On dying and rising: The annual Easter essay

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s unofficial essays on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Holy Saturday & the Easter Vigil
Revised Common Lectionary readings for Holy Saturday
Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Easter Vigil


I’ve been trying to relax my rational mind in this final Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) of Holy Week. I figure that I try to control, make sense of, and rationalize the other 98% of my life, so when it comes to this faith thing, I’m trying to give myself permission to let it go and lose myself in the mystery as much as I can. And it’s really hard.

I don’t know if I can honestly say with my logical Western brain that I believe the resurrection of Jesus was a journalistic factual account of something that happened at a certain moment in time. Maybe it’s true that much of the resurrection story was embellished well after Jesus’s death to fit in accordance with the earlier scriptures…

Maybe that’s true. 
And that doesn’t discount this whole resurrection thing for me one iota.

I’m so tired of relying on fact. I’m so tired of needing absolute material confirmation as a prerequisite before believing in any one thing. No, I don’t always take the Bible or the resurrection stories literally and coming to grips with that has only enhanced my faith, not weakened it.

If you asked me if the Bible was factual/literal or mythical/parabolic, I’d say… Yes.

Today, we are celebrating an ancient narrative born out of a historical event. We are making intentional and life-affirming meaning out of something that just… happened (or didn’t — however you look at it).

But I believe 100% in death and resurrection. I’m getting there with Jesus, but see it for sure in my life. Looking back, I’ve lived, died and have been resurrected by something other than my individual will several times. The life I live now is nothing like the one I lived when I was 12 or 20 or even 30 and I’ve had nothing to do with that. If it were up to me, I’d have kept everything the same. Because change is scary and death is terrifying but resurrection is holy.

Here’s how I see the resurrection from my fairly low (perhaps middle-ish) Christological viewpoint…

At the time of Jesus, messiahs were supposed to save everyone, not be executed. They were supposed to forever reign in glory on the throne of the law. Therefore, a majority of people wrote Jesus off the moment his heart stopped beating. He’d failed the Messianic litmus test.

But these Jesus followers who’d experienced so much joy, freedom, and liberation from his countercultural, shocking, table-turning, grace-driven message of God’s unending one-directional love couldn’t let it go. (And I even want to believe that they saw him fishing on the shore days after his death.)

To them, this was/is the Messiah. This Messiah, who’d consciously died to the law essentially putting an end to it. As his last words uttered, it is finished.

When Jesus drew his last breath, the chapter of God-as-law-enforcer was finished and a new chapter of grace had been initiated.

The work of Jesus, as vital as it was when he was alive, had really started when his heart stopped. If Jesus is the personification of the divine, then the law is dead and grace abounds. Jesus had absorbed every ounce of retributive violence and wrath that we expected a Messiah to enact as he absorbed it into himself and breathed words of utter forgiveness. Jesus took the violence out of circulation into himself and symbolically ended it.

His apostles started seeing grace — Christ (the more universal term for the logos or divine nature that Jesus embodied) — everywhere. They saw the risen Christ in unexpected physical form on several accounts. Christ had risen.

And so, this day is rich with symbolic meaning from the micro/individual (our own personal deaths and resurrections — some more literal than others) to the macro/religious (in the death and resurrection of the grace-fueled Messiah).

Where I live, in Chicago, it’s spring. We had a several-day stretch where temperatures dipped to almost -50 degrees this winter (yes, that’s negative 50 — with the wind chill). And yet, as I look out of my window, little delicate buds are shooting up in all their fragile glory. Mother nature is giving the big middle finger to death as she triumphs again just as she does every year around this time.

Every spring, death is made the fool again. And on this resurrection day, the violent God is substituted with an ever-loving, merciful, and radically redemptive one.

Happy Easter. May you find new life in every holy moment.

Amen.

Jesus was guilty

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Good Friday
Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


On this Good Friday, I hope to bring things down to earth to provide a contrary approach to what is often such a whitewashed and supernatural crucifixion. As if Jesus, this really good church-going soul was put to death by the rest of humanity — us grave sinners. He did nothing ‘wrong’. We just killed him because he was nice.

First of all, Jesus wasn’t really that ‘nice’ as in Ned-Flanders-nice. Jesus and Ned Flanders would NOT get along, I assure you. Jesus was a hellraiser (actually, a heaven-raiser would be a much better term, but the ferocious intensity behind what his work would match that of a hellraiser).

So here we have this heaven-raiser who was consoling sinners, healing lepers, hanging out with people deemed as prostitutes, and vociferously shaking his fist at the Roman dominance system.

The latter is what I’ll focus on here…

As the author and religious studies scholar Reza Aslan alludes to in his book, ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the forgiving account to Pontious Pilate trying to let Jesus off the hook may not have been super accurate. Instead, he portrays Pilate as a shrewd executioner who showed mercy on no one. Cases that came before Pilate meant case closed and all Pilate did was sign off on the executions. He didn’t deliberate over them.

(Excuse me, I forget where in the book this is from exactly, I just remember my wife reading that part of the book to me and I found it fascinating.)

Aslan claims that Jesus was processed just as harshly as any other defector to the Roman Empire.

As theologian Marcus Borg puts it…

Was Jesus guilty or innocent? Because language familiar to Christians speaks of Jesus as sinless, perfect, righteous, spotless, and without blemish, the question will seem surprising to some. But it is worth reflecting about.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus was not only executed by the method used to execute violent insurrectionists; he was physically executed between two insurrectionists. Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? Perhaps. Why perhaps and not a simple yes? Mark does not report that Jesus taught this, and his account of Jesus’s response to the high priest’s question about this is at least a bit ambiguous.

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes. Mark’s story of Jesus’s final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system. And, as all know, it killed him.

I say Jesus — though absolutely nonviolent — was guilty in the eyes of the law. And leading up to that day, I don’t think Jesus saw himself as this lamb/dove-like nice guy who weeps on the way to the cross.

Jesus had some hell — I mean, heaven-raising — to do. He saw the injustice with the law and how it traced back through his scriptures of the Hebrew Bible. He knew that the law never healed anyone and he had a really good idea that someday he’d be killed for saying it so loudly.

I don’t believe he saw his role as ‘son of God’ (he never called himself this) following a perfectly laid out divine plan from his daddy in the clouds. Jesus of Nazareth was on a mission to extend the radical one-way grace of God to as many hurting souls as he possibly could. He was spreading a subversive and very public (albeit peaceful) rebellion against the violent dominance structure of his day.

I want to share with you the words of my dear friend and religious scholar, Joel Cruz:

Today in history:
An innocent man was publically tortured and executed — lynched — by police on trumped up charges brought on by both religious officials and politicians

Today in theology:
God has shown what side God is on. God identifies with and forever stands on the side of the victims of state and religious sponsored terrorism — whether they are shot in their backyards, separated from their children at the border, sexually abused by prison guards, or gay bashed in a church. And in exposing the evils of such violence God forever judges and condemns it.

In a few days we will celebrate the triumph of the Victim and look to the vindication of all victims everywhere. But for today, let us sit with the ambiguity — the God forever on the side of the poor and the recurring story of human violence perpetrated on others and on God’s creation.

Jesus was guilty-as-charged in the eyes of the law. But in his heart, he was the most innocent being ever. This is the substitution that took place. Strict adherence to the law leads to the death of the innocent. Only grace frees.

Jesus was the living, dying, and resurrecting example of this.

On getting your feet washed

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Maundy Thursday
Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


It’s Maundy Thursday. In the tradition I follow, it’s the day we gather and wash each other’s feet.

[Aside] I pray that my church is well stocked up on Purell because I’m much more of a germaphobe than Jesus was (though, if he had Purell in his day, who knows…). I digress…

If we haven’t got the message about the one-way direction of love from God to us up until this point, this story should drive it home.

Here we have God personified in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples — some of whom he knows will blatantly betray him.

God’s Love…
One way. 
One way. 
One way.

(Sorry, I have to repeat this to get it under my thick skull and into my heavy heart.)

From the gospel reading of John

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

That last part there, Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. In other words, unless you open your heart to my love and grace, nothing you do matters — no matter how self-righteous it may seem (my translation, of course).

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Though God’s grace only goes in one direction, it never stops with us.

The fruits of this grace are multiplied through the faithful souls that receive it (‘faithful soul’ doesn’t mean ‘someone who goes to church every Sunday’, it means ‘one who grasps for abounding and steadfast love from the Divine Other at the ground of their being even when they feel they don’t deserve it’).

So, my prayer for you is this…

May you allow your feet to be washed.

May you have enough faith to set aside all the reasons you’ve cooked up about your unworthiness. And may you humbly excuse any reservations based on rationale.

God’s love is never about value or merit. God rushes straight towards those whose hearts are weakened by not-enoughness and guilt. This one-way grace of God is the only force in the universe that brings new life out of nothing and for no good reason.

May you be washed clean.
And may you see how clean God washes your world through you in response to it.

Happy Maundy Thursday.
Amen.

On betrayal and public persecution

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Wednesday of Holy Week

Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


So much of the Christian faith has to do with facing persecution. Because why do we need faith in anything outside of ourselves when everyone is treating us with love, acceptance, and fist-bumps (do people still fist-bump)?

But when other humans do the human thing of betraying and persecuting us, it can be a very isolating and terrifying experience.

And in this age of social media where so many of us have our every move on public display, we’re more vulnerable than ever to being stabbed in the back and socially crucified in order for certain people to gain a sense of righteousness in the eyes of their ‘tribe’ at our expense.

Public displays of persecution that used to be reserved for high-profile celebrities are now open for all of us through our social networks online.

(I don’t know about you, but I don’t get paid enough to bear it.)

This week, we’re taken to the cross. As much of an aversion I used to have to this part of the Jesus story, I now give kudos to this faith for not skirting the ubiquity of human despair and suffering. There is no spiritual bypassing in Christianity. It takes us into and through the heart of human suffering and darkness through the central character of Jesus.

Here are a few lines from today’s readings (yes, there’s a lectionary reading every day this Holy Week — hence why you’re seeing so much of me) that I started to see a thread in…

First, from Isaiah:

It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Then, from the Psalm:

Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!

Finally, from the gospel reading of John:

When he (Judas) had gone out (to betray him), Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

This thread is a thread of the despair that comes from betrayal. It’s enough to eat any human soul alive when we’re betrayed. But the glimmer in this thread comes from looking to a freeing and redeeming God in the midst of our betrayal. Something in us turns away from the persecutor and allows the radiance of our divine creator to shine on us.

See, when we’re betrayed, the first place we typically look is within. Sure, we’re mad at them for betraying us, but in the quiet of our own psyche, we can wonder if we’re deserving of this betrayal. Maybe we did something (or didn’t do something) that justifies this betrayal.

Secular culture is always based on performance, value, and merit. If this is all you have, it’s just as bad as believing in a God based on punishment and law.

This weighs heavy on the human soul. Because now, we’ve not only projected our despair onto our enemies, but also onto ourselves.

But this isn’t the God that Jesus showed us. On the cross, he opened his arms to a loving, forgiving God and, in turn, loved and forgave those who persecuted him in his darkest moment of despair.

(Yes, we humans need a spectacle to get something and he certainly gave us one.)

That is grace — the one-directional love and forgiveness from God to us — which this faith is rooted in.

I don’t know how to get through this dark of despair without faith in something… else. Something More-Than. An ever-loving, forgiving, merciful Other who suffers with us. One whom we can lay all burdens on and be renewed in spirit.

It doesn’t matter how ‘smart’ our culture is. It doesn’t matter how many apps I have on my phone to meditate to or get Jimmy John’s at my front door in 5 minutes. When it comes to the despair that comes from human betrayal, darkness sets in really fast. I need God in these moments.

Is this ‘Other’ objective and provable? 
No…

Is it rational?
Hardly…

Is there an app for it?
Not that I’ve seen…

But does it revive the human heart and bring new life?
Oh, hell yes…

Does it make me want to release others from their chains as well?
Absolutely…

I need this faith today even more so in this modern world. Sooner or later, we all fall short of each other’s and our own expectations. We all suffer the pangs of betrayal and it’s more public than ever for more people than ever.

In these darkest moments of betrayal, may we all remember that the divine ground of our very being loves us just where we are and only wants us to be free from judgment and shame.

May our hearts be softened so that we may free ourselves and others from the voice of the accuser that so profoundly creeps into the fabric of the human soul.

On grace and dying to our expectations

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Click here for today’s Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I love how, right here in today’s gospel reading from John, we have Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man, not the Son of God as he’s often referred to.

In fact, as I read today’s readings, I see how much paradox is baked into it…

Strength = Weakness
Wisdom = Foolishness
Life = Death
Servitude = Power
Human = Divine

It goes to show that this Jesus story will likely never ‘make sense’ to the egoic, individualized, survival-based part of the human mind. When it comes to the ‘ways of the world’, this faith is innately paradoxical and utterly nonsensical.

The crucifixion and everything leading up to it seems like such an ungodly move. Why this lowly desert mystic, Jesus? Why didn’t this grand God that we imagined (and still do, in many ways) come bursting out of the sky in full glory and tell us exactly what to do so that we could just… do it? Why didn’t some anthropomorphic deity show its face and tell us who exactly is good and bad so that it was settled right then and there?

Maybe it’s because this divine ever-loving creative intelligence that is God knew that demands and commands wouldn’t work. It seems like God tried that through Moses and look where that got humanity. (I mean, what do you do when you’re told what to do? You, my fellow human, do — or want to do — the same as me: THE EXACT OPPOSITE.)

Instead of a clear objective roadmap (oh how simple it must be — albeit delusional — to hold the view of a literal and inerrant Bible), we’re left to sift through the counterintuitive swamp of paradox that is the gospel.

As I read through these texts, I wonder why I’m even doing it. I’m a modern privileged human. I have Spotify streaming into my ears and can play any song I want in seconds on demand. I have Tim Ferriss and so many other brilliant podcasters dolling our more productivity and life hacks than I could ever ask for, for free. I’m vaccinated. I’m drinking nice coffee graced with designer oat milk. We have clean water (I think), my family can pay the bills, and although we’re solidly middle class and not nearly as caked up as our current American royalty, we’re in good health. Things are looking up. I think.

So, why this Bible stuff? What’s the relevance? Maybe we should let the churches crumble and party on…

But then, I’m left with my interior self. I’m faced with the suffering in the world that makes no sense. I’m faced with my impending death, the thought of which I can only block for so long with endless digital content and distraction.

The human condition is messed up. And it’s the most beautiful thing ever.

I need meaning. I find paradox healthy in this age of processed certainty. I need narrative (dare I say that I need a meta-narrative). I need to know how to sit in solidarity with the suffering. I need to find reverence for the mundane and joy in the unexpected beauty of life. I need to know that there’s something… more.

But more than all, I need an ‘other’ that can offer me love and forgiveness when I don’t deserve it. This is my only saving grace and getting it from other humans is a blessing, but a fleeting one.

This God who dies on a cross so as to shift the cultural religious narrative from dominance, power, and control to surrender, service, and self-emptying love is something I… need.

We all wanted Jesus to be a certain kind of king that we could respect. But if he were to be that, he’d be perpetuating the sorrow and despair that come from appeasing the inner accuser (Satan) that lives in us all. Jesus had to die to this to be free of it so that we can as well.

And so, as I trudge through this swamp of paradox that runs counter to my modern American male cultural narrative, I’m finding so much more peace through dying to my unceasing inner demands and expectations than through trying to live up to them. Because the more of an ability I have to control my life that this modern world has given me, the more disappointed I am in myself to be doing such a poor job of it.

Turns out, the last thing I need is more control. 
Instead, what I need is release from it.

This is grace, the one-way love that only God can give us, so well personified (though not solely) through Jesus on a cross.

This is what we celebrate this very holy week. Salvation from ourselves and our inner-accuser. And if that isn’t relevant to today’s performance-based, self-righteous, virtue-signaling world, I don’t know what is.

The day God got out of the Law business

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Monday of Holy Week

Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


As I mentioned the other day, modern Western theology has it that the crucifixion of Jesus was a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. This God, Jesus’s dad, was mad at humans for being bad and someone had to pay. Instead of all of us, he took his wrath out on his only son.

Thank you, God — I guess??

Anyhow, it’s called the substitutionary atonement theory, heralded by Anselm of Canterbury who lobbed it out there and it happened to catch on and spread through the medieval church.

Anyhow…

I’m obsessing over this because, if this is TRULY (as if there is such a thing as ‘truly’ in theology) the case, I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian (and this is a big deal being that I’m a seminarian).

I just have a hard time getting behind the notion that God was so cruel and incompetent so as to create a species that offended him so profoundly. It puts humanity and God in a very precarious — irreconcilable, even — position.

So thank God for the so-called ‘nonviolent’ atonement theory heralded by the French philosopher, René Girard and built on by similar theories that align with it.

Here, Fr. Richard Rohr sums up Girardian atonement theory better than I can at the moment…

The ingenious Hebrew ritual from which the word “scapegoat” originated is described in Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. The goat was then beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. It was a vividly symbolic act that helped to unite and free people in the short term. Instead of owning their sins, this ritual allows people to export them elsewhere — in this case onto an innocent animal.

French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) recognized this highly effective ritual across cultures and saw the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational principle for most social groups. The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors and reveals the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives — so much so that we could almost name it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29). The biblical account, however, seems to recognize that only a “lamb of a God” can both reveal and resolve that sin in one nonviolent act.

Jesus was the human scapegoat — showcasing a God who jumps into human skin so as to announce to the world that no more scapegoating is needed because the God who they think demanded it is now… dead.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews from this week’s reading points to this notion in laser-like fashion…

he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,

how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.

Paul’s missive above points directly to Jesus being the hopeful final scapegoat of all scapegoats.

In Jesus’s day, sacrificial scapegoating was the way we operated — religiously but also socially and politically. Scapegoating was ubiquitous. The only kind of God we could imagine at the time (and for many of us in this day) was one of Law — one that needed payment in blood for wrongdoings. It was the only God we knew.

We expected this out of Jesus. If Jesus was more of a badass, we would have respected him more. If he would have cursed his accusers from the cross and demanded retribution, this whole crucifixion thing would make more sense. It would fit more neatly into our socio-political/religious box.

But he didn’t. This was God dying to God-self in the name of God’s very own Law (at least, that’s the narrative we carried about a Law-enforcing God).

Jesus realized that Law never causes change for the better. We humans don’t do what we’re commanded to do for very long, if at all. If we do, it’s usually with a clenched jaw and a hard heart. But in most cases, we do exactly the OPPOSITE of what we’re commanded to do (from our spouse, kids, boss, coworkers, friends, and God). I’m the dad of a 5–year-old human, so I testify to the truth of this statement.

Jesus knew that humans can only live in accordance with divine Law when they stop telling stories about a God who imposes it on them.

Jesus knew that God had to get out of the Law business and into the heart-softening business. And he was the one to initiate this ginormous cultural shift. It would take something bold.

He also knew that humans only act in accordance with the Law (because, don’t get me wrong, the Law is actually a beautiful thing — we can all agree that this world would be much better without murder, stealing, and all of that nonsense) when we’re forgiven and freed from it. We only act in accordance with Law when we’re loved — especially when we don’t think we deserve it.

Law is lived only from a gracious, loved, and forgiven heart. Not obligatorily.

This is grace and it’s what this innocent and articulate scapegoat was ushering in through his submission to the dominance system he stood against. He knew that it wasn’t God who needed blood, but us.

And so, God had to die to the Law in order to free us from it. Humans had to stop hearing Law from God in order to live aligned with it.

This is an atonement theory that brings me hope. It wasn’t us being sacrificed for God. It was God sacrificing God-self for us.

God tried to get out of the Law business over two thousand years ago. For some reason, we want to keep God employed in this role.

Maybe a different take on things to get us through the bloodiness of this sacred week:)

God would rather die

Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion

Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


When Herod would ride into Jerusalem, he’d always be in a Cadillac Limo — I mean, on a mighty warhorse…

Yet, here we have our savior. Rolling into town. On a donkey.

Herod would always come in the name of Caesar...

Yet here Jesus comes, in the name of the Lord.

Herod would be surrounded by chariots and uniformed soldiers with their swords, spears, and bows held high. His military procession, a show of force intended to arouse fear and compliance, not hope and joy…

And yet, here we have our savior, surrounded by a motley crew of misfits and losers holding palm branches and waving their coats.

By contrasting these two kings, the meaning of this account becomes clear. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by domination with threats of violence, demanding submission...

But God’s kingdom (the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is always talking about), rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy.

This is the ‘mind of Christ’ that Paul alludes to in his letter to the Philippians…

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in hum an likeness. And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

In the middle of one of the bloodiest periods of history, we have this Jesus — this God made flesh — single-handedly attempting to reverse the massive cultural momentum of human rivalry, armed rebellion, and scapegoating.

The crowd that, just a day before so celebrated him, had turned on him in an instant — just as he predicted it would. Jesus knows all too well that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power (sound relevant?).

Yet this evolved portrayal of God in the human form that is Jesus acts not as an iron-fisted king but a humble, female-spirited, donkey-riding servant who willingly submits to his own crucifixion.

The psalm this week sets the tone for the passion…

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

This day has been the one that’s been foreshadowed by scripture for hundreds of years. Jesus isn’t a ‘new thing’ while the Old Testament speaks of an ‘old thing’. This is the playing out of an ancient prophecy that people had been uttering around tribal fires from parent to child in the Near East for generations.

Starting with a pascal feast, this servant-God serves his disciples his body and blood as he lays out before them ever so calmly what will happen to him. And his predictions play out to an eerie precision.


On a personal note, I’ve been away from Christianity for more than 20 years. Holy Week is new territory for me and I feel that my footing is a bit shaky.

See, I’ve long skimmed right over this whole Easter/Holy Week thing because I — as with most postmodern, secular Americans — don’t like to feel guilty or uncomfortable. When I was younger, my perspective was as such: I had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, so why should I get all riled up and feel bad for something I played no role in? And what kind of God would make his son suffer such a price?

It seemed like the dysfunctional family across the street that I try to avoid like the plague.

Later on, in recent years, my respect grew for Jesus. But I still merely saw him as a mystical wisdom teacher. So it was like, Ahh man. Why did they have to kill such a brilliant and enlightened revolutionary?

But this time around, my view of Jesus and the crucifixion has taken on a new depth, breadth, and gravity. I’ve adopted a slightly higher Christology, if you will.

Christianity hasn’t stuck around in such a profound way for thousands of years for no reason. Sure, church attendance is down and you can say that Christianity is dying, but I believe we haven’t really even given it a true shot yet. I mean, we’ve tried OUR version of Christianity. The version that plays into the same sense of rivalry, human dominance and scapegoating that Jesus was here to reverse, so if THAT dies, I see this as a win for Christianity.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see Jesus’s crucifixion as a blood sacrifice towards an angry God on our behalf (we can thank the hack theologian Anselm of Canterbury for that theory — yes, a mere THEORY it is — which didn’t come around until around 1100 AD and went viral, so to speak, because it resonated perfectly with where we were in human consciousness during medieval times; I digress…).

Today, I see Jesus as more than just a really profound mystical revolutionary wisdom teacher (though I do see him as this as well).

This was the living God slipping into human flesh so as to effectively say, I understand your human inner condition which leads to oppressive systems and violence. Instead of acting in rivalry to it and perpetuating it, I’d rather die than continue carrying on the role you’ve projected onto your false God(s) before me. I’m absorbing all of it thusly taking it out of circulation for humankind.

Jesus knew exactly what was going down and he completely emptied himself in order to save us from ourselves. This, he understood, could only be done through profound love, mercy, forgiveness, surrender, and service.

Jesus never once blames a soul for this horrid act. Yes, he calmly gives us an uncomfortable play-by-play. And even as he does this at the feast — JUST THE DAY BEFORE— we think he’s off his rocker. But then Judas and Peter and…

Yeah, we do the thing we couldn’t believe he said we’d do.

We killed the innocent servant-king. Because that’s what we do when our world is upended by love.

I mean, really, the football game is just awkward when the players stop in the middle of the game, shake hands, hug it out, and have wine together —like, what’s the point? The same thing goes when we’re wielding inflatable objects, social media stats, or swords and spears.

Rivalry is part of our nature. It’s in our bones. The only way we know how to achieve temporary peace and save ourselves is through pointing the finger at a common enemy — a scapegoat.

Well, we sure did it this time. But this was no typical scapegoat. This was God Godself. And it made ripples around the world that we can still feel to this day.

Because the chance and the choice is still there. Christ has absorbed our transgressions and taken the violence out of circulation. God has washed God’s hands clean in God’s own blood and broken bones. And in so doing, God has washed us clean.

Can we offer our rivalrous ways up? Can we put on the Mind of Christ and empty ourselves?

Can we trust the God on the cross to move us from rivalry against each other to service towards one another?

The work has been done. We are free from ourselves.

I know there’s so much more to this Holy Week. So much that I’m missing. So much that I can’t wrap my head or my heart around. So much I can’t see. I know I’ll look back at this post in years to come seeing how far off the mark I was. As hard as it’ll be seeing this, I’ll take it as a sign that my faith is growing (hopefully).

Because this marks the moment that God hung on a tree. But we know that it’s not the end of the story. Death is never the end of the story.

I pray that I can grow in faith and deepen in understanding the ways that this God loves us. And I pray that we can, in turn, take that revolutionary, subversive, merciful, radical, and nonsensical grace and bestow it on each other. May we all act as conduits of God’s grace so as to heal our humanity, our world, and our planet.

Before it’s too late.

God is up to a ‘new thing’

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


As we approach Holy Week, things are continuing to advance in the march towards the cross. Tensions are running high.

But before I jump into Mary’s bold move in anointing Jesus’s feet, I want to reflect on this short yet punchy and powerful reading from Isiah.

It starts out describing a Rambo-like God — a God who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. One who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

But then, the paradigm is shifted…

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

And they say that the Old Testament is all about an angry, bloodthirsty God:) But here, we see God adapting Godself. Or is it humans adapting humanself to God? Kind of a chicken and egg thing, perhaps. Anyhow…

The tyrannical, dominance-based God is starting to soften. We are to make way for a new ‘thing’. From Rambo to… Mary Poppins?

(Or from Trump to Jacinda Ardern, perhaps — it’s seasonally appropriate and one can only hope, but maybe that’s just me…)

This Hebrew Bible quote is foreshadowing Jesus. Out with the iron-fisted, masculine God for a more feminine soul one that even the wild animals aren’t frightened of.

I want to jump right quick — as we do — to Paul’s letter to the Philippians…

First of all, he click-baits us with circumcision (really, Paul — we modern Westerners don’t openly talk about such things unless we’re in a doctor’s office or under an anonymous screen name in a dark and musty internet chat room). But then he outs himself in his self-importance and faux righteousness.

All the things he did ‘right’ before the law (his circumcision on the 8th day being one of them, apparently) — he now sees as useless. Not only useless, but he sees them as a loss. Things that set him back a few pegs in his relationship with the divine because they pointed at his own self-justification — a burden he couldn’t shoulder after realizing how flawed of a soul he was for persecuting ‘the other’ (Christians) at the time. The only thing that gave him a release of this burden was Christ. In Christ, he needed none of it. All of it only led to self-absorption and fragile arrogance which led to a brittle sense of self.

So again, we have a transition from an individual upholding of the law (masculine) to a complete self-emptying in Christ (feminine).

Keeping with this masculine = > feminine God theme in this week’s Lectionary, Jesus ends up (in the gospel of John) around a dinner table (because Jesus is the master of the intimate dinner party) with his resurrected pal Lazarus and — fittingly — Mary and Martha. Hair, perfume and bare feet are involved. It paints a scandalous picture to the puritanical soul as personified by the traitor, Judas (so #woke, that Judas) as he calls Mary out for not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor.

Wow… Kinda sounds like five minutes on Twitter if you’re in the progressive religious algorithm as I am. Anyhow, as is written…

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus knows better (doesn’t he always). Thinking abundantly, prophetically, and contemplatively as ever, he knows that even though he’ll be cruising into town on a donkey with a motley crew of underachievers and nobodies (to the high society of Jerusalem, that is), this moment deserves a little pomp and circumstance. This is a big damn deal and he’s not going to let the self-righteous pettiness of Judas ruin the moment.

(I love this so much.)

After doing a decent number of these Lectionary reflections, I’ve learned to look deeper into the context of these readings to give me a bigger picture. As I read the account from John, I went back a chapter to John 11:49–52. It’s here that I noticed something profound when it comes to Jesus crucifixion story…

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

Let me zoom in on the important part here…

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

There it is, in scripture: the human propensity to bring momentary peace through scapegoating. This is what we do, friends. In the midst of our rivalrous bloodbath (literally or metaphorically), the only thing that saves us is when we can stop killing each other and point out the group/person on the margins of our culture to otherize, band against, scapegoat, and sacrifice.

This scapegoating used to be more rampant and blood-laden than it is now, it seems, but turning on the news will reveal this propensity alive and well within the human condition to this day. It’s a spiritual exercise to be honest with yourself and ask yourself just who you’re scapegoating right now — either in your head or in-person.

Jesus was our scapegoat. We needed a blood sacrifice. Not God. God leapt into flesh and jumped in front of us to take it on in the experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

The difference between Jesus and all of the other countless scapegoats throughout time is that Jesus gives us a play-by-play beforehand (during his life), while it was happening (during his crucifixion), and afterward (during his resurrection). And the kicker is, as a spokesman for this masculine/feminine and human/divine God, he loves and forgives us even more because he knows that only God’s love and profound forgiveness in the face of this atrocity can restore humanity.

May it be so.

Amen.

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Free to Relax

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“Faith is what enables me to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than I could imagine.”
- James Alison

Christianity used to stress me out. And when I say ‘used to’, I mean, up until about a year ago.

When I was a kid and I used to look up at Jesus hanging on the crucifix at church, I’d feel so guilty. He looked so sad. So disappointed. So bitter, even. Like, how could I ever make it right? I felt I had nothing to do with his death, but I also felt complicit. The message I got in the Roman church was that I needed to be fixed in this life so that I could sit before Jesus and his angry dad on judgment day.

It was too much. I didn’t know how to handle it. Eventually, I wandered away from Christianity for various reasons and got into other things. Now that I’m back, I’m so fortunate to have been introduced to good, healthy, and wise theology.

I want to bear witness to what this Christian faith has revealed to me this last year (yep, I’ve been a tried and true practicing ‘Christian’ for a year), in a small(ish) digital nutshell.

James Alison — one of my favorite theologians — nails this concept in his book (which I’m geeking out on now), Jesus, the Forgiving Victim.

We are all born into a world created by the ‘social other’. This world is already set in place through generations of humans laying roads, constructing languages, figuring out how to measure things, setting up systems, voting, not voting, waring, peacing, and making an infinite amount of choices on a daily basis for gajillions (or so) of years. When you see how powerful this ‘social other’ is, you see how little we have to do with our lives (I truly don’t understand how I was an individualist for so long.)

This ‘social other’ gives us our identity. There’s an element of love and stability in this — maybe even a slight majority of it, depending on where and when you happened to pop out of the womb. But it’s not reliable. It’s so easy to depend entirely on the social other for approval, for identity, a sense of who we are and whether we’re ‘worthy’ or not. This is when we lose ourselves in trying to win or keep approval from people. Sometimes, the approval comes and everything seems fine. Until things go awry.

It’s a very fleeting and unreliable beast, this social other.

And then comes Jesus, who nudges us into daring to let go of our need to get a quick fix of immediate approval from this ‘social other’, but rather from this God (whom he personifies), which is not really a God like the gods who came before. Alison describes this god as a sort of ‘Other other’ not part of or in rivalry with any part of the ‘social other’. This god expects nothing from us and can only love us.

Jesus empowers us to discover ourselves as being liked and loved into being by someone who has no ulterior motive — someone who doesn’t hold the same wavering tendencies as so much of the social other does.

As Alison so lucidly states,

Faith is what enables us to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than we could ever imagine. One of the odd consequences of this is that, as it happens in life, it ceases to become so important to be good.

And this is something unique about Christianity compared with other world religions… Its starting point is that we’re kind of a beautiful trainwreck. We don’t start nice and tidy and then screw up. We start screwed up and as we find ourselves loved, so we are able to let go of our attempts at being good, which are usually dangerous and hurtful.

In fact, as we find ourselves loved, we’re all the more able to give up trying to manipulate people into loving us. This is when we also find ourselves able to do genuinely good things out of soft-hearted generosity rather than out of a need to prove or justify ourselves.

I just love that.

This is the promise that we are to trust as Christians: that we are loved more than we’ll ever know by the divine. This love came at the beginning of creation, long before our human fall, and will have the last word. We are freely forgiven, no matter how much we muck things up. God’s love redeems us. We are reborn in it. It revives our hardened hearts and sets us free to love without obligation.

I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this several times a day — and even then, it often doesn’t compute. But when it does, I see why this Jesus thing is still around today. And if they’d told me this when I was younger, I may have never left:)

Yes, I’m a wreck. Yes, I strive for your approval. Yes, I’d do anything to get you to share this post to all of your friends. And this is super stressful.

But in Jesus, I am free of it. I can relax into the love that he personifies — the love inherent in the ground of my being itself.

Ahhhhhhh…

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Let’s not forget the older brother

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


This week’s readings include Jesus’s most infamous parable: the prodigal son. You’ve probably heard the story a few times (a few hundred times?).

If you know how the parable goes, jump down to the next divider line (the three dots about five paragraphs below).

For the uninitiated, real quick, this parable is the one about the king and his two sons. The older son is a do-gooder who follows all of his dad’s rules and doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. The younger son is a hell-raiser who walks up to his dad one day and basically says, “Hey, Dad. Give me my inheritance now,” (which is effectively like saying, “You’re dead to me,” in those days).

Without question, the king goes along with his younger son’s request and off the younger son goes to Atlantic City to blow the money on booze, drugs, and prostitutes (or something like that).

After a period of debauchery, the younger son runs out of money and has to resort to working as a pig-feeder, which no one will even pay him for.

So he tucks his proverbial tail between his legs and returns to the king to confess his sins and apologize. Upon his return, the king sees him walking up the road and runs out to meet him. He interrupts his son’s confession and apology by telling his slaves to go fetch him a robe and slippers and to fire up the BBQ because they’re going to be grilling up the fattest calf they can find. It’s gonna be a party, y’all.

Meanwhile, the older son is stewing. Like, “Why in tarnation (yes, ‘tarnation’) does my horrible younger brother get a party and all the praise while I’m here working my face off in the field?! That’s bullhockey!”

Then the father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


Before I get into the meat of my reflection, I want to point something out… In past years, I’ve always heard this parable called The Prodigal Son. Yes, ‘son’. Singular.

But as I research theological resources, I see it called The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother or The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Brothers.

So, brothers — with an ‘s’. Plural.

Most reflections and sermons on this story seem to focus on the younger brother (typical, the ‘bad kid’ always gets all of the attention, right?). The younger brother is the one who was healed. Who’s been ‘brought back to life’.

And I love that part of the story. God (yes, you totally get that the king in this story resembles God) loves and forgives us no matter how bad we transgress against ourselves and others. All that matters to God is that our hearts are softened. And the younger brother’s heart was softened through his suffering after his ill-fated debauchery. Beautiful stuff.

But what about the older brother? I mean, seriously. This is who I want to focus on in this short message today. Because it’s THIS GUY in our culture today who needs some love. I want to see HIS healing. He’s the one who concerns me. Maybe even scares me.

As the story shows, being so focused on self-righteousness and rigid responsibility is as big of a transgression in the eyes of the king as drunken debauchery is. Both are going the opposite direction of the grace of God. They’re both forms of turning in on oneself and away from the love and acceptance of the divine.

The only difference is, the younger son, through his suffering, had the awakening to repent and be absolved by the king.

Now, repentance isn’t necessarily a requirement from God (nor from a pastor/priest/parent). It isn’t something we obligatorily do with head hung low in resentment like, “Okay, fine — I guess I’m sooorry.”

True repentance is a natural human response when we royally botch things up. It’s done in passionate longing — often while on our knees looking up at the sky, for some reason — to feel love again. We need to be forgiven by another (even an eternal other) because we sure as hell can’t forgive ourselves.

Ever been there? Anyhow…

The younger son straight up went there. His heart was revitalized, the king welcomed him with open arms, and there he was eating fat cow burgers as big brother looked on in resentment.

It’s a bummer the story ends there because this story isn’t about the brother who’s right and the brother who’s wrong. It’s not about the younger brother turning the table and ‘winning’ against the older stuck up one. It’s supposed to be a story about the reconciliation of two brothers. But nothing seems to have been reconciled. If anything, the brothers seem to be more resentful of each other than ever.

When the king said to the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” what did that do to his son’s heart? I hope it softened it at least a little.

The king didn’t say, “You were always the stuck-up snooty one. Why don’t you lighten up and live a little like your younger brother. Here, go to Vegas and don’t come back until you end up in rehab. Then we’ll talk.”

No…

You are always with me.
All that is mine is yours.

The return is just as possible and the father’s love is just as real for the older brother than it was for the younger one.

I don’t see the older brother as a particularly ‘bad’ kid. And that’s kinda the point. He’s not ‘bad’, he’s just… uptight. Kind of like a suburban white kid with well-to-do parents. He’s not a rebel. He gets good grades. He probably plays football. He thinks he’s checking all the right boxes unlike the kids at the other side of town.

The older brother is trying to get something from his old man. His thought is, if I do the good works, I’ll get my father’s inheritance. He has the same greed as his younger brother, but it’s masked in obedience. At least his kid brother was upfront about his disdain and greed.

I know, he sounds like a total jerk (you might even hate him more than the younger brother).

But we can’t forget that the father’s love goes for both brothers in this parable.

As we learn, the older brother doesn’t have to live that way. His father would have given him anything if he’d just have been real about it. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. See, the problem with the older brother is that he likely never experienced deep suffering. It seems the self-righteous have to fall on their face before their heart softens. The older son must come to the end of himself before realizing the grace the rests at the ground of his being. Before seeing that he was loved all along and that all the father has is his without having to check any boxes or demonstrate his perfect performance in the eyes of the father.

I pray for the older brother and all who can identify with him among us. May his heart be softened without having to fall first. How he returns isn’t up to me. But I pray that he feels his father’s love sooner than later. And I pray that we can hold this space in a more God-aligned way so as to speed that process along. Because it doesn’t behoove us for either brother to be ‘more right’ than the other. But for the brothers to be reconciled in the steadfast love of their father who holds nothing against either and wants both to feel and know his love.

Amen.

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A lament: On the shortness of time

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Our time here in these bodies is short. Why do we spend so much of it peacocking, posturing, and one-upping? Why do we fill our precious minutes comparing, positioning, and straining?

I know my culture tells me that I have to differentiate myself from you. My survival instincts and the cultural collective — they command me to play chess with my personal relationships and focus on coming out ahead. Or at least capitalizing on every interaction.

I pray that I can become free of this curse. 
May I never forget that this very breath is a gift. 
Help me to love. 
Help me extend comfort and joy and caring.

Why is this so hard to do?

We are beloved children of God. We have been free and forgiven since before our first breath.

Our harmless flaws and imperfections are beloved and our hurtful transgressions are unnecessary.

Only human senses and the voice of the accuser — Satan — can define us by these things.

But God only sees the anointed one in us, no matter how much damage we inflict or how far we think we stray.

God, help keep me turned to you. And help me remember that this is impossible if I don’t turn towards my siblings here on Earth.


This lament was first published in The Jonas Letters.

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Jesus was not just a teacher

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Third Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


Belief in an angry, damning God is not an easy one to shake — even for those of us alive today in our increasingly secular times.

I’d even say that many of us believe in an angry God — even atheists, in a certain way. They might not pray to or worship that God, but this is the idea of God that they either walked away from or decided never to buy into in the first place.

Nevertheless, the idea of an angry, damning, judgmental God remains.

Even though I didn’t grow up strictly religious and barely attended church, I still considered myself a ‘Christian’. In my conservative central valley California town, I couldn’t avoid hearing of a God who was spoken of as damning homosexuals, people who cheat on their spouses, thieves and liars (who tended to have a different color of skin than I did), etc. I saw Jesus as being the only son of this God who was put to death because of the whims of this God.

How can anyone develop a friendship, sonship, daughtership, or any kind of loving relationship with this God?

When bad things happen to us — no matter how religious or secular we are — a lot of us have at least a sneaking suspicion that God had something to do with it. Whether it’s the God we currently worship, or the one we left long ago, the question beckons from the back of our minds, “What kind of God would let/make this happen?”

These are the questions being posed to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading from Luke about the sacrifices concerning Pilate and the tower falling on those poor people the tower of Siloam fell on.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

Jesus nips this notion in the bud and tells his questioners that they were not killed because of anything they did ‘wrong’.

I would’ve been fine if Jesus would’ve left it at this. But he has to throw in a contemplative zinger…

“‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’”

Which brings us to the word ‘repent’. This word has such a loaded meaning in our day. It means something like, feel really bad and guilty for the things you’ve done. But the Biblical interpretation of the word ‘repent’ ties into the word ‘metanoia’, which means ‘a change of heart and mind’.

So, here’s, in effect, what I take Jesus to be saying…

No, these people weren’t punished by a damning God. But unless you change your heart and mind about death itself, you’ll die in vain just like they did.

Jesus was against the very apparatus of sacrifice itself, which was so ubiquitous in his day. Sacrifice is a part of scapegoating. And nothing stops a rivalry better than a scapegoat. When two masses of humans are killing each other, nothing brings peace like a scapegoat that they can unite and rally against. Before Jesus, most scapegoats were either too terrified/powerless to reveal their victimhood or they were animals/newborns who couldn’t speak at all.

Jesus was the scapegoat who gave us the play-by-play along the way.

He knew he was going to be the scapegoated sacrifice. He was revealing how humans get their fix, not through life, but through death. He came, not to save us from sin, but to save us from the obsession on death.

The metanoia Jesus was trying to bring about in his listeners was to be conscious that, if they continued believing that ‘God’ was the one doing the killing, they’d never see the truth that it was this false belief that was baked into the culture doing the killing. If they died while still unaware of this insight, they’d die a meaningless death like those they were so concerned about.

To the people of Jesus’ day (and, I’d say, this modern day) death is the end. We’ve long romanticized/obsessed about/feared death. We make epic stories out of death — even Jesus’.

Jesus asks us to see death, not as the end of the story, but as the thing that is transcended. He exposed our cultural bloodlust in order to reveal something new — a dying-and-rising universe.

Jesus was saying that without metanoia (repentance), we can die either by participating in the old sacrificial scapegoating system and finding ourselves the victim of its backfiring (such as those under Pilate), or we can die deaths that are fundamentally accidental and therefore meaningless (such as those killed under the falling tower).

Jesus knows that his words would fall short of the hearts of his listeners. This is why Jesus’ main role wasn’t as a teacher. Sure, he taught. But if he was just a teacher, he would have tried to live as long as possible, so we could learn as many lessons as we could from him. But he knew those intellectual teachings hardly ever stick. Therefore, he knew he had to succumb to his impending execution to really drive this home.

Jesus wasn’t just a teacher — he was a revealer, the icon of the living God.

(A God that many of the loudest American Christians have failed to recognize.)

And so he begins to prepare his followers for the metanoia that will happen after his crucifixion. That was what the fig tree parable was likely about: “I’m going to work the soil right now so that next year…” — which is just another way of saying that a little while later it will bear fruit. The “it” that will bear fruit is the cross.

Jesus wanted to change our hearts and minds from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all.

The God Jesus revealed had nothing to do with the deaths — horrid or accidental — of anyone. Those who believe so are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death. He wanted to urge them otherwise so that they wouldn’t follow suit.

Jesus completely de-sacralizes the incidents that his questioners were putting so much divine weight on. Death has nothing to do with God. If we get caught up in the world of giving sacred meanings, then we will be caught up in the world of reciprocal violence, of good and bad measured over against other people, and we, too, will likewise perish.

Here’s the takeaway for me this week: There is no connection between the evils that strike us and any specific judgement of God. Persecutions are real persecutions and accidents are real accidents.

God loves us and suffers with us through our deaths into new life both before and after our physical bodies perish.

[Source]

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Be the created

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I want to add some nuance to the email I wrote last night about ‘being good’.

When I say being good, I’m not talking about self-righteous piety. I’m not even necessarily talking about ‘being nice’ or having ‘good behavior’ (which is entirely subjective, btw). That stuff is all a slippery slope towards the curse of perfection.

Here’s a better way to explain it. (Let me grab my Bible here, one sec…)

There’s a psalm that lays out all the different things and creatures that praise God. What’s curious is how humans are waaaaaay down on that list. It goes…

Angels
Sun and moon
Stars
Skies
Waters
Sea monsters
Fire and hail
Snow and frost
Stormy wind
Mountains and hills
Fruit trees and cedars
Wild animals and cattle
Creeping things and flying birds
(And then) Kings of the earth and all peoples

Yep, we’re at the very bottom of the list of things and creaturelings that ‘praise God’. So, why? What is this psalm writer getting at? This is, as written, the heart of it (from that same psalm)…

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
 for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
 he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

We are created.
Our bounds are fixed.
They cannot be passed.

We can find bondage in this, or freedom. I prefer to go with the latter.

Nature can teach us so much about praising God. The rest of creation (outside of humanity) is simply what God created it to be. The rest of creation does what God created it to do. In merely being itself, it praises the source of its being.

The rest of creation isn’t self-conscious or striving to put on airs of self-righteousness. Cows don’t seem to worry too much about their weight and dogs don’t seem to stress out about improving themselves.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the waters, snow, frost, wind, fire, hail, mountains, and hills are simply what they are: The created manifestation of God in their own specific form.

I don’t think fruit trees have existential crises or anger issues. The rest of nature doesn’t look outside of God for its self-worth.

So what keeps us from this?

Well, if we could rest in our createdness like the rest of creation, it would imply that you nor I am God. You are not the creator and I am not the creator.

The story of Adam and Eve characterized a humanity that was comfortable in its naked createdness until it experienced the inversion of consciousness where it wanted to be in control of judgment. When the individual ego took the wheel and claimed itself to be the final judge of what is good and what is evil.

God said it was good, but the serpent said, try harder.

I know. Being conscious of our limitations as the created isn’t glamorous. It isn’t powerful or motivational in the Western sense. But I’m finding so much liberation in this notion.

Because EVERYTHING is a gift. From my first breath to the breath I’m breathing now — all of them a finite string of gifts. My health, the paved streets outside my apartment, the educators in my daughter’s school, my pastors, my friends who remain my friends even though I’m horrible at keeping in touch, my wife who somehow decided it was a good idea to marry me — all of them and countless more, gifts.

I am the created. I am nothing but a receiver and a transmitter of divine grace. None of it comes from my individual ego.

Of course, I don’t think that the point here is to just sit around and graze like a cow. It takes effort to do that. We humans are moved towards creation. But not in an individualistic sense. It’s when we discard our creator and try to go it alone that things get wonky.

I believe we were created as co-creators of the divine. This is where I think we fit. Securely in the divine trinitarian flow as the created but intimately plugged into the creator. This takes profound trust in the unseen.

And so, as the psalm suggests, maybe the highest form of praise is to, like the rest of creation, relax. Be the created. Rest in that you and I are created good.

Being the created means consciously assuming our divine role. 
Trying to be perfect is usurping power from God.
Because if you’re perfect, why do you need God?
Why do you need anyone?
You’ve won…
Right?
*Makes evil grin*

Relax in the presence of God as you would in the presence of someone who totally digs you. Not your ego ideal. But you. The you who has always been you — created as such.

Christ brings God to us and us to God without any effort on our part.

Rejoice in the gift of your createdness.

Amen.


This post was begotten and made on my private email newsletter, The Jonas Letters. Dip into the archives and subscribe here.

The law never has the last word

Photo by William Fonteneau

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Second Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


If I were preaching out loud, I’d offer a moment of silence for those gunned down in this week’s tragedy in New Zealand. I’d share how heartbreaking it is knowing our siblings have suffered one of the most horrifying acts of senseless violence imaginable.

And then I’d lay down the law. I’d share this Tweet from Bishop Talbert Swan…

[embed]https://twitter.com/talbertswan/status/1106537782338600960?s=12[/embed]

And this one from Frank Schaeffer…

[embed]https://twitter.com/frank_schaeffer/status/1106536372142256129?s=12[/embed]

I’d ferociously condemn white supremacy and nationalism along with the evil and backward theology that has perpetuated it over the decades and centuries. I’d point out that our president is an active accomplice in this demonic spirit of white supremacy that they somehow justify in Jesus’s name. I’d cast all of this out with every fiber of my being.

This is a time of profound mourning and loss. A time that begs us to name what needs to be named. A time, even, to shake our fist at God and ask where in the hell he/she/it is. Like this week’s psalm so boldly proclaims —

Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

And I’d really want to leave it there. I’d want to drop the mic and end on that law-slinging note. And maybe I’d be justified in doing so.

But then, unfortunately, I’d have to switch gears. Because the law never has the last word. The gospel does.

And here we have the inconvenient thing about the Grace of the gospel. Not only does the God portrayed in the gospel extend grace towards us progressive, socially conscious, politically correct, #woke, righteous ones. Not only does God swoop in to try to enfold the wary and terrified souls of the victims. But we can’t ignore the promise that God also extends God’s merciful Grace and unconditional love towards — yes, I have to say it — the shooter.

As an American progressive riddled with white guilt, it kills me to the core to say that this white man who mercilessly gunned down innocent people of the Muslim faith is loved by God. Because that might make me… Like him. A fellow bad guy. An accomplice, perhaps. It might make me a white supremacist sympathizer.

I mean, would I say this if my wife and daughter were gunned down by anyone of any shade of skin? Would I be so quick to jump to the gospel?

Hell no. No way. I plead guilty in my hypocrisy here. I can’t jump that fast from law into gospel as others have.

But this isn’t about me. It isn’t about any one/group of us being the righteous ones. Or any one/group of us being the condemned ones.

Yes, this is what our dualistic minds do — it’s where we always start. Maybe it’s where we need to start. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Take the people doing blatant harm and lock them away so they can’t hurt anymore. This all makes sense at a practical level and I’m grateful for the law.

AND (not ‘but’) this has never gotten humanity very far. It seems that all that happens is this: one group feels great for a while, one group feels condemned for a little while, and then the cultural narrative shifts back and forth throughout time with one side attacking and the other side reacting. Ping pong, ping pong.

If I were preaching, I’d condemn this shooter and everyone in his psychographic category. But all I’d be doing is preaching to the choir. Even now in this post, I’m merely shouting into the echo chamber of my own algorithmic bias. Other raging progressives might rage out with me as we have this big giant ragefest. And maybe this is fine. I’m sure God is working through this rage-loop in some way.

But God isn’t just going to change the world through progressives like me preaching at each other. Because the more we ‘win’ — if the people on the ‘other side’ still have hardened hearts — all they’ll do is dig their heels in and the cycle will continue (sound familiar?).

In my heart of hearts, I know that God, in God’s mysterious and dauntless ways, is mostly going to change the world through people like the gunman of this horrific act. God is going to change the world through entering into and softening/transforming the hearts and pulling the testimonies and confessions from people just like the man who killed so many in this ruthless act of violence late last week.

This God, as Jesus showcases in this week’s readings, only desires to gather us — all of us — like a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings. Jesus is rabid in his determination to get to Jerusalem so he can demonstrate his most epic act of love. And along the long and daunting journey there, he goes about his work.

Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Jesus the Christ was never in the condemnation business. He was about what love looks like in action. In his death, he took the violence out of circulation entirely. No more. This God would rather suffer and die than perpetuate the finger-pointing sin accounting business as his culture commanded him to do.

But we are not willing. No… At least I know I’m not. I’m not seeing how it’s possible to seek and share refuge under the warm wings of our divine creator when something like this happens. I’d rather instead turn towards those who share my hatred and rage against ‘them’.

And so, I pray for us all…

May God enfold the victims of this horrendous act with her love and healing. May they know that God herself cries with them in every single teardrop.

May we find the courage to name and put language to our rage, our condemnation, our suffering, our grief, and our sadness. May we shake our fists and embody the pain of this world in full color. And then…

May we accept the guidance of the holy spirit to find that slight crack in all of our hardened hearts to open up to the love, mercy, grace, and peace our creator extends to every single one of us, no matter our transgressions against God, self, or the other. And may we let the softening of our hearts lead our feet in the actions we take to heal this world in partnership with God through Christ…

Amen.

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Subject-to-subject

Photo by Baylee Gramling

I’ve long heard of this spiritual/mystical concept of relating to each other ‘subject-to-subject’ vs. ‘subject-to-object’.

Every time I’d come across this concept, I’d nod my head in agreement, but couldn’t quite grasp what it even meant. Doesn’t everything we relate to become an object? Like, it’s over there, I’m over here, I look at it, and thus, it’s an object. Right?

It’s probably because I’ve robbed myself (up until now) of any formal philosophical education. But after dancing with this concept off and on throughout the years, the perfect mental image just happened to jump into my brain palace to show me what it ‘means’…

(If you already grasp this concept, close this post now because you’re way ahead of me.)

Subject-to-object is what happens when I look at a sushi roll. I’m going to devour this object and every single other one that floats down that lazy sushi river within my grasp (btw, why do the sushi rivers seem to be going out of style these days?).

Subject-to-subject is what happens when I notice an incredible sunset and I run over, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you to look out the window at THAT! As we look at the sunset, we’re standing subject-to-subject. This is the most harmonious way to relate to each other, subject-to-subject (though we are humans who are handicapped/blessed with object-making lizard brains, so there’s that).

Now let’s take this concept into our relationship with the divine…

Yes, I can (and do — often) try to objectify the divine. But, as is written in Exodus- we can see God’s back, but God’s face shall not be seen. That’s because an objectified God isn’t God. God can only be experienced subject to subject.

I like to envision God appearing with God’s back turned to me and me stepping into God’s presence and looking out through God’s eyes.

Might be worth it to enjoy this short human experience relating subject-to-subject with each other and with the divine.

(It’s just really hard to get my mind off of sushi now.)

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Lead us not into temptation

Photo by Alexis Antoine

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

First Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


We live in a temptation-fueled world and maybe always have.

When I speak of temptation, I risk sounding like an overprotective parent. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. (And in Lent) Don’t eat that.

Unfortunately, religion has cheapened temptation by attaching it to petty (and sometimes not so petty) external things like moral and dietary transgressions. We’ve been taught that we’re tempted towards things like these. But if we look deeper at today’s readings, we see we’re directed inward and are warned that the root temptation actually tries to move us away from something.

That something is our identity as a beloved child of the divine. This is what temptation does. The things it seduces us towards are merely surface results of the thing it seduces us away from.

Now, back to this temptation-driven world we live in. This is a good time to step back and see how many things in modern culture try to chip away at our identities in God and substitute their ‘solution’ as our saving grace.

Advertising creates a sense of lack and inadequacy in us and tells us that if we drink the right beer, buy the right products, and subscribe to the right subscriptions, that we’ll be safe, secure, worthy, and wanted.

Even the social media posts of our friends, who may not be trying to sell us anything (unless you happen to be friends with someone who sells doTERRA — those people are ravenous!) showcase only the highlight reel of their lives so as to weaken our identities through comparison.

In Chicago’s mayoral race and in our impending Presidential race, we have a swarm of people who paint a picture that we are unsafe and vulnerable without them in office, but if we can just get them there, peace and justice will be restored and heaven will be brought to earth — through them.

When it comes to temptation, Jesus had it easy with just that one devil character. We get hit from every angle across countless digital devices and mediums.

The devil (also known as the accuser in scripture) seeks to erode Jesus’ confidence that he is enough, that he is secure, and that he is worthy of God’s love. But Jesus is reminded through scripture that he has and is enough. He doesn’t waver from the faith that he — like all of creation — is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.

This is the meditation for today. What if we knew — really knew — that God (or whatever you call the divine) loves us more than anything? That we don’t have to do anything to secure our worth or security but be who we are. And that any move away from this core identity actually makes us weak.

In the Christian tradition, we celebrate that God loves us enough to slip into flesh, take on our human struggles, suffer the same temptations and yearnings, be rejected as we often feel rejected, and die the most excruciating human death imaginable, all so that we may know that God is with us and for us forever.

The crescendo comes when Jesus is raised from the dead so as to demonstrate that God’s love is more powerful than hate and that the life that God offers is more powerful than death.

Today, we remember and acknowledge our true identity as beloved children of God so that we can turn and share that love with each other — even the most vulnerable and marginalized.

May you not suffer identity theft from the seductions of this world

May no icon of this world convince you that it is your redeemer

May you forever know your eternal worth as a beloved child of the divine

May you not be lead into temptation

But know that you are forever worthy and forever enough as you are

Amen.

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Emptying and restoring

Photo by Wesley Balten

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Ash Wednesday
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I haven’t attended an Ash Wednesday service in 25 years. This morning, as I sat in the pew next to my wife, I realized I was participating in a seasonal religious ceremony that dates back to the beginning of time.

The service was stripped down to the bare essentials. The accents of green from ordinary time were swapped out for the purple of the Lenten season. There was no choir and no grand entrance procession like usual. The hallowed word allelujah has been stricken from all hymnals until Easter.

The tone of the sermon was solemn. The confession was more pronounced. Much like advent, this is a cycle of somberness. One where we bear witness to our frailties and fragilities as mortals. One where we take notice of the fact that these bodies of ours will return to dust.

During this Lenten season, we take a stark look at the shadow side of our humanity. Naming our transgressions is never easy, especially in modern-day America where we’re all so enabled by our confirmation biases and cheered on by the digital applause of whatever algorithm we’ve found ourselves in.

It’s a season of self-emptying kenosis. One where we give up the gluttonies that we use to blanket and silence our inner moanings and groanings wrought from our imagined (albeit indelible) separation from our divine source.

As today’s Psalm says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

The psalm continues, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

Emptying and restoring.
Emptying and restoring.

This is the divine pattern. And it’s what I’ll be meditating on this blessed Lenten season.

I mean, I should also give up chocolate too, but…

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Grace comes first

Photo by Kendal James

I used to see church as the place where we get right with God. We go there, we listen to the religious professionals, do what they say, and then we (hopefully) get in God’s good graces (for whatever that’s worth) — right?! So, I saw it going like this…

Church => Works => Grace => Afterlife Guarantee

This is the purpose of a works-based religion. We do the works and then we get the grace. Baddabing. Baddaboom.

Side-note: It’s funny how this works-based theme also translates to the secular world. We do the Peloton, we eat the ketogenic things, we do the Headspace app, and then we feel worthy.

I see it now in reverse…

Grace => Works => Church => This-life guarantee

According to scripture, God’s grace came before we were born. And so, by believing the promise that we are eternally worthy in the eyes of our creator, we can be free to do good works without the chains of obligation. Then, we go to church to bear witness to our faith in this promise and share the good news with the community.

Of course, you can try this grace-based switch in the secular world too. Instead of doing the Peloton and eating the ketogenic things in order to feel worthy, feel worthy first and then make your daily life a testament and celebration of this (through your good works of Peloton and Keto or whatever your secular sacraments may be).

I might be wrong, but when I start with my worthiness — not in the works I do, but in the promise God made — my life feels a lot freer and less like a chore. Give it a shot??

P.S. Yes, I know, you could say that you don’t need church. And you kinda don’t. In fact, if the churches in your area are horrid, you’re better off staying home. But if you have a loving and inclusive church community in your area, why rob yourself of the opportunity to go feel small and loved for a while?

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The path of descent

Photo by Brett Jackson on Unsplash

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Transfiguration Sunday
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I wish I had more time and theological expertise to unpack this one. I know there are prophecies from the Hebrew Bible being made manifest and a lot of other nuances going on that are beyond my layman’s proficiencies.

But Jesus is definitely having a mystical God-moment up on that mountain as his appearance changes from a shabbily-clad olive-skinned man to… a luminescent, flowing-robed God-Man. He even channels the prophets Moses and Elijah.

You know that Peter, James, and John — the disciples who accompanied him on that mountaintop — were straight-up frrrreaking out…

A radiant cloud appeared and they all felt the presence of God. A voice out of the cloud rang, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

This mystical God-moment marks the point before the descent. After this passage, Jesus shares — quite possibly — his most disturbing, shocking, and de-centering teaching of all. He’s about to reveal that he must suffer, die, and rise again — and that anyone who cares to join him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Lent is upon us. A lot of harrowing stuff is about to go down back on level ground.

But why not delay it a little while? Why not bask in his God-granted and human-witnessed glory and be a supreme king for a while before swallowing the bitter medicine that awaits him at the bottom of that mountain?

I mean, really, why doesn’t Jesus just ride out his success? He’s totally winning right now!!

Instead, Jesus must move his feet one step at a time back down that mountain to the valley of the shadow of death. This God, who slipped into skin as a human, must die.

Because it’s not about worshipping a glorious glowing-white king. If so, the story would’ve stopped there.

But it doesn’t.
It keeps going.

The path of descent has just begun.

God has entered flesh
And now walks
Towards God’s own death.

But even that isn’t the end of the story.

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God’s Love is too radical for any of our churches

Photo by Nam Hoang

What can I say, we’re humans. We’re biologically wired to wall ourselves off from things that seem foreign to us. We’re granted with defense mechanisms that are designed to keep our bodies alive. And they’re pretty reliable. They’ve kept us around for a long time, I’d say.

The only thing is, these defense mechanisms often wall us off from what’s best for us and for our neighbors. We do a lot of ridiculous things that we seem perfectly justified in doing.

Some of these mechanisms still make sense. When an Audi SUV whose driver is late to drop off his kid to school almost hits me as I walk my dog, I’m glad I naturally flinch and jump out of the way.

Others, in contrast, don’t make so much sense. Like when I think someone who has a different shade of skin is out to get me. Or when I feel offended by who someone loves or identifies as.

Case in point, organized religion. It’s a long history of personal and organizational walls being erected and torn down.

In short, our defense mechanisms wall us off from love because they wall us off from the other. Love requires vulnerability. It requires us to stand bare and defenseless before the other.

A tall order for any lizard-brained human.

I’ll add, standing before human love is child’s play to standing before God’s love.

God’s love is more radical than any of us or our churches can handle.

Even ‘progressive churches’ wouldn’t be so ‘open and affirming’ if a red hat-donning republican sauntered in with an American flag button-down, wranglers, and white tennies. (I’m with you, I’d be like, get this dude out of here, whuuuuuut?!)

If anything, we need a shield for God’s love. It’s just too much. If we actually were to accept it, all heaven — I mean, hell — would break loose.

We’d have to take care of each other, address the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized, soften the hearts of the rich, sit with those who aren’t like us, wish our enemies well, and all other kinds of insane things. We’d have to stand vulnerable before each other even more than we already do with no walls between us.

I don’t know about you, but I need a bit of a wall up (sometimes a big one). My defense mechanisms serve me quite well, thank you very much.

Dear friends, we have to have mercy on each other. Being human is quite the predicament. It takes time for our collective to release our grip on these defenses.

But we are.

It’s happening, I can see it. I can feel it. Can you?

Maybe God is breaking past these defenses against our will.

I’m so sorry for anyone who currently has to suffer from our current collective posture. But please hold fast and have hope that God is moving us in the right direction.

And while you’re around, might as well surrender to that love and make a ruckus:)

[This one goes out to my friends in the UMC who are grieving over the loss of the proposed One Church Plan to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission.]

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