Communion Thoughts at Impact Church of Christ: August 20, 2017

 

Communion Stock Photo
Stock photo. Found online.

I had the chance to offer the communion thoughts at my church this morning, and I wanted to share the transcript with you.

Movement I: The Bread and Cup

Good morning.

I am very glad to be here this morning with y’all. And I would like to take this opportunity to help everyone here recognize the gravity of this moment, this event in which we are now taking part, as the very root of the Church’s theology and ecclesiology centers around this moment.

Since the Beginning, our God has been in communion—Father, Son, and Spirit—and has celebrated that fact ever since. This is evident every time we witness God’s creation first hand: every time we step into a forest, or an ocean, or an inner-city church. The communion of God and God’s creation is present in the diversity that’s displayed. In the many becoming the one.

And because we are created in the image of God, it is imperative that we insist on making community—and communion—the heart of our focus as a Church. In the midst of all the turmoil taking place in our nation and in our world, it is essential that the Church stand as the contrast to the division we witness every time we catch wind of the latest headline.

God’s greatest act of communion came 2,000 years ago, when God became flesh and blood and Jesus the Son came to live in communion with human beings like us. But it was not the pious, the perfect, and the religious that he came to be with; rather, it was the poor, the oppressed, the heartbroken, and the ostracized—those who had historically been denied the opportunity for communion.

And so the case should be with us, God’s followers. In the same way that God came to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and captivity in Babylon, so should we seek to free those held captive by the sins of injustice, pride, racism, greed, and privilege of all sorts—be they the victims or the perpetrators, be it subtle or systemic. Likewise, in the same way that Jesus cast out demons and healed those who were sick, may we seek to heal those possessed by the demonizing mindsets that dare to put themselves on a pedestal above anyone else. In the same way that Jesus broke bread with those that society hated, may we choose to do the same.

This moment we are taking part in right now is revolutionary, because love is being shared indiscriminately. The body and blood of Jesus are being broken into enough pieces to fill the emptiness found in everybody in this room, and—like the five loaves and two fish—they will be able still to feed the thousands, the millions, the billions, even beyond this moment right now. And as we pass this bread and “wine” to our left and to our right, we may or may not know the person we’re passing it to. We may or may not know how this person stands on the latest news story. But God does. And he still chooses to offer love, grace, and mercy to each and every one of us, anyway. May we be brave enough to do the same. Please pray with me.

“Lord, God, You exist in communion, and You have made us in Your image. May we continually seek to learn what that means in our lives with each passing day. When you were on the cross, you said to Mary, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Son, behold your mother,’ because you knew that following you would require a bond that only blood could create. As we take part in communion this day, may we not forget those You broke for. We pray all this in Your name, Amen.”

 

Movement II: The Offering

I am proud to say that I attend a congregation as diverse as Impact is. In a lot of ways, I feel as though I experience a small sample of what heaven will look like whenever I’m here. It’s incredible, because the Kingdom of God seems so much bigger, in that we can witness the diversity of the Kingdom, but at the same time, it also seems to get smaller (in the best way possible), because the people we interact with are so immediate. They’re right here in front of us.

Which brings me to the offering. When we give to the Church, when we offer a part of ourselves for the cause of Christ, the Kingdom gets bigger, and our impact (no pun intended) becomes something more immediate. We realize that the cause of Christ requires self-sacrifice and self-service. God becomes greater in our eyes and in our hearts, while we become less.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. You don’t need money to give to the cause of Christ—though we encourage you to give that if you have any! But just as Christ gave himself for the cause of the Kingdom, we too can do the same in our offering, as well as in the way we live our lives. My prayer for the offering is short and simple, but at the same time, I hope that is serves as a challenge to us all. Let’s pray.

“Lord, God, help us learn humility and sacrifice, not just now, but with every time we take a breath. May our giving bring us closer to You. We ask this in Your name, Amen.”

I Attended my First Rally Last Night

Charlottesville Photo
Not intentionally fuzzy, but that’s okay. Not my photo.

I showed up at the bar at around 7:15, though the event I found online said that they were going to be meeting at 7. My shift ended at 7, however, and I didn’t know anyone that was going to be there in the first place, so I figured that didn’t really matter that much. I wasn’t even sure who I was supposed to be looking for. I stuttered a little when telling the bartenders who I was looking for. “A group of people, but they wanted this to remain a private event, so they’re probably not going to be very showy.” Two different bartenders pointed me to the party in the back, but that did not look right at all.

I planted myself at one of the tall tables, and a third bartender convinced me to get a beer while I waited. I was eyeing the group outside who I thought was them.

My sister had shared a link earlier in the day on Facebook containing the locations of all the rallies and vigils throughout the country going on this weekend for people who wanted to stand in solidarity with the victims of the recent events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I clicked on it and put in my ZIP code, about 96% sure nothing near me would pop up. But to my surprise…

I took another sip–I was making sure to finish the drink fast enough to be ready to move by 8 (it was only a beer, after all). 8:00 was when the group was going to be meeting in Town Square, mere steps away from the bar I was in. The bartender who’d convinced me to get the beer said he was looking for the group for me, and wished me support in my efforts, because he appreciated my going out looking for strangers for a cause such as this.

At 8:00, I left a $5 tip for my $6 drink and followed the group I’d been watching as they all stood up and made their way to Town Square. I straightened up my polo shirt that had never de-wrinkled from when I stuck it in the dryer in the morning and joined the circle they’d created. Someone had handed me one of the small, battery-powered candles they’d brought in bulk, and I was greeted casually by some of the members who saw me “sneak” in.

Several people spoke about who they were, what they were doing, or why they were there, and others, myself included, took quick photos and videos to share on social media. Some bystanders took photos, some stood behind the circle for a moment, some joined in spontaneously, some didn’t. They asked for volunteers to read a page of 10 ways to peacefully and effectively speak out against injustice, and I read number 7, though had I seen the options beforehand, I would have preferred to read number 10.

At 8:34, the event ended, and the people who’d organized the event encouraged everyone to get to know their neighbors standing next to them. The woman next to me shook my hand, and eventually gave her card, as she’s running for a seat in the Fort Bend County Office.

Throughout the “rally” (I’m really not quite sure what to call it), participants were adamant in making calls for unity and love. Occasionally a small chant of “Stronger Together” were made, but those never carried on because while the event was certainly political, it was never supposed to be partisan.

I left at around 8:50, feeling relieved that I’d sucked up my reservations and just went. It helped that the initial meeting place was a bar, where I could calm some nerves before doing something I’d never really done before.

* * *

Internally, there was a lot more going on than what was presented above.

When I had first found out about the event going on just 5 miles from where I lived, my initial reaction was actually to look for something else. ‘Surely there is a church nearby doing something tonight,’ I thought, ‘A place where there will be prayer. A place indoors, and not public.’

During my breaks at work, I Googled and Facebooked every church and denomination I could think of, in hopes of finding some church somewhere nearby that would be hosting something.

But I found nothing.

In the past, I had attended prayer vigils for refugees and human trafficking. In the past, I’d spent hours in conversation with church groups talking about race relations. In the past, many of these events still had a sense of distance and/or control to them, as well. But that does not appear to be the case anymore.

While I will never be opposed to prayer vigils–in fact, I believe they’re necessary elements for building a stronger Christian and a stronger Church–I am starting to believe that more needs to be done. The Church must be active in matters of injustice. I understand many of the reservations many mostly-white, mostly-conservative, mostly-evangelical Christians possess today (because I, myself still have most of those reservations), but we cannot let that be a part of our identity. We cannot stand idol-ly by in our awkward comfort zones while the oppressed and marginalized–the very people Jesus came to love–are left abandoned by Jesus’s followers. I do not know if that always necessarily entails going out and protesting–though I believe that that is also an important element for building a stronger Church–but it allows no room whatsoever for complacency.

Complacency to injustice is incompatible with people who are called to mourn with those who mourn.
Complacency to injustice is a repellent to the magnetic force of the love that Jesus expects of all Christians.
Complacency to injustice is not and cannot be an ingredient in the recipe for the Peaceful Kingdom of God. It is a poison.

So where is the Church when people–many of whom claim to be fellow followers of Christ–hold rallies promoting racism? And murder innocent bystanders? And deface the image of God that had been embedded in their victims’ genes since the beginning of time?

These situations will always be complicated. But the Church should not be afraid of standing up for the Condemned (see John 8:1-11). Public acts of solidarity are amazing at making the world much smaller than it often seems. Those we are supporting become our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. They become something tangible. They become human (in our minds, at least. They’d always been human). They become Beloved.

The pursuit of peace and justice is long, trying, and harrowing. But it is always a goal worth pursuing.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Below: “All is Not Lost” by The Brilliance.

 

Together Strong: A Brief Review of the Planet of the Apes Reboot Franchise

War for the Planet of the Apes Poster
(C) 2017 20th Century Fox
Most people who know me know that I love movies and that I also love writing reviews for movies. So far: I’ve written one for Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, both starring Andrew Garfield. I very much hope to write even more reviews on a variety of different movies as time goes on.

My most recent movie kick has been the new Planet of the Apes movies (2011-2017), starring Andy Serkis (also of Lord of the Rings franchise fame) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (the first film) and Matt Reeves (the second two). I saw the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for the first time last summer, and was completely blown away. The film had far exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. While I had initially expected just another CGI and action-driven blockbuster full of explosions–essentially, another Transformers franchise–I instead saw depth, symbolism, traditional senses of ethics being put into question, quality acting (for the most part–sorry, Tom Felton), and genuine and believable character development. And a bunch of CGI and explosions, which, hey, is still pretty enjoyable.

In light of the third film being released this past weekend, I decided to re-watch Rise (2011) and purchase Dawn (2014), and ultimately, ended up watching all three films in three consecutive days. And I just had to try and digest all that went on in these three movies as best as I could, which led me to writing this. So, in breaking from writing a review about a movie starring Andrew Garfield, but easing into the transition by still writing a review about a movie starring a white British guy named Andrew, here’s my attempt to adequately capture the symbolism, philosophy, ethics, and even theology of the Planet of the Apes reboot series in 2068 words.

 

BASIC PREMISE (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

To start off, it seems necessary to cover some of the general plot points of the first film in particular, hopefully without giving too much away to those interested, in order to help understand some of the themes and symbols discussed later on.

The first film begins at a biotechnology company in which several different species of apes are being tested for a drug that seeks to cure Alzheimer’s. Initially, it works incredibly well; the test subjects are displaying the ability to learn and grow even beyond normal capabilities. However, one day the most exemplary subject rampages the laboratory and is put to death, along with all the other apes in the building. The company is not only shattered physically, but also emotionally and financially; their (mostly) good intentions had all gone awry and their investors had all pulled out almost immediately. When the damage is being examined, one of the leading scientists in the lab, Will Rodman (played by James Franco), discovers a newborn ape in the room once occupied by the one who wrecked the building. He realized that she wasn’t being aggressive; rather, she was just being a protective mother. Not being able to bring himself to kill the newborn, he decides to take him in, and, eventually, raise him.

Rodman quickly sees that the young ape, who was given the name Caesar, had inherited his mother’s abilities. He became rapidly and dramatically smarter and was almost human-like in his mannerisms, from his ability to eat with a knife and fork to his desire to wear human clothes. However, the son ends up becoming a parallel to his mother: he brings harm to others in a misunderstood fit of rage, and is placed into an ape “sanctuary” that feels about as much like a prison as the laboratory had felt. After being held captive and mistreated for too long, Caesar leads the other apes to revolt, inducing the same drug he’d been given into their systems to help make them smarter, as well. When one of his new caretakers, Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton), incites violence against him yet again, Caesar, understandably, fights back. Then one of the most horrifying moments in cinematic history takes place. Caesar grabs hold of Dodge, and, echoing a line from the original movie (1968), Dodge yells, “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” to which Caesar puffs his chest and yells as heartily as he can, “No!”

Clearly, Caesar’s intelligence has reached levels no one could have ever imagined, and everyone, human and ape alike, is left dumbfounded.

From there, Caesar and the apes begin a continual struggle to build a healthy relationship both with humans and with each other. Each species contains characters whose lack of trust for outsiders end up only making things worse for everyone. And throughout the series, we witness several layers of character studies, symbols, and themes, which are discussed (albeit briefly) below.

 

SYMBOLS AND THEMES

  • Good intentions gone awry: I’d touched on this earlier when humans hoping to find a cure for Alzheimer’s ended up killing a mother trying to protect her young. At its core, this theme is found throughout the entire series. Pursuits of peace end up getting thwarted, either due to a misunderstanding or because someone else intentionally addressed the situation with, well, bad intentions. In all three movies, Caesar encounters at least one human who holds no malicious intent against him or any of the other apes, but apparently, they seem to be a rare breed. Instead, most of the characters are driven by fear. The main difference is: whereas the apes’ fear is mostly based off their history as an oppressed and inferior species, the humans’ fear is mostly irrational and based off their desire to remain the dominant species, the oppressors.
  • Humans and animals: This leads to a rather obvious theme exploring the dynamics between what constitutes human action and human nature vs. what constitutes animal action and animal nature (another word that can perhaps be used in place of animal is “beastly”). Where we tend to rely on extremes–humans having morals and thinking about others vs. animals being tribalistic and survivalistic–we see those lines blurred in this franchise. Humans murder ruthlessly. Apes show compassion and mercy to those who’d wronged them. And of course, all of our perceptions are constantly being challenged. One of the most fascinating lines comes in the second movie, where Caesar admits, in broken English, “I always think… ape better than human. I see now… how much like them we are.” How’s that for a turnaround? Theologically speaking, this a reflection of the Fall of humankind. Knowing the difference between good and evil is part of what makes us “like” God (Genesis 3:22a), but so often we err toward our human tendencies, our animal tendencies. Humans are still animals; humans are still not God (more on that later).
  • Shakespearean/Literary References: No, a human and ape do not fall in love with each other in this franchise. But we know that any work of art whose main character is named Caesar is bound to be aptly named. We know that that name foreshadows future plot points and emphasizes certain themes. We know that because there’s a character named Caesar, there’s also bound to be another character who’s just an absolute brute. I know this, et tu. Now, I wanted to find an article that really, really expands on these references, which are especially prominent in the second movie. The best article I was able to find, though, was this one, which still wasn’t terrible.
  • “Apes Together Strong”: This phrase was uttered first by Caesar in Rise, and was repeated several times throughout the next two movies for some reason. As is displayed below, Caesar was explaining to his friend, the Orangutan, Maurice, that his ambitions for apekind cannot be achieved by himself. He breaks the stick in his hand a couple times, saying that like the stick, he is weak when he is one. But then he bunches the now four sticks together and tries to break them, saying that when he’s with others, the overall unit becomes something strong and valuable.Apes Together Strong.gifThis simple phrase showed its own flexibilities and fallibilities as the series progressed. At its best interpretation, it’s a call for unity and harmony. At its worst, it’s something detrimental. Referring to all apes as a collective, it automatically implies a sense of exclusivity against everything not-ape. But what happens when an ape betrays the group? And what happens when a non-ape seeks to build a bridge between them? All these challenges and more and thrown into the mix throughout the series, and it’s quite honestly incredible to observe.
  • Emotion: This seems like something odd to point out, but I’d say it’s actually especially true in a franchise such as this. A large portion of the communication in all three movies is done nonverbally, either through sign language or facial expression. And a whole lot is to be said about the intentional decision by the producers and directors to maintain that concept throughout the series, not to mention Andy Serkis’s performance (watch this) and the work of the animators. It made these movies all the more a work of art, saying (by not saying anything) that you don’t need to know a lot of words in order to be articulate.
  • Playing God: The PotA franchise doesn’t appear to display any explicitly religious themes until the third movie (the one in theaters right now), so I won’t expand too much on that for those who would still like to see it. But it is worth noting the series’ intentional commentary on human attempts to claim superiority over creation. In a lot of ways, it echoes the Tower of Babel story. Every time we try to overpower others by means of force, oppression, or power, it eventually comes back and bites us in the butt. On the surface, it seems like a pessimistic view of human progression, but I would argue it’s more a testament to community and seeing others as equals rather than as superiors or inferiors. This doesn’t necessarily have to imply a literal interpretation against the notion of humans being superior to animals, but it could certainly be seen as an allegory to oppression brought about by racism, sexism, classism, and anything else that sees a self or a group as something greater or more valuable than another person or group. (Though it should also be kept in mind that anyone who wants to make commentary on matters such as this should do so cautiously, especially during tense political times like today’s. For example, this Buzzfeed article, of all things, touched on a pretty interesting detail concerning the most recent movie and one of today’s more prominent Black Lives Matter activists.)

 

IT SHOULD BE NOTED

Some of you reading this may have noticed that in my last post, I talked about being a self-proclaimed pacifist and a wannabe “peacemaker.” It seems like an odd turnaround to be speaking so highly about such violent movies immediately afterward. However, I feel that anyone who automatically writes off the PotA franchise as just being violent or mindless movies is clearly not paying attention to them. Caesar himself admits continually that he does not want war with humankind, but that he fights to protect his own–and sees no better alternative. Similarly, the third movie in particular is a character study of extremism, in which Caesar is constantly pushing himself not to fall into the same trap some of his old companions had fallen into, the same trap many of his enemies had fallen into, the same trap he himself had fallen victim to in the past to some extent or another. Our animal side is inherently violent and driven on survival (ahem, survival of the fittest), and one of the greatest strengths of this franchise is its ability to portray an animal that is oftentimes more human-like than real-life, actual humans.

 

CONCLUSION

Real humans, at their best, are filled with inner-conflict, contradiction, regret, and growth. We don’t always know how to address the situations life throws at us. However, one of the best steps forward is to acknowledge that we are all this way. Thus we arrive back to the central theme: when we are together, we are strong. Saying that can provoke a wide array of followup questions, but we know what happens when someone goes rogue, when someone exerts power over others, when someone decides they don’t need community. We become a planet full of apes.

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.

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.