to Rome, or overthrow Rome, or seek to accommodate Rome. He had plenty of opportunities to do so he just never did. It feels like scripturally, that Jesus and the Scripture writers assumed that culture was going to be hostile to the Gospel and went about the business of the Kingdom of God. It was the business of loving your neighbor, offering grace, forgiving and peacemaking. What we DO find in Scripture is a warning on the danger of getting too close to power. While Jesus was noncommittal when it came to engaging the power of Rome, he was very committal about the kind of qualities that would embody His followers:
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God”
(Matthew 5:9)
“You have heard it that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your
enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the
right cheek turn to him the other also; If someone wants to sue you and
take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

The question becomes: Does this matter to us? It seems like we, as followers of Jesus, should be driven by a different set of questions rather than who has power and who is more right. Maybe what should drive us is, “How do we honor each other?” “How do we build each other up?” “How do we seek the common good?”

It takes a bigger perspective- I know that I cannot depend on my own perspective. I have a remarkable capacity for self-deception and rationalization. I have biases and prejudices, some I am not even aware of. I have no chance of navigating the information and misinformation and make a judgment on truth without seeking a larger perspective. That larger perspective comes when I am intentional about what I allow into my soul. What I allow into my soul has to eventuate in a greater love for God and others, as Pete Enns once said. What are we allowing to shape us in our inner lives? Many people spend hours a day consuming partisan talk radio or cable news channel hosts that just confirm and amplify everything they already think and believe. What we don’t often realize is that talk radio and cable news channel hosts are entertainers and there is great money to be made in stirring up their bases and fanning the flame of partisanship and contrived outrage. Those voices have to be moderated by bigger perspectives. Those bigger perspectives were once provided by churches and families but as those institutions have eroded what is left is for people to figure things out on their own. And we know that most of our time is spent with people who think like us, look like us, and believe what we believe so figuring things out on our own is a disaster. We have to be intentional about forming our lives spiritually by putting ourselves in places that teach and preach God’s word with the intent of building better lovers of God and people. These are the places that stoke our souls and that nourish our hope and our imaginations to see the bigger and better picture. This gives better context for this cultural moment. When we are nourished by this larger perspective and unencumbered by the extremes we enter the political arena with a helpful and needed voice. We once did this. Ross Douthat said it in his book Bad Religion:

“In our nation’s better moments, Christianity has been intimately
involved in American politics while standing somewhat apart from
partisanship, summoning the country to reform without falling
victim to the conceit that political reform is religion’s only
purpose. At their most robust and independent, our churches and
religious leaders have reminded us that America is only almost
chosen, and that paradise isn’t possible on earth. In our finer
hours, orthodoxy’s universalism has been potent enough to temper
nationalism in both its apocalyptic and messianic
manifestations…..But we do not inhabit such an hour today.”

We can again be that voice but only when our politics is put in its rightful place. We put ourselves in our rightful place when we are regularly hearing preaching about a big God who is at work in the entire world healing and restoring all things and challenging people to submit their lives to Christ so that THEY can join him in this work of healing and restoration. We are in the right place when we hear that God is building a tribe that goes beyond my nationalistic ambitions and involves every people group, every nationality, every tongue, every economic level, each gender, every social class, and every race. This is an idea that is so groundbreaking that The Apostle Paul marveled at this idea when he stated in his letter to the Galatians, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28). We inhabit the greatest story ever told and when that story is told outside the trappings of culture and politics as it was intended to be told it is a story that is beautiful and true. I like how Andy Stanley said this when he said that people should want this to be true even if they don’t believe it. They should be saying, “I want the world to be this way!” “I want God to be this way!” To reduce the bigness of the Gospel to the small selves of our own pettiness and pride or a political platform is minimizing it and is off-putting. Friends, seek a larger perspective. Go to a great church. Read books that enrich your mind and inspire you. Turn off the radio. Read Scripture with an open heart. Watch inspiring movies that highlight the best of human nature.

Second, whatever stands you take politically do it with humility. Humility should be the number one quality of people who seek to live in relationship with Jesus. Whatever political bent you hold do so with the understanding that you could possibly be wrong. I could very well be wrong about all of this because my perspective is just as broken as your perspective. Humility allows us to contend for truth while communicating care and grace. Instead, often we settle for talking at and down to people while communicating through our words that we believe we are more intelligent, more enlightened, and they are an idiot for thinking the way they do. Andy Stanley in a message awhile back had a great suggestion. He said that the next time you are speaking to someone who has an opposing view politically than you do and you feel those emotions rising up within you and you are getting angry and you can’t wait to jump in with your own thoughts ask this question, “Why do you believe that? What led you to think that?” You see what that does? It gives you context. It shows humility. Eventually this will allow you to gain a hearing. You get to know them as a person and a bit about their story. Because remember our goal is to influence. Humility leads us to influence. When we jump on our soapboxes and slander people and start in in on the rhetoric we immediately lose influence. And as Stanley pointed out, “why would we want to lose influence with people over 21st century American politics?”

Related to that, let’s reconsider how we relate to people on social media. Some of the most mean-spirited and pot-stirring stuff I have seen posted on social media is from Christians who post articles and thoughts that are untrue, slanderous, and often mean-spirited. Do we not see this is a problem? Pastor Christian Magnell in a letter to his church talked about the credibility issue with this. He asks:
“If you’re posting something that will alienate half the people on
your timeline and your next post is Scripture talking about how
awesome Jesus is, think about the effect. Lots of people are internet
lazy. We post things that may or may not be true but it fits our
worldview. That’s confirmation bias. A few Google clicks would help
but we don’t take the time…..if you post something like that and
then post Scripture, your credibility, spiritually, becomes suspect.
It won’t be suspect among the people who already agree with you, but
I want my church family to be diverse in many different ways.”

There has to be humility and wisdom in how we communicate,

I see this cultural moment as a huge opportunity for the church to lead the way and show a more compassionate way forward. Who else will lead the way? It will not be our elected leaders who have proven that they are more interested in pandering to their extreme bases. As Richard Rohr once said, a problem can’t be solved by the same consciousness that created the problem to begin with. As followers of Jesus we have the DNA within us to speak from a transformed heart that can offer something useful as peacemakers. Maybe what our culture and our country needs more than louder voices is the same quality that Mr. Rogers revived, goodness. When we seek, pursue, and embody goodness we offer a needed voice of truth and sanity in a world hardened by violence and political strife. It is only then that we will have real influence.