Some of the things I have learned in my journey so far

I was amazed at how much the spiritual formation class I took actually formed me this semester. Although I found it quite confirming, the part that was most intriguing to me was the realization that I am blessed and have been for my whole life, really. Although I have experienced some pain and suffering, like most people have, it has not been debilitating. God has been with me. And I have more faith in him than I often give myself credit for!

In his book Discernment, Henri Nouwen comfort me in my struggle to move from my false self to my true self. Though I confess, I sin when I am grandiose about my grandiosity—when I am narcissistic about my narcissism—when I utter like the Apostle Paul that I am the greatest of sinners. My description and writing about my trouble, thanks to years of listening to artists with a large degree of angst and depression, is often more epic than the reality is. I am afraid that in my circles to be in despair has become somewhat fashionable. One thing I have learned in this class is to be honest about who I am, and not to feel guilty about the relative peace and fortune in my life.

But, still, my false self weighs on me, and even if I am overemphasizing it, that overemphasis weighs on me too. Nouwen writes in Discernment that he is “still the restless, nervous, intense, distracted, and impulse-driven person [he] was when [he] set out on this spiritual journey.” Some days I feel that inadequate, but most of the time I realize focusing on my own guilt about my problems is counterproductive. I would much rather take a page out of Roberta Bondi’s playbook and realize that I can perfectly love, too. To love and to be loved is one of our goals. And we can do it like God. We can love ourselves, love others, and love God, too. Humility compliments Bondi’s idea of perfect love. Though we often view humility as insecurity, low self-esteem, and self-hatred (much like we view perfect love as arrogant and self-righteous), Bondi says it is quite the opposite. “Being a doormat is not being humble.” Rather, it is in our posture to be responsible, to know that we are likely to sin, and to let go of how others perceive us that we are truly humble.

I do not want to be my own doormat. I do not want to falsely elevate myself, but realizing that things are OK, and I am OK is truly helpful in thinking of myself less, as opposed to thinking of myself poorly. Perhaps that is true definition of selflessness. As I looked back at my life in the autobiography, I am thankful for the hope I have experienced, and it is not just the result of my own work, or even faith, or even upbringing. But really because God has been faithful to me and I feel blessed.

I took an inventory of my whole life for this class. I was curious about what I might uncover. So far, though there have been some trials and tribulations, things have been smooth. Here are some things I learned.

  • Develop your instincts. Pray that God gives you discernment to wade through the waves of the world. If I had not listened to what God was telling me, I would have believed lies and falsities that would have led me far away from where I am today. Trust your gut, and test it.
  • Don’t believe what the TV tells you. So much of my faith journey revolved around questioning what the authorities were telling me. Questioning racism, capitalism, and militarism helped me understand how Jesus was creating the alternative and how I could be a part of it.
  • Take it a day at a time, and take the opportunities you are given. I think that’s exactly what Jesus did too. Rather than get anxious about what may or may not be, see what is before you and concentrate on that. Don’t worry about tomorrow; today has enough trouble.
  • Find trustworthy people. And do what they say. I wasted a lot of time doing things “my way,” but eventually realized the advice of the people around was right on. The pastors in Circle of Hope were crucial to how I grew in Jesus. But there were others too. My therapist. My friends and family too. The numerous cells I have led have been places of safety and process too.
  • Try the spiritual disciplines, even if they don’t make sense. I certainly started fasting before I really understood why. Same with going on spiritual retreats! I even helped people follow Jesus before I had really worked out my relationship with him. My faith guided me, and God blessed me. Fake it until you make it.
  • Give attention, don’t try to get it. I’m still learning this one, but I am most like Christ when I am giving him praise and showing how great the people around me are. Honor the folks around you, don’t criticize them. Treat the people that love you well and praise them (publicly too). You’ll get yours too, but you don’t need it. Trust God.

The challenges of giving birth to Jesus today

It’s nice to say we want to give birth to Jesus during Advent, but when the rubber hits the road we have a lot of limitations in how we can do that. We can’t seem to create a vacancy for Jesus, we don’t seem to trust that he will actually fill us and satisfy us, and even if we have him inside of us, we cannot seem to get him beyond our own minds and hearts. We can’t seem to share him with someone else.

It seems like we max ourselves out. Our credit cards, our stress level, our schedule, our relationships. We go as hard as possible and then have no more to give. No generosity, or flexibility. How much vacancy do we actually have? If we don’t have any, how will Jesus fit?

Of course, we long, we yearn. We have desires. The economy that we are in assures us that our desires will never be fully satisfied. If they were, this consumer-based economy would come to a halt. So you might feel a vacancy and you might also feel a level of “fullness” that makes you quite done. It might feel like getting full on Christmas cookies and egg nog, which is my propensity, to be sure. Totally unsatisfied, but completely full.

I think I say this a lot, but we get filled so much with just random stuff, we miss the opportunity to be vacant. This holiday season and your holiday schedule is so busy and full. Of what? Parties, gift exchanges, light shows, shopping, family drama! We get so full, we can’t pay attention to the real stuff.

We start complaining about the inconvenience of a protest. The ills of the world are just another distraction. We ignore that the CIA tortured people and that the former Vice President said he’d do it again. We get full of the wrong stuff and then ignore the stuff we need to pay attention to.

Jesus warned the hypocritical leaders around him of this exact syndrome. He told them they strain out a gnat—they get everyone on their shopping list a gift—and they swallow a camel—the fact that refugees in Iraq have keys to their home, but are nowhere near it.

Our desire has such a huge magnitude and an endless appetite that we do not think the baby Jesus can actually fill it up. Some of us come to our Circle of Hope public meetings, for example, and expect to be filled and are disappointed when we are not. We think our prayer life should be automatically satisfying. Or that our marriage should work without effort. We think that the solution to really loving ourselves is found in another relationship.

For some of us, Jesus was part of our childhood, or we were just attached to him while we were attached to our parents. Then our academics filled us up, a relationship filled us up, something else met our needs in a way that Jesus seemed not to. We didn’t mature our faith, we just matured out of it.

For others, we kept our faith and evolved with it. But we kept it inside of us. We hide it. We are afraid to get the baby out because it might embarrass us or it might get sick. We are overprotective of our faith or ashamed of it. But, if we are indeed treating Jesus like the baby he is this season, we know, deep down, that both of those things are going to ultimately hurt him and our faith in him. We can’t have Jesus in us and not share him with others. The baby can’t stay in the womb forever. It needs to be born. It can’t stay in our home forever. It must be released. It needs to get out.

maryMary was empty. She was a virgin. She was not taken, even by a husband or a lover, when the angel approached her. She was prepared to be filled by the Spirit of God. She was available.

Mary creates a vacancy for God to dwell in. Perhaps God was looking for someone just like Mary and throughout history before her, and one never showed up. Maybe he is looking right now for someone.

Mary is afraid but her fear isn’t defining her. The anxiety that surrounds her might be the result of the cultural expectation to not be pregnant before you were married, but God changes that. He alters the way we approach our whole culture. He challenges the assumptions and brings us something new. Mary isn’t so full of the stereotypes of her culture that can’t receive it.

For Jesus to fill Mary, she needs to have faith. She needs to believe that the Holy Spirit can do it. When she doubts, when she doesn’t believe that God can fill her, the angel gives her evidence—your cousin Elizabeth is getting ready to have a baby too, which is equally implausible.

Her posture is humble and ready to receive. She’s the Lord’s servant. Truly, she is one of the most exalted and venerated and brave people of all time, and she humbly receives this offering and is God’s servant. She doesn’t get tripped up in power dynamics or making sure she gets accolades. She does an incredibly risky thing almost without a guarantee of success of a reward.

The Mother of God liberates us through her birth. She frees us. And she inspires us to go through the pain. Being filled with God is not easy. It hurts, it is tiring, and it wears you out to deliver him sometimes. But Mary actually does it. She gives birth to Jesus. The whole universe changes as a result. God is now with us. God dwells with us. The word becomes flesh. The light pierces the darkness. And here we are again, ready to receive the greatest gift ever.

You might need to create a physical vacancy. Literally, consume less stuff—don’t let your materialism fill you up so that Jesus can’t fit into your life and so that you can’t deliver him.

You might need to create a social vacancy. Don’t fill every waking second of your life with friends and connections. Come home a day earlier from your holiday travels and be with God. Go on a retreat during the busiest time of year and see how God moves in you.

Maybe it’s an emotional vacancy. Don’t let your anxiety make decisions for you. Resist the over-stimulus and try to just be calm. Feel your sadness but don’t let it overcome you.

When you have your vacancy, the space necessary to let Jesus dwell in you, be filled. Be filled with the Holy Spirit, so you actually have something growing inside of you that you can birth.

Be filled with Jesus and trust that he will fill you and you will overcome the challenges of following Him. Let him satisfy you. And if your desires aren’t satisfied, don’t be afraid to try and change them and see what God can do with them.

Be filled with Mary’s humility. Her humility to serve without rebelling. Her humility to submit to something that didn’t make a lot of sense to her.

Finally, give birth to him! Share him with the world. Push yourself to be known. Let your story resonate as your narrative reflects the ultimate narrative. Tell people the story and help them to feel the same hope. Mary had plenty of excuses to refuse to do it, but she didn’t. I want to have the same strength, intensity, and willingness. The same flexibility, humility, and grace. I want to be like Mary and birth Jesus like she did.

This Advent, be pregnant with Jesus like Mary was, and deliver his Good News to the world.

Jesus makes our reality

digital-jesusThe United States may well be the crowning achievement for the Enlightenment, but for the era of postmodernity and social construction it seems to me that social media is the crowning achievement.

The debate between modernism and postmodernism still happens. Like in the final season of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom (not really worth watching, by the way). In this case, ACN, a fictional twenty-four hour news network who has a charismatic, but megalomaniacal, anchor, and a principled president, is being bought out by a eccentric venture capitalist who intends on turning it from a traditional news network, to one that has user-generated content. (Like Reddit.) Sorkin, who is an unfortunate defender of American democracy (couldn’t keep watching the West Wing because of his patriotism) makes it seem that the news networks, especially ACN, has integrity that the Internet doesn’t. This is a theme throughout the show.

Of course, CNN’s “news feed” is not any more contrived than our personal ones. They just have power, money, and degrees, and in the current era of social construction, that’s how power is made. But nevertheless, even cable news’ creation of news, content, and opinions isn’t as overt as social media’s, which does not even try to hide behind the guise of “fair and balanced” news. It’s just what you want, when you want it. And if you pay for it? More people will see it. Advertisers dictate content on TV and in the newspapers, and on social media? We are both the creators and advertisers.

How funny is it that we literally are creating our own “news feeds,” our own versions of reality, meanwhile we are producing advertising content and hoping that our friends see it as we pay Mark Zuckerberg to tell them! It kind of all happened in front of us, and now we are monitored and looked after by private corporations no one elected. They control our infrastructure and live in our pockets in the form of smart phones. Do our devices control us and placate us? I think so.

But when they expose something that disturbs the status quo—let’s say the neighbor who filmed Eric Garner getting killed—they aren’t so good placating anymore (that person actually did get indicted). Generally, they contribute to the false reality that we construct our own reality. Meanwhile, we are being sedated by powers that implement the tools for our own social construction. Equality, democracy, free speech; all of these things are myths in a false reality that promises salvation, but end up delivering quite the opposite.

As long as social construction is the rule of the day, I’m not sure Jesus can fit. Protestants have socially constructed who he is for hundreds of years and we’re left with dying churches and dying denominations. Jesus is born to bring an alternative, a new order, not even to fix the old one. For me, that was the most cogent point at our Doing Theology time the other night. What is God teaching us about Ferguson? To be the alternative, to be something new.

The baby Jesus brought that newness to his era. Today, he wanted us to give birth to that newness. I want Christians and the church to be radical people who are bringing and teaching an alternative. Right now, it looks as if Christians are trying to survive and failing at that. But I think the world is looking for an alternative to the domination system. People are looking for something that they don’t just create. They are rebelling, too. The CIA and the Bush Administration are getting exposed  for the torture about which they lied. The protesters in Ferguson are channeling it. The St. Louis Rams are too! The police officers? They have turned from protecting the public, to defending themselves and protecting themselves. Peace on earth and good will to humankind? Nothing more than a catch phrase.

But when Jesus was born, he was bringing a revelation and revolution with him. Let’s build the world with Jesus, let’s challenge mainstream reality making, let’s do more than conform. Let’s think about the world around us and follow Jesus into a better reality. Immanuel! God is with us.

How John the Baptist leads us to find our true selves

We are meant to be a dwelling place for God. There is nothing truer for us than to be a home for God. That is our vocation and that is who we truly are. That is, of course, easy to say in a sermon. It is easy to say in a theology class, or in a spiritual formation book. Having a vocation and having a true self at all—having a destiny at all—is a significant violation of our individuality.

That was not always the case, of course. In the early church the question about our true self was a question of life and death. To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was a violation of the imperial politics and of the Jewish culture. The question of being who they truly were came with a high price.

As Christianity become codified as the official religion on the Empire, the question changed from life and death to ministry or family. The primary concern was simple: should I start a family or join the church? At that point, one could not be a cleric and married, so believers had a real choice to make. This dichotomy of course resulted in problems and hierarchy—an underclass who understood God through the “holier people.” That boiled over to the point of the Reformation in the modern era.

Modernists, like Calvin and Luther, actually thought that our hard work ethic is where we might find true selves. It does not matter what you are doing or who you become, as long as you give it your all. As long as you work hard, you are finding yourself in God. This is a great kneeling to the authorities and the gods of commerce, particularly. Christians are meant to be effective cogs in a machine, citizens to the state, members of a cause other than Jesus’.

Today, in the hypermodern or postmodern era, we question who we are. The question is becoming who we are now, not who we are in Jesus. Postmodern Christians define God through their private, individual relationship with him. We can hardly sort ourselves out through the irony of self-expression, though. We socially construct our reality, and often times express it through the opposite.

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We have to act in spite of the identity politics that oppress us, but we are fortunate because, in Jesus, in that baby Jesus, for whom we are making a home, our identity is already created. We find it when we make a way for Jesus, make a way for him in the world, in the body, and in the community around it. Truly, it might get us killed. It might affect our commercial success. It might cause us to rebel against our government. It might cause us to change how we express ourselves too.

John the Baptist is a good example of an individual who literally put on his true self and made a way for the Lord in his heart and in the world. He is a central character to the story of Advent and the story of Jesus. He appears in all four Gospels at least as a critical element to the start of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels reference him as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 and 4, the “voice of one calling in the desert.”

Luke tells us Jesus is related to him and his mother Elizabeth and Mary have a noteworthy connection. After he was born, he grew strong in spirit and began to lead a monastic life in the desert. Some place him as a member of a radical Jewish community near the Dead Sea, known as the Essenes. It is possible the community raised him after Zechariah and Elizabeth died. It’s hard to tell if this happened, but it is clear that John the Baptist created an alternative community and baptizing people. He lived off locusts and honey—common for monks like him—and wore camels’ skin.

John refused any claim that he was the Messiah, but repeatedly said he was ushering the way for Jesus. He minced not his words when it came to telling people to repent and prepare the way for the Lord—just like he was doing himself. Jesus himself calls him the last and the greatest prophet of the Old Testament—maybe the greatest person ever born, really.

Picture2John challenged the status quo so much that Herod killed him (as Caravaggio shows us here). One historian argues that Herod killed him because he might instill an uprising, and the scripture says that John rebuked Herod’s incestuous marriage, which resulted in his infamous beheading.

John the Baptist shows us how to make a way for Jesus. He moved beyond the protection of one’s ancestry, or the history of their faith movement, and immediately goes into action. For him, it is a matter of life and death to follow Jesus, but to follow Jesus is to escape death altogether, even if our lives end in this world. A life where we are enslaved to our desires and our so-called freedom of choice is no life at all and hardly a free one! John wants his followers to be free of that.

John the Baptist prepares a way for Jesus through these radical actions, and when the time comes for Jesus to be known, especially in Luke, he is known because of his radical actions as well. We are called to be our true selves in Jesus and that is manifested in our behavior, our deeds, and our actions. So much of our faith has been reduced and compartmentalized to our beliefs and our actions within a tiny context of our lives, that the holistic transformation seems to be too extreme, even if does not result in a “career change.” Changing how we approach our day-to-day life can be daunting. But when we do, Jesus is known.

Putting on our true selves means a complete transformation. We are submitting who we are to Jesus—that does not mean that we sacrifice our individuality or something—but it does mean we question it. We think about whom we are influencing, what our actions mean, and whether they indeed make a way for the Lord.

But it is easier said than done. Typically, we think we know what is best for us, we know what our path is (or not, but we are at least the authority that governs it). We certainly know what we feel like doing. My encouragement is to practice a little self-denial, and more self-awareness. Our false selves have a tendency to feel like the real thing; our true selves can feel forced. But rather than just letting our emotions and desires guide us through closeness to God this season, use your better judgment, the discernment of the leaders God has given you, and the circumstances of your life.

It is a challenge, but it is also the most natural thing we could do. Our whole bodies ache for our true selves. Our collective body does too. And when we are who we are truly meant to be, when we are operating out of our destiny, the world joins us.

So this Advent season try to be who you truly are. Discern with others what that truly is. Give away something. Be generous with your spirit, your time, your money. Cause enough trouble to get noticed. Spend time with the needy and the sick. Cure someone of their blindness by sharing the truth with them. Spread your love around in radical ways and don’t be afraid if someone thinks you’re crazy. They thought John the Baptist was too, and Jesus called him the greatest ever.

Become an owner, not just a consumer

I love the About Circle of Hope dinners that Circle of Hope at Broad & Dauphin hosts every other month. Interested and interesting people always fill them, really. I like going because it helps me get back to the basics of being the church and planting it. On Monday at Jen and Aaron’s, we had a full dinner, and at some point during the evening, I used a basic economic image to describe the church.

The capitalist political economy has largely subverted the church, as well much of modern life. Even anti-capitalism has been commercialized (like that Che shirt over there). In fact, we are so individualistic and consumer-based that participation in a faith community is fundamentally commercial. We church shop and we look for worship that meets our needs. We might even read a Yelp review of a church before visiting to make sure it is worth our time and/or money (should we ever become generous).

We have even made the cross and the atoning work of Jesus into a transaction! But I want to be more than a consumer. I want to be more than a buyer. God has bought me so that I am free from that consumption. Being the church is not about being a consumer.

I think, for the most part, Christians understand that the point of the body is not just to satisfy our consumer needs and desires. Even if their actions undermine our thoughts, I think we still think people consider being the church about what you are accomplishing. It’s not about consumption for some, but about labor.

We are co-workers for Jesus. We do his work. We fulfill the Great Commission. We are looking forward to the next leader who will take us into a new era, that is for sure. But there is still something missing from the laborer mentality. Being the church is about more than working.

For me, being the church is about being an owner. I’m not looking for consumers or laborers, but people who will own the church and be the church with me. It’s a family business, one that thrives on people owning it with us. Consumers are OK. The laborers are getting it too. But I want us to own our dignity enough to believe that we are the church and we become full partners.

This is a challenge because most of us don’t own much. We are in debt. We can barely get a job that pays the bills. The bank owns our house if our landlord doesn’t. The government and corporations control our lives. The one percent dominates us. We don’t own anything, not even our own desire anymore. So why would we consider becoming a partner and owner in the church? I think because it subverts what the powers that be have told us. Because we are not just defined by our consumption or the work we do. We are defined by who we are in Jesus! We are His body.

We have an intimate relationship with each other, that’s why we are a family. That’s why we share our money in common. We have mutual goals, and a mutual mission. Jesus needs us to take ownership. He needs us this Advent, particularly, too, when we are reminded of his needs as a “needy baby.”

It takes time to get from here to there, and some of us might never get all the way there. I don’t think Jesus will judge us if we don’t get all the way there, but we are on a journey and we are moving together.

Who knows? Maybe we aren’t for you. But if you want to do and be something beyond yourself, please don’t just come to our church.

Be it with us.

How would Jesus tell the truth?

How does telling the truth create safety? How does telling the truth create a home?

Most of the time, it seems like we are not so good at telling the truth. We are afraid of articulating how we feel. We think expressing our emotions will cause more trouble than they are worth and than we are worth. That might have been your whole Thanksgiving experience—stay quiet, don’t cause too much trouble, just get through the holiday. I think some people live their whole life like they are avoiding causing too much trouble at the Thanksgiving table.

But when we don’t tell the truth, when we don’t have the necessary conflicts in our lives, when we avoid being who we are in Jesus, we don’t create safety, we create the opposite. An environment of cowardice; Christians need to be the truth-tellers that create the safe places. Conflict avoidance may feel safe, but it just makes us singular, secluded, away from the body.

We numb our feelings so that not telling the truth isn’t so grating. We do that in many ways: we drink, use drugs, have sex, fill our time up with relationships, flee our commitments, have affairs, we go shopping on Black Friday, or just avoid intimacy in our studio apartments or by ourselves in our rooms.

That kind of interior suffocation damages our souls, too. It damages our bodies. It damages the home inside of us that we have made for the Spirit of God. Not telling the truth hurts the external and internal home of God.

People who are committed to telling the truth, to creating safety, surround us. This week was a week where many people were committed to telling the truth.

When we clear out the untruth of the world, we create a space for Jesus to reside. People see him more clearly when Christians, of all people, are telling the truth. We are used to the fog and the skunky smell, but when we clear it out, I think we see Jesus more clearly.

But it is so easy to deliver that truth in a way that assures us that it be heard. We preach to the choir. When we are impassioned, we can be vitriolic, stereotypical, divisive. I think being empathic is one thing, but I think the question leaders need to ask is how will my listeners believe this?

I think Jesus shows us how. In John 3 and 4 Jesus is interviewing two people that are trying to follow him. Two people coming to him that are basically polar opposites.

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The first is the interaction he has with Nicodemus—He is a Pharisee, an expert in the law who religiously follows it. He is on the ruling council known as the Sanhedrin. He is an elite person and he is wondering about Jesus and the truth that is coming from.

He shows up at night. And he knows Jesus is of God because his signs are irrefutable. He can clearly see who Jesus is.

Jesus challenges him though and he coins the ever-popular phrase: born again. Jesus tells Nicodemus that though he may see him as a teacher, he can only truly see him if he is born again.

In the next part of the passage, Nicodemus asks him how to be born again. Many of us assume that he is talking about physical limitations, that he doesn’t get the metaphor. But I don’t think Nicodemus is so simple-minded. Jews of his stature and education understand what an analogy is. In fact, it is because of his high education and his prestige that he can’t consider being born again. He would have to forfeit so much of what he has. How could he do it? How can he start over?

Jesus needs us to start over sometimes, especially when we are creating room for him. He speaks plainly with Nicodemus—He needs to drench himself in a new truth. And he knows better.

At the end of the interaction, Jesus gives him the fundamental truth plainly. Jesus came into the world to be the light. To cast away darkness. To speak the truth, to cast away lies. And our belief in him and our actions through him cast away darkness too. Jesus tells Nicodemus “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have has been done in the sight of God.”

The truth is what sets Nicodemus free. He doesn’t need to hide anymore. He doesn’t need to come at night to see Jesus. He can be a light that casts away darkness. That light dwells in him now.

Look at the difference in chapter four. Totally different scene. First, it isn’t the woman at the well that approaches Picture2Jesus, but rather Jesus that approaches her. It’s in broad daylight—high noon, even.

He’s not talking to a high level Jew here, but a lowly Samaritan woman. She’s single, she’s a woman, and she’s a foreigner—three no-nos. Jesus doesn’t mind. He keeps talking to her. He asks her to help him—he needs a drink.

It’s totally taboo for this interaction to happen and she tells him that. She knows that Jews and Samaritans don’t interact (despite the marginal differences they exhibit). She says she can’t do it. Jesus tells her that if she knew the truth, she’d ask him for a drink because he can give us a drink that never ends.

She wonders about it and gets it. She understands he is saying something relevant for her soul. Just like Nicodemus, she isn’t a fool, she understands the subtext. So she asks for this eternally quenching water.

Jesus pierces her with more truth. He asks her to fetch her husband, knowing she doesn’t have one. In fact she has had five husbands. He is not doing this to convict her of a sin. In fact, John gives us no evidence that she was indeed a sinner at all. It is perfectly reasonable to think that her husbands suffered a terminal illness and she kept marrying their brothers or the next appropriate family member. I don’t see a broken sinner here, necessarily, but someone who needs hope, needs the truth. Jesus gives her that. She calls him a prophet. And perhaps more directly than anything else he tells her he is the Messiah that she’s been waiting for.

What do we learn about telling the truth from how Jesus interacts with these people?

  • Tell the truth differently.

Nicodemus needs to let go of his control of everything and move with the wind of the Spirit. The Samaritan woman needs to find grounding in the truth Jesus is giving her. It’s the same truth for both people, but it’s shown differently and Jesus addresses them much differently. He’s not particularly “easy” on either of them, he just approaches them differently.

That kind of nuanced difference is important when we are speaking the truth. Just because you have the truth on your side doesn’t give you permission to speak it however you want, honestly. It all starts with having a relationship. Even if you are totally right, a truth that goes unheard might as well be a lie.

Know who you are talking to and approach them graciously.

  • Lead with love.

The truth may be with you, but start by leading with love. Don’t judge them. Jesus doesn’t judge Nicodemus for coming to him deceptively, or for his alternative lifestyle. He is gentle, and he listens to him. Same with the Samaritan woman who has been pegged as a prostitute since forever it seems. He is loving, and I think he establishes some trust before he shares his idea.

I think we need to marry truth and love when we are creating safe places. So often the reason we withdraw from telling the truth is because we never learned to do it gently. I’m not saying that hearing the truth when we don’t want to will ever feel good, but we can do some preventative things to ensure that it isn’t hostile.

  • Explain yourself.

Jesus speaks the truth to both of these people, but he does so with understanding. He tries to unpack difficult ideas for them. He is patient with them. He wants them to understand what he means. He doesn’t just want to make a point.

I’ve spent the last few days reading pretty angry posts about the mess in Ferguson. There is a lot to be said about it. I think that outrage and horror is appropriate. But I think if we are following Jesus’ example, we need to be committed to telling the truth, having a conflict, but not doing it in any way.

Telling the truth implies you have a listener. So if our goal is to create a safe environment for God to dwell, and this season we are awaiting for him to come to us again, we need to tell the truth well. If we don’t, I’m afraid we won’t be heard, and it’ll be just like talking to ourselves.

For Ferguson, Jesus has a different path for those with and without power

I was up late on Tuesday night watching the #evangelicals4justice Twitter feed. It was discouraging to hear the news that the grand jury in the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown trial decided not to indict Wilson, to me. I was telling my cell last night that I figured that the justice system, a primary perpetrator of racism in the United States, would disappoint me, I just did not think it would be this bad.

The question of justice is a complicated one. My whole faith is based on the fact that God was merciful and saved me from death—me the sinner, the wrongdoer. So shouldn’t I feel justified that the grand jury was merciful on the killer cop? I am not so sure. I’m not really sure the punitive system would have done him much good, but I keep hearing cries of his defense—even in the circles in which I run! Even though I am not sure prison was the best answer to the question, I am certain that Michael Brown did not need to die. And I am thankful that God will be merciful on him, too.

I wonder what would have happened if the grand jury decided to indict Wilson. I wonder what would have happened if he was convicted and spent the rest of his life in jail. Does that make Michael Brown any more alive? Does it make the systemic racism that began this whole mess any more dead? In some sense, getting earthly justice here, would have given some people the illusion that battle is over. (Like when slavery was abolished, or the Civil Rights Acts became law, or Barack Obama became president.) I don’t think we are even close to healing the scars of racism in the U.S.

The Kingdom of God works distinctly differently than the U.S.’s system of justice, thank God. I am a citizen of a different kingdom and my hope is in Jesus. Jesus bridges the gap between the powerful and the powerless, and we are agents that help that happen. We have work to do beyond a theological utterance. The world needs more than platitudes. I actually need to do and be something greater.

There are similarities between those with and without power, but that latter distinction is noteworthy. Most of the protestors around the country are peaceful, just like most of the cops around the country are not killers. I think Michael Brown was afraid, Darren Wilson says he was too. I suppose the biggest difference is that when Brown is afraid, he has to quiver and hope nothing happens—when Wilson is, especially if his fear is justified by a threat for his life beyond a reasonable doubt (whatever that means), he can kill. Wilson said his victim looked like a demon. What if Brown called Wilson a blue-eyed devil? That difference in power and posture is too noteworthy not to consider.

In this discussion of power, let’s think about Jesus and the least of these; how he treated those with power and those without power. Although everyone can receive his gift, in the New Testament, it seems like the least of these can more readily. Those full of power, I think, have a harder time entering the Kingdom of God, then those who have been systematically oppressed for 400 years.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying in Matthew 7:2: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” I think Jesus may judge those with power with that same power. I think Jesus is warning us. The book of Matthew serves as an indictment against those with power. If you want to read the climax, read chapters 23 to 25. Jesus is disappointed that the people with influence and power are using it for evil and not for his Kingdom. He calls them hypocrites. They were supposed to be his allies, but he calls them children of hell, who are making others twice that. They ignore the heart of the law—they miss the forest for the trees. They are clean on the outside, but not inside. They are full of “greed and self-indulgence.” They are like “whitewashed tombs,” but inside they are full of “dead people’s bones.” Speaking directly to those with power he says, “You also outwardly apprentice righteousness to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Jesus spoke truth to power. He reserved his harshest words for them.

Matthew 24 is an apocalyptic discourse that is telling those with power that their power structures will fall one day too, that they cannot hold on to their precious Temple, that another Empire will come and destroy them. Power consolidation will not save them. Finally, in Matthew 25, he indicts those who did not care for the least of these, those who could not look into their eyes and see the image of Jesus. Who would he say those words to today? I think also the powerful and the privileged. I think he would encourage them to rid themselves of their power identity in favor of one in him.

I believe our job, as believers, is to comfort the afflicted as Jesus does in chapter 25. To me that means stand with them, disrupt oppressive systems, and work toward justice. Through our love, they will know Jesus. The powerful among us need to use our power to help, not to hurt; we need to submit ourselves to God. Likewise, as believers, our job is to convict and covert. That might mean befriending someone with a license to kill, and telling him or her the truth about the emptiness of the power that has filled them and blinded them.

Everyone needs Jesus. And everyone has a place at his reconciling table. Those with power and those without, though, have different journeys to take.