A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

It’s Better Than You Think It Is

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-9, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange intros, short sermons, eating in Eastertide, Raymond Brown, good trouble, Stanley Hauerwas, codas, timelessness, the firstborn of the dead, real peace, and the gift of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: It’s Better Than You Think It Is

A Modest Proposal

2 Corinthians 3.17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. The poster was published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and it displayed a haunting image of two people in grief holding one another, and underneath the image were these words: “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” 

Hauerwas then explains how, for over twenty years, students (and professors) would knock on his door with anger and frustration. They would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”

And Hauerwas would reply the same way every time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Last night Russian forces invaded Ukraine, assaulting by land, sea, and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two. Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and countless Ukrainian citizens are currently fleeing for their lives. 

And Christians here in the US have already floated around a bunch of possible responses from flooding the Ukrainian military with money, arms, and technology, to invading Russia to make them pay for what they’re doing, to praying for peace.

Jesus commands the disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which looks nice on a cross-stitch hanging on the wall in your living room until you start to see images of bombs exploding and parents frantically trying to rush their children to safety.

War is always complicated, ugly, and even addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few other things can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. Way conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness made manifest in machine guns. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “war” fails to express the frightening nature of the act. We so quickly connect the word “war” with the “righteous” outcomes of our wars. 

Can you imagine how differently we would remember and even think about wars if we called them something else? World Massacre II? The Vietnamese Annihilation? Operation Desert Carnage?

Part of the strange witness of Christianity, and an all too often overlooked aspect of the faith, is that Jesus rules in weakness. God in Christ reconciles the world through the cross. Our salvation is wrought not with the storming of the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the powers and the principalities with a mobilized military, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

As the images continue to flood in from Ukraine, as the talking heads on every news channel tell us how we should feel and think about the images, I find myself grateful (oddly enough) for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church because it already outlines how we (Methodists) think and feel about war.

Namely, that war is incompatible with Christianity.

Paragraph 165.C:

“We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and the example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.”

It might be a modest proposal, but we have to start somewhere.

Winning By Losing

Luke 6.17

He came down with them and stood at a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 

Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, and respected for you will mourn. 

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the cheek, give to everyone who begs, on and on.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 is filled with wonder and with confusion. It has attracted and bewildered Christian for centuries and centuries. For as many answers as it provides, it leaves us with even more questions.

Like the parables, the Sermon is designed to pop every circuit breaker in our minds; it doesn’t explain things to our satisfaction, but instead calls to our attention the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings. 

Basically, we can help but walk away from Jesus’ sermon with our minds abuzz.

In the realm of the church, explanation is not the same thing as proclamation – though most of us prefer the former rather than the latter. We like things to be nice and orderly, we want things tied up neatly in a bow.

And Jesus rejects that desire completely.

Jesus, in his Sermon, isn’t telling us what works – he’s telling us what the Kingdom of God is like

One of my professors from seminary, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it this way:

“A common interpretation is that the Sermon is a law that presents an impossibly high ideal to drive us to a recognition of our sin. It is meant to drive us to grace. In other words, it is not really meant to tell us what to do but rather to remind us that Christian moral life is about love. This internalizes the Christian life so that what it means to be a Christian is to do whatever we do from the motive of love. “Love and do what you will” — bad advice if I have ever heard it! It has an even worse effect on christology; why would anyone ever have put Jesus to death if it is all just a matter of being loving?” – Stanley Hauerwas, A Sermon On The Sermon On The Mount

We are so very tempted to read all of Jesus’ words in his Sermon as a list of virtues that good people ought to have. We walk away thinking we’re supposed to be poor, or hungry, or persecuted because of our faith. We convince ourselves that turning the other cheek or praying for our enemies will make us righteous or blessed.

Yet, what we miss is the fact that Jesus’ words assume there are already people in the community called church who find themselves in such positions. 

Being blessed, according to Jesus, does not mean, “If you do this, then you will be rewarded.”

Being blessed, according to Jesus, means, “If you find yourself in a position like this, you are blessed because you are part of a community that makes all the difference in the world.”

Again, Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples, or us, that if we just muster up the courage to love our enemies then we will no longer have enemies. He doesn’t offer these words as a formula for how to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, loving our enemies and turning the other cheek generally guarantees that we will continue to have enemies who delight in hitting us on the cheek.

Christians don’t win by winning – we win by losing.

Remember, we worship the crucified God.

Jesus offers this Sermon to us, these descriptions and admonitions not because they will change the world. He proclaims all of it because the world has been changed by Christ forever, and we can no longer act as we once did.

We Christians are a weird bunch, in the end. We believe in impossible possibilities, and we pray for people the world never would, and we refuse to believe that anyone is a hopeless case.

And yet, without us living in such strange and faithful ways, the world will have no way of ever knowing what grace, peace, and mercy actually look like.

A Dangerous Time For Christians

“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas

If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.

Which is no easy thing.

I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”

I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”

Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.

There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.

Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.

That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.

Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.

But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.

Lord: A Political Prayer from Stanley Hauerwas

There are times when I don’t know what, or even how, to pray. I am therefore grateful for the saints of the past and present who make their prayers available as prayers we can pray. The following is one such prayer from Stanley Hauerwas…

Lord Jesus Christ, we live in a world without lords. We have presidents, but they rule with our consent – or at least this is the story we tell ourselves. We believe that just as we claim to govern, so we govern our own lives. We are not set up to use “Lord” language. So, do you mind if we call you “Mr. President,” Jesus? That, we confess, sounds strange. You did not and do not act like you are running for office. Driving money changers out of the temple seems a bit beyond the pale. What is worse, at the wedding at Cana you were a bit short with your mother, and it is even more troubling that you never married and spent most of your time with a bunch of guys. We worry a bit if you ever came to terms with your sexuality. When all is said and done, we do not think you are going to be elected for president.

So, what are we going to do with you, Lord Jesus Christ? We confess that we do not have the slightest idea. All we can do is pray that you will destroy our presumption that we are our own lords. We fear such destruction, sensing that it may have something to do with death, and as Yoder tells us, in the life and death of Jesus we find a reality and the possibility of all that your teachings say. It is possible to live that way if you are willing to die that way. Is that really part of what it means to call you Lord? I guess this means we have to get serious when we haven’t the slightest idea of what it might mean to get serious.

For God’s sake, dear Jesus, Lord Jesus, help us. 

-Stanley Hauerwas

(Hauerwas, Disrupting Time, 63). 

Preaching To Strangers

Matthew 22.36

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”

And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)

However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.

Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.

But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.

Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe. 

This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.

Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)

The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.

Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).

This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.

This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds. 

Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. 

There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.

As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.

The God Of…

The Crackers & Grape Juice crew got together (online) a few weeks ago to talk about James McClendon’s essay “The God of Theologians and the God of Jesus Christ” for our podcast titled You Are Not Accepted.

Typically, the pod looks at a sermon/essay written by Stanley Hauerwas, and though this one was put forth by someone else, the Hauerwasian themes are all there.

Central to McClendon’s argument is the fact that whoever the “God of the Theologians” is, that God is most certainly White, Male, and Racist. Whereas the God of Jesus Christ, that is the God of Scripture, is not. McClendon can make a claim like that because no matter how much we go looking for Jesus, most of the time its just like looking at the bottom of a well – we think we see Him down there but all we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves. God, on the other hand, doesn’t wait for us to come looking; God finds us.

If you’d like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The God of the Theologians and the God of Jesus Christ

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

Churches Should Not Have The American Flag In The Sanctuary

Romans 7.24-25

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 

Churches should NOT have the American Flag in the sanctuary.

That was the tweet I sent out into the twitterverse, not thinking too much about what I had done. I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the American Flag and the Cross of Christ hanging as if equals in places of worship. I have written about it at length and preached about it on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that Christians’ truest citizenship can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus and not from a nation.

But, writing one sentence about the subject for Twitter doesn’t amount to much.

Or, at least, I didn’t think it did…

As of the moment of writing this, the tweet has been seen over 550,000 times and over 70,000 people have interacted with it.

In a matter of two days, my one sentence about the flag in church has become more “popular” than anything I have ever done.

And, the responses have been fairly predictable. 

On one side people have been deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from a sanctuary. They have implored me to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice, the nation it represents was founded on religious freedom, and that to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).

On the other side, Christians have expressed their concern with the proximity of the flag to the worship of God. They have remarked that we cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to a particular nation-state, and a great number of Christians from other parts of the globe have remarked that they’ve never seen their own nation’s flag in church (demonstrating how this is a uniquely American phenomenon).

I’ve received more private messages than I can count both thanking me for the tweet and damning me for it. I’ve been labeled a prophet and a traitor. I’ve searched through so many of the responses that it started to feel like “doom-scrolling” where it left me feeling hollow.

Today is the 4th of July – a day for Americans to celebrate the nation’s independence. And yet, for Christians (who happen to be American) it’s important to remember that our independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.

Our truest freedom comes from and through Jesus.

Can we still fly American Flags on our homes? Sure – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often leads to xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we celebrate and enjoy fireworks today? Definitely – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our nation’s borders.

Which leads me back to the American Flag in church… 

America is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God and when we put the American Flag in the sanctuary we equate the two together. Our obsession with patriotism, such that we fly a nation’s flag in places of worship, is a sign of what Jesus calls idolatry. 

The 4th of July is not independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate and a particular people in a particular way – but our realest independence came through the cross and the empty tomb 2,000 years ago.

The 4th of July, therefore, doesn’t really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as anyone else, but we do so knowing that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.

The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which come and go like the wind. We depend on the Lord to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.

We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do today is more compelling and life-giving than the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the end of all sacrifices.

Jesus Christ is the One in whom we live and move and have our being so much so that we can rejoice in the presence of others without hatred, fear, or bitterness.

Jesus Christ is the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead has set us free from the truest tyrannies of all – sin and death.