Daring to Dream

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Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer? By “dreamer,” I do not mean one who experiences the literal dreams that occur during sleep. Rather, I mean the figurative and creative dreaming that some people seem to be particularly gifted to do when they are awake.

A dreamer is a person with a deeply engaged imagination who pays attention to the often hidden things that other people do not see; who envisions possibilities and potential that other people cannot discern; and who generates ideas that other people often dismiss as unrealistic and untenable. A dreamer is a type of visionary who glimpses reality through a mystical lens that sees beyond what is to what could be.

Based upon that definition, would you consider yourself to be a dreamer?

I do not know if I am a dreamer any longer or not, but I think that I started out as one. I spent a good portion of my childhood dreaming up imaginary scenarios for myself in which to play. Many of those imaginary scenarios were based upon my favorite television shows. One day, I would pretend to be Matt Dillon, the heroic marshal from “Gunsmoke.”  But just when I had my holster and cowboy hat in place, I would pause to read a comic book. Then I would not want to be a cowboy anymore. I would want to be Superman. So I would take off the holster and put on my red cape. But just when I figured out how to make the living room into Metropolis, an episode of “Star Trek” would appear on the television. Then I would not want to be Superman any longer. I would want to be captain James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in this playful schizophrenia, moving quickly and effortlessly from one imaginative context to another, one character to another. It was in the midst of one of those imaginative contexts that I came to the dinner table one evening wearing a black vest and a plastic futuristic pistol at my side. My mother said to me, “Who are you supposed to be tonight?”

“Well,” I said, “if you must know, I’m Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon.  It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”  To which my mother responded, “Eric, how in the world did you become such a dreamer?!”

Children make for good dreamers and sometimes dream more imaginatively than anyone else. Sadly, we tend to grow out of our capacity for imaginative dreaming as we age. Perhaps we quietly allow this to happen because we know all too well that the world can be hard on adult dreamers. Adult dreamers are looked upon as impractical and irrelevant. Sometimes they are treated as a threat because they see things differently than other people. Sometimes we even go so far as to kill our adult dreamers because we want so desperately to be rid of them and their unsettling ideas.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer. He dreamed of a world of racial equality in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. He was killed for that dream.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom were dreamers. During the Second World War, they dared to dream of a Germany that would stand against the evils perpetuated by the Nazi regime. Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her dream. Bonhoeffer was hanged for his.

In the Old Testament, Joseph was a dreamer. He was a young man who was prone to peculiar visions of an alternative but divinely preferred future into which his family and the people of Israel were moving. But his brothers hated him for his dreaming. They saw his dreaming as an effort on Joseph’s part to claim dominion over them. One day, the brothers ambushed Joseph, threw him into a pit, and then sold him to some travelers who took him as a slave into Egypt.

Joseph’s story reminds us that the human penchant for dismissing dreamers is nothing new. Even in the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, dreamers like Joseph often found themselves violently rejected because people were so utterly threatened by their disruptive ways of seeing the world.

There was another dreamer. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He dared to dream of a kingdom where prostitutes are valued as much as temple priests; where the face of God can be discerned in the countenances of the poor, the broken, and the marginalized; where rebirth and transformation are doorways into the salvation of God. Where did that dream take him?  It took him to a rugged cross where he bled and died for the sake of the world.

Dreamers often have beautiful and urgent things to say, things that other people will never dare to articulate. But the world can be painfully inhospitable to dreamers. Sometimes we even nail our adult dreamers to a cross in an effort to silence their countercultural voices.

I was once a part of a church that had a dreamer in it. Her name was Olivia. She was notorious for her dreams and visions and her willingness to talk about them amidst a congregation that had grown impatient with her impracticality and her penchant for mystical metaphors. One day at a Bible study, Olivia spoke up. “I had a dream last night,” she said.

“Okay, Olivia, tell us about your dream.” (That was what I said out loud, but what I really thought was this: “Olivia, we only have a half hour left in this Bible study, and we don’t have time to waste on your nonsensical dreams, which I am certain have nothing at all to do with the subject matter of our study!”)

“Well,” she said, “in the dream, hundreds of children of all different colors and races were standing outside our church building, pounding on the doors to get inside. But inside the church, all of us were dancing to music that was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pounding. The children were pounding on the doors to get inside, and we weren’t listening to their cries.”

“When I woke up after the dream,” Olivia said, “my pillow was wet with tears.”

“Uh, okay, Olivia. Um, thanks for that.” (Thinking to myself, “Can I please get back to my lesson plan now?”)

In my mind, I had already dismissed Olivia. As quickly as Joseph’s brothers had dismissed him in the Old Testament, so had I dismissed Olivia because her dreams and visions were an inconvenience to me.

The very next day, two youth in the community committed suicide independently. One was 19 the other was 17. Both of them were alienated from their family, and neither one of them had a connection to a church. As soon as I heard the news, I thought about Olivia’s dream—a dream about children pounding on the doors of the church, crying to get inside and not being heard.

I thought to myself in that moment, “It is time for me to listen to the dreamer more attentively, because she is seeing the things of God.”

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination

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It happened fifty years ago. April 4, 1968.

Half a century has passed.

As a fifty-two year old, I was alive when it happened, but I do not remember the event. My mother told me that she held me protectively in her arms as she listened to the horrifying news reports.

At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

We cannot hide ourselves from the violence of what transpired that evening. The single bullet, fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle, entered through Dr. King’s lower right cheek, about an inch to the right of his mouth. The bullet cut a sickeningly destructive path, fracturing Dr. King’s jaw and then traveling downward, severing his jugular and breaking several vertebrae before finally coming to rest in the right part of his back.

Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, where medical professionals opened his chest and did all they could to revive his heart. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

He was thirty-nine.

The day before his assassination, Dr. King made his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Toward the end of the speech, Dr. King offered these important words, as prophetic as they are poignant:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Last night, during a visit to a Jazz club in New Orleans, I experienced a group of racially diverse musicians entertaining an equally diverse crowd.

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The front man and the bass player were black. The pianist was Asian American. The drummer was white. The appreciative crowd included a variety of races and ethnicities, all of whom were experiencing what felt like a sacramental engagement with a music that seemed otherworldly in its virtuosity. At some point during the music, I thought about what remains one of the most racially segregated experiences in American culture—the Sunday morning worship hour. Tears formed in my eyes as I began to connect the dots. An assassination fifty years ago. A church that still fails to incarnate the beloved community that Jesus envisions. A jazz club in New Orleans, offering a musical communion that the church has yet to celebrate fully.

Not very long ago, I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint in this blog post and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He gave to me his permission.

Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, shared in a conversation among clergy colleagues:

I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism.  But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Days after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share her comment:

People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of race in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our history, our prejudice, and our dehumanizing presuppositions.

When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which, in its essence, is a desire to preserve the status quo because of the way in which the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.

Some have suggested that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to further an agenda. My experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.

When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.

As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:

“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am!”

Or this:

“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis on dismantling racism in the United Methodist Church is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions.  I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I am grateful that the bullet that ended his too-short life could not kill his urgent and still-unfolding dream. I hold that dream deeply in my soul, all the while praying for the courage to become one of the instruments through which a dream might be more vibrantly realized. As Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence.

Radical Hope for the Addicted

Breaking Free by Koa Kohler

(The painting above, created by Koa Kohler, is entitled “Breaking Free”)

During my first two years in Butler, Pennsylvania, the church that I serve had a connection with 34 people who died as a result of drug overdose. When I say that there was a connection, I mean that those 34 people were either members of our church, or attenders, or related to somebody who is part of our church.

Two years. 34 overdose deaths touching our congregational family.

At the end of my second year in Butler, I stood in a funeral home, officiating at the funeral service for one of these 34 people. Just before the service, the cousin of the young woman who had died walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and spoke to me words that I will never forget. “My cousin was more like a sister to me,” she said, “and I just need you to know that there was more to her life than her addiction. She was a beautiful person who just got caught up in something bad that she couldn’t control.” Following the service for the young woman, her mother pulled me aside. “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t know what the churches of this town can do, but they have to do something. No more of this! Churches have to open their doors to addicts and their families every single day so that people can know that drugs don’t have to win.”

Here is the bottom line. During my first two years in Butler, God had to begin a massive reconstruction project on my heart and my thought processes related to addiction. I came to Butler harboring secret ideas—ideas about addiction only happening in the lives of certain kinds of people who simply need to get it together and make better choices. I now believe something very different. I now believe that the widespread reality of addiction in our community and in our world is the greatest spiritual crisis of our generation, one that demands nothing less than a transformed way of looking at the world.

And a transformed way of looking at the world is precisely what that part of the Bible we call “the Beatitudes” represents. We call them Beatitudes because that word, “beatitude,” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “blessing.” But what is seriously unnerving about the Beatitudes is who Jesus describes as being blessed in his kingdom. It is certainly not the people common sense would identify.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever met anyone poorer in spirit than an addicted soul desperate for recovery.)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever encountered a deeper mourning than the mourning I have experienced in the lives of addicts and in the life of the family that surrounds the addict.)

There is a timeless relevance in the unsettling Word that Jesus offers to us through the Beatitudes. When we dare to apply the truth of the Beatitudes to our context, we find a word of radical hope even for addicted people and the families that surround them. In fact, when I quiet myself long enough to listen with my heart, here is how I am hearing the Beatitudes today:

“Blessed are those who are poor in the spirit of addiction. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn over addiction and the suffering it produces, for they shall be comforted.”

We always have to resist the temptation to make Scripture say something that it does not say. For example, when Jesus tells us that those who are poor in spirit and in a condition of mourning are “blessed,” he is not glorifying human suffering. He is not trying to get us to believe that it is a pleasant thing to suffer or to be devastated by addiction. But maybe Jesus’ point is that, in the world-altering grace of the Kingdom of God, addicted people can be spoken of as being uniquely blessed precisely because they know how desperate for deliverance they really are. The rest of us so often live in the illusion of being in control. Addicted people understand their need for salvation. The rest of us so often fall into the trap of distorted self-reliance, believing that we have no need for a savior. Addicted people are often more available to God than everyone else, precisely because they see (in a way that others cannot) that they are up against a struggle that demands a saving grace of supernatural proportions. That is why an addict can rightly be described as living in a condition of blessing—not because their addiction is good, but because their potential for recognizing the urgency and power of God’s deliverance is good.

If that is at all true, if you hear Jesus speaking a word of radical hope to the addict through the Beatitudes today, then I am inviting you to think differently with me about the reality of addiction. Here is how.

First, refuse to allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because here is the truth: Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls. Jesus never stops.

I heard a pastoral colleague recently (not from this community) lamenting hurtful words that she heard spoken in one of her church’s adult Sunday School classes. The hurtful words sounded something like this:

We need to stop giving these addicts Narcan because all they’re going to do is overdose again. It is a sinful waste of time and resources to keep people alive if they are just going to choose to die.

Can you imagine being the parent of an addict and hearing something like this from a Christ-following brother or sister? The pastor of that congregation put it this way:

“A statement like that indicates that our theology has not kept pace with our context. For me, this is a pro-life issue. I am a pro-life pastor who believes in a pro-life Jesus who never quits in the work of offering eternal life that he makes possible. And neither should we.”

Do not allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls.

Second, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in the struggle against addiction. Be sad about it. Be heartbroken. Be devastated at times when the situation calls for it. But refuse to plant spiritual roots in the spoiled soil of discouragement. Why? Because Jesus Christ will not rest until every addict experiences the blessing of a complete deliverance from an enslavement to addiction. For some, this deliverance might take a portion of eternity that we do not yet see. But rest assured, no addict lives outside the boundaries of Jesus’ love and the redemptive grace that he is so very desperate to offer to addicted souls. And if that is true, if Jesus is on the side of the addicted and committed to their deliverance, then HOPE is our “go-to,” not discouragement.  Therefore, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in this. Instead, commit yourself to participating in the saving work that Jesus is doing in the world by coming alongside the addicted in whatever way is appropriate. Become a part of that saving work.

Finally, refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction, because, here is the thing: Every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of addiction. You might not be addicted to a substance, but I can practically guarantee you that you are addicted to something. We all are.

We are addicted to hurtful ways of thinking that inspire us to kneel down at the altar of our own distorted opinions.

We are addicted to hatred that prevents us from loving, forgiving, and hoping.

We are addicted to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and the people around us.

We are addicted to false stories that prevent us from embracing the truth about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

On Facebook, one never has to look far to find someone spouting a passionate opinion (or sharing a convenient meme) about a particular subject. Politics. Religion. Movies. Sports. Hollywood. Current events. When I stumble upon such conversations, it often sounds less like the gracious pursuit of truth. In fact, it often sounds more like a bunch of addicted people getting high on the drug of their own opinions and their forced certainty.

Here is my point: When we speak of addiction, we are not speaking about “those people.” We are speaking about all of us. Because an enslavement to some kind of an addiction is a reality for all of us. When we are in relationship with Jesus, he brings us into a lifelong recovery that manifests itself as a journey of living one day at a time without the particular distortions to which we have become addicted. In that regard, the recovering addict has much to teach the church about what it means to be authentically Christian.

So, I invite you to a refusal. Refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction. Because every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of it in one way or another, and, thanks be to God, Jesus is not giving up on any single one of us!

For the last year at Butler First United Methodist Church, we have held a Saturday evening worship experience that we call “The Bridge.” Everyone is invited to the Bridge, but we offer a particularly pointed invitation to those who struggle with the reality of addiction and their families.

Why do we call it “The Bridge”? Because a bridge is precisely what we believe Jesus to be. He is the bridge from isolation to community; from despair to hope; from addiction to recovery; from being lost to being found.

We never know who is going to show up at “The Bridge.” Nor do we know exactly what will happen in each week’s worship. To be completely confessional, we don’t really know what we are doing with this ministry. (Is it okay for a pastor to admit that?!) But, every single week at “The Bridge,” it feels like we wade into deep and important water.

Last Saturday night, a man stood up during prayer time at “The Bridge,” introduced himself as a recovering addict, and announced that, as of this week, he will be six months clean. He just wanted to thank Jesus Christ for his transformed life.

Following the service, this man came forward to pray with me. When I asked him how we should pray, this was his response: “Pray that more and more people in our community will come to understand what I have come to understand.”

I couldn’t help but ask the question. “And what is it have you come to understand, Thomas?”

“What I’ve come to understand,” he said, “is that addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives. It might be a chapter, or even a series of chapters. But it is never the end of the story.”

That is nothing less than the Gospel, offered by Jesus through the Beatitudes and spoken afresh by a recovering addict in downtown Butler. “Addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives.”

That Gospel is the foundation of the radical hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whose name we stand against addiction and in whose name I gratefully write.

Always Hope

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One would think I would be used to it by now. Intense political rhetoric from (occasionally) well-meaning and self-lauded pundits who are absolutely convinced of their own rightness. Ecclesiastical debates that often feel more like the drawing of battle lines than they do a heartfelt and reverent search for the implications of the Gospel. Cancer manifesting its cruelty in the lives of beautiful and unsuspecting people who are seemingly doing everything right to stay healthy. Another heroin overdose, another gut-wrenching and heartbreaking funeral.

Yeah, one would think I would be used to it by now. The problem is, I am not.

I am weary today. I am saddened. My heart is heavy with a pain that I am not even able to delineate and analyze. It is the kind of disquietude that interrupts my sleep and distorts my temperament. So many words being spoken and arguments being sought. So many tragedies being accommodated by fragile souls. So many people assuming the absolute worst about others.

And yet…

Ah, yes. There’s the Gospel in a nutshell: “And yet…” That simple phrase calls to mind the redemptive presence of a God who is always at work to bring about a new reality that runs counter to the existing circumstances. There is pain AND YET God brings healing. There is death AND YET God generates resurrection. There is suffering, AND YET God awakens hope.

Hope. I needed to type that word this morning so that I might see the letters and speak them out loud. Hope. By “hope,” I do not mean a passive disengagement. Neither do I mean an anemic wishfulness or a superficial outcry for how we would prefer things to be. Rather, I mean the kind of hope that the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he told us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)

That, I think, is the transformational discipline that people of faith call “hope.” It is the nurturing of a sturdy conviction of life’s abundant potential. It is the belief that God is steadily leading us toward the redemptive ground that exists just beyond the edge of our brokenness. It is the life-giving trust that the mistreated threads of our tattered garments are being woven into the richly beautiful tapestry that God is making out of our history.

Hope. It is the gracious gift offered by a God who specializes in transforming sharp-edged rhetoric into relationship; a fractured church into a Christ-centered communion; tragic death into vibrant new life. Hope.

I have shared this song with many of you before. I share it again, simply because I need to. I am honored to stand with you, sisters and brothers, in this meaningful journey called hope.

Always Hope (Words and music by Eric Park)

I can see the broken pieces
I can trace the pain
The bitter tears your soul releases
Falling down like rain

I won’t minimize the anguish
You’re inclined to feel
Though I’ll beg you not to languish
In your own ordeal

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Purge me of my platitudes
My impulse to explain
No condescending attitudes
No clinical refrain

I won’t sabotage the silence
That your wounds demand
Though I’ll join your deep reliance
On a gentler hand

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Dare to believe that the brokenness cannot define you
Dare to believe that the fragments can only refine you
Dare to believe that the tapestry isn’t completed
Dare to believe in the weaving of threads now mistreated

On the sacred ground of your grief
We will gently tread
At the banquet of belief
Our hearts will find new bread

Just beyond the edge of broken
Lies redemptive ground
Just beyond the words unspoken
Hope waits to be found
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Christian Ethics and the Conundrum of Gun Control

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As a follower of Jesus, I am often far less interested in the opinion that a person holds on an issue than I am in how the person arrived at that opinion and, even more important, how the person engages both with those who hold a similar viewpoint and those who approach the issue with different convictions.

I have long believed that arriving at a passionately-held opinion is the least-demanding portion of ethical discourse. Strong opinions, while they may involve a certain degree of deductive or inductive reasoning and sophisticated cognition, require no artistry, nuance, or relationship. They demand nothing more than an individual’s intellectual assent to an articulated position. Following the intellectual assent, the opinion itself often becomes as comfortable as rhythmic breathing, rarely contemplated, but regularly expressed.

Holding strong opinions is the easy part. Everyone can do it and normally does.

The real challenge of ethical discourse, however, involves the territory that surrounds the opinion. Has the opinion been reached in a manner that is intellectually holistic and experientially reinforced? Has the opinion been cultivated with a reasonable attentiveness to all of the available data and not simply the portions of data that reinforce our preexisting predilections? Has the opinion been liberated from the weight of rhetoric and tested with the scrutiny of an open and rigorous mind? And is the opinion held with the kind of flexible intellectual grip that permits engagement with differing viewpoints? These are the questions that lead a person well beyond the simple “speaking of one’s mind” and into the undulating terrain of ethical contemplation and moral decision-making.

If one is a Christ-follower, the task becomes even more complex. Christianity’s narrative is one that is rich with seemingly absurd instructions: Do not simply speak the truth (or, translated a bit differently, do not simply speak your mind), but “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15). Do not simply insist on a particular course of action, but conduct yourself in a spirit that is “not arrogant or rude…or irritable or resentful.  (1 Corinthians 13:5). Do not become idolatrous about particular opinions, but be perpetually aware of the fact that “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

In the face of a rather complex social issue in his day, the Apostle Paul addressed the question of what Christ-followers are to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols, since there existed an ethical and theological disagreement between those who felt free to eat what they wanted and those who felt obligated to adhere to strict dietary laws. Paul’s counsel in the matter bears witness to his conviction that, at least in certain ethical and spiritual matters, the particular opinion one holds is less important than the manner in which s/he holds it: “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food is the cause of [people’s] falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9, 13).

In this revelatory moment in Paul’s ministry, he expresses the rather countercultural idea that one’s individual viewpoint cannot be so monolithic and uncompromising that it refuses to be subordinated to the integrity and preservation of that diverse and heterogeneous community that Christians call church. In other words, to borrow Paul’s language from earlier in this same portion of Scripture, agapic love is the governor of individual opinions, since “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What does all of this have to do with the current debate on gun control? Much, I think. Followers of Jesus, if they are to be true to the narrative by which they are called to live, must be specifically Christian, not only in the opinions that they hold, but also in the manner in which they arrive at those opinions, steward those opinions, and communicate those opinions.  To borrow the Apostle Paul’s framework, Christ-followers are simply not permitted to elevate a particular conviction about eating meat (or, for that matter, owning guns) above their moral responsibility to preserve the kind of Christ-centered community that is durable enough to accommodate differing viewpoints without rancor, without malice, and without a sharp-edged insistence upon one’s own rightness.

The Christian narrative, of course, in no way removes from the Christ-follower the opportunity to develop and hold passionate viewpoints and convictions. Christians are not called to be devoid of individual perspective. What is powerfully unique about the Christ-follower’s individual perspective, though, is the way in which the Christ-follower is called to manage and articulate it. Specifically, Christ-followers are called to hold and offer their convictions in a manner that bears consistent witness to their stubborn refusal to value their opinions over their relationships with those who do not share them. I see this as a critical portion of the sanctification of individual perspectives.

In light of the urgency of this sanctification, I offer the following thoughts. These are my own personal opinions, held firmly but with a flexible grip:

1. Christ-followers would do well to make peace with the fact that intelligent people of deep and authentic faith reside on both sides of the issue of gun control. Several months ago, I shared a meal with two Christians that I greatly admire, one of whom is a pacifist who sees no value whatsoever in most gun control legislation (since, in his words, “the peace we are called to manifest will never be legislated”). The other Christian at the table was a soldier, hunter, and gun-owner who believes that new regulations related to gun and ammunition control are “desperately needed in this country, if for no other reason to establish the right boundaries for how the issue is approached.”

While I personally gravitated toward the viewpoint of the soldier, I found myself deeply encouraged by the absence of bitterness in the conversation. These were not rhetoricians insisting on the absoluteness of their own rightness. They were brothers in Christ who seemed genuinely interested in how the other person arrived at his conviction. I did not have the sense that either man had become idolatrous about his opinion; or that either man felt that the Kingdom of God (or the United States Constitution, for that matter) depended upon the promulgation of his viewpoint; or that their individual perspectives were more important to either of them than their shared friendship. Rather, I sensed that I was in the presence of two men of deep intellect and even deeper faith whose respectful disagreement about gun control found a comfortable home in the context of their mystical and durable oneness in Christ. On that afternoon, the salad bar at Eat’n Park became a Eucharistic meal where differing opinions were nothing but optional side dishes to the shared Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

2. Christ-followers would do well to remember that, in a specifically Christian conversation about moral behavior, the foundational question is never “What do I have the right to do?” but rather “What IS right to do?” It troubles me when Christian people limit their ethical conversations to debates about the nuances of their constitutional or civil “rights,” since, for Christ-followers, the primary concern is not the preservation of identified rights but the transformational and Spirit-enabled pursuit of righteousness.

This is not to suggest that the clear enumeration and protection of constitutional and civil rights is not an important conversation in which to participate. Such rights, after all, are an integral portion of the maintenance of a fair and just nation.  In a specifically Christian morality, however, the concept of unalienable rights (which is not a Biblical concept) is never the starting or ending point of any conversation.  Rather, Christocentric ethics are grounded in a different set of questions: What is the most right thing for me to do? What is the most helpful and edifying thing for me to do?  Am I being called to sacrifice something for a greater good? Am I being called to defend something because of a Biblical principle?  What decision will represent my very best effort to work toward a just and merciful outcome? How can I best bear witness to my primary identity—not my identity as an American citizen with inalienable rights, but my identity as a baptized follower of Jesus whose national citizenship, while important, is secondary to his/her Christological citizenship?

Such questions will not always lead two Christians to the same ethical viewpoint, especially on a controversial matter like gun control. My fear, however, is not potential disagreement. My fear is that, in the current climate, too many Christians are arriving at an opinion without an honest wresting with the right questions.

3. Christ-followers would do well to remember what history has all too frequently taught us—that vitriolic fundamentalism of any sort normally distorts the pursuit of moral truth and replaces the dynamic hunger for righteousness with a stifling and malicious desire to protect and promulgate a particular ideology. Concerning the particular issue at hand, fundamentalism is alive and well. It might come in the form of one of these viewpoints:

*“They will have to pry my gun out of my cold dead fingers!”

*“People who aren’t in favor of gun control are ALL addicted to the pathological violence of our culture.”

*“I don’t see how ANY CHRISTIAN could NOT be in favor of stricter gun laws, especially in the aftermath of what happened in Las Vegas.”

*“The ONLY WAY to ensure our freedom as a country is to preserve the right to arm ourselves with the same kind of weapons that our military has. It is our ONLY protection against the development of tyranny.”

These very real and current viewpoints may raise significant issues for the conversation, but the tone of the viewpoints resonates, not with a passionate yearning for a just and truthful discernment, but a fundamentalistic impulse to fixate on a conviction while dismissing or demonizing those who do not agree with it. The church behaves like the church only when it refuses to allow any ethical conversation to be stifled by the compartmentalizing rubrics of fundamentalism.

4. Christ-followers would do well to practice the spiritual discipline of acknowledging (to themselves and others) the fact that they might be wrong in their opinions, no matter how right they believe themselves to be. Again, by this I do not mean to suggest that Christians are to relinquish their strong views on important issues. I am convinced, however, that we practice specifically Christian ethics only when we operate with a keen awareness of the important differences between “conviction” and “certainty.” Convictions are discerned and lived. Certainty is established and protected. Convictions can live peacefully with opposing convictions. Certainty normally seeks to defend its territory. Convictions can be held firmly but gently, with a profound awareness of our incomplete knowledge. Certainty often demands a tighter grip and the illusion of omniscience.

Related to the issue of gun control—and all other issues—Christ-followers are at their best when they manifest the kind of genuine humility that heartfelt convictions permit but that rigid certainty resists.

5. Christ-followers would do well to commit themselves to making certain that their contemplation and discussion of gun control bear witness to the “new creatures” that they have become in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and the new birth that Christ makes possible (John 3:3). No matter whether one opposes or supports gun control reform, it is essential for the Christ-follower to resist the ethical schizophrenia of being Christologically reborn but behaviorally and practically heathen. If Christ has made one new, then even the manner in which one articulates one’s perspectives and participates in public debate must be under the transformation of sanctification.

Practically speaking, this will mean that Christ-followers will listen respectfully and attentively to opposing viewpoints, thereby avoiding the temptation to become nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It will mean that Christ-followers on both sides of the issue will refuse to allow the issue itself to become a divisive litmus test for relationship, thereby ensuring a commitment to being “patient and kind…not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It will mean that Christ-followers will be far more interested in standing on the solid ground of ever-expanding discernment than they are in jumping on the bandwagon of convenient and divisive rhetoric, thereby generating a spirit that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Most of all, it will mean that Christ-followers will live with a perpetual and holistic awareness of the fact that, irrespective of what decisions are made related to gun control reform, our life-giving hope and deepest deliverance are not to be found in the preservation, reformation, or interpretation of a constitutional amendment, but in Christ’s astoundingly gracious invitation to participate in an often countercultural and radically peaceable Kingdom in which “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Finer Footwear

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I remember being in the presence of real violence for the very first time. I was in kindergarten. The kickball game at recess had been interrupted because two of my classmates were arguing over a play at first base:

“I was safe!”

“No! You were out!”

The argument escalated until one of the boys balled up his fist and hit the other boy squarely in the face. Standing close by, I was horrified by the unmistakable sound of flesh smashing against flesh. The boy who had been hit fell to the ground. I stood there, transfixed by the intensity of the moment and nauseated by the sight of blood trickling out of the fallen boy’s mouth.

I won’t ever forget that moment. In my mind, I can still hear the punch. It was my brutal initiation into a violent world—a world of warfare and terrorism; a world of hateful words and bitter feuds; a world in which children learn to fight one another over something as insignificant as a kickball game.

The fact that we live in the midst of such violence makes the following words of Scripture all the more meaningful: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace” (Ephesians 6:15). These words unsettle me whenever I read them (which I did just this morning). They unsettle me because of the way in which they bring to light the fact that, in my personal spiritual garb, I am often much more drawn to the combat boots of coercion and contempt than I am to the shoes of the Gospel of Peace.

When I reflect upon this particular portion of the spiritual armor of God, I am instantaneously reminded that the way of Christ invites me to become more passionate about reconciliation than I am about retaliation; more passionate about mercy than I am about manipulation; more passionate about patient listening than I am about winning the argument.

I may not have the wherewithal as an individual soul to bring peace to the Middle East. I may not possess the necessary influence to end all manifestations of warfare. But will the fact that I cannot create ALL peace prevent me from creating SOME peace? Will I dare to incarnate the Gospel of Peace in my little corner of the world? Will I allow myself to be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that I become a peacemaker in my home, in my family, in my neighborhood, in my network of relationships, in the rhythms of social media, and in the hallways of my church? What might such a peace-making life look like for me?

As I type these words, I am praying that I will begin to make a more substantive place in my spiritual wardrobe for the shoes that enable me to proclaim the Gospel of Peace wherever I walk. I am envisioning the kind of “wardrobe expansion” that produces a counter-cultural disciple whose words are edifying rather than insulting, whose demeanor is engaging rather than dismissive, and whose governing passion is for authentic relationship rather than acrimonious division? Then, and only then, will I be able to say with integrity that I am a proclaimer and practitioner of the Gospel of Peace.

A Vision for Discipleship

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We talk about discipleship in the life of the church all the time.  But what is it?  What does it mean to live a life of discipleship to Jesus? What does such a life look like, and what does it entail?  Here are some of my personal reflections on the nature and content of the life of Christian discipleship.  I offer these reflections as a work in progress, in the hope that they might help all of us to live more deeply into the life to which Jesus calls us.

A Vision for Discipleship 
What is a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ?

 1. A Recognition that Following Jesus Is a Good and Necessary Thing

“Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:19-20)

Discipleship begins with the recognition that following Jesus is a good and necessary thing.  This recognition can be inspired in various ways.  For some, it is inspired by a personal awareness of sin and an equally personal need for a savior.  For others, it is inspired by an intellectual conclusion based upon a theological conviction.  For still others, it is inspired by an unnamable hunger to find alignment with matters of eternal significance.  And yet, although the recognition comes in different ways for different people, it is always the result of God’s prevenient initiative, mysteriously and powerfully at work in human lives to draw people into the salvation that God desires for all the world’s people.

2. A Willingness to Turn Around

“Jesus said, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  (Mark 1:15)

In the journey of discipleship, the recognition of the goodness and necessity of Jesus is eventually accompanied by a willingness to take human sin seriously.  More specifically, a disciple recognizes that sin has produced a spiritual chasm between humankind and God that humankind, on its own, does not have the capacity to bridge.  Sin is collective and cosmic.  It is also deeply personal—a rebellion in which each human being participates.  Therefore, discipleship requires a personal turning around (a repentance) in which one begins to turn away from sin in order to turn toward the Christ who delivers us from sin.  Such repentance enables disciples to become receptive to the cleansing and transforming grace of God.  It is also the instrument through which one’s fondness for sin begins to decrease in order that one’s devotion to Jesus and his Way might increase.

3. A Relationship with Jesus as Savior

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In healthy discipleship, Jesus becomes more than a historical figure and moral example to be studied and admired.  He becomes a Savior to be believed and embraced.  Although the church’s doctrine concerning Jesus and the salvation that he makes possible reflects a noteworthy diversity, at the heart of these doctrines is the biblical conviction that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, is a Savior sent by God to a world that desperately needs salvation.  To embrace Jesus as Savior (and to be embraced by him) is to acknowledge the holy mystery that Jesus is the One who delivers us from sin, thereby enabling a reconciliation between a perfectly holy God and fallen human souls.  When one trusts in Jesus for salvation, one stands justified before God, not because of one’s own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Jesus that he has graciously imputed to us.

4. A Transformed Life

“Jesus answered…‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’”  (John 3:3)

The concept of spiritual rebirth has become greatly distorted and divisive over the years of Christian history, so much so that, in many circles, an artificial division is created between “born again Christians” and what might be labeled “normal” or “mainline” Christians.  This division is as unfortunate as it is misleading.  Rebirth, according to Scripture, is not a theological dividing point or litmus test.  Rather, it is an experience of being so inwardly transformed by the reality of Jesus Christ that one begins to think differently, act differently, prioritize differently, and live differently, all because the Way of Jesus has now become one’s personal Way.  For some, this rebirth is something dramatic and publicly obvious (such as an emotional experience at a church altar).  For others, it is a quieter (but no less radical) reorientation of one’s life around the ethics and priorities of Jesus.  And yet, no matter the particular experience of the rebirth, it is always the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing people into the new life that only Jesus Christ makes possible.

 5. A Relationship with Jesus as Lord

“Then Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”  (Luke 9:23)

Although discipleship demands a relationship with Jesus as Savior (which is often realized and personalized through a single decision and a momentary prayer), it also demands the lifelong journey of allowing Jesus to become the Lord of every segment of one’s life.  This is the journey of allowing oneself to be remade daily into the likeness of Jesus, in such a way that every part of one’s life begins to bear witness to the reality of his Lordship. This experience of sanctification (being made holy) in Christ is the work of God’s grace and is nurtured through the practice of several important spiritual disciplines:

*The Discipline of Prayer—growing in one’s prayerful intimacy with God, so that prayer becomes a way of life

*The Discipline of Spending Time with Scripture—growing in one’s love for Scripture and one’s devotion to its revelation, so that studying Scripture and meditating upon its Truth becomes a personal priority

*The Discipline of Worship—growing in the communal and individual practice of offering to God heartfelt praise

*The Discipline of Alignment with the Church’s Ministry and Mission—growing in one’s relationship with the church, not to perpetuate an institution, but to deepen one’s discipleship and help others to do the same

*The Discipline of Gathering Regularly at the Lord’s Table—growing in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and in an ever-deepening hunger for the bread of life and the cup of salvation

*The Discipline of Community—growing in one’s commitment to a covenantal and accountability-practicing community, since, according to Scripture, discipleship is to be personal but never privatistic or individualistic

*The Discipline of Stewardship—growing in the practice of honoring Jesus in the way one manages one’s financial resources, one’s time, and one’s talents

*The Discipline of Generosity—growing in a spirit of extravagant giving in such a way that one’s life begins to reflect the extravagant generosity of Jesus

*The Discipline of Outreach—growing in one’s participation in regular and tangible acts of ministry, mission, and evangelism, thereby putting hands, feet, and faces on the love of Jesus

*The Discipline of Working For Peace and Justice—growing both in one’s commitment to standing against all forms of evil and injustice and in one’s commitment to eradicating them in the church and world

*The Discipline of Love—growing in one’s devotion to loving God with heart, mind, and strength, and to loving one’s neighbor as one loves her/himself

While the different segments of discipleship described in this reflection have been enumerated in a numerically linear fashion, the life of discipleship is not always linear in its unfolding.  Sometimes one finds oneself devoted to the sanctifying discipline of ministry or prayer long before coming to know Jesus as Savior.  Likewise, the Holy Spirit will sometimes inspire a lifelong churchgoer to re-experience rebirth because of some newly discovered need for personal repentance and transformation.

Discipleship, in other words, is not a mathematical equation.  It is a relational journey with Jesus Christ at its center.  As is the case with any significant journey, discipleship is frequently unpredictable and unsettling.  It will occasionally demand backtracking and unforeseen detours.  And yet, if Christ remains at the center of the journey, one will have the blessed assurance that one is journeying in a redemptive direction and with the right Companion.

In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life.  Ultimately, Christian discipleship is the transformational journey of allowing Jesus to become one’s personal WAY, one’s personal TRUTH, and one’s personal LIFE.  Paradoxically, the journey is freely offered, yet it costs a life.  The good news, however, is that it is the most abundantly joyful and blessed journey that one can ever experience.