Worship is Resistance

God and Country

God and Country

This weekend in churches all across the United States, Christians gathered to commemorate the crucified Christ right alongside the Pax Americana. 61% of Protestant pastors believe it is “important to incorporate patriotic elements” in the worship service. The most egregious instance occurring at First Baptist in Dallas where the choir premiered a song titled “Make America Great Again“. Just imagine the early church belting out “Make Rome Great Again”! The civil union of church and state that began when Constantine bedded the bride of Christ birthed American civic religion: a toxic amalgamation of God and country linking the Kingdom of God with the American experiment. It’s an understandable confusion given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted.” The church that was once a thorn in the imperial flesh now rests as a lap dog on the empire’s bosom, swaddled in the American flag. What happened to the church “that once gave the empire fits, but now fits right in with the empire“?

Thankfully, in Donald Trump’s brave new Alt-Right world, woke white folk are starting to resist, but nationalistic worship expressions aren’t idolatrous just because Trump is the POTUS, they’ve always been. For 1,600 years the Western church has been at the bidding of the state, reducing her once prophetic function to an impotent acolyte of empire. This is especially true in America where Christianity acts as a preserving agent of empire, instead of corrupting yeast in the imperial leaven. As Craig Watts reminds us:

“No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many.  The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation.  Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.”

 

A church that co-ops Christianity with nationalism not only worships a false god, but also practices a faulty ethic by instituting the social, economic, and political platform the state sanctions.  American Christians thus assume that capitalism, democracy, individualism, wealth, freedom, and redemptive violence are intrinsically Christian virtues. But the Gospel of Christ refuses this marriage of empire and Kingdom, realizing the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are not synonymous. When acts celebrating The United States enter the worship space, our Christian identity and the nature of the church are compromised.  Do we worship God or Caesar?

 

The answer to this question is essential because what and who we worship shapes our soul.  The practices and rituals that become the liturgy of our lives direct our devotion in certain directions. Are we to be a people of peace and unity or war and division? American Christians cannot in good conscious worship the rightful king who reigns from a tree alongside the imperial, militaristic cult of nationalism.  We cannot serve the Prince of Peace while idolizing Mars.

If the message of Jesus is to be implemented today as a political praxis, most American evangelicals would be appalled at Jesus’ platform that distributes wealth, accepts refugees, loves enemies, cares for the climate, and elevates the poor. These are anything but conservative family values! And while theology and political action are conjoined in daily life, in worship, there must be an absolute separation since “the church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event in history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”

Why? Because worship is overtly political. It may well be the most public act of resistance you make each week, declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and Donald Trump is not. Worship is also subversive, it reminds us that the church was born as a collective act of defiance and it prospered best not from the seats of power, but as an underground community of resistance. Scripture itself is a political manifesto against the dominations systems of empire. “Resistance is in our DNA“, we are “holy troublemakers who do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way God wants it to be“. The adoration of the crucified King is a revolutionary stance against the powers that be who ask humanity to draw boundary lines around race, creed, language, and nationality. Gathering each week to remember that in Christ God reconciled all humanity back to Himself leaves no room for nationalism. His sovereignty nullifies such differences, since “Now you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens.” In Christ, there is no ‘other’, there is only brother. We now stand side by side with the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people and a holy nation. And in so doing we resist the cultural temptation to venerate our nation alongside our God.

The church functions in the midst of the nations as an alternative community whose social, economic, political and ethical allegiance is to Christ alone.  She is “a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people.”  Coming together each week is an eschatological act; it is a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled. May the American church, in our public acts of worship, reject the false doctrine that the church exists as a subordinate of the state, “as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

The Politics of the Church

politics-of-jesus-buttonFor Christians, the political question isn’t “who should I vote for?” but rather, “how do the politics of Jesus inform my public action?” It is fitting then that yesterday, on the Sunday preceding America’s presidential election, the Gospel reading came from Luke 6: 20-31 which lays out the political platform of the Son of God: enemy love, economic liberation, a special concern for the poor, condemnation on the rich and powerful, welcoming the refugee, and neighborliness. When one views the Beatitudes up against the Bill of Rights, it is striking how dissimilar they are to one another. For Jesus, politics were nothing if not personal, local, liberating, and selfless. And like us, his formal political options were limited.

Jesus had three political choices in first century Palestine. He could align with the conservative Herodians (think Moral Majority), who colluded with Rome to carve out their own religious and political hegemony. In one of the grossest acts of religious nationalism, Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, and put a Roman eagle on the entrance. Or, Jesus could reject co-opting religion and power by joining the Essenes, who refused social and political involvement by retreating to the desert to carve out their own sectarian community. Finally, he could bear arms with the Zealots by rising up in violent revolution against the jackboot of Rome.

Instead, like most “lesser of two evils” positions, Jesus chose neither. Refusing collusion with Rome and violent revolution against her, he instituted a third way of being political by putting to speech and action the kingdom of God. As a colonial subject, Jesus never tried to redeem the empire’s politics, nor has he asked us to do so. In fact, from his first temptation in the wilderness to the final temptation of Christ in the garden, Jesus resisted political power as a just means to His Kingdom’s good ends. Instead, he instituted his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven by modeling faithful presence and redemptive suffering in a violent world.

Sadly, since Constantine wedded and bedded the church at Nicea, Western Christians have believed that the best way to bring about the Kingdom of God is in and through the kingdoms of this world. It’s an understandable mistake whereby church and state became consensual partners birthing a culture uniting clergy and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities whereby the church legitimized the activities of the state and the nation enforced the decrees and status of the church. Christendom converted the church from a subversive community of Jesus followers into a compliant acolyte of the empire. Think about it, when was the last time you saw the American #church significantly challenge institutional power instead of defending it? And in their will to power, many evangelicals continue to confuse their particular and fallible political opinions with the cause of Christ. Lacking both the education and imagination to realize that the church has transformative agency without power, they demand a Christian assault on Washington. Having “power over” the culture is the only way they understand the political process.

But that isn’t revolutionary enough. In this modern version of Christendom, the oppressor and the oppressed simply switch seats, and the throne of power remains unshaken. But Scripture never endorses such an strategy. In fact, it calls into question any political power that protects it’s own vested interests at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. “Can the one who goes the way of the cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?”

On the contrary, the Biblical narrative is a revolutionary manifesto against vested institutional power. Whether its Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or the Davidic Dynasty, God’s judgment falls on the predatory imperial claims of permanence, totalism, and invincibility. Truth rarely if ever resides within established institutions of power. Instead, it is delivered through the un-credentialed: poets, prophets, and the poor. Scripture “shows us two major political strains: the kingship/priestly hierarchy, and the prophets who critiqued the crown and temple.” Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Scripture presents us with a continual contestation between imperial power and God’s truth. It’s Moses confounding Pharaonic totality by delivering God’s people from bondage. It’s Elisha turning poverty into abundance at the exclusion of the king who is both unable and impotent to do so himself. It’s the state execution of Jesus and God’s utter refusal to allow the empire to have the final say over life and death. While the empire may have power, the people of God have agency. We are his faithful presence in the world offering new ways of being political without force and dominion.

The Politics of Jesus is a clarion call is to wake up the American church resting far to comfortably in the bosom of the empire. In fact, the church has always been most effective at doing what she was designed to do during a time in which she had absolutely no political power.

It is therefore possible to be political without power. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “Christians should get involved in politics the way porcupines make love, very carefully.” Here are 6 ways the Body of Christ can impact key platform issues without coercion, dominion, or power.

  1. War: We will no longer send our youth group to fight in America’s wars. We will no longer kill other Christians simply because they wear a different uniform. We will finally take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies and confront the demonic lie of redemptive violence.
  2. Immigration: We will convert our empty church buildings into housing for the immigrant and the refugee.
  3. Abortion: We will provide healthcare, counseling, and homes for women with at risk pregnancies and we will critique the systems of gender inequality and injustices that lead to so many marginalized women becoming pregnant against their will.
  4. Welfare: Following the example of Acts 2:42 we will share our resources openly and liberally ensuring that not one person in the community of Christ has any physical need.
  5. HealthCare: Believing in a holistic theology of life, we will appropriate 10% of our operational budget to provide for the basic well being of every member of our community.
  6. Education: Believing that children are people and not products, we will provide a living educational experience that exposes students to the “Great Recognition”, that all learning is sacred, that the goal of education is to produce life-long learners who are known more for what they care about than simply what they know.

Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord means that the President is not. Jesus was incredibly political, he just refused to play by the rules set down by the powers that be. He never petitioned for female equality, he gave it to them. He never voted to end poverty, he fed the masses. The politics of Jesus, and the faithful politics of the church will come about not from the center of power, but from the periphery as we daily offer the world an alternative to the politics of scarcity, monopoly, and violence.  Do you want to make a difference in the world?

Be faithful to your wife.

Become a foster parent.

Befriend a person with a different skin color.

Invite your neighbors over for dinner and a beer.

Raise nonviolent children.

Hire a female as your senior pastor.

Support your local food pantry.

Give freely to that guy at the corner.

Yes, vote. But as you vote ask yourself this question: Which candidate will do the least amount of harm to the ‘least of these’? And after you leave the ballot box, do the real political work of bringing about the Kingdom by practicing the subversive politics of Jesus. Re-read the Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice. Bring the Kingdom to God to life on your street and in your neighborhood by being his faithful presence in a world that only recognizes power and dominion.

God has given Jesus dominion over the nations. “The task of the church is to bear witness to this reality and embody the reign of Christ here and now in our daily life.” Then, and only then will we offer the world a Christian alternative to politics as usual. And finally, love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before your God and your neighbor.

A Proper Response to Orlando: Lamentation

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“My God, My God, Why?”

I woke up Sunday morning and, like many of you, saw the terrible news coming out of Orlando. In most cases like this, I choose a social media fast since the Internet can quickly become a platform for vitriolic shaming and blaming. But Sunday was different, at least among many of the progressive Christians I follow, who turned Twitter into a public platform for lament. “Lord, have mercy,” “How long, O Lord?” and “Can’t stop crying” posts filled my timeline. And in a small way, it was comforting.

Christians across the world were engaging in the ancient, biblical task of lamentation: Israel moaning in Egypt, Rachel weeping for her children, Job and his potsherds, or the cry of the forsaken Jesus gathering all the world’s anguish into that hallowed moment when unconstrained grief was shouted up to God, the one God who actually listens. In fact, one third of the Psalms are laments, modeling how we are to worship and pray in the midst of loss. The biblical narrative is filled with stories of God’s people speaking and being answered, crying and being heard. And while a few ideologues wanted to jump directly into conversations about guns, militant Islam, and LGBTQ issues; the more appropriate response to this senseless tragedy was lament.

Lament is the visceral announcement that things are not right; it is refusing to be silent in the midst of evil. Lament is the refusal to let God off the hook. Lament is going all the way down to the depths of human depravity. Lament means evoking cries that demand answers. It means summoning God and expecting Him to act. It is prayer in the midst of pain. The very loss of lamentation ensures that victims remain voiceless and the status quo goes unchallenged.

So we lament. We lament the violent death of 49 divine image bearers; brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and companions. We lament a Congress that has prostituted itself to the NRA. We lament Christians who care more about their guns than their fellow man. We lament a world violently divided between Christians and Muslims, and the lack of imagination that will lead to retributive violence. We lament that the American church is one of the most unsafe places for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We lament that we’ve placed politics and power ahead of people.  We lament the bloody plank in our own eye.

What then is an appropriate response to Orlando? Maybe the first step is to recognize our own complicity in the dehumanization of LGBTQ persons and lament the creation of a Christian sub-culture that demonizes rather than welcomes those with whom one might disagree.  

So in your own lamenting, look with tear-stained eyes into the darkness to see how vast, how deep, and how cruel is evil, and lament that that evil lives inside us all. And like Rachel, refuse to be comforted.

See the world’s pain.

See your own pain.

Sit in sackcloth and shower yourself with dust, remembering from which we come and to which we will return. But lament with hope.

Lament with the hopeful expectation that the same God who heard Israel’s wailing in Egypt and Jesus’ cries from the cross is the very same loving father who is listening still, and will one day deliver us from all this pain, all this anguish, and all these tears.

Amen.

American Time or Church Time

pentecost and memorial day

Pentecost & Memorial Day

Stanley Hauerwas wisely said, “To live like Jesus is Lord is going to make my life dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practices.” In fact, a Christianity centered around the politics of Jesus radically conflicts with and even subverts American culture on a number of levels. Never more so than this weekend as Christians all across the U.S. are presented with two observances, one on the American calendar and the other on the church calendar, forcing us to choose whose time we’re telling:”American Time” (Memorial Day) or “Church Time” (Pentecost Season). As followers of Christ, who also happen to be Americans, it’s important to distinguish between the American “me” and the Christian “me”, especially in the liturgies,  commemorations, and stories that shape our identity.

And while it might seem hyperbolic to pit Memorial Day against Pentecost, it’s a perfect example of the tension American Christians face when trying to be faithful citizens in the Kingdom of God while living in a kingdom of this world.

Pentecost anticipates peace. Memorial Day remembers violence.

Pentecost celebrates unity in the midst of diversity. The Holy Spirit weds believers worldwide to share in the one, living Body of Christ. Memorial Day on the other hand is a high holy day within America’s civic religion consecrating men and women sacrificed on the alter of empire. Pentecost emphasizes our communal and diverse humanity as God “poured out His spirit on all people.” Memorial Day tempts us to venerate war, dividing the world into ‘us vs. them.’ Pentecost makes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation one in Christ, unifying a world filled with diversity. Memorial Day reminds us that our racial, linguistic, religious, and national distinctions are often worth killing for.

 The way we tell time, the rituals we keep, and the holidays we commemorate reinforce reality. The American calendar tells Caesar’s story, and is filled with holy days remembering presidents, wars, military conquest, and nationalism. They act as sign posts, guiding us to what the empire believes really matters. The Christian calendar tells time radically different, and points to an alternative reality. We are a people called out of every tribe and nation to be the very love of God in the world.

And yet, yesterday I found myself in our parish cemetery, placing flags on the headstones of veterans in memory of their service. I wasn’t motivated so much by patriotism as by a mournful sadness for the casualty of all human lives spent in war. Saddened that men and women the world over continue to kill and be killed for the nation-state. Sad that American Christians are Americans first, and Christians second, especially when dealing with our enemies. Sad that war for the United States has become a moral necessity. Sad that war is a sacrament, and that the liturgy of war continues to capture our imaginations. Sad that Christianity and democracy in America continue to be inextricably linked through the experience of war. Sad that Christians are willing to kill other Christians for America. Sad that the military is worshipped as the greatest salvific force in the world instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we as American Christians commemorate Memorial Day within the Christian spirit of Pentecost Season?

Remember. Remember and lament the loss of all life. Mourn for Iraqi’s, Kurds, and Russians the same way one mourns for your own nation’s fallen. For, she to is made in the image of God and is therefore our sister.

Resist. Resist the temptation of American exceptionalism. Resist the notions that America is great because America is good. Resist the temptation to fear ‘the other.’ Instead, walk toward them to better glimpse our shared humanity. Resist the urge to demonize, villainize, and stereotype our nations enemies.

Repent. Repent for the rape of the West and the genocide of Native Americans. Repent for slavery and the continual racism that guides our social policies. Repent that we are the only nation to unleash nuclear holocaust on a civilian population. Repent for Vietnam. Repent for the Bush lies and the murder of millions of Iraqi civilians. Repent for our imperialism. Repent for our part in the destabilization of the Middle East, leading to the rise of ISIS.

Living into the spirit of Pentecost on Memorial Day weekend will most certainly make your life a bit dysfunctional in relation to American cultural practices. If American Christians are to be a faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ, we must continue to challenge the cultural norms and practices that tempt us to root our lives in the story of the American experiment, and not the Kingdom of God. How we tell time, and what we choose to commemorate is one simple way to remember that following Christ is often resistance to the dominant cultural narrative.

 

 

Journeying Into Lent

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You Are Dust, And to Dust You Will Return

If February wasn’t already bleak enough, Lent makes it almost unbearable. Much of North America is covered in a blanket of cold, and the warmth of Spring is a distant dream. And while at Christmas and Easter our churches are filled with joyful celebrants, most parishes were all but empty on Ash Wednesday, and emptier still on Shrove Tuesday. Hanging the greens is far more exciting than burning them. Baby Jesus is to be adored, the risen Jesus is to be worshipped, but the cross is to be hidden, or tidied up a bit. And in reality it most certainly can’t be loved. Which leaves us wondering just what we are to do to properly commemorate Lent.

Yet, as odious as the cross is, this is where our faith begins, in the cold, dark night of the soul when we dare to believe in the very God who is fully revealed in the suffering and abandonment of Jesus by God. This is indeed a scandal, and foolishness to the Greeks! “The cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.” Meaning, there can be no Easter without Good Friday. There can be no resurrection of our Lord without first joining Him on the painful journey to Jerusalem. There can be no forgiveness of sins without first acknowledging that through our violence, ego, and rebellion we are complicit in his torture. To rush past the tomb on our way to the mountaintop is like opening a gift without the heart to embrace it. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace, its “a grace we bestow on ourselves”. It is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.

You cannot truly celebrate the end of anything without first starting at the beginning. That’s why on Wednesday the faithful few gathered to begin the long, penitent journey of Lent by being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The Lenten rituals of prayer, fasting, and self-denial remind us who we really are by preparing our heart and soul to meet the risen Lord on Easter. In fact, these spiritually forming activities pre-dates the established church, with evidence that first century Christians formalized a time of intentional self-reflection, taking seriously Christ’s commands to “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me continuously”.[1] 

Christ’s three-fold challenge (deny, pick up and follow) is the foundation of Christian discipleship. Lent becomes the opportunity whereby we align our soul and will more deliberately with the Spirit of God. It is living for forty days how we should be living 365 days a year.  And while the setting down of habits, addictions, and luxuries is the first step toward change, self-denial is much more than first-world, bourgeois asceticism. Your very choice to fast or deny your physical needs provides both existential and spiritual freedom. “It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say ‘no’ on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.”[3] No one who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating or drinking, or gratifies his every physical urge and impulse can ever consider himself free.[4] If so, you are a slave unto yourself.

However, self-denial isn’t an end in itself.  It is never enough to simply put aside this thing or that, we are required to pick up something else altogether. The specific turn of phrase echoing down through the ages to ‘pick up your cross’ has no other meaning than an invitation to share in Christ’s suffering love for the world. According to John of Chrysostom, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”  So maybe this year, instead of passively giving up something like chocolate or beer, choose instead to actively take something on. Because to journey with the crucified Christ towards Golgotha means solidarity with the sufferings of the poor and the misery of both the oppressed and the oppressor. During the next 40 days, actively confront evil, right a wrong, heal and do not hurt. Picking up your cross might be as simple as giving your seat to someone else on the subway, carrying spare change to give out to the needy, praying for someone every day, waking up early to meditate, forgiving an enemy, or confessing your sins to your spouse and children.

As we move deeper into Lent, as one spiritual season gives way to a new one, urge one another on to follow him unceasingly on the journey.  After all, obedience is never an accident.  You will never fortuitously fall into faithfulness, it requires intentionality and action. Join the saints in this season of spiritual change repenting of sin, renewing of faith, practicing the traditions of the ekklessia and preparing to celebrate the joyful mystery of our salvation: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

Amen.

[1] Mark 8: 34.

[2] Fears, J. “Rome: The Ideology of Imperial Power.” 1980.

[3] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation.

[4] Ibid.

Ted’s Talk

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Modern Crusader

In his own words, Ted Cruz is a “Christian first, an American second”.  And, as America’s “most Christian” presidential hopeful, he won the Iowa Caucus this week and gave “God the glory” for his victory. With 56% of Iowa’s voters as self-described protestant Christians, Cruz relied on a surge of evangelical voters to give him a narrow victory over the evangelical come lately, Donald Trump. In January, Cruz created a National Prayer Team “To establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.” And, while Cruz sounds more like a Southern Baptist preacher than a presidential candidate when praising the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and promising to defend religious liberty, it’s his violent rhetoric toward Muslims that is causing many thoughtful Christians to question his knowledge of, and relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.

In a December speech in Iowa, mobilizing his evangelical followers, Cruz said America “Will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb (ISIS) into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”  So much for loving your enemies.

Cruz is no different from the rest of the Republican hopefuls, who with one breath praise God and with another define how they as Commander in Chief will hunt down and kill America’s enemies. Gentle Ben Carson, referencing ISIS, said American must “Eradicate them now”. In the fifth Republican debate, Donald Trump publicly admitted that his policy would be to kill non-combatant women and children. Was I watching a Republican presidential debate or a Nuremberg Rally? And, as much as I’d like to think that American evangelicals would be appalled at such hate speech from fellow Christians, most whole-heartedly agree. Of the 1.4 million people on active military duty in the United States, 77% profess Christianity. In a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10 percentage points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  In fact, this study by the Washington Post shows that U.S. Christians are more supportive of CIA torture than non-religious Americans. How is this possible given the life and teachings of Jesus?  Why, in the face of such direct commands to love our enemy can Christians adopt a theology of redemptive violence, calling on God to divinely sanction our manifest destiny?  Killing your national enemy isn’t Christian, it’s making Jesus dance a jig for your imperial hubris. When God conveniently hates the same people your nation hates, be sure you are worshipping an idol.

There are a myriad of social and sexual issues that Christians can agree or disagree on, and still be Christian. But Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemy is the sin qua non of discipleship. Scripture reminds us that to shed human blood is an offense against God Himself, making it qualitatively different from other sins. Therefore, peacemaking isn’t a pious appendage to the Gospel for the liberal few, it is rather “the very form of the church, insofar as the church is the form of the one who is our peace”. As Miroslav Volf reminds us, “If you take the ‘love your enemy’ out of the Christian faith, you’ve ‘un-Christianed’ the Christian faith.” Or to put it bluntly, if war is right then Jesus was a liar.

Historically speaking, the church in America must confess that what we call public Christianity is actually “A fusion between something from Christ, and a whole lot from the Roman Empire”. In fact, it’s not Christianity at all, it’s civic religion. Prior to 400 C.E., Christians unilaterally refused service in the military, stemming from the belief that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not.  In fact, their belief in nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions. And yet, just 100 years later with the unification of church and state under Constantine, no one could serve in the Roman imperial army without first professing faith in Jesus Christ. What a dramatic conversion! The church, which used to “give the empire fits, now fits so well within the empire”. What was at stake then, and continues to be at stake now is our ultimate allegiance. For many evangelical Americans, national loyalty almost always trumps their allegiance to Jesus.

Therefore, no matter how ‘Pro-Life’ our politicians claim to be, the church can no longer stay silent amidst wars and rumors of wars, as our nation spends billions of dollars every year on creative ways to destroy our enemy’s women and children.  What then, would it take for the Body of Christ in America to live a consistent ethic of human life that valued not only the fetus, but the fully formed and broken human person as well?

From Augustine to Tolstoy, generations of believers have wrestled with the problem of evil, and the temptation of redemptive violence.  But now, with feet firmly entrenched in the chemical and nuclear age where human beings have the capacity to destroy the earth 15 times over, we need room in our Biblical worldview to reconsider Jesus’ theology of nonviolent resistance.

For starters, we must dispense with the labels and negative identify formation that comes with ‘pacifism’. Nonviolent resistance is more than passive or willing suffering, Jesus never asked his followers to stand idly by in the face of evil. The spiritual poverty embraced in the false, uneducated dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’ fails to account for the myriad of active ways Christians can respond when confronted with evil.  This break from Darwinian determinism is an evolutionary progression away from the trademark ‘pacifist’ to a more appropriate moniker ‘nonviolent resistance’.[3]  Modeled by Christ himself, nonviolence is not passivity or quietism, but an active application of truth and love in the face of a violent world.  The nonviolent resister promises never to kill, or to be complicit in killing. Instead she offers the world an alternative paradigm. One that loves the enemy while confronting his evil. Simply put:

“Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence. It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life, that resists injustice, that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence. It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.”[4]

Nonviolence isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament. To be nonviolent means to deal with an aggressor as God through Christ dealt with me. In God’s willingness to take on suffering, to right wrongs and overturn evil, He himself refused to let rebellious mankind be identified as His enemy. From this perspective, the cross is the ultimate paradox. It is the embodiment of suffering power, not weakness.  Creative nonviolence acknowledges that loving one’s enemy is far from easy, but incredibly liberating. “When am I more a slave to my adversary than when I allow him to define our relationship as my being his enemy?”[5] In Christ, one’s enemy becomes a privileged object of love since God himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of his own suffering.[6]  As Father John Dear reminds us,

“As our adversaries begin to recognize our humanity, the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the violence hidden in their practice of injustice or evil, their eyes may be opened and their own participation in the injustice becomes apparent to them. In that instant of recognition and subsequent shame, the violence and injustice can stop—forever.”

Beating swords into plowshares is liberating action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. It is freedom from our enslavement to violence.

In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our presidential candidates, it is time for Christians to shed the vestiges of our Constantinian past and rediscover Jesus. Nonviolence is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter, disarmed us all.

As American politicians hijack Christianity to provide divine sanction for our manifest destiny, may we remember how God in Christ dealt with His enemies. Look afresh on the crucified God and ask yourself: ‘What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal’? Can this God, whose full revelation to the world is manifested as a defenseless man on a cross be a tyrant who returns evil with evil? “When the crucified Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS. Are we called to imitate this crucified God or Mars?

Radical Christian faith means committing your life to the crucified God, whose death wasn’t so much about delegitimizing violence as completely overcoming it. Jesus gives us tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice, and violence without resorting to evil, injustice, or violence. The stumbling block for American evangelicals and our Christian politicians isn’t just that our God in His divine defenselessness would choose to die for His enemies rather than destroy them, but rather that we as His people must go and do likewise.

[1] Isaiah 2: 4.

[2] Dear, Father John. Our God is NonViolent.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pg. 7.

[5] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[6] Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?.

[7] Ibid., pag. 1.

 

The Progressive Prophet Without Honor

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Driving Jesus Out of Town

This week’s lectionary reading is a strange little story detailing the auspicious start of Jesus’ ministry. Driven by the spirit, He returns home to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. His family, childhood friends, and old neighbors anxiously await the return of the native, whose fame was spreading throughout the region. It seems this local boy finally made good on his promise to become a rabbi.

Jesus enters the synagogue, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, finds his place, and begins to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So far, so good. Jesus adopts Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, proclaiming that He, acting as God’s servant, will bring freedom and restoration to the marginalized. Interestingly enough, Jesus omits reading verse two which references “the day of vengeance of our God”, figuratively taking scissors to the Bible, signifying a dramatic distinction between his merciful announcement of the Kingdom and that of his predecessor John the Baptist. No doubt, his listeners would have noticed his refusal to include the verse in his messianic announcement. Finished with the reading, Jesus sits down as “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then, He offers this famous, one sentence sermon:

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The lectionary does us little favors by dividing this story into two parts, because it’s what Jesus says next that causes everything to go wrong. Jesus tells two stories about two of Israel’s favorite prophets, Elijah and Elisha. The problem is that of all the accounts he could have chosen to tell, Jesus picks two scandalous tales of prophetic ministry done on behalf of and for Gentiles, honoring the dirty, sinful people this hometown crowd despises. Jesus reminds them,

“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

Oh snap he didn’t.

To the horror of everyone gathered, Jesus does the unthinkable, he tweaks the message and the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy by announcing God’s “jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon” to everybody, including Israel’s enemies. Reminding us all in the process that the text is always subordinate to the infallible word made flesh. Filled with self-righteous indignation at his progressive use of Scripture, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to murder him on the spot! A prophet has no honor with hometown crowds.

And, as much as we’d like to distance ourselves from Jesus’ friends and neighbors, we aren’t so different. Like them, we believe that our righteousness, proper sexual ethic, doctrine, skin color, and privilege constitute our place as God’s chosen people. We believe that Isaiah’s words are our words, written for our deliverance, and our deliverance alone. Israel in fact would have first heard this prophetic song during their Babylonian captivity, and now they hear it afresh as subalterns living under the jack boot of Rome. For centuries, they had waited on the fulfillment of these promises, and today in their very midst Jesus declares that the wait is over, that the Kingdom of God is being fulfilled in their midst. But that kingdom includes the very people that are socially, economically, and politically oppressing them. They were so hell bent on defending God revealed in the text, that they failed to experience the God in flesh standing in their midst. Our modern equivalent would be Jesus preaching at Liberty University, announcing that homosexuals, Muslims, democrats, and communists are entering the kingdom ahead of us. You can understand why they wanted him dead.

Yet, in referencing these stories, Jesus resists the most dangerous idea of all, that God’s love is for some people, and not for all people. Think for a minute about his ministry. He’s always dragging his innocent disciples into regions where the people are spiritually oppressed: he goes to “the other side” to heal Legion, he talks openly with a Samaritan women, he restores the Syrophoenician’s daughter because of her faith, he eats with sinners and tax collectors who have defiled hands, he’s soft on whores, he drinks with drunks, he touches the unclean, and even has the audacity to make women disciples. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry can be read as unadulterated resistance to the conventional religious wisdom that God’s love is only for those who deserve it.

2,000 years later, things aren’t much different. In fact, the church today fears this resistance against rigid orthodoxy almost as much as they are afraid of their own irrelevance.  In every religious community there exists those who believe that their mission statement is to protect God from the very people he came to save. When challenged to consider a wider view of God, their orthodoxy becomes even more uncompromising. This inflexible faith causes them to live in fear of ‘the other’, and they see it as their duty to protect God and doctrine, because it is clear that they are no longer capable of protecting themselves. Such fundamentalism “occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality.” As I write this, Franklin Graham just proclaimed on Christian radio that “We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church…We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.” While Graham consistently makes himself an easy target due to his hate speech toward homosexuals and Muslims, he represents a vast majority of American evangelicals who champion the religion of fear.

So, as the Anglican Communion threatens schism over homosexuality, as Wheaton College browbeats a tenured professor, and as conservative evangelicals continue the culture war against progressive Christians and their ‘liberal, secular agenda’, let us be reminded that Jesus himself was rejected by the religious in-crowd for standing in solidarity with outsiders, because only “someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’”.

Authentic Christianity requires our own identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent that we understand that in him “God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God”. The more we identify with Christ, the more we are able to identify with others. “Scripture is filled with one person recognizing, welcoming, embracing, and releasing the strength of unfamiliar other.” Therefore our commitment to be a community of inclusion is not based on cultural capitulation or social pressures, but on the “belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

It seems God’s people are always learning the hard way that the thrust toward unity must find a way to include the very people we wish to exclude. Much to our discomfort, God really does work on both sides of the street. And as his followers, we can either be a people that stands with clinched fists in open opposition to those we believe are unworthy, or we can join the Jesus movement, a movement bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives. As Bishop Michael Curry reminds us, “It may be part of our vocation to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us. And we can one day be a church where all of God’s children are fully welcomed…And so we must claim that high calling…We are part of the Jesus movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world will never stop, and will never be defeated.” Amen, and Amen.

 

 

To Olivia On Your Baptism

360px-Perugino,_battesimo_di_cristo_01Dear Olivia:

Today is one of the high feast days on the church calendar, and it is one of four Sundays reserved throughout the year for baptisms in the Episcopal Church. At least in my experience, maybe because it comes so close on the heels of Christmas and our secular New Year, this feast day is one of the most overlooked. Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany and it is the Sunday in which we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ. And this presents to us a question: What does Jesus’ baptism, and our celebration of it, have to do with you? What does it have to do with anyone who has been baptized?

First of all, I think it is a mistake to view the baptism of Christ as simply a past event, something that happened long ago. There is no doubt that Jesus met John in the river Jordan and there John baptized him. And there is also no doubt that this had a profound impact upon John, Jesus and those gathered along the shore. It was, among other things, a revelation, what the church calls an Epiphany, the manifestation of the long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ, in our world. It was a moment of material realization when the identity of Jesus Christ becomes known to a seeking yet questioning world. But if that is all it is, a historical landmark which we remember like a birthday or anniversary, then we risk missing the true significance and meaning of this feast day. The reality is that the baptism of Jesus Christ is not just an isolated event, is not trapped in the past, but rather it lives now and continues; it lives in the transformed lives of the faithful and in each new baptism. So, even though your baptism will take place in a moment in time, it likewise will not be trapped in your past, only a memory; it will live on in you for all time and beyond.

Because that is what your baptism is all about, it is about the material realization of who you are and to whom you belong. In all the prayers, in the holy water and in the seal with oil of the Holy Spirit, you join the history, present, and future of the church. The story of Israel becomes your story. The words of the prophets throughout the ages become your words. The forgiveness of sins and the salvation through Christ become your forgiveness, your salvation. Today, through the waters of baptism, you join with us as the Body of Christ, the love of God in the world. This is a blessing that will carry you, and a burden that you will carry, all the days of your life.

And as you live your life, I wish I could tell you that you will find the world to be entirely peaceful, loving and supportive. I wish this was true, but it is not. As you go through life’s journey, you will find darkness around you. You will discover among your joys, satisfactions, triumphs, hopes and dreams that there is also hatred, cruelty, and suffering in the world. You will wonder and perhaps struggle at the meaning of it all. St. Paul wondered about it. Even though it is not part of our readings for today, Paul likes to speak of life as some type of race with a spiritual rather than a material or worldly finish line. I have to be honest with you. I think our modern ears make a mess of Paul’s theology. Your life, and everything in it, is a gift from God, not a competition. You do not need to be stronger or smarter or more attractive or popular or richer or better than anyone else. Competition is folly; you cannot compete with what you do not own. Life does not have one winner, with everyone else destined to be a loser. But if we use Paul’s vision of a race, then you will cross the finish line today. While baptism in some ways marks the beginning of your life in the church, it marks the end of your individual life. It is an epiphany. You are being revealed as what you truly are. You are the love of God, sharing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and reborn by the Holy Spirit.

This revelation will always be part of who and what you are. During what I hope is a long, joyful and productive life, Olivia, you will brush up against forces of the world that will leave you feeling alone, outcast, ignored or meaningless. But through your baptism, you are never alone or outcast, ignored or meaningless. And all of us gathered in this place will shorty promise to support and uphold you with everything we have. During difficult times, come to us and lean on us all that you need to; we will not let you fall away. At other times, you will find yourself faced with a choice of whether to reach out and help someone else, someone who needs you to lean upon. It is my prayer that on those occasions that you are empowered by your baptism, by the example of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, to always reach out and touch those in any kind of need. It often will not be easy but do it anyway. Let go of the blessing that is your baptism and give it to the world. Share your heart. You are the love of God. Amen.
–Sermon delivered by Father Andrew McMullen at St. Matthias Episcopal Church, January 10, 2016.

Why Beauty Matters

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The Hay Wain

I work at an organization that helps parents start faith-forming conversations with their teens. Our mission is to bring families together through the art of culture translation, which means that much of our time and energy is spent becoming experts on pop music, movies, television, and technology. It’s both a blessing and a curse. While it’s important to have the knowledge of, and ability to exegete culture, to merely live at the crossroads of mass entertainment can feel pretty shallow, at least to this 44 year old. Whenever we reference Iggy Azalea, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar I often think, will anyone even remember these artists names in 50 years? There is no doubt that pop artists are creative, but are they taking responsibility for what they are creating? And, more important, is their art expressing and manifesting beauty to the world?

The ancient Roman writer Seneca said, “Life is short, but art is long.” So, what makes a poem, song, movie, or painting last through the ebb and flow of cultural trends and tastes? Why has Augustine and Austen, Byron and Bronte, Michelangelo and Monet remained revered when Beyonce and Bieber will be forgotten in our lifetimes?  Lasting art, real creativity reveals whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is beautiful. Creating beauty is living into our vocation as image-bearers. Everyone is called to nurture beauty, to cultivate their own garden by offering in their own way whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is lovely. Living into our role as co-creators means creating beautiful worlds of peace and harmony in the midst of the fallen and the broken. There is an incredible mystery in human nature, where beauty exists, peace is real. It is rare to find cultures who value beauty but who live violently. Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” This is what it means to be fully human, to nurture beauty outside of the garden, where thorns and weeds cover the earth. Being fully human means taking our vocation as co-creators seriously, by nurturing the good and the beautiful in the midst of a fallen world.

But how do we cultivate beauty in the midst of banality? Beauty is attained by setting our own interests aside and letting something particular dawn on us, to allow something specific to elevate us into a state of wonder. Beauty asks us to look on it directly and precisely, to see it not in the abstract, but in concrete singularity: this tree, this flower, this sonnet, this song. It takes one thing to pull you into the depth of anything. And when you get to the depth of anything, for some wonderful reason, you have the power to get to the depth of everything. And God is found at the depth of anything. In this way, lasting, transformative art points us toward the divine. To understand great things, you have to experience them in small ways. When we start with something specific, we have a doorway to the universal. Beauty allows us to experience the eternal in the ordinary. There is an old Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the ‘thin places’ that distance is even smaller. Beauty reveals these ‘thin places’, where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted if only for a brief moment, when both the seen and unseen world come together as the door between this world and the next is cracked open for just a moment and we glimpse the glory of the eternal. Such experiences elevate us from the cliche to reverence. As Thomas Merton said, “Art allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Practically speaking, how do we foster communities, churches, and families that appreciate and create beauty in the midst of brokenness? First, do hard things. Instead of reading a that self-help book you bought at LifeWay, pick up a piece of literature by George Elliott, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce. It will be a struggle at first, but persevere, your brain will thank you. In this way, you will re-train your senses to recognize and enjoy beauty instead of twaddle. Second, surround yourself with classic artistic expressions as an alternative to the mass produced entertainment most of us currently consume. Because in very real ways, we grow accustomed to, and appreciate the things that surround us. Our sense of what is beautiful, and our ability to appreciate beauty is cultivated by what we take in. If we are surrounded by synthetic pop songs, touched-up photos of anorexic models, and block-buster blow em up movies, this is what we will assume is beautiful. We begin to prefer these things simply because they are familiar. As a substitute, listen to a concerto by Rachmaninoff, go to an art museum, or attend a play in the park.  Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” And finally, turn off the television, shut down your Mac and go outside. Take a walk in the woods, climb a mountain, look up at the stars, feel the breeze on your face, take in the full revelation of the glory of God in and through his good creation. After all, the heavens do declare the beauty of God.

As Western Christians, we’ve spent a large portion of our time offering the world the good and the true. Libraries are filled with treatises on Christian ethics, morality, and apologetics. But, what we haven’t done is offer the world, through our life and posture, a Christian aesthetic of beauty. It isn’t enough to ask if our posture toward the world is good and true, we must also ask, is it beautiful? It could be that our greatest calling as God’s image-bearers in the world is to cultivate and nurture whatever is just, true, good, and most importantly, beautiful. To open up little thin places all around the world where everyone can come face to face with the magnificence and redemptive power of real beauty.  Because in the end, beauty just might save the world.

Making Modern Disciples

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Last week I had coffee with a mega-church pastor whose congregation numbers well above 10,000 members.  It’s an impressive operation equipped with escalators, elevators and espresso.  Half-way through our conversation I asked him, “how do you all make disciples”?  His honesty was as refreshing as it was terrifying.  “We don’t, we’ve completely missed the boat”, he said.  “It is the single greatest failure in our attempts at mega-ministry.”  Upwards of 15,000 people come in and out of his doors each Sunday, and to his credit, he realizes their failure to develop disciples.  Sadly, modern American spiritual formation, or discipleship, tends to consist of large-scale programs and gatherings, where individuals come together for the greatest show on earth.   We wow them with lights, sound and visuals, and move them to tears with our carefully orchestrated song service.  And, week after week, our “revolving door” spirituality fails to touch the significant depths of the soul. Our congregants long for something more than an opening ceremony of spirituality.   They want lasting change, but where do we start?  Developing and implementing a philosophy of discipleship does not happen through programs or education alone, it involves an intentional, holistic view of formation that understands the complexity of the human person.  It involves seeing the world the way God sees it, and acting in that world the way God acts.  It is living in the place where “to do what God wishes is our pleasure and desire”[1] as we bend our will and passions into alignment with His.  In short, it is our journey toward wholeness.

Christian discipleship is the way we express a living faith in the real world.  It is the sum total of our attitudes, beliefs, practices and actions. Christian spiritual formation is the life-long pursuit of the imitation of Christ.  What makes this so difficult is our natural self, which seeks to fulfill our own desires and our own will.  Spiritual formation is thus the process of bringing our “unruly wills and affections” into right alignment with Christ’s.  In so doing, we restore our mind, heart and soul into right relationship with God.  Learning, being and doing form the foundation for our spiritual pursuit of God.  And, according to Lesslie Newbigin,

“One does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relationship between the two cannot be reversed. ”[2]

In order to be like something, we must first believe in it, and part of believing is knowing.   We are made to learn, form opinions, believe and apply knowledge to every sphere of life.  Cognitively speaking, holistic spiritual formation must include the shaping of what we believe about the nature of reality.  All of us seek to provide systematic answers to life’s big questions:  Does God Exist, What is the Meaning of Life, What Does it Mean to Be Human?  Our ideas and beliefs on these matters form the foundation of our worldview, which shapes how we relate to the biosphere around us.

Yet, spiritual formation isn’t just about what we know; it is about what we love, what we do and how we relate to the world.  Sadly, our post-Enlightened schools and churches have seen the human person as primarily ‘thinking things’ and not ‘feeling’ and ‘loving things’. Therefore, spiritual formation and discipleship have been more about ‘thinking the right things’ than creating a holistic approach acknowledging the human person as lovers and feelers as well.[3]  Effective spiritual formation deconstructs the Cartesian cognitive model and replaces it with a holistic approach to discipleship. Discipleship and spiritual formation are less about erecting an edifice of knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in light of the Gospel.  Yes, we are formed by what we think, but we are also formed by what we love and how we act.[4]   Proper spiritual formation returns us to the pre-modern faith-based paradigm which views the human person as a thinking, feeling, believing and loving creature shaped not just by information, but by liturgy, practices and ritual.  To be human is to love, to desire, to know, to believe and to do.  Lasting discipleship consists of forming our humanity so that our precognitive selves can find the proper end for which we were made.  As Augustine reminds us, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

The goal of Christian spiritual formation is the knowledge, love and imitation of Christ.  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20).  This life in Christ is best achieved within the context of a diverse confessing community, public worship, the Sacraments, Biblical scholarship and the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and service.

Community is therefore the sin qua non of a distinctly Christian understanding of the world and our place in it.  In fact, our place in it is with others, doing life together.  This foundation for life is modeled by God himself, who has lived in community from eternity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God as Trinity is the core reality of the universe, meaning that community is the primacy of humanity.   Our life in Christ only makes sense as a shared journey of togetherness toward the likeness of His image.

Liturgy or public worship is a second qualifier within the formative process.  The centrality of worship is integral to the task of spiritual formation.  And, at the heart of worship are the Sacraments, those tradition laden acts passed down for centuries by the church, interpreted in various ways by sundry congregants.  Sacramental worship, for all ages, roots us in the habits of the disciple, which when done over and again, constitute an almost second nature.   “Our habits incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection”.[5]  For many of us, our spiritual journey started at the baptismal font, recalibrating our lives as we died to sin and took on the new self through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  However, in terms of spiritual formation, baptism has a dual role.  Beyond a public declaration of faith performed once and forever there after considered accomplished, baptism also “provides an orientation to ourselves, our world and our God that must be appropriated day after day”.[6]  The baptismal rite confers upon us certain spiritual gifts that allow us to become more and more like Christ while confirming our place in the Christian community by helping to remind us that our true identify is found in the suffering savior.  Baptism then acts to sustain our spiritual formation, becoming “the daily garment which the disciple is to wear all the time…every day suppressing the old person and growing up in the new”.[7]  Finally, baptism directs our attention to our responsibility to one another in community as we confirm over and again our shared role in the shaping and equipping of the saints.

Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is a second sacramental act that sculpts us into the image of Christ.  If baptism begins our journey, Eucharist provides the nourishment for the road ahead.  The bread and wine confirm Christ’s new covenant within us while continually requiring the remembrance of his death and resurrection.  More importantly, at this alter we encounter the risen Lord.  The layers of profound depth and meaning birthed in this little solitary act are hard to describe.  In breaking the bread and drinking the wine, we actively express our belief in Christ’s historical redemptive act on the cross, while allowing us to taste his sorrow and bear witness to His risen reality. Jesus’ real presence here enables us to recognize Him in the face of the hungry, in the hands of the broken and the feet of the needy.  Our action of welcoming Him here, empower us to love Him more out there.

Common and private prayers are yet another formative action.  At home, at church and within our small groups, we join the human chorus of praise directed toward our God.  Our common prayers remind us over and again that this thing called spirituality isn’t just about me and God.  It is as much about me and my wife, my neighbor, my kids and my enemies as it is about my relation to the Almighty.  We must divest ourselves of the notion that just because our prayer lives are personal, they must also be private.  “Community prayer is meant to bind us to one another and to broaden our vision of the needs of the world and to give us models to steer by and friends to uphold us and encourage us and enable us to go on”.[8]  Prayer, when used as a communal practice, is integral for spiritual formation.  The Lord’s Prayer alone is a prayer of and for community.  ‘Our’ father; give ‘Us’ ‘Our’ daily bread; forgive ‘Us’ as ‘We’ forgive  ‘Others’.  Common prayer, especially in a small group setting, is a powerful tool for spiritual transformation.

One final aspect of ‘doing’, which shapes us spiritually, is service.  Our example is Christ the Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve.  All the books, all the sermons and all the prayers combined cannot change our stubborn hearts like one humble act of service.  It is here, serving the least of these when our hands and feet become His.  Our service in His coming kingdom is not only the public proclamation that a new order is dawning; it is the bodily reminder that to be fully human, we must give our lives for others’ sake.

Beyond these traditions, practices and pursuits, I’m quite certain there isn’t a formula for making disciples.  If there was, the church would have figured it out by now.  Due to our proclivity toward sin and self-reliance, it’s an arduous, life-long journey to put the old self to death and take on the fullness of Christ.  Thankfully, Jesus left a helper, the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, hearts, actions and desires as we seek to become more and more like the Nazarene.