Blessed are the Peacemakers: What Does Christian “Resistance” Look Like?

It should be no secret that a common theme found in this blog involves the pursuit of justice in my life (and, eventually, my ministry). It makes up the first part of this site’s odd, yet question-provoking name; and among the many reasons why I choose to place such an emphasis on it, one of the main ones is because I feel that the pursuit of justice is one of the most important and fundamental elements of Christianity, and yet it seems to also be incredibly under-looked, misunderstood, and even condemned in Western Christian culture today. That is a pure shame, and it’s a stigma I hope to continually work to put an end to.

We can go over some of the reasons behind this backlash perhaps in a later post (or two or three or more), but for now, I want to delve deeper into a concept that goes hand-in-hand with justice, as it is simultaneously the means to the end goal of the pursuit of justice, as well as, I’d say, the end goal itself. And that is the pursuit of peace.

I’ve discussed in this blog as well that I consider myself to be a pacifist, but a lot of the reasoning behind that is because I don’t quite know what else to call myself. “Pacifist,” like any other label (i.e., conservative, liberal, vegan, feminist, Muslim, Christian, American) is a loaded word, and can mean any number of things to any number of people. Very rarely, however, does it mean just one thing to everyone.

I think many people consider pacifists to be hippie leftist activists who attend weekly protests, smoke weed daily, don’t shave any of their body hair, and are also probably Wiccan or something. While about one-and-three-quarters of those seven descriptions ring true for me, much of how I came to accepting this philosophy and lifestyle has been influenced by my study of scripture and theology (for those keeping score at home, theology is another prong of this weirdly-named blog. I mentioned the second one earlier, too, meaning they all seem to be “intersecting,” or something).

Lately, I’ve found myself attracted even moreso than usual to the theme of peace. Many of the books I’ve read recently revolve around the topic, and much of the music I’ve listened to orients itself in that direction, as well. While I’ve been tempted to write on this topic more in depth since even before the inception of this blog, I finally decided to act on that temptation after having read the first part of The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. This book was published posthumously (he died in 1996 and the book was first published in 1998), and it is a compilation of a lot of previously-archived writings on the matter, and so I suppose it is not considered to be one of his “classics.” I didn’t even know it existed until I found it in the Religion section at the Half Price Books in Rice Village (aka my favorite Half Price Books store) a couple weeks ago.

The Road To Peace Cover

I was hooked from the very beginning, however, and I was struck most of all by the third chapter of the book, which was initially going to be a part, along with chapters one and two, of an actual, fuller book on peace. He builds it all up in chapter one by stating that peace is achieved first and foremost through prayer and contemplation. Before we can attempt to seek peace in the world, we must first seek peace within our own hearts. Next, in chapter two, Nouwen writes that peaceful prayer must then lead to action: to active resistance against the forces of death such as violence and systemic oppression. I very intentionally used a certain word in that description, as it’s both a word that he used frequently and a word that’s thrown around a lot in the political world today. You know what word it is. It’s in the title of this post. But more on that later.

Finally, in chapter three, Nouwen’s writings end up coming full circle (funny how that works). More than just being a rejection of the forces of death–a “no” to all the human-made killers in the world–the pursuit of peace is a loud, bold, affirmation of life itself. This idea requires the most attention, I believe, and so it will be the focus of the rest of this post. Even though it seems like such an anti-climactic epiphany, it becomes much more difficult once we begin to actually put it into practice.

Nouwen writes,

When all my attention goes to protesting death, death itself may end up receiving more attention than it deserves. Thus my struggle against the dark forces of death becomes the arena of my own seduction…. As a peacemaker, my temptation is to underestimate the power of the forces of death and thus attack them directly. Precisely because I am such a sinful, broken person, these forces have many handles on me and can easily pull me into their network. Only the sinless Christ was able to overcome death. It is naive to think that we have the strength to face death alone and survive (pgs. 40-41).

Nouwen wrote this, like almost everything else he’d written, during a very tense political era: the Cold War. Fear had become habitual and perpetual, like a breath or a blink. While the Vietnam War had ended over a decade before this particular piece had been written, he was still well-acquainted with plenty of people protesting nuclear warfare, poverty in South America, and other forms of injustice. And he himself often felt like a hypocrite when he didn’t join in on these protests. Of course he was opposed to the Trident submarine being built just a few miles away from him in Groton, Connecticut. Of course he thought more needed to be done to combat homelessness both foreign and domestic. But he still couldn’t help but push back against public acts of resistance and protest. He continues on:

One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about (pg. 41).

It is a bitter and cruel irony that life often can’t really be broken down into separate, distinct poles. People who claim to be pro-peace have trouble hiding their own anger, their own sense of fear, their own prejudices. They cannot claim a sense of self-righteousness if they themselves are flawed and imperfect human beings. Even protesting something that is inherently and inarguably wrong doesn’t automatically turn them into a superior, or even “good” person.

But herein lies the other side of the same coin. I am against war. I am against police shootings (both by police and toward police). I am against the death penalty. I am against the destruction of the environment for the sake of corporate gain (or for any sake, really). But what am I doing to combat these injustices? How can I bring about change if I do nothing? If I do not seek to be a part of the solution, does that not make me a part of the problem?

I’ve wanted to go to more protests and do more activist-type stuff. I had hoped to attend the Women’s March in Houston this year, but didn’t. And had I known about the Black Lives Matter rally that was going on the night of July 7, 2016 in Dallas (you know which one I’m talking about), I can assure you that I would have done a lot to try to attend. Instead, I’ve attended prayer vigils and safe, on-campus, geographically distant awareness rallies for sex trafficking (neither of which are bad things by any means, but still).

This brings me back to the Nouwen writing. To paraphrase his second chapter: challenging Death is just another challenge to Death. Death is sneaky, manipulative, competitive, and always prevails. Death will reveal your flaws, and Death will, over time, make you look like an ass in front of your friends and, especially, your enemies. And this is why it is imperative that we make the conscious effort to focus on Life instead. When we do that, Nouwen says, we are stating that “for us life is stronger than death, love is stronger than fear, and hope is stronger than despair” (pg. 43).

Nouwen offers three tools to help us achieve this goal, which he describes as “aspects of life that are in stark contrast to the powers of death” (pg. 44). These tools are humility, compassion, and joy. When we express humility, we are acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living beings. The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning soil, so when we are being humble, we are embodying the very root of the word, so to speak, as we are seeking to protect, support, and nourish the life that surrounds us. Secondly, when we seek to be compassionate, we choose to focus on other people outside of ourselves. Embodying the mindset of Christ himself, compassion makes matters of injustice people-oriented rather than issue-oriented. Nouwen writes, “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues” (pg. 46). Finally, if we want to seek peace, we must make it our goal to pursue joy, as well. Joy can be difficult to find and define, but as Nouwen points out, it seems to always run parallel to peace when used in relation to Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (pgs. 47-49).

Like Nouwen, we are living in turbulent and divisive times today. His writings seemed almost prophetic when I read them for the first time, as though they had been written today rather than 33 years ago.

I feel like I spend much of my life on the sidelines, observing carefully, waiting for my chance to do… something. I am not (usually) the person who posts regularly about everything wrong with the world, nor am I the person who naively thinks everything is fine and dandy. I do not wish to contribute to the divisive rhetoric of today, but I also do not wish to remain silent or complacent about my convictions. So I hope to be slow to speak, slow to judge, but also, even moreso, quick to love. I hope to resist matters of injustice wherever I see it, but not without claiming my own shortcomings. I will admit that I am often too slow to speak and too slow to act, and too slow to love, but it is something I am continually working towards in order to better myself and my community. I hope to never cease writing about the matters I care about–and especially the people that I care about–and I very much wish the same for you.

You might not be a fan of the words “resistance” or “pacifist” in the contexts in which they’re often used today. But my hope here is that we all, regardless of where we stand on the issues of today, seek to learn how to be peacemakers. Jesus refers to those who pursue peace as “blessed” and as “children of God” (Matthew 5:9). May we make that our goal. May we be instruments of peace. May we resist injustice wherever it is found. May we pray, may we act, may we write, may we speak, may we listen, and may we love.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Personal Stories: Four-Day Week[fri]end

It was Thursday night at 10:00, and my shift had finally ended. I grabbed my phone, wallet, and book from the filing cabinet beneath my desk, and sped out of the building before even checking to make sure my computer had been turned off correctly. As I buckled my seat belt and turned on the ignition of my Ford Focus, I recalled the conversation I’d had with my supervisor earlier that week, making sure that he knew I was going to be off for four days this weekend, and thinking to myself the whole time I was talking to him, ‘Please tell me I can go. I need this.’

The next morning, after I’d unsuccessfully tried to convince myself to wake up early, I quickly packed, showered, fed the dog, and took her to Doggy Day Camp, leaving for my weekend road trip promptly at 10:00 a.m., and arriving at my first stop in Temple, TX three hours later. I grabbed lunch with one of my old college housemates, Kyle, at his favorite Mexican restaurant (keeping with our old tradition of trying a new Mexican restaurant in Abilene every Sunday after church), and then we endured I-35 construction on the way to the park to play a round of disc golf. It was humid, the holes were oddly numbered, and I was even worse than usual after having not played the game in almost a year. Even so, after the game was done and I was driving to my next stop in Bertram, Sonic slush in hand (keeping with another tradition of grabbing Sonic after disc golf), I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘I needed this.’

In Bertram, I was greeted by my friends Kaitlin and Mason (and their dog, Biggio), who lived in the parsonage next door to the church Mason recently started working at. They made me breakfast for dinner, and we watched the new Wolverine movie (even though Mason and I both love comic book movies, neither of us had gotten to see Logan yet). They gave me a tour of their church building, and we talked about life, old Abilene friends and mentors, and, of course, theology and movies. As I lay in their guest bed for the night, smelling of the Star Wars-themed body wash they keep for their nephews in the shower, I smiled real wide and thought to myself, ‘I needed this.’

The next morning, I headed out again for my last major stop of the weekend. Andrew, my roommate throughout all four years of college, was in Canyon Lake with his girlfriend, Jill, and her parents, known affectionately as Howie and Bunda. After maneuvering the maze of the surrounding streets and driving slowly past the deer that didn’t even flinch at my presence, I was greeted at the door by two nubby, bark-y dachshunds and my second consecutive meal of bacon and eggs. We would go on that day to claim a mostly-secluded spot in the Guadalupe River where rushing water flowed down our backs and Lone Star was of a seemingly endless supply. As I surrendered to the streaming water, without a care in the world for the first time in recent memory, I thought contently to myself, ‘I so needed this.’

And finally, on Monday, my four-day weekend ended with me grabbing some coffee in San Antonio with my good friend, Amanda, who happened to also be on vacation while in between semesters pursuing her Masters degree at Duke Divinity school. The visit was short, but all the while afterward, even while driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-10 with all the other weekenders heading home, I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘Wow, I needed that.’

* * *

When I graduated a little over a year ago, I didn’t know where I was going to be, but I certainly did not plan on being back at home with a job that has nothing to do with my degree. Yes, it pays well, and I’m saving a lot of money, and I’m getting to read a lot, and my parents are more than encouraging in this season of my life, but I still often can’t help but think that I’ve had to put everything on hold while I’m here.

My closest friends are on the other side of Texas (and some are even farther than that), my pursuit of a Master’s Degree has been put on an indefinite hiatus, and–even though I don’t hate my job and, in fact, even enjoy it sometimes–I arrive to work almost every day wishing I was somewhere else.

On Monday morning, I remember speaking with Jill about these woes, and she told me she often feels exactly the same way. Both of our parents had been married by the time they were our age, and we each have friends from school who seem to actually be moving forward in their lives while we find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Though as the great poet Matthew Thiessen (yes, the lead singer of Relient K) once said, “Perspective is a lovely hand to hold.” I know that I’m still in my early twenties, and that I still have a whole lot of life in front of me, even though counting the days sounds like, “seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, routine–and here at twenty-three, it’s the same old me” (Okay, I listened to a lot of Relient K during my road trip).

Something that I found myself saying a lot while driving in Houston traffic has been “Learn patience,” first to other drivers, and then to myself. Then it started to become a prayer: “God, help me to learn patience.” While that had initially been something for small moments when I found myself annoyed with other people, I soon learned that I’m taking the biggest test of patience I’ve ever experienced. God is answering my prayer right now. True, holistic patience is obtained in both the little things and in the bigger things.

So while I’m still frequently frustrated with where I am (or, rather, where I am not) in life right now, I’m trying to remind myself to find value in what I have: a steady job with good pay, ample time to read the books I hadn’t been able to read while I was in school, and quality time with friends and family when such opportunities are presented.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

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About to watch Pirates of the Caribbean with Andrew and Jill (pretty much the only actual picture I took during the weekend–whoops).

Make it Mean Something: “‘How did I get Here?'”

lark1

He glanced at the open meadow, capturing the surrounding scenery as though he had reached the closing scene of a heartwarming family film. He could almost hear the orchestra waltzing in the breeze.

‘How did I get here?’ he wondered. None of this seemed real. Baseless, even.

Suddenly, a jovial lark twisted itself into his line of vision. Its flight pattern was sporadic; it was as though this creature had no vertebrae.

“Come, and join me,” it said, treading the air temporarily before it continued on its hectic journey.

Just like that, it had gone. The boy was unsure how he could follow this brown bird when it had hardly even given him a chance to catch his bearings.

He sat down in the tall grasses of the meadow, being careful to bend as few stems as possible. His arms were wrapped around his knees as he pondered this present scene.

‘I know this is not a dream, because I know it’s not a dream,’ he thought, realizing the confusion presented by this conclusion. He has an imagination, but his logical side was fully functional at this moment.

Far in the back left corner of his eye, a herd of deer marched out from the trees in a uniform manner. They carried on as usual.

* * *

This is the [potential] start of a short story series I’m calling “Make it Mean Something.” It was essentially improvised and influenced by the classical music we had playing for the dog in the other room. As the music changed, so did the “plot” progression. But of course, writing like that can be sporadic, and it can lead to… well, not really knowing what’s being said.

But maybe we can still get something from what’s presented. Maybe we, as individuals, can grab something from what we read and find a moral, a theme, a lesson from something that, at the surface, seems to be pure chaos–much like the content of this particular story.

Because this story had no meaning when I wrote it, I will maintain the notion that it does not and will never have any official meaning. But after reading it over again, I started to see some themes, perhaps indicative of subconscious responses to our society today, in the content of this short story.

I see a distorted reality in this story (well, duh). The scene is set with a sense of daze. Our protagonist, an ageless child, is conscious, but knows that the situation he’s in is not normal. The scene is populated by this boy, a talking bird (and–I didn’t realize this until I looked this up just now: apparently larks live almost exclusively in dry climates, not meadows); marching deer; and, well, I guess that’s about it.

But throughout the [very] short story, our friend is kind of just taking it in. Not necessarily accepting it, but also not necessarily rejecting it.

Is this indicative of complacency to a changing world? Or shock and confusion in response to it? Is our world normal right now, or has it always been filled with paradoxes?

Really, I think the exciting thing about this general premise (that is, of a meaningless and improvised story) gives us all the opportunity to find a meaning. It doesn’t have to mean what I say it means. But we can still take what is presented to us as it is and use it to create something unique. Maybe something sticks out to other readers than what stuck out to me (even though I wrote it). But I cannot explain the scene, the setting, the character, or the plot anywhere past what we see above. Why is the resolution kind of vague? Why don’t we know how this boy ended up in the meadow, and why doesn’t he even seem to know?

I have intentionally decided to leave the story untouched from the point I decided I’d finished, lest I taint the improvisational and open-ended feel it contains. Of course, being my own worst critic, I am having a hard time not noticing some things about what I’ve written that I wish I could change.

So how about you? What do you find out from this story once you make it mean something?

 

Photo found from: http://paradisefoundsantabarbara.com/articles/power-animal-for-may-lark-by-backyard-shaman-amy-katz-m-a/

The Kingdom of God, Part III: A Many-Splintered Thing

This is Part III of a 4-part blog series I am writing on the theological concept of the Kingdom of God, to correspond with the classes I had been leading at my church. You can read Part I by clicking here, and Part II by clicking here.

* * *

We are at the heart of the first century in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a new culture is being developed. Contrary to the culture of the Roman empire and even many of the traditions of old, this new society is built upon communities that seek to live out the message of the Messiah–of Jesus Christ who lived as the ultimate human example and died as a source of redemption for all the times in which we would end up succumbing to all that ran counter to that example.

Leading the charge in this new experiment are Jesus’s former disciples and a new recruit named Paul, who had previously been an adversarial figure to these people he now refers to as brothers and sisters.

Their goal: advancing the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke so frequently and passionately.

The means: not through overpowering the Powers That Be (much to the dismay of many), but by instead forming communities built on love for God and others, compassion towards the outcasts, and the pursuit to choose this better way of life both through radical outreach and inclusiveness, and through fermenting the homegrown communities that are present today so as to be brought down and continued for generations to come.

But, as is the case with every human effort, this cause does not come without its fair share of struggles, confusion, and conflict both from the outside as well as from within.

This becomes evident through even a surface-level study into the latter books of the New Testament, most of which are letters written to the early Christian communities by the first major leaders regarding how best to advance the Kingdom of God within their own respective contexts.

For the church in Corinth, Paul was adamant about ensuring that access to the Kingdom of God was not hindered by people’s skills; rather, their goal instead was to define their communities by the ways in which they loved one another. For the church in Galatia, Paul was outraged when they were causing unnecessary divisions because of poor interpretations of ancient laws. And in so many other places, Paul and the early churches found themselves constantly struggling to figure out how to handle everything from slavery, to gender roles, to diversity, to those who tried to lead the people astray.

James got mad when people did not serve others.

Peter focused a lot on laziness and still being active in light of the second coming of Jesus that had been foretold.

John focused a lot on seeking unity in the midst of those who kept trying to create divisions within the communities.

With the advent of the Church comes the start of a pursuit that is still being realized today: how to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven. With each passing day comes a new element, a new layer of what it looks like to be a follower of Christ in a world that has always been against his teachings. How to respond to cultural movements and social mores, how we are influenced by our society, and how can we determine our role today in the midst of all that is presented to us.

But the Kingdom of God is not defined by any one culture; rather, it is a conglomeration of many elements of many cultures, influenced most, hopefully, by the message of love and compassion taught and lived out by Jesus Christ with each passing day.

The direction my lessons for my class ended up turning towards the most in these past few weeks (including the weeks I ended up having to work instead of going to church), is the conclusion that the greatest key to advancing the kingdom of God–i.e., the ultimate template for Christian belief and practice–is rooted in what Jesus labeled as being the two greatest commandments. These two commandments are instructions for us to love God, and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).

Rarely was Jesus ever so explicit as he was with that designation. Even after someone acknowledged these commandments and went on to ask, understandably, who exactly qualified as a “neighbor,” Jesus went on to tell a story rather than just give a simple, straightforward response (Luke 10:25-37, I promise you that you know this story). This, as well as my own study of the Bible and other Christian texts, leads me to believe that love is the hinge upon which every single element of life should be supported. Regardless of our context, our culture, and whoever may support us or tear us down, love is our tool for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. Love is the light that seeps through the cracks of Babel’s infrastructure. Love is the counter–the twist–to this hyper-Shakespearean tragedy that humanity has written.

If you are Christian, you most likely believe that Jesus is coming back again, and that it is our job to prepare for that arrival in whatever way possible. Christian conservatives tend to see this as a call for evangelism and ‘right belief’–or orthodoxy. Christian liberals tend to see this as a call for action, justice, and service–or orthopraxy (literally, ‘right practice’). But love for God and love for others seems, to me, to be the two main requisites of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

When we read the two best-known biblical passages for what Christian love should look like (1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:7-21), these seem to support my theory further. Likewise, love for God and love for others seem go hand-in-hand. Love separates us from the legalism found in extreme orthodoxy, and the self-dependence found in extreme orthopraxy. Instead, love for God is right belief; and love for our neighbors is right practice.

Now, what we ended up discussing in class after looking at these verses were, of course, things like:
“Okay, but what exactly is love, beyond what we hear in songs and see in movies [e.g., the beautifully-arranged and performed but ridiculously delusional Elephant Love Medley in Moulin Rouge]?”
“What does it mean to love ____________?”
“Does love for God occur before love for our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we learn to love God more through the way we love our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we love our neighbors without loving God, or vice versa?”

None of these questions are particularly new, and neither is my so-called “theory.” But to think that this concept is any less relevant or groundbreaking today than it was 2,000 years ago is to also think that the earth is flat, or that waterfalls aren’t super majestic and awesome.

The pursuit for love in our world today is no harder now than it was for the first century Church, nor is it really any easier. It’s hard to say, honestly.

But I maintain the idea that at the heart of the Christian lifestyle remains the same today, 2,000 years ago, and 2,000 years from now. Our goal is, has always been, and will always be, to advance the Kingdom of God in our world by loving the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is a very simple and absolute idea, but beyond this point lies layers upon layers of questions, implications, dead ends, contexts, and, most of all: God. Eden. The New Jerusalem. Peace. Joy. Grace. Truth. Justice. Authenticity. Vulnerability. Perfection.

Andy Williams sang, “Love is a many-splendored thing [referring to romantic love, but still].” That doesn’t mean that love is an easy pursuit. But when we do choose to love above all else, surely that is when we can see how incredible the world can really be when it strives to function as God had always intended.

My friends, may we choose to love and learn what it means to love. May we not avoid vulnerability, and may we strive to look past ourselves. May we tread the hard path of love so that we can prepare the way of the Lord.

Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for my final post in this series, coming… soon.

The Kingdom of God, Part II: Here, There, and Everywhere

This is Part II of my 4-part blog series on The Kingdom of God, to go along with the lessons I’m giving for my class at church on the same topic. You can find Part I here.

* * *

Off the banks of the murky Jordan River, on an equally murky day, a man stood casting a wishful eye upon the horizon. Cloaked in camel’s hide and stuffed with locust and honey, the only thing that distinguished this man more than his quirks were perhaps his words.

This man, now commonly known as John the Baptist, spoke with the tongue of the Prophets from a world before him, declaring with his life the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” Echoing profusely the prophet Isaiah, he said to anyone who’d listen:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley  shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”*

What had first been talked about as a far-off fantasy in the Hebrew Scriptures is now beginning to come into fruition here with the arrival of Jesus. More than a prophet and a rabbi, Jesus is the bodily incarnation of the God that the Jews had come to be so familiarly complacent with these past few thousand years.

But like his cousin and counterpart, John, Jesus also had a way with words. And his words also focused on the Day of the Lord. Except that now, it was referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.

We see a glimpse of this early on when reading about Jesus, as his most famous sermon (read: Matthew 5-7) spends a lot of time both distinguishing earth from heaven, and bringing heaven down to earth. He states,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

However, this same Jesus, in Luke 17, muddies the water a bit with this statement,

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you (Luke 20b-21, emphasis mine).

So here we encounter a sort of theological paradox of sorts. Is this place some sort of far-off utopia, or is it a place that can be built and developed and sought after here on earth?

The short answer: Yes.

In his book Surprised by Hope, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright attempts to dismiss the common notion that heaven is some sort of distant realm that has no immediate connection to earth. Rather, the Kingdom of God/Heaven is something that has been in development since the beginning of time. It is here, but its presence and impact are still continually being realized with each passing day.

He uses Philippians 3:20 as an example, in which the apostle Paul states that the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, rather than on earth. If our citizenship is in heaven, then, and if heaven is something that is being brought down to earth through Jesus, then that means it is our goal as Christians to work toward advancing the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven (see pages 100-101, 207-232 for more specific descriptions on what I’m referring to here).

What does that look like, then?

Dr. Wright writes,

God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image…. God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected–imagined, if you like–into his world through his human creatures. He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation (page 207).

Simply put: Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection served as a call to action for all Christians. Not just a call to worship and evangelism, as most Christians seem to focus on, but a call also to pursue justice and seek the beauty and value of all that which God has given us, to value God’s creatures and creation over and beyond the things produced and perpetuated by this world that is rooted in Sin and Self.

Jesus himself was the ultimate Example off which his followers are called to live. Jesus, as we see time and time again, was an emulation of love. Of compassion toward the vulnerable. Of anger towards the oppressors and the self-centered, many of whom were religious leaders, themselves. Of humility. Of peace and turning the other cheek.

Therefore, my friends, so, then, should we be.

Just as God had pursued true communion with Israel throughout the Old Testament through the harmony of the four core relationships (Individual with God, Individual with Self, Individual with others, Individual with earth–see last week’s blog), so, here, does Jesus seek that same communion with us. As in, all of us. This is what the Quaker theologian James Bryan Smith describes as the “grand invitation” in his book The Good and Beautiful Life, which, along with Wright’s book, was probably my greatest tangible influence in discussing this this concept.

There is plenty more that can be said here, and I would love to discuss this stuff more with you. But I also want to save some room for these next two weeks, as well. And really, anything else I might want to write here would likely end up exceeding even my standards for how long a blog post should be (if anyone is wondering, most of my blog posts average out to being about as long as a four-page college paper, or 1200 words. But who’s counting?).

Until then, my friends, I want to close with a quote from one of my favorite writers and theologians, Henri Nouwen, because 1) why not? and 2) he was the only author who got an explicit shout out from a Facebook friend (a rabbi, no less) when I posted a picture of the books I was hoping to use for research on this post. Nouwen, who was a Catholic priest, professor, and all-around stellar human being, writes in his book In the Name of Jesus,

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life…. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.

May we seek to love with the love of God and Jesus, may we seek to be instruments of peace and justice, and may we surrender to grace when we realize that we will always fall short of perfection. But may that realization never, ever, stop us from persisting onward, anyway.

Thank you for reading. Until next week.

(By the way, this post was 1304 words long, counting also this paragraph and the footnote below this.)

*This quote is actually a conglomeration of what’s said in Mark, Luke, and John’s books, formed as though it was one large quote rather than three, as well as formed as though it was John alone who said it and not John and a random Isaiah quote.

The Kingdom of God, Part I: The Rift from Eden

A week ago today, Paul, an elder at Impact Church of Christ–a diverse inner-city church in Houston that I started attending a few months ago–walked up to me after church and said, “You have things to say. I want you to teach class for the next four weeks.”  Cornered by the lack of choice and flattered by the upfront consideration, I unhesitatingly conceded.

But also, being me, I decided to supplement my lessons with blog posts. I have always felt like I am better at writing than I am at speaking, and I had been wanting to cover this topic anyway, so it just seemed to make sense to me. 

As I told the class (most of whom are close to my age–in college and/or in their twenties) this morning, today’s lesson was going to be taking a drastically brief view of the Old Testament. Not just a bird’s-eye view, but rather more like an astronaut’s-eye view. I will be acknowledging, but glossing over, some important elements of the more well-known events and ideas of the Old Testament in order to make space for some of the lesser-known events and ideas. In other words, lack of coverage does not necessarily equate to lack of relevance. But at the same time, I hope to be writing this in such a way that anyone can read and understand this regardless of their knowledge of the Bible.

So now, without any further ado: Part I of my Four Part series on the Kingdom of God, “The Rift from Eden,” or the Kingdom of God as seen in the Old Testament.

* * *

Let us start at the beginning, though we shan’t stay there long.

Eden.

Plenty can be said about Eden, and plenty is understood about Eden, even if most of it is misunderstood. But I don’t want to change your view of it–whether it’s a painting or a parody, a truth or a myth, or something in between–I just want you to see it for what it is to all of us right now: a far-off utopia-like paradise. An idea. A bliss that, at the moment, is too ridiculous to think about realistically.

In Eden, we see the closest our world has ever gotten to Perfection. Vulnerability. Authenticity. Life in its truest fulfillment.

My Old Testament professor at ACU described four core relationships that take place in Eden:

  1. Individual with God
  2. Individual with self
  3. Individual with others
  4. Individual with earth

Even before then, “the heavens and the earth” are created by some sort of plural Being… One who’s described as an individual but whose self-referential pronouns are words like “us” and “our” (Genesis 1:26).

In Eden, for the most part, all is “right” with the world. But then things plummet into something unimaginable: reality. These core relationships that had been so essential to a quality life in Eden have all taken a turn for the worse, and history now has a plot.

Fast forward a few centuries, and at least one party has decided not to give up on mending these relationships. In Genesis 12 and 15, God uses Abra[ha]m to start a nation that was meant to help bring the world back to God. This nation, which would soon be known as Israel, comes to encounter national secession together, slavery together, homelessness together, failed theocratic monarchy together, and exile together.

All the while, we see attempts to mend the four core relationships.

Laws are established in Israel’s toddler years to help hold the nation accountable. In Leviticus 19, we see a glimpse of laws that aim work into all four relationships:

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy… Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another… I am the Lord….

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Additionally, a bit later on in chapter 25, God establishes a law–a law–created for cancelling all debts and loosing the burdens created by human shortcomings.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God time and again reaching out to the people of Israel.

As for Israel, though, at their high points, we can say that, at least, they tried? Maybe? As for the particulars such as where and when, I’ll let you know when I find something.

But at their low points, and even their regular points, the rift between Israel and Eden cannot be more thick. Where God is in relentless pursuit of their hearts, Israel is turning to the idols of ego and self-service. As Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam displays so poignantly, one party is reaching, ever reaching for a deeper connection, while the other gives up even right on the brink of Authentic, Vulnerable, Perfection.

michelangelo-creation-of-adam-index

You my have noticed that nothing I have yet discussed actually uses the term “The Kingdom of God.” If we’re being honest, there is a sense of anachronism here, as the kingdom of God isn’t really brought up until the ministry of Jesus (spoiler alert for next week). But as I will argue throughout these four posts, hindsight helps us see that which was made so explicit all those millennia ago.

God desires Eden. God desires a relationship with us that puts Adam and Eve to shame. God desires that we strive for a world in which everyone is treated as though they were truly made in the image of God.

But as the Old Testament shows us time and time again, humanity is utterly broken. Humanity constantly fails at seeing the humanity in others, at seeing the beauty of the earth, at rejoicing in the glory of God. Israel is defined in these books by their idolatry and, even more explicit, their adultery against God (read: Hosea). While Israel has always seen the love that God has shown them, they failed to show it back. They failed to love God and love their neighbors. And so evil prevailed because they did not allow love to break through.

Thus is the tragedy of the story of Israel, of the story of humanity. We were loved by the One who created us, yet we refused to love anywhere past our own selves. As it was with Israel, so it is with us.

And yet, even in the midst of Israel’s darkest hour, a sign of hope breaks through. The Day of the Lord, in which peace and justice reign, is about to cause a rift even deeper than the one between God and humanity: one that separates us from all of our flaws. The prophet Isaiah writes,

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
[the father of King David],
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…

[On that day,]
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…

They will not hurt or destroy,
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.”

Despite all the ways in which Israel failed, all the times in which Israel turned away, God did not stop pursuing them.

The catch, however, is that it is not up to God alone to bring justice in the world. Yes, it is, ultimately, God who brings peace and justice to earth. But we are God’s instruments. We are the conduits. We are God’s tools. It is through our work that we can be brought closer to God, closer to each other, closer to ourselves, and closer to Eden.

My friends, may we allow Eden to be our goal. May we see the love God has for us, and may this love push us to love, as well.

Thank you for reading. Until next week.

Diotrephes

unwelcome-matI wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 9-10)

This particular passage has been on my mind quite a lot lately. I don’t remember ever hearing it growing up; in fact, I don’t think I even really paid any attention to this entire section of the Bible until I took a class on the “lesser-known” books of the New Testament a couple years ago.

And this particular character, Diotrephes. This is the only time he’s mentioned in the entire Bible, and the only things we definitively know about him are found in these few sentences hidden in one of the shortest, most vague, and most underappreciated books in the whole Bible (like, literally, you can read the entire letter of 3 John in less than a minute).

In attempt to simplify the context and purpose of this passage as best as I can (remember, my friends: Context: It’s Important), Diotrephes was [likely] a leader in one of the first Christian churches, which, in those days (roughly somewhere between 90 and 100 A.D.), took place in different houses and each consisted of around 10, mayyyybe 15 people at the most. The letter in which we find this passage is part of a [possible] 3-pack of theological/instructional letters (conveniently known now as 1 (First) John, 2 (Second) John, and 3 (Third) John) that has traditionally been attributed to (written by) one of Jesus’s closest followers–the apostle, John–and written to one or several churches now forever lost in history, aside from what we see in these letters.

3 John, however, appears to have been written for one specific congregation, the one in which Diotrephes led with a rather large amount of authority–and exclusivity. While John (who refers to himself as “The Elder”) is sending missionaries to stay with the congregation during their travels, Diotrephes refuses to allow these people–or anyone who is considered to be a stranger to him or the church–into the home, and even goes so far as to kick those who are hospitable to these people out of the church altogether.

It is clear that Diotrephes does not always see eye-to-eye with John, as not even he is welcomed into the church. Instead, Diotrephes chooses to “spread malicious nonsense” about him and the people seeking community with the church.

We do not know why Diotrephes is this way; however, we can see that he represents a much larger story both within this 3-pack of letters and Christian history in general.

1 and 2 John were both written in regards to a schism within the churches. Due to doctrinal and philosophical differences, several leaders ended up leaving the church in order to form their own congregations, which John, who was no fool, considered to be founded in false teachings and taught by false teachers. He even called these secessionists “anti-Christs” (1 John 2:18-22 and 4:3) and “deceivers” (2 John 7).

Likewise, throughout church history (and really, all of history), we see an endless number of ways in which Christianity has been formed (and reformed) by division: the Arian conflict, the aptly named “Great Schism,” the Protestant Reformation, and even within my own tradition (the Stone-Campbell movement), which was, ironically, created in an attempt to seek unity among Christians.

Diotrephes, however, is different from what we see in these above examples. He is not like the secessionists in the other two letters. Nor is he any sort of “rebel” or “revolutionary” seeking to break from the status quo like Martin Luther. He is still very much a part of the church, and is even a leader. However, what makes him distinct is his pride and xenophobia. He loved to be first, and he was afraid of people he did not know. In fact, he never even sought to know these strangers in the first place, and rejected anyone who dared suggest anything that varied from his own opinion.

Perhaps Diotrephes was an incredible leader and an incredible verbal witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth is, we will never know. But what John ultimately cared about was not Diotrephes’s beliefs, but rather his practices.

Jesus taught constantly about loving not only one’s neighbors, but also one’s enemies. He embraced the strangers and the outcasts, and told his followers and opponents time and time again about this world known as “The Kingdom of God” in which the homeless person receives justice over the rich person, the wolf lies down with the lamb*, the firsts are made the lasts and the lasts are made the firsts, and the foreign Samaritan is shown more favor than even the great religious leaders**.

So why is Diotrephes, a supposedly devout follower of Christ, so reluctant to welcome strangers (other Christ followers, even!) into his own home?

Diotrephes, I’ve come to realize, expresses a sentiment that runs deep in our own humanity. He is afraid of the Unknown, and seeks to put himself first over others. But John says that Diotrephes is wrong to indulge in these kinds of fears, desires, and behaviors. He abhors his tribalism, and praises instead the actions of those who show hospitality to others (3 John 5-8, 11-12).

Hospitality, I would wager plenty to say, is a virtue every Christian should value, and it’s one rooted deeply in not only the teachings of John, but also Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46), Paul (Philippians 2:1-11), James (1:19-27), the prophets (Amos 5, Micah 6… really, all of the prophets) Moses (Exodus 22:21-27), and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31, though via Jesus). However, it is a value that most Christians have, much to the world’s dismay, lost sight of. Though we are called to welcome in the stranger and love our enemies, we are instead excluding others and forming governments that literally build walls to keep people out of a land that was never ours to begin with, and are keeping innocent refugees from finding a place to lie their heads (“Foxes have holes, and birds have nests….”).

How have we fallen so far from the teachings of our God? How have we let ourselves become Diotrephes?

Personally, I know how much I struggle with this temptation, as well. But I also know I have changed for the better after having housemates who demanded showing hospitality and kindness to our homeless neighbors–some of whom eventually became our friends–and I pray that I continue to seek the sense of humility and hospitality that they have always possessed.

I know I’ve done this before, but I want to end with a passage from 1 John 4:7-8, 16b-21. I pray that both I and my fellow Christians strive to follow this teaching more and more every day of our lives and that we seek to imitate not what is evil, but rather, what is good.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love….

Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Christianity is not only a belief; it is a lifestyle of love. And this love does not keep others out, but rather, it welcomes them in.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

 


*This passage is actually not from one of the gospels, but from the prophet, Isaiah. Its message, however, is similar enough to that of the Kingdom of God that I don’t see much issue in including it here.

**The story of the schism between the Israelites and the Samaritans is also a notable example of how division has created a false sense of identity among God’s people.

 

Sources (SBL with a bit of my own touch because it’s my blog and not a paper):

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1986. Pgs. 501-507.

Thompson, Marianne. 1-3 John in the Interpretation commentary series. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1992. Pgs. 13-21, 158-164.