10 Predictions for #PostEvangelical America...

I strongly believe that it will be difficult to quantify in the next few years the degree to which the divided though largely active support of Donald Trump's bid for the presidency among conservative Christians and Evangelicals will accelerate the post-Christian reality of the US. This includes the emergence and expansion of the "nones" and the "dones."

The unhealthy and unholy allegiance of conservative Christianity with conservative political parties and institutions has done great harm to the church and to our society. Whether we look to the emergence of this unholy alliance and its (not so subtle) racist overtones, or the ways in which this alliance has too often had negative affects on the poor and vulnerable


DISCLAIMER: I of course recognize that this is by no means a fair portrait of many who still choose to identify as Conservative or Evangelical. While that may be the case, and a number of these people are my friends, I am suggesting that the people whom our culture identifies with this ideology and movement will experience the fallout that I am articulating in these predictions.


So here are my ten predictions about #PostEvangelical America and the state of Conservative Christianity (and the Church more generally) moving forward after this presidential election...

The loss of political power by domination or alienation will hasten the speed with which the United States becomes a post-Christian culture.

There are plenty of voices that are clearly reminding us that this is true. Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America is certainly one of the most talked-about articulations of this reality. But this can also be seen in the ways in which the demographics of conservative/evangelical communities are rapidly. The divisiveness (even within traditional stalwarts of theological conservativism) that has been on display will only accelerate this already inevitable trend.  

Those who find themselves no longer able to align themselves with the angrier, more exclusive version of Evangelicalism will shift quickly. 

The last decade has shown unprecedented decline in denominational loyalty, particularly among younger people. The ethical and political orientations, particularly of millenials, will not insulate congregations and traditions from this impending ideological exodus. 

The recovery of postures of generosity and diversity will continue to become less and less viable. Evangelicals will devour their own. 

This can be seen in the ways that evangelicals have dealt with the candidacy of Donald Trump or more culturally-oriented events like the recent comments of Jen Hatmaker about same-sex marriage and the attenuating categorical black-listing fallout. With no space for diversity or generosity towards difference the only remaining postures are rabid defense and destruction of the Other. 

People (particularly Millenials) of faith (the #PostEvangelical kind) will either find or create new Christian communities together, or leave Christian community entirely.

This is seen most clearly in the emergence and rapid expansion of the "Dones." But research has consistently shown that while faith is important to millenials, it is the church that is struggling to find its place in their lives. It seems to me that we can expect both of these trends to accelerate moving forward. 

This means that the (long-term) future of the church in the US will be much more communal, less institutional, and more progressive. 

This shift will occur for a number of reasons: (1) Millenials (now the largest generation on the planet) have a general suspicion of institutions, including religious ones. (2) Millenials crave (and seek to cultivate) real, meaningful community. (3) Our society is becoming more progressive, and (4) This is the general trajectory of theological reflection towards greater diversity, inclusion, and concern for questions and systems of justice in light of oppression and injustice (e.g., Liberation Theology, Postcolonial Theology, Queer Theology, etc.).

Churches who remain in the Evangelical camp will feel forced to double down on theological positions with vigor (or venom) to stem their own decline. 

While this is not true across the board (there are some notable exceptions in sometimes surprising places), it seems to me that this is inevitable. With the shrinking demographics of conservative Christianity (particularly the fundamentalist and evangelical varieties, which are not always distinguishable), one of the primary mechanisms of institutional perpetuation is to begin to assume an isolationist position that focuses on the maintenance of current adherents and their families. This has been an important pattern for sometime, and will only accelerate as we move further into the post-Christian culture. 

This doubling-down will result in their eventual demise (even if they continue to exist), because they are losing their children (and have been for some time). 

This trend has been measured for some time now, and shows no signs of slowing down. But it is also demonstrated in the ways in which those (particularly millenials) within evangelicalism are embracing more progressive positions despite their ecclesial settings. 

For the church as a liberating, inclusive community of people from all walks of life, this imposed exile will be a generative reality. 

While in the short-term this kind of expulsion/exclusion will be painful, it is my contention that those who leave and/or are pushed out will find that the new spaciousness provided by their new ecclesial location will be freeing and beautiful. This is already the kind of world that millenials are actively working towards, and if they can do so within Christian communities, it seems likely to me that they will do just that. 

The Christianity that will remain in the next generation (though smaller) will be more generous, more active in its pursuits of justice, and more inclusive. 

This can be seen even within the evangelical tradition itself, though I think that this kind of posture will find more momentum and energy in traditions outside of conservative/evangelical faith going forward. 

The reality and the accelerated emergence of the #PostEvangelical world in the US is actually Good News for the church and for the world.

My experience has been that the church of the future will be radically different, but that it will be better for having lost its place of (economic and political) power and privilege. It will be liberated to be itself, a liberating, revolutionary force of love, that embodies mercy, justice, and inclusion in a world that so desperately needs it. 


Perhaps we might find that the death of "Christian America" will lead to the one thing that Christians have always been able to draw hope from in dark times… RESURRECTION. 

Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (An Invitation to Explore)...

Emmanuel Levinas confronts us with a fundamental question about the ubiquity and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world in the wake of the Holocaust:

Is humanity, in its indifference, going to abandon the world to useless suffering, leaving it to the political fatality - or the drifting - of the blind forces which inflict misfortune on the weak and conquered, and which spare the conquerors, whom the wicked must also join? Or, incapable of adhering to an order - or to a disorder - which it continues to think diabolic, must not humanity now, in a faith more difficult than ever, in a faith without theodicy, continue Sacred History; a history which now demands even more of the resources of the self in each one, and appeals to its suffering inspired by the suffering of the other person, to its compassion which is a non-useless suffering (of love), which is no longer suffering 'for nothing', and which straightaway has a meaning? At the end of the twentieth century and after the useless and unjustifiable pain which is exposed and displayed therein without any shadow of a consoling theodicy, are we not all pledged - like the Jewish people to their faithfulness - to the second term of this alternative? This is a new modality in the faith of today, and also in our moral certainties, a modality quite essential to the modernity which is dawning.
Emmanuel Levinas, Useless Suffering, p. 164.

A young boy in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble following an air strike in Aleppo.

The world of the last century has witnessed an unfathomable concentration of trauma and human suffering. Two World Wars, genocide, hunger, poverty, abuse and neglect, disease, and an innumerable volume of personal or communal traumas which have been lost to history or held in secret. One thing is clear: Simple answers and "business as usual" is not only insufficient, but is immoral. It is time, as Levinas reminds us, for a "new modality" that moves away from the "explanations" of theodicy to the "suffering [with] inspired by the suffering of the other." But this shift, particularly from the grounding of Christian faith requires language and practices that for most believers simply do not exist. We simply lack the language and practices to respond in meaningful and generative ways to the sheer volume and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world, in our communities, in our churches, and within our own lives and the lives of those closest to us. 

The theological commitments and practices necessary to engage in the world as it really is will require a deep and pointed look at the Tradition we have received and the ways in which these things have (mis)shaped the church and its capacity to respond to trauma and human suffering. However, we will also discover that there are deep resources buried and obscured within the Tradition that provide powerful and redemptive tools for contemporary life in the world.

This November and December I want to invite you to join me in an exploration of the ways in which the Christian faith can respond faithfully and redemptively to a world that is so profoundly (mis)shaped by trauma and human suffering.

On Sunday mornings at 9:30 at the Dayspring Church of Christ I will be guiding us through the realities of trauma and human suffering, the history of the development of the Christian Tradition in response to these realities, and the theological commitments and practices moving forward that will enable the church to be God's healing presence in the world. This work, this joint commitment, this embodiment of the most fundamental convictions of the Christian faith culminate in what I describe as a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology.

Each week, as part of our discerning together we will engage in two practices: A form of Lectio Divina and an exercise in theological reflection. The goal in both of these practices is to examine the ways in which we hear and think about Scripture and to contemplate the ways in which our theological values and commitments shape (or misshape!) our faith and life together and for the world.

Here is what we will explore each week of this series together: 

WEEK ONE: The Grammar of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (Nov. 6th)
Drawing on some of the insights and metaphors of Joe Jones' marvelous systematic theology, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine we will begin to explore the kinds of language that will be necessary and informative for our time together. Particularly we will explore the meanings (or range of meanings) for terms and constructions like Moral Agency, Imago Dei, Sin, Ecclesiology, Trauma, Trauma-Formed, and Trauma-Informed. This week will enable us to get our bearings and to mark out the boundaries of our expedition in the Christian Tradition together.

WEEK TWO: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 1 (Nov. 13th)
Here we will explore the ways in which we might talk about the impingement of the Powers of Sin and Death upon human persons and communities. We will explore the ways in which the Christian Tradition has offered accounts of sin, particularly within the Augustinian tradition, that ignore or marginalize the most ubiquitous and malformative variety of sin: not sin done by us, but sin done to us. This expanded vision will enable us to think about how this reality pushes back on language that we use to describe God's saving work in the world, particularly for those who suffer.

WEEK THREE: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 2  (Nov. 20th)
Now that we have established a more meaningful account of the ways that the Powers of Sin and Death impinge upon human persons and communities we will turn our attention to how this changes our language about salvation. In conversation with the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa we will explore and discern how we talk about the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the fate of human persons. We will especially focus on the ways in which suffering has the capacity to complicate or compromise an individual or community's capacity to respond appropriately to the Triune God in history.

WEEK FOUR: The Trauma-Formed Tradition (Nov. 27th)
After exploring a deeper grammar of sin and salvation that is trauma-informed we return with clearer eyes to see the ways in which the Tradition itself has been trauma-formed. In other words, we will see some of the ways in which the history and practices of the church illustrate that the church has been more profoundly shaped by its experiences of trauma and human suffering than it has been responsive to those experiences. This is not a condemnation or dismissal of the Tradition; far from it. It is instead a testimony to the (mal)formative power of trauma and human suffering from which even ecclesial communities (and entire traditions!) are not immune. Together we will see this in an exploration of the Book of Common Prayer, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the commentary of John Calvin on a subset of the Psalms of Lament.

WEEK FIVE: The Ecclesial Turn: Theological Commitments (Dec. 4th)
Having sketched out together the fundamental shape of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology and the impetus for it (the Trauma-Formed Tradition), here we will explore three of the fundamental theological commitments that serve as the foundation of the theological model that I am proposing. In this session we will explore the ways in which our commitments about coercion and violence, the nature of the Atonement, and the ultimate destiny of human persons enable us to move into an embodied life in the world which is actually (for some, for the first time) Good News. 

WEEK SIX: The Ecclesial Turn: Embodied Practices (Dec. 11th)
This week we will have already come on a long journey together through church history, through the development of doctrine in the Tradition and the ways that language and practices have shaped our lives and our imaginations together. In this session we will turn our attention to the enrichment of concrete practices in our embodied, ecclesial communities. I will be helping us to think about how this Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology enables us to think more deeply and meaningfully about the practices of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession.  

WEEK SEVEN: A Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology in the World (Dec. 18th)
Here we want to explore the ways in which the church should live in the world after our vision and theological reflection are sharpened by being Trauma-Informed. What does it mean to be an ecclesial community that enters into the suffering of others and there find our mutual salvation? How might the church think about the ways in which we are called to confront systems of marginalization, oppression, and violence? And finally, we ask what does it mean to live in a world where trauma and human suffering is unavoidable but should not be met merely with resignation? This will enable us to think of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology that is committed to a particular kind of solidarity, resistance, and resilience. 

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(December 25th at Dayspring will be a special time of fellowship and celebration during the class time.)
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WEEK EIGHT: The Public Life of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology with Q&A  (Jan. 1st)
Briefly I want to give some insights into the ways in which a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology gives shape to the public life and witness of ecclesial communities and Christian persons. Not only do these theological committments fundamentally reorient our ecclesial language and practices, but they transform the way that we live and act in the world. I will help us to think about, for example, some of the ways in which this influences the way that followers of Jesus should think about public policy, missions, and life for/with the marginalized and the oppressed. We will conclude this week with an lengthy Q&A time to help you explore further the materials and proposals that I have presented in this ongoing series. 

An Associated Press photo of priests intervening in riots in Kiev in January of 2014. (via Huffington Post)

It is not the interpretation of love as an ideal, a heavenly power, or as a commandment, but of love as an event in a loveless, legalistic world: the event of an unconditioned and boundless love which comes to meet man, which takes hold of those who are unloved and forsaken, unrighteous or outside the law, and gives them a new identity, liberates them from the norms of social identifications and from the guardians of social norms and idolatrous images. What Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as love of one's enemy has taken place on the cross through Jesus' dying and the grief of the Father in the power of the spirit, for the godless and the loveless. Just as the unconditional love of Jesus for the rejected made the Pharisees his enemies and brought him to the cross, so the unconditional love also means enmity and persecution in a world in which the life of man is made dependent on particular social norms, conditions, or achievements. A love which takes precedence and robs these conditions of the force is folly and scandal in this world. But if the believer experiences his freedom and the new possibility of his life in the fact that the love of God reaches him, the loveless and unloved, in the cross of Christ, what must be the thoughts of a theology which corresponds to this love? In that case it is a love which creates its own conditions, since it cannot accept the conditions of lovelessness and the law. Further, it cannot command love and countermove. As its purpose is freedom, it is directed towards freedom. So it cannot prohibit slavery and enmity, but must suffer this contradiction, and can only take upon itself this grief in protest. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. God is unconditional love, because he takes upon himself grief at the contradiction in men and does not angrily suppress this contradiction. God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love.
Jürgen MoltmannThe Crucifed God

(White) Reflections on Marching with #BlackLivesMatter

On Sunday I joined more than 2,000 of my brothers and sisters in a march and rally for #BlackLivesMatter in Oklahoma City. I went in solidarity with my sisters and brothers who experience systemic racism, discrimination, and oppression because they are black. This experience is completely foreign to mine, and is never something that I can "understand." It is merely a reality that I oppose in the name of the Triune God on behalf of my black fellow-bearers of the Image of God. 

The gathering was large, hot, incredibly organized, peaceful, and perhaps most importantly, unapologetic in its demands for justice and the cessation of violence. 

As a straight, white, married, middle-class man, this would seem to be the place where I would feel out of place. And at a different time in my life I wouldn't have been antagonistic to such a gathering, but I would have been uneasy. But in this movement, if you are human, you are family. I saw an incredible level of care, mutual concern, and respect for others. When counter-protestors showed up the rally was stopped. The leaders assumed the microphone and reminded everyone that they had a right to be present, that we were here for our cause, and that the OKCPD and others who were there to serve and protect would resolve the situation. Level-headed, respectful, and even acknowledging our differences. Just one of the many moments where the fruits of the Spirit were on full display. There was intimate care and concern to accommodate anyone who wanted to be present. Water was donated and chilled in advance, a medical staff was on hand for heat exhaustion, chairs were brought for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant women. Each time someone would succumb to the heat the entire gathering came to an immediate halt until the medical team was able to arrive. We sat in silence and solidarity with our brothers and sisters who were with us no matter the toll on their bodies. 

Some have commented to me through social media (though interestingly not in person!) that their opinion of #BlackLivesMatter was that it was divisive and potentially explosive (and a couple even suggested it was racist!). While there were a couple of moments early on where some individual tempers flared (and rightly so at such hatred and injustice!!) they were quickly reminded by their fellow participants that such behavior was contrary to our mutual commitment to solidarity, peace, and lasting, life-changing transformation of our community, city, state, and nation. 

The proof of the effectiveness of our gathering can be seen in a post in the #BlackLivesMatter Facebook event page by one of the counter-protestors who made his presence very well known early in the rally...

As someone who was standing in solidarity with my black sisters and brothers, and who witnessed firsthand this gathering of compassionate, articulate, and unapologetically peaceful and honest people, I offer three observations about my personal experience and my perception of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a whole. 

Sunday's ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ rally was peaceable, compassionate, and unapologetic about calling for and proposing tangible, practical actions and policies to address systemic racism. 

To suggest that this movement is divisive, racist, or condones/welcomes/encourages violence against police or anyone is else is either allowing a third-party to define their narrative or has other more problematic commitments. 

The power of #BlackLivesMatter is that it is not a movement of (only) black persons.

I was joined Sunday by people of every race, straight and LGBTQ, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of no faith. Young and old, rich and poor. State legislators, pastors, activists, rabbis, imams, moms and dads and little children. 

As a theologian, I saw absolutely NOTHING yesterday that was contrary to the fundamental commitments of the Christian faith. (With the exception of the hateful counter-protestors, who all unfortunately, identified themselves as Christians!) 

I heard prayers offered for the cessation of violence and hostility, uncompromising calls for justice, affirmation of those in law enforcement (and countless hugs, handshakes, and cold water given to officers), and a level of kindness, compassion, and concern for those around them that I have only witnessed in the immediate aftermath of tragedies. The exception here is that these are the normal actions of #BlackLivesMatter, not the exception. 

For those who still wish to malign the movement, or to call into question my unapologetic participation in it I have one important question for you: What are you are doing to make the world less violent, less racist, less unequal, less prejudiced, and more just, more safe, and more beautiful? 

If you are actively involved in doing something to these ends then I imagine that we have a great foundation from which to have these very complex, life and death conversations. Our Christian witness demands it. 

9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me to Say #BlackLivesMatter

I have not been afraid within my social media space to say #BlackLivesMatter, or to speak about the longstanding racism within my own religious tradition. But the events of this last week have brought the conversation of racism, prejudice, and violence to a new frenzy unseen in my lifetime. 

DISCLAIMER: I am speaking for myself (and only myself) when I articulate "why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter."
I believe that there are compelling theological reasons for this commitment, and in response to these I continue to strive to embody my faith "with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12)

But I feel like it is important, as a contribution to a very important (and very complex) conversation, to explain why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter. And why it compels me to not only say something in my social media space, but in my faith community, and publicly within my city and state. So here are 9 reasons (though there are a number of others) why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter...

Because the Triune God, revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, is deeply concerned and committed to the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized, and this is the actual, real lived experience of millions of my black sisters and brothers. 

Hear the words of Isaiah the Prophet...

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
                                                                                              (Isaiah 58:1-7, NIV)

Because black lives are disproportionately affected the prison industrial complex. 

In 2010 blacks were incarcerated at more than FIVE times the rate of whites. While blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population. This is despite the lack of a comparable disparity in the rate of crimes committed between whites and blacks.  

Because black lives are disproportionately targeted by police for stops, searches, violations, and arrests. 

This can be seen for example in the experience of Philando Castile had been pulled over 31 times and hit with 63 charges. And the stop for a broken tail light that resulted in his death has been challenged by at least one eye witness. And the whole reality of "Driving While Black" has been substantiated for a long time and the literature continues to grow affirming not only that it is true, but that in many communities it is worse than ever.

Because our nation and its economy were literally built on the backs and bodies of black lives.

Our nation would never have become the economic powerhouse that it is today without the institution of slavery. Many of the fundamental icons of our nation were built with slave labor including the U. S. Capitol, the White House, and vast networks of railroad lines

Because black lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and economic oppression.

Data shows us that poverty for black communities and black families is very different than poverty for white americans. This is no mere coincidence, it is the "architecture of segregation."

Because black lives are harmed by the race-based and historical trauma of American society. 

There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates the psychological toll of racism, which is complicated all the more by the historical traumas of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the prison industrial complex, and many of the other things I have already cited. 

Because black lives are oppressed by systemic and institutional inequalities in education. 

There is marked disparity in education funding, discipline, and even course offerings. This comes with profound psychological consequences at all stages of life. (Check the data for your own community here.)

Because black lives are disproportionately destroyed by the so-called "War on Drugs."

At its inception, in its implementation, and its ongoing ethos, the War on Drugs was designed to crush the lives of black persons, families, and communities. 

Because churches continue to be some of the most segregated institutions in the United States. 

The racial disparities in churches are sharper than their surrounding culture. This is not helped by the high response rate of people who report that their churches are "sufficiently diverse" and did not need to pursue further racial integration. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words still ring true "that eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.

As a follower of Jesus I am called to live in a way that speaks up for those who are abandoned, who are oppressed, who are consciously crushed by the principalities and powers. And the call of the Christian faith is to join in the liberating work of God in the world. I am called to use my voice as a middle-class, white, straight, married, educated, male to cry out for justice, for reconciliation, for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. It is for this reason that I say...

#BlackLivesMatter

God Is With Us, If We Are With Them...

“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
(Luke 22:19, 20, NIV)

Christians have argued for millennia about what exactly this means that the bread and wine “are” Jesus’ body and blood. And I certainly don’t want to rehash that discussion here.

But I do want to make a proposal:

Those who come and receive the “body and blood” of Jesus in turn become the body of Jesus in the world.

So it isn’t necessarily about what happens to these items, as it is about what happens to us, and in turn, to the world. The Apostles Paul and John remind us of this:

"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
(1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV)
"In this world we are like Jesus." (1 John 4:17, NIV)

But it is all too easy for the church to think that this [the church building] is the place where we come to meet God, like the Temple or the Tabernacle of the Hebrew Bible. The Apostle Paul abruptly reminds us:

"The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything."
(Acts 17:24-25, NABRE)

This is not to suggest that God is not here, quite the contrary. The Triune God is here, but God’s presence is among us in order that God may send us out. Because God “does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands,” instead, he dwells among those who suffer, those who struggle, the oppressed and the poor, the sick and the lonely, the forgotten and the left behind.

God is in Greystone Upper Elementary School where children are being left behind because of their economic status and their race,
God is with the women and children who experience abuse and neglect,
God is at Children's Hospital where illness destroys the bodies of precious little ones,
God is with the senior citizen on a fixed income, who is more lonely than they are poor, 
God is with LGBTQ persons who are ostracized and harmed or murdered because of who they are,
God is in the prisons who are filled with people who are traumatized, victimized, and criminalized,
God is with those who feel excluded or unwelcome here, in our church,
God is with the single mother struggling to make ends meet month after month after month,
God is in the streets sleeping under the stars in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, and in the snow,
God is with the depressed and the hurting, the alienated and the suicidal, with the people who don’t have it all together, and with those who have nothing together,

And God is with us, if we are with them.

God through the Prophet Isaiah tells us:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

                                                              (Isaiah 58:6-12, NIV)

The Triune God is here to meet you, to make you into his agents of reconciliation in a world that needs so desperately the perfect love that casts out fear. Come and receive his body, broken for you, and his blood, poured out for you that you may go and find God where he is waiting for us to meet him.

Thank you Father, for love for us and for your Son, who died and rose again for us and for the whole world, in the power of the Holy Spirit.   
Amen.

Awaiting that Day: A Meditation on Death, Lament, and the Possibility of Hope

Today I will join hundreds of other people in remembering something that no one wants to be true, the loss of a child. My dear brother in Jesus, Pierson, was more than just a little boy. His family has rightly described him as a superhero, and this is exactly what he was. A resilience and energy that could only come from some secret ability. A capacity and desire to live life to the fullest, even when it was complicated by an enemy that never left his side. A smile (when you didn't get a growl, which still made you smile) that lit up a room in unforgettable ways. A quiet soul, until he opened up, and then there was no place for you to speak. 

I was not nearly as close to Pierson as so many, and yet he has left an indelible mark on my life (and countless other people can say the same). One memory I will always cherish stands out:

Kris was throwing an event for the children's ministry at church last summer and was hosting an art party. Pierson was there painting his heart out, making sure that every color received ample use. But the adult size table, plus the easel on top made it quite a stretch to reach the top of the canvas for my little friend. Before you know it, he was sitting in my lap and we were collaboratively painting a masterpiece on my canvas. I would imitate his every move. He thought it was hilarious. He would put the back of the paintbrush just under his lower lip while he considered the next color. I would do the same, and a virtually simultaneous sigh of consideration would emerge. I must say, it was a brilliant work, and I couldn't have done it without him. He took the painting home. I took that memory with me and will never forget it. 

In my academic work I focus especially on questions of trauma, human suffering, and death. What is the Christian response to these things and how can Christians understand what God has done in Jesus as Good News in a world filled with so much pain? One might think that someone who has devoted their life to the exploration of these questions would have something meaningful to say at a time like this. But in many ways, I am at a loss for words. 

I have spent the last six months trying to think of "what I would say" to people who find themselves in this place, who are trapped in their circumstances and suffering and who want nothing more than to be delivered, to find hope. When Pierson died we told our boys and tried to create a space for them to process that their friend would be absent in a way they had never experienced before. We asked if they had any questions, which they did, and we did our best to answer them. Then my youngest asked this question:

"When God remakes the world, will Pierson be there?"

"Yes," we told him, "yes he most definitely will." But hope for the future is an incomplete solution to the reality that he has died. Christians believe this because we understand that death (the result of the Powers of Sin and Death) is an enemy. Not only is it an enemy, but it is one that Christians believe has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be defeated when the Triune God makes "all things new". 

This dissonance, that Christians have hope, and that death is a terrible thing which the work of Jesus is in the process of overcoming, has given me a new appreciation for the richness of lament. 

Lament in Scripture is most often associated with the subset of the book of Psalms classified as lament psalms. Within this group there are subsections of various styles and contents. (For a great book about this see Glenn Pemberton's Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.) Here is what I am learning in this season about lament:

Lament is not sadness, or grief, or anger. It can be any of those things and more. But at its core, lament is a witnessing to God of the ways in which our lives in the world are not as they should be. They are sometimes a form of protest, or a plea for deliverance, or an accusation of injustice. In the end, they all in their own particular way say, "The world isn't supposed to be like this."

My children should be wearing their superhero shirts today because they are playing with Pierson, not because they are gathered to remember his life which was taken from him. The innocent shouldn't suffer, and frankly, no one should. Christians understand this because we await a renewed world in which grief and pain and death are no more. And the gap between the world we await and the world in which we live brings us pain and longing and even hope. 

I have full confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who broke the power of sin and death in the cross and resurrection will make all things right in the end. Tonight I will join millions of Orthodox Christians around the world as we shout Christo Anesti! (Christ is risen!). And we will join our voices in the liturgy that has sustained the church for centuries:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life
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This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It is this hope to which we cling on days like this. The hope that Christ has defeated death and is the giver of life. But what do you say? How do you speak to what did happen, not what we hoped would happen? The following is where I have arrived in reflecting on the loss of my dear brother in Jesus, Pierson. This is my testimony as I gather with others today to lament to God and confess my hope in the resurrected Son of God:

I believe that on that Day, when the Triune God remakes the world, that death and suffering will be no more. And on days like this, I wish that Day was yesterday. Christo Anesti! Maranatha!

The Church as Field Hospital

Continuing in response to the question: Holy Father, can you tell us how the desire to proclaim a Holy Year of Mercy was born? Where did the inspiration come from? (pg. 5)

I believe that the decision came through prayer, through reflection on the teachings and declarations of the Popes who preceded me, and by thinking of the Church as a field hospital, where treatment is given above all to those who are most wounded. A Church that warms people’s hearts with its closeness and nearness. (8)

What would it look like for the church to serve as a field hospital that genuinely and immediately cares for the "most wounded"? Who would we look to serving and helping? And how would this affect and even reshape the church?

I have spent some time here speaking about one group of people: Victims of Child Sexual Abuse in Churches of Christ. (And in an ironic and infuriating turn of events, it was announced this morning that, as of now, the Vatican is not compelling its bishops to report sexual abuse to the governmental authorities.) I have also in a recent presentation offered an initial reflection about the nature and scope of trauma and human suffering.

But I want to return to this question: What would happen to the church if its life was oriented towards the most wounded in the world (and within their own communities of faith)?

I think the answer is three-fold:

(1) The church would be absolutely devastated. The consequences of decades and centuries of indifference, denial, and ignorance would usher in an unimaginable disorientation as we faced head-on the ferocity and ubiquity of suffering.
(2) The church would be forced to rearticulate the ways in which God responds to human suffering and what the life, death, and resurrection mean for this "new" reality. My hunch is that traditional constructions of sin and salvation would be found to be insufficient. (Forgiveness doesn't do anything for trauma and human suffering!) This would be an important, yet difficult and disorienting work.
(3) The church would be enabled to become the place where redemption in its fullest and truest sense was radically and publicly on display. This is the reason that despite the pain and disorientation that would inevitably result from the turn to the "most wounded", that it would be transformative for both the church and the world.

And how is this done? The last line from Francis says it all...

A Church that warms people’s hearts with its closeness and nearness. (Pope Francis)

A Time for Mercy (Ash Wednesday)

In response to the question: Holy Father, can you tell us how the desire to proclaim a Holy Year of Mercy was born? Where did the inspiration come from? (pg. 5)

Yes, I believe that this is a time for mercy. The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded. She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she makes them feel loved. And so, as I said, and I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time. 

...

Pope Benedict XVI also spoke of this in his teachings: “Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love. The love of mercy also illuminates the face of the Church, and is manifested through the Sacraments, in particular that of the Reconciliation, as well as in works of charity, both of community and individuals. Everything that the church says and does shows that God has mercy for men.” (pgs. 6, 7)

It takes little imagination to recognize that for many in the US, the church is not synonymous with mercy. Even less is the God in whose name followers of Jesus act often characterized as one of mercy. That the church sees fit to call for a time in which its maternal side, the side that nurtures and heals, that loves and restores (although these are not by any means exclusively feminine traits!) is perhaps an indication of how far removed from our everyday life and language and practice this posture has become. 

But I think that Pope Francis has brought us to an important place in today's reflection by juxtaposing the call for the church to be merciful and the identification of the very face of God revealed most clearly in Jesus as one of mercy. Perhaps it is here that we find the "gap", the dissonance that has brought us appropriately to the time of Lent. It gave me great pause to recognize that while I wholeheartedly affirmed what Francis said...

"Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love." (Pope Francis) 

I must confess that I was in a very real sense surprised by this assertion. Not surprised in the sense that it was unexpected or strange, but surprised in that this particular articulation of the way that God presents himself to his Creation as mercy had never really entered my mind. Love? Absolutely. Power? Of course. Grace? Yes. But mercy? There was the surprise and the confrontation. 

"Everything that the church says and does shows that God has mercy for men." (Pope Francis)

It is all too easy for followers of Jesus to say with our words that the church is the "hands and feet of Jesus", and that we are "ministers of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), and yet with our practices, our common life together as a community of believers to say God has mercy for us.

And so we enter into this season of Lent, of awakening, of repentance, of transformation asking that God will enliven within us a desire to experience and embody the mercy of God, the very face of God and the core of the Gospel message, on behalf of the whole world. 

Yes, I believe that this is a time for mercy. The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded. She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she makes them feel loved. And so, as I said, and I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time. (Pope Francis)

It is indeed an opportune time to join God in his work in the world to save, to love, to heal, and to redeem. And all of this flows from God and through us in the unfolding and immeasurable mercy of the God who has revealed Godself to us in Jesus Christ.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

(Ephesians 3:20-21, NRSV)

The Name of God is Mercy (An Introduction)

As we begin the Lenten season and I begin my exploration of Pope Francis' wonderful book The Name of God is Mercy I wanted to just briefly introduce the text and offer an initial taste of what can be expected. 

Each day through Lent I will be reflecting on an excerpt from this wonderful conversation between Pope Francis and Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Vatican journalist. This book is the transcript of a long conversation between Tornielli and Francis. It is filled with pastoral and theological reflection as well as moving stories that were formative for the man who has since become one of the most beloved and recognized religious figures in the world. It details his own experiences as a priest, and the formative moments which have led him to call the church to a deep and meaningful season of reflecting on and seeking to embody, what for Francis is the fundamental attribute of God, mercy.

The following is a brief excerpt from the preface to the reader that will give you a taste of what is still to come...

The Holy Year is a consequence of this message and the centrality it has always had in Francis' preaching. On March 13, 2015, while I was listening to the homily of the penitential liturgy at the end of which the Pope would announce the proclamation of the exceptional Holy Year, I thought how wonderful it would be to ask him a few questions that focused on the theme of mercy and forgiveness, to analyze what those words mean to him, as a man and a priest. I was unconcerned with getting a few punchy phrases that might become part of the media debate around the Synod of the Family, which often felt like a king of match between fans of opposing teams. Without getting caught up in the casuistry, I liked the idea of an interview that would reveal the heart of Francis and his vision. I wanted a text that would open doors, especially during this Holy Year, when the Church wants to show, in a very special and even more significant way, its face of mercy. 

The Pope accepted my suggestion.  This book is the fruit of the conversations that began in his lodgings in Saint Martha's House in the Vatican on a muggy afternoon last July, a few days after his return from a journey to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay. With very little advance notice, I had sent ahead a list of topics and questions I wanted to cover. I arrived with three recording devices. Francis was waiting for me sitting at a table with a Bible concordance on it and some quotations from the Church Fathers. You can read the contents of our conversations in the pages that follow.

I hope that the interviewee will not be offended if I reveal a backstage episode that I find particularly telling. We discussed the difficulties of acknowledging ourselves as sinners, and in the first draft I wrote that Francis asserted, "The medicine is there, the healing is there -- if only we take a small step toward God." After reading the text, he called me and asked me to add "or even just the desire to take that step." It was a phrase that I had clumsily left out of my summary. This addition, or rather, the proper restoration of the complete text, reveals the vast heart of the shepherd who seeks to align himself with the merciful heart of God and leaves nothing untried in reaching out to sinners. He overlooks no possibility, no matter how small, in attempting to give the gift of forgiveness. God awaits us with open arms; we need only take a step toward him like the Prodigal Son. But if, weak as we are, we don't have the strength to take that step, just the desire to take it is enough. It's already enough of a start for grace to work and mercy to be granted in accordance with the experience of a Church that does not see itself as a customs office but as an agent that seeks out every single possible way to forgive. (xviii-xix) 

A Lenten Journey of Mercy: An Invitation

I want to invite all of you on a journey into the season of Lent. This is a term that is foreign to most in Churches of Christ and other non-liturgical churches. But it is an important, historic, and formational component of the Christian faith, and one that deserves our attention. Joan Chittister writes in her wonderful book The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life describes Lent like this:

Lent is a call to renew a commitment grown dull, perhaps by a life more marked by routine than by reflection After a lifetime of mundane regularity and unconsidered adherence to the trappings of faith. Lent requires me, as a Christian, to stop for a while, to reflect again on what is going on in me. I am challenged again to decide whether I, myself, do truly believe that Jesus is the Christ--and if I believe, whether I will live accordingly when I can no longer hear the song of angels in my life and the star of Bethlehem has grown dim for me.
Lent is not a ritual. It is time given to think seriously about who Jesus is for us, to renew of our faith from the inside out. It is the moment when, as the baptismal waters flow on every Easter Vigil altar, we return to the baptismal font of the heart to say yes once more to the call of Jesus to the disciples, "Come and see" (John 1:39). It is the act of beginning our spiritual life all over again refreshed and reoriented. (pg. 111)
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Often times Lent involves abstaining from certain foods or pleasures. It is a season for reflection and repentance. Surrendering these things is intended as stimulus for this kind of formative season. (For one example, here are the fasting rules for the Orthdox Church in America.)  Many people choose something that is a luxury and surrender it for this season. Some choose food or drink (chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, etc.), others choose services or experiences (manicure/pedicure, secular music, television, etc.). No matter what they choose, at the end of the Lenten season (at Easter) the fast is broken in celebration of resurrection and we return to our regular consumption. 

CONFESSION: For a number of years I engaged in this kind of fasting. Often it involved giving up caffeine and carbonated drinks. And while I never went through a Lenten season without successfully fasting from these things, it was Easter Sunday that exposed the frailty of this spiritual exercise. Without fail, before arriving at church Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection, there was a large, caffeinated, carbonated drink already gone. The practice of self-discipline was concluded with an explicit, intentional act of (over)indulgence. Something was amiss. 

And so in the last couple of years I have worked to "give up" something for Lent that I cannot recover. I have sought to surrender my ignorance or indifference to a group of people or issue. In 2014 I surrendered my ignorance of the realities of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. Through reading, documentaries, and planned experiences I sought to form myself in ways that made me aware and empathetic to those who's life is shaped by these realities. In 2015 I plunged into the realities of child abuse and neglect. I sought to move from issues to making this problem no longer a distant reality for some, but a reality which I seek to actively confront and prevent. 

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In 2016 I want to be formed, and invite you to be formed, not towards a specific group or situation, but to be formed in a specific way. I want to invite you into a deep and meaningful exploration of mercy

This year I want to write through and reflect on the powerful new book by Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy. This book is a casual conversation between Francis and a veteran Vatican journalist about the embodiment of the Year of Mercy. While directed specifically at The Catholic Church, it's structures, practices, and values, it offers an insight into the ways in which the larger church can seek to embody the love and mercy of God. 

It is for this reason that I wish to write and reflect on this book explicitly as a Protestant and within the Church of Christ tradition. I think there are important things to be learned from this text and from their practices and postures, but there are also a number of contributions that our place in the Christian Tradition can provide. 

So I hope you will join with me as we launch into an exploration of what it means to be people who are shaped by a God who is known by his mercy.

 

God's mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones. ... Let us be renewed by God's mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.

-- Pope Francis, Easter Urbi et Orbi message on March 31, 2013