Who Can Stand It?

In John 6, Jesus calls himself the bread of life, which is commonplace to Christians today on this side of the resurrection, but back then it caused quite a stir. Actually, the way Jesus described himself often times drew “we have to put an end to this guy permanently”-level criticism. Think of it: scribes and religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus–to kill him!–because of what he was saying and doing. That isn’t run-of-the-mill agitation; that’s disrupting the socio-religious order in the most drastic way. To say one is the bread from heaven that will satisfy a person’s hunger for life is to make a claim to divinity of an audacious kind. And to say one has to eat him, that’s adding absurdity to audacity.

Then he’s asked an important question by his disciples: “this is a hard teaching, who can stand it?” And it says that many left him and no longer followed him. After this Jesus turns to his twelve and asks, “What about you? Will you leave me, too?” to which Peter responds dramatically, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This is dramatic stuff. But the upshot is that to follow Jesus often is a lesson in believing in spite of everything we know and hold dear. Truly, he says a short while above in this episode: “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he sent.” I believe these words were also a testimony about the twelve and was validated by Peter’s response. Even now, in the wake of Jesus’ audacious claims about himself, the disciples are at a loss–but have nowhere else to go, because they’ve come to believe in something–someone–indescribable.

For us today, the command to love one’s neighbor, to love one another, is a hard teaching. Who can stand it? The command to turn the other cheek is a hard teaching, who can stand it? Who can stand the call of God to proclaim the kingdom of God when it means denouncing the spirit of the world? White supremacy is a demon that not only threatens the people of God, but has found a stable home inside our walls and halls, and our hearts. It is a part of our daily bread and devotion. Who can stand the teachings of Jesus when it demands sacrifice and death to the air we breathe, the faith we hold in false ideology–even though this is the way to resurrection and new life?

The kingdom of God is in our midst, and many have been invited; many, though, have responded, “Wait, Lord, I will follow you when I am ready. Give me time to figure out how to serve two masters…” He has sent invitations to those on the streets, in the countryside, in the crack house, the brothel, the prison cell, the graveyard–and they are willing to say yes. The kingdom of God, so unlike the kingdoms of this world–who can stand to love it? To desire it? To cherish it? To fight for it? To die for it? Who will call out the white supremacist and racist evil lurking beneath the surface of our churches?

At the end of the day, who will say, “Here I am, Lord, send me into the furnace?” Perhaps we would find that inside the flames of hate and injustice, “in the presence of our enemies”… “a fourth like the son of the gods” resides there. To whom shall we go? Lord, send me!

 

 

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White Supremacy (Overt & Covert)

A helpful diagram for discussion. This would be a wonderful workshop or professional development in churches, Christian colleges, activist groups, and many more institutions and relationships. This is an excellent learning tool for people of all levels of engagement and experience in this field.

Radical Discipleship

A helpful visual on race floating around social media:

White Supremacy Visual

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Charlottesville

Today is a difficult day for Virginia, and for the country–yes, my country. As my friend Jack Holloway writes, “Recently, it has felt very difficult to proclaim hope over the world, let alone believe in this talk of coming glory and freedom. Ours, it seems unavoidable to say, is a dark time…. Our world, more and more, seems hopeless, godless, and meaningless.” I look at my dark hands and wonder, “when, oh Lord? How else can I speak the truth so that it is heard? How else can I love so that others may see you are working in my life?” As I reflect on my feelings, I am reminded of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “turn to them the other cheek also.” Perhaps for me, to turn the other cheek is to speak a word of hope in the midst of violence, hatred, and evil. A Psalm 22 word of hope which first cries, ““Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”

I find this first word in this poem by Langston Hughes, which might as well be a prayer and a sermon.

I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.

I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!

Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?

We’ll see.

The question, “Who but the Lord can protect me?” resonates with the Psalmist’s prayers not only of deliverance but also of the desperation and despondency that bespeak the reality of being surrounded by enemies and stomped underfoot by those who wield power unjustly. A Christian hope is not some timeless truth that can be plucked from the air willy-nilly; it is a concrete word that speaks to ME and to YOU in the here and now. “Who but the Lord?” is speaking a word in “the August-12-2017-here-and-now.” Who but the Lord will defend us today and fight for us against the white nationalists and their spirit of hate that seek to destroy the imago Dei?

Who but the Lord can save us from the greedy men and women that rule the world? Who but the Lord can save us from the evil men and women who deface and defile God’s beautiful black, brown, and red creation? Who but the Lord can save us from the fear that is being stirred day and night by those who lust for power, control, and domination? Who but the Lord can comfort us? Who but the Lord can vindicate us? Who but the Lord can avenge us? Who but the Lord can strengthen us to stand up for righteousness? Who but the Lord can surprise us saying, “I dwell among you, in the flesh!” “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly, I will praise you….For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22) Oh Lord, “lead us not into the temptation” to strike back with hate; “but deliver us from the evil” that we are facing today in the United States in an unrelenting way. Surely, we are not alone! “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Strange Worlds

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I reflected on the danger of living in America–for people of color, Natives, women, sexual minorities, etc.–today I was reminded of the strangeness of America. America, my home, is a strange world.

Karl Barth once wrote an essay on the “strange world of the Bible.” That is, the Bible, though dictated, recorded, and assembled through human language, is nevertheless a “strange world” which interrupts, interrogates, and (sometimes) dislocates us when we read it/encounter it. It is so because it is God’s word, and because it is the word of God (logos theou) it cannot truly be contained. Further, because it is the word of God, it is a divine word, and as such, it is a word that confronts the person who seeks after it. And also because it is a divine word, it is a word–and a world(view)–human beings have difficulty understanding. That is why it is strange because it does not go “according to plan.”

The incomprehensible God of the universe, eternal, all in all, has created a world and creatures within that world whom he wants to enter into a relationship with, and when it turns south, he chooses not to destroy and start over but rather becomes one of the creatures he created to make a way for us to be saved. Retribution is a logical, rational narrative; yet condescension and reconciliation comprise the refrain! Who would’ve thought?

The strangeness of the Bible is one in which we are invited to enter into from our world in order that we can return to our world with a divine word for our times. Escapism is born of a contempt for the world as it is and seeks to confine the divine word for itself. It is a greedy philosophy which selfishly gorges itself on (what it thinks is) revelation for its own sake, while the world around it is “left to its own devices.” But Jesus himself prayed that we would return to the world in the power of the Spirit, armed with the sword of truth to “bring the good news.”

And there is a divine word for the strange world of America today. This strangeness is one which coaxes us in, rather than invites us. It is deceptive, for it doesn’t truly or fully understand itself. This strangeness does not bring with it a divine word, but a human word of pride, sovereignty, death-disguised-as-life. It is to this world, though, that the church (the body of Christ) utters through the power of the Spirit, “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” “[Christ] is our peace…who has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.” “Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds because of your evil actions. But now He has reconciled you.” “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.”

The strange word of the Bible says that it is inside the deception of the world that the good news shines forth; it is within the confusion and mayhem that comfort, peace, and rest are found; it is in a broken world that the kingdom of God shines, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 

Love: A Very Beautiful Ugliness*

I watched “Bear With Me” by Propaganda and it reminded me of a poem by Tite Kubo in Volume 20 of the Bleach manga. It’s one of my favorite by him in the manga:

Those who do not know what love is
liken it to beauty.
Those who claim to know what love is
liken it to ugliness.

In the context of Prop’s song, the poem bespeaks romantic love. In a romantic relationship, love is tested; it is a daily commitment to put the other person before oneself prior to any interaction with one’s partner. Therefore, love is a disposition; it is an ethics. (It’s only natural for me to reflect on the subject of love as disposition [is it natural?], I’m engaged to be married very soon!) The decision to love prior to the ethical encounter (i.e. encountering another human being, in this case, a lover) is how I read the audacity of love: “I love you in spite of whatever you’re about to do in this moment.” The disposition of love is not concerned with its safety. It’s a fearless ethics.

Not much, however, is different in this regard with romantic love and neighborly love, i.e. agape. For too long, romantic love gets too much love at the expense of neighborly love, so that no one knows how to love, even those in romantic relationships. Eros is set over against agape, in an either/or struggle for supremacy. This dynamic makes love to be a farce, a shadow of its true beauty, and its true ugliness.

The ugliness of this fearless ethics is its willingness to suffer and to die for the sake of the other person. My father once said to me, “If one person is willing to die [to themselves, presumably], the relationship will always work.” The beauty of love is its unrelenting pursuit of satisfaction and completion in relationship; the ugliness is in the uncertain ways and forms this completion takes. Compromise. Arguments. Tears. Confusion. Forgiveness. Frustration. The death of the self in love is a slow, painful one.

But love is ultimately beautiful because that which willingly enters the ground will be raised up. The seed planted must die before it becomes the tree that brings shade to those under its branches. But the tree cannot become without the death of the seed. And so with love: it is always beautiful, and because it knows its true nature, it is not afraid of dying. In any and every relationship, love is strong enough to survive the honeymoon, rosy-colored phase and get into–and past–the funk, the ugliness. Love is willing to die slowly and painfully–because it knows it will be brought back to life. Are we willing?

*Disclaimer: this reflection in no way espouses “redemptive suffering” in the context of relational abuse of any kind. To abuse the love which is given by someone is hateful, antichrist, and a sign of a degenerate human being. There is (sadly) a praxis in Christian circles of blaming women for the abuse they experience in their marriages, which sadistically exhorts them to “submit to your husband and love him until he changes.” Nein! The devil is a liar; whether in marriage, friendship, family, anyone who abuses the other is evil, and the one(s) who are aware of such are as guilty. 

Dark Side of Christianity

There is only one side: the cross!

It is customary to warn believers, new and old, of the “dark side” of discipleship, namely, suffering. Whether it presents itself in persecution and the threat of one’s life for the sake of Christ; intolerance for one’s religious views and their public manifestations; exclusion from the public square–whatever one’s impending struggle is, at least here in America where I’ve lived in my formative years, that struggle is categorized as “the dark side.” But is it?

Jesus says in the gospels to “carry your cross daily. The one who does not do so cannot be my disciple.” For Christ, there was only the cross. That is discipleship. But it is not understood in the modern binary of good and bad–it simply is what it says it is. (It’s interesting the kind of warning label that some evangelical Christians put on discipleship as a cautionary tale, and yet, for example, marriage deserves just as much of a warning label [judging by the rising popularity in divorce], and yet the latter is like an amusement park that everyone is chomping at the bit to enter into–despite the ever-present challenges, difficulties, struggles, disappointments, and pain. Why is it easier to see past all of that for marriage but not for discipleship? Is it because we can’t have sex with each other as disciples?)

To suggest that there is a dark side of discipleship that we should be wary of is to implicitly put forth a prosperity theology whose premise is: shy away as far away as possible from pain, discomfort, and anything that would hinder the individual from “realizing” their dreams. It is true, however, that Jesus also said, “count the cost.” He offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill, but before he puts his hands forward for the young catechumen to choose, he reminds him, “Ain’t no turning back, son! Choose wisely! If you want to follow me, there is only one way, and that is the path which I myself take. There is nothing else.”

This is not a pessimistic or cynical assertion, though. Jesus was “anointed with the oil of joy more than his companions.” The life lived for Christ is one which is filled with incredible joy; with unsurpassed peace and fellowship with God and with other people. As Bonhoeffer says at one point: “The ethical basic-relations that were severed in the corpus peccati [body of sin] (Bernard) are renewed by the Holy Spirit…I and You face each other no longer essentially in a demanding, but in a giving way, revealing their hearts that have been conquered by God’s will” (DBWE 1:189). This means that, in Christ, we are dead to sin, and can discover anew our relation to God and to each other in love, not in sin, through the Holy Spirit’s power. That is a life worth living. A life whose success, vibrancy and tenacity are in God’s hands.

That is discipleship. To follow Jesus into life, into freedom, by way of the cross. There is no dark side. There is only the cross!

Dear America, What Must I Do To Be Saved?

[From Facebook: May 3, 2017]

Mike Brown was a monster, Tamir Rice was an adult. It appears that black males transfigure into men at the age of 12, so I ask, what must black men (ages 12-112) in America do to come home alive? What tv shows should I watch? I’ll do it. How much education do I need? I’ll do it. Which religion should I believe, which god should I serve? I’ll do it. What job should I have? I’ll do it. What accent should I use? I’ll do it. What clothes should I wear? I’ll do it. Who should I vote for? I’ll do it. Who should I love? I’ll do it. Who should I hate? I’ll do it. Someone please tell me what to do, for my sake, for the sake of my students, and my future children.