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.

Why I’m Fasting This Inauguration Day (And Possibly for all the Future ones to Come)

I’m holding off a school assignment by writing this right now, so I’ll make this short.

These past few months, regardless of where one stands politically, have left a rather bitter taste in all our mouths. The obnoxious talking heads of cable news that I used to be able to flip the channel to ignore now seem to all have a universal remote. Where politics had once been just an awkward conversation, politics have now become a part of our very lives.

And if we’re being honest, I am sugar-coating the literal hell out of this mess.

By now, it seems we’ve all but worn out the arguments and ourselves. We have all chosen our sides. And this is the first day of the rest of our lives (kyrie eleison).

Those who know me or have perhaps read my blog (particularly this post right here), know how I feel about the new president. And I think I can pretty safely say, that had the results been reversed, I would not be writing this post or doing this activity right now. But this has truly been an eye-opening season for me in so many ways, and I want to prepare myself for it as best as I can.

So today, I have decided to fast. With the exception of my morning coffee, daily smoothie, and any mid-afternoon caffeine boost I might need to keep studying (I’m not a superhuman, after all), I am not allowing food to enter into my body.

While I, in all honestly, got the idea from someone on Twitter (I think, I’m not even entirely sure), I realized how important this is not just for this time, but for myself both as a follower of Jesus and as a weak and fragile human being.

Fasting is rooted far back into not only the Christian scriptures, but really… pretty much everyone’s ancient scriptures. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, in biblical times, Jews fasted either when they were mourning or when danger threatened, and the Jewish tradition contains several days devoted specifically to fasting (the most notable among them being Yom Kippur). Muslims fast during the entire month of Ramadan (but only when the sun is out) in order to “purify the body and spirit and bring the faithful closer to God”, and it is said that the Buddha fasted both when he was a Hindu and afterward when he, well, wasn’t.

But unfortunately, Christians (or, at least, Western Christians) do not seem to be too fond of fasting. And that’s a bummer, but one I’ll hopefully talk about more on a later date.

But this particular inauguration day, I cannot help but see the necessity in fasting for the sake of my spiritual life. I got very caught up in the presidential race, and am currently having a hard time accepting the reality of today.

But I am a Christian, doggone it.

I should know that my citizenship is not in America, but in Heaven (Philippians 3:20).

I should know that my ruler is not a president, nor a fascist, nor a dictator, nor Caesar, nor a king, but my God who sits on the throne of Heaven (Revelation 7:10).

And I should know that my hope is not found in a mortal leader, but that my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.

And I should know that true greatness is not found in a leader, nor in a nation, nor in anything else in this world, but that the only thing that is great is the faithfulness of God (Lamentations 3:23). I also know that in the upside-down world that is the Kingdom of God, the first shall become the last, the last shall become the first, and the greatest shall be the servants (Matthew 23:11), and that the Greatest Commands that Jesus gave were to (1) love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, and to (2) love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40).

The only way I can ever hope to bring about change in this world is to let him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever come in first to change my heart (Hebrews 13:8).

And so I am fasting as a reminder to myself not to dwell on the ways of this world, but to focus on where my eyes should lie instead: God, and my neighbors.

I am fasting so that I may mourn with those who mourn, and so that I may catch a glimpse of Christ right before he began his ministry. I am fasting to remind myself of my own weakness as well as the frailties of this world, but also, more importantly, on the strength and faithfulness of my God. I am fasting because a humble and prostrate heart is the best defense against a fallen and broken world.

And this world has always been broken. And this world will always be broken, regardless of who’s sitting in the oval office. And I pray that I never forget that.

I pray that I never forget the ones that Jesus remembered. I pray that I refuse to flaunt my wealth and privilege over others–feigning my weariness while begging for the praise of others–but rather, I pray that I seek to embody, to the best of my meager ability, the life of my hungry, homeless, thirsty, cold, and wandering savior, so that I am all the better fit to serve my hungry, homeless, thirsty, cold, and wandering, [Muslim, black, female, undocumented, LGBTQ+] neighbor (Matthew 25:31-46).

And I ask that you join me, as well. Today, and in four years, and in eight years, and beyond.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Lema Sabachthani: A Rough Review of Silence

Silence Promo Poster.jpegA couple months ago, I blogged about the movie Hacksaw Ridge, in which Andrew Garfield (whom you may also know from The Amazing Spider-Man or The Social Network) played a Christian and pacifist soldier/medic/actual historical figure named Desmond Doss during World War II. Coincidentally, he also happens to have the lead role in this next movie I’d like to review, Martin Scorsese’s historical-epic-drama Silence, which was released everywhere this weekend.

In this film (no major spoilers: just basic premise stuff), Garfield and Adam Driver (aka Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) play Portuguese [Jesuit] priests in the 1630s who travel to Japan both to minister to the people and search for their old mentor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson). At this time, Christianity was outlawed in Japan, and many of those who refused to denounce their allegiance to Christ were brutally killed by the government leaders (and since it’s Martin Scorsese–the guy who brought us Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wallstreet–we get to see all the exciting ways in which they’re excecuted, too!).

It would be a vast understatement to call this film well-made, provocative, and–like any Catholic mass–rich in elaborate symbolism. Director Martin Scorsese, who is himself a Catholic, told Gold Morning America that he had worked for almost 30 years to try to get this film completed. Likewise, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver went through great lengths to mentally, physically, and, yes, even spiritually prepare for their roles. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Garfield mentioned that he had lost around 40 pounds for the role, while Adam Driver lost close to 50 (which becomes even more horrifying when you see how thin the two of them are already). Furthermore, Garfield spent a year studying under a Jesuit priest, and both he and Driver spent about a week together visiting a monastery and remaining completely… well, silent.

This movie fascinated me in a lot of ways, and appealed to me not only as a Christian, but as a missions major and a sucker for a good metaphor, analogy, and cinematography. To try to parse the entire three-hour movie, especially in just one blog post and after just one viewing, would be a ridiculous feat to pursue. That being said, this work of art did lead me to think about a number of different things that I would like to discuss here.

  • For one thing, symbols are powerful. Anyone who has ever attended a Catholic mass (or perhaps some other High Church service) will notice that everything done there, as well as everything in and not in the room at the time, means something, from the cross, to the clergy’s clothes, to the prayers, to the water. Some “symbols” in the Catholic tradition even go so far as to becoming far more than just symbols, as the bread and wine that is consumed during the Eucharist becomes not just a mere representation of the body and blood of Jesus (like it does in most Protestant traditions) but, rather it becomes his actual, literal, real life flesh and blood. And these symbols can often become an inseparable part of one’s faith, as is expressed deeply throughout the movie.
  • To go along with that, this movie is a testament to the fact that faith is dangerous.  Throughout the film, the priests are called arrogant and idiotic because they think that their faith is in some way better than the (I would say distorted form of) Buddhism that the Japanese government maintains. Garfield touches on this in his interview with Colbert by stating that faith, to him (he, himself, is agnostic, by the way), is more about doubt than it is about certainty; for “certainty starts war on behalf of ideologies”, and saying that “I am right and you are wrong” prevents us from moving forward in search of a greater Truth. Doubt, on the other hand, allows us to question that which we think we know, and actually, in fact, strengthens our faith, for certainty is faith in ourselves and our own knowledge or ideologies, while doubt creates space for faith in something greater than what any human being can conjure up alone.
  • To build off of that, this movie expresses the brokenness of humanity, and shows that anything created by human beings is doomed to shatter into a million pieces. While many religious-based movies like to portray spiritual leaders as the sort of moral compasses for the story, as the people who are always holy, upright, and are just short of having light radiate off of them, Silence takes a slightly different approach. Yes, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are still the moral compasses of the film, the ones who truly do their best to live out the example of Christ to the persecuted Christians they encounter, but they are far from being the Eric Camden-like figures we have grown accustomed to seeing in Christian shows and movies. Instead, our heroes are taken to deep, and often dark places–much like Jesus in the wilderness or at the Garden of Gethsemane–and they openly argued with themselves internally and with each other on how to properly respond to the threats that were being imposed upon them. Because we are all human, everything we do, say, think, and feel, is riddled with that one, prominent trait: our common imperfection. And this is what leads us to kill those who are not like us, to seek and worship that which is greater than us, and–to go with the ultimate theme of the film–to wail out to God, crying, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?“–even when all we seem to hear in response is silence.

It is hard for me to pick out anything specific to really criticize about the movie–certainly not from a cinematic perspective. From a justice perspective, it seemed to lean a little bit to the offensive side regarding the Japanese/Buddhists characters. Theirs was a corruption of Buddhism, rather than an accurate representation of what most Buddhists would claim to be their religion. But on the other hand, that is not to say this is an accurate representation of what the Japanese government was actually like in the 17th century (I’m not a historian). Furthermore, ISIS I would say that ISIS is a corruption of Islam and the Westboro Baptist Church is a corruption of Christianity.

Perhaps also in the future, we’ll live in a society that is okay with having actual Portuguese actors to play Portuguese characters rather than the British Garfield, American Driver, and Irishman Neeson. Though we are, unfortunately, not in that place at the time.

As a Bible/Missions student, I was thrilled to see a film that discussed some real, even dark, implications about being a missionary. It also hits me raw as someone who both finds value in missions and evangelism, but also appreciates the beauty found in other religions, and recently went on an interfaith retreat in order to build stronger relationships with people of other faiths. This, and honestly many other issues brought to light in this movie, will likely be continual struggles for me as I grow both in my faith and in my ministerial vocation.

Thank you for reading, if you did. I hope this helped you get interested in the movie if you had not been already. If you have seen the movie, I would love to hear any additional thoughts on it if you have any! I hope to also, in future posts, provide even more commentary on movies and books that I encounter, and look forward to any feedback y’all might have on those, as well. Until next time.

Reflections on my Experiences at an Interfaith Retreat (Or “Christians, Muslims, and Jews Met Together for a Week at Camp. What Happens Next Will SHOCK You!!!”)

interfaith-retreat-2017-attendeesThis week, I had the privilege of attending an interfaith retreat in Pottsboro, TX, in which members from the world’s three major monotheistic or “Abrahamic” religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) spent roughly 67 hours breaking bread together and discussing these visions and versions of faith that made us all distinct, yet simultaneously converged.

The event was catered to seminary students (those pursuing a Master’s Degree or higher in studies concerning their respective religions) and there were students and faculty representing schools such as ACU, TCU, SMU, Austin Presbyterian, and Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary, among others, with at least six Christian denominations offering a voice; as well as four students and a faculty member from Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and three students and a faculty member from Al-Rahmah Qur’an Academy in Baltimore, providing voices for the Conservative Jewish perspective and the Sunni Muslim perspective.

Now this week was not, as some might expect, the start of the next round of the Crusades. Nor was it political correctness run amok (though we did seek to be polite and respectful in our conversations, because that’s how grownups interact with each other). Nor was it, I would say, a naïve pursuit of a long lost cause.

Rather, it was a beautiful gathering of strangers united by a common goal, a common God, and a common devotion for this God that digs so deeply into our souls that it brought us here to what [too] many of us considered to be the Great Unknown.

Here, the playing field was leveled. The line between professor and student was skewed, and lifelong scholars found themselves asking questions with the same self-consciousness as a college freshman (I mean, maybe).

Throughout the week, we all gathered for lectures on the things that both divided and united us. And then in our small groups, we fearlessly, yet cautiously, discussed some of our own unique experiences with our faith–being sure to use “I” instead of “we” when we spoke to avoid generalizations, as the only thing any of us are truly experts on are our own individual stories–and we, of course, also uncovered some uncomfortable truths along the way. But come dinnertime, we were all laughing together like old, reunited friends over a plate of vegetarian lasagna. Each tradition got the opportunity to express their faiths individually for the rest of the group, complete with beautiful chanted prayers and solemn, devoted acts of surrender to the God we all knew to be good.

(Below is a little faux-word cloud I made throughout the week concerning some of our major topics of discussion. Extra points to whoever finds the word I accidentally put in twice.)

interfaith-retreat-themes

My group leader, a professor at SMU, made an important point to the group the first night we met. He said, “A lot of people outside of particular groups of people often have rather misconstrued ideas about what it means to be a part of these groups. The perception that a lot of Christians have about Islam, for example, is based off what they see in the news concerning a small sect of a much bigger and more complex religion. But on the other hand, many of us also encounter the logical fallacy that says everyone here is exactly the same. ‘Oh, a Muslim is just a Methodist who prays 5 times a day and has a different idea about Jesus.’ We shouldn’t try to dismiss our differences, but neither should we necessarily demonize them. Our diverse group of people here is constantly walking a tight rope, because we are all, very intentionally and often unapologetically, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. But the best way we can grow, both in understanding and appreciating not only someone else’s faith, but also our own, is by acknowledging our differences and seeking understanding through our dialogue.

A couple years ago, while I was in undergrad, one of my professors introduced the concept of the Methodist or Wesleyan Quadrilateral to my class. Roughly attributed to the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is more or less a model that helps determine one’s view of God and faith, using Scripture, Reasoning, Experience, and Tradition as factors (my professor wanted to amend it by adding Prayer to the equation, as well). This week, I realized how deeply those things can be embedded into any person of faith. So much of a person’s future identity is determined just by when and where they’re born, and there is nothing we can do to change these fixed factors. I am where I am right now in large part because I was born in the Bible Belt to a family of devoted church-goers. (I’m not sure how different of a person I would be had I been born in, say, Saudi Arabia or Israel, but I truly hope I would be seeking to love God and love others with the same kind of fervor I try to have right now.)

The people I encountered this week were all some of the best people I’d ever met, and, like me, they were all doing the best that they could to be devoted servants of God. My hope for myself, for my fellow Christians, and for anyone else who’s reading this post, is that we all seek to love and understand one another before we produce labels or build up walls against each other, be they metaphorical or physical.

Of course, that is much easier said than done. This week was beautiful and more valuable than anything I could have read about in a book or heard about in classroom or in the news, but our world–our nation, our hearts–still have a long way to go before we encounter any sort of sense of peace between our world’s nations and faiths.

In the evaluation I filled out at the end of the retreat, I wrote about this very thing (believe it or not). As wonderful as this past week was, it’s going to be hard to leave this Bubble (like the one in this SNL sketch) and encounter not only people who disagree with us, but people whose intentions are hostile and harmful for the sake of humanity. I said,

It’s one thing to read about different religions and discuss them with other people who know about as much as you do on the matter. It’s another thing still to talk to someone different from an academic perspective to put a face to what you’re reading about. But it’s a whole other thing entirely to break bread with, play games with, and share a bedroom with, someone totally different from you. It’s like The Odd Couple in the realest form. It’s beautiful, even if it isn’t always pretty. Conflict is seemingly eventually inevitable, even if we all come in with pure intentions (or think we do).

Is it possible for diversity to exist without some real tension? I don’t think so, because otherwise there would a lot of inner repression built up from failed attempts to “unify”. But if we refuse to branch out past our own little bubble, division becomes more inhibited and growth (be it among the group or the individual) is stunted. So I think we should continue to pursue unity so that a sense of mutual understanding can be ensued.

I know that I learned a lot and hope to continue to do so, but it’s also sobering knowing that it won’t be an easy task moving forward. It requires community, it requires accountability, it requires honesty, and those are rarely things that come easily when other human beings are involved.

I was humbled this week by the ways people of different faiths and denominations seek to serve God with their lives. But one of the greatest commonalities here was that we were all living our lives as a direct response to God. God, we all believe, is so much better than we can ever deserve, and because of that, we want to give back in whatever ways we can: through worship, through prayer, through writing, through service, through religion, through scholarship, through scripture. But no matter what, all of efforts come up impotent when compared to the goodness of God. Yet we pursue him still, because that’s all we know to do.

My friends, old and new, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and anything else, may we learn to love better. And may we never cease in this pursuit.

Thank you for reading. Until next time. Below is a picture of a sunset from the first night.

interfaith-retreat-sunset

2016 is Dead. Long Live 2017.

2017Well, friends, it’s finally come. 2016 is finally reaching its bitter and welcomed conclusion, and while 2017 may be blanketed in fog and uncertainty, there is still something inherently hopeful about the turn of a new year. There’s still something radically reassuring about opening a new year’s journal and flipping through its fresh, un-inked pages with nothing but wonder pressing you onward.

Of course, looking back upon this past year, I can see that it was not all bad. No year–no event–is complete without a bit of good, bad, and ugly all claiming a seat at the vast, simultaneously-abundant-and-impoverished table. And this year in particular was among the most polarizing years I have ever personally experienced, where the moments of triumph and accomplishment bellowed with much of the same vigor as the moments of frustration, guilt, and disappointment.

Among the highlights of my year, one would be hard-pressed to find a reason to complain. I graduated from college and began pursuing my Master’s Degree. I was invited to eight weddings and attended all but two. Several other people I’m close to, most notably my brother, got engaged, and come May 13 I’ll get to see myself donning the Best Man’s outfit for the first time. One of my best and oldest friends announced her pregnancy. My family was graced with a fifteen-pound bundle of bark and bounce named Lily. I’ve started to pick up learning Spanish (again) with the free(!) Duolingo app and the Spanish translation of the Harry Potter books. And–while I’m not the healthiest person on the planet–I’ve also started drinking homemade smoothies roughly five times a week.

On the other hand, this year has not been free of its struggles. While I certainly take pride in my commitment to stay informed and keep up with current events this year, the products have, needless to say, been harrowing. I watched as two flawed presidential candidates brought themselves center-stage in front of the eyes of the world, the entire election season leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, and mourned as our nation’s Christians and Electoral College put one of the most hateful, arrogant, and un-Christlike persons alive into the Oval Office. Not only that, but I felt helpless as I heard reports of yet another shooting, another bombing, another Syrian neighborhood being driven out. And what is worse: I began to feel numb in response to all these things.

Personally, I felt as low as I’d pretty much ever felt at several different points this year, in particular when I was turned down from my “ideal job” in September, and when I was let go from the job I’d previously maintained up until this month, and when I faced non-responses from what felt like hundreds of other potential jobs throughout the year. I had to say goodbye to my college friends and am now forced to settle for conversations through text and the occasional weekend visit every couple of months (the frequency of which will likely only decrease as time goes on). I witnessed firsthand what distance and disconnect can do for relationships, and I spent the entirety of my summer [and beyond] learning that healing cannot exist without pain and suffering first coming into play, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of the three.

All that being said, I’m doing my best to greet 2017 with the same sense of hope I used to always pride myself in. While it’ll be beginning with a whole bunch of cliffhangers, I refuse to see these things as an excuse to mope about or especially give up.

Among the many lessons I learned this year (yes, I know this entire post of made up of cliche’s–what New Year’s reflection isn’t?), perhaps the most prominent one of all is the fact that life is not meant to be experienced alone, apart from everyone else. We must find value in the things our friends and family provide for our well-being, and we must, in turn, learn how to better be there for them.

As far as resolutions go, I don’t really have anything specific. I hope to keep learning Spanish and to keep drinking smoothies (and possibly do a few more things to try to live a healthier life). I obviously want to find another job–if not one with a church then at least one that will help me pay for grad school–and I hope to keep moving forward in my pursuit of my Master’s Degree. I want to continually learn what it means to live as a follower of Christ–submitting to peace, but refusing to be silent on matters of injustice, loving my enemies, and abiding by the Spirit by emanating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in every situation.

While most of 2017 is still a completely empty slate, I’m kicking the new year off by going to an interfaith retreat this first week, and through it I hope to do something I’ve never really done before: try to friends with people who aren’t exactly like me. It’s gearing up to be a refreshing and educational first few days of the year, and you can bet your bottom that I hope to produce at least one good blog post out of this event.

Thank you for reading. Until next time, may we reflect on this passage from 1 John 4, a passage that I’ve been asked to read at my brother’s wedding and one that’s been on my heart and mind quite a bit these past few months in particular.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 ESV)

May we learn to love, and may we learn that love begets love and that hate begets hate. The God I strive to know calls me to love my neighbor and my enemy, and this oh-so-divisive world we live in loves to make enemies of one another. But may we love one another instead. May we strive to make peace instead. May we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God instead as we start this new year.

Grace and peace be with you until we meet again.