(Image from the New York Times)
This is one of my shortest pieces - clocking in just about a thousand words, so I can't say too much about it without giving away major spoilers.
Here's what I can say. It's a fiction piece about an Iraqi refugee's experience of 9/11, and it deals with the theme of finding the courage to have compassion and let the 'other' in.
What drew me to writing this was reflecting on the rise of anti-Arabism in the United States after 9/11, and how those communities reacted. When I was doing my master's research, I visited an Arab Christian monastery on the east coast. The clergy there were guarded around me, and it was mainly due to the fact that I was a stranger and that they dealt with racism firsthand.
I've always wanted to tell a story from that perspective, as well as a story about 9/11. I didn't want to write a political piece as much as a contemplative piece - about why it is we push entire cultures and people away in the name of fear and rugged individualism.
I hope people take something out of the piece - and I'm not sure what they could take. That's not up to me to decide. But I hold to the firm conviction that until we understand the root of our fears, we will never see a day without war.
One of my favorite Catholic mystics, Thomas Merton, famously wrote, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed - but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
I hope that the piece is received well, and is seen totally with the intention I had for it.
Collateral Journal has also been a dream publication of mine, so I'm excited to see my work feature there.
For more information, visit https://www.collateraljournal.com/ .
Just watched James Cameron's Titanic for the thousandth time?
Are you thinking, "I could use less of the romance and more of the boat, and an intricate plot about the possibility of nuclear war on the side?"
Do I have the movie for you.
In 1980, a spy movie was released based on a Clive Cussler novel that took $40 million to make. Adjusted for inflation, that is $143,823,300.97.
It was a box office flop. It also hasn't aged well.
Like, it really hasn't aged well.
The plot is simple, via IMDB: "A group of Americans are interested in raising the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic from its watery grave. One of them finds out the Russians also have plans to do so. Why all the interest? A rare mineral on board could be used to power a sound beam that will knock any missile out of the air while entering US airspace."
This movie made Clive Cussler swear off any movie adaptions of his work - until apparently, Sahara, But after seeing Matthew McConaughey's portrayal, he changed his mind again and thought something like: "I didn't write a thousand novels just to see the 'Be real cool if you did' fella mess up my favorite spy."
Apparently the novel of Raise the Titanic is much better. I don't know. But I can receive this movie as it is: a concentrated big budgeted effort where we see a big ol' boat come outta the ocean, and some angry Russian spies thinking, "Wow, I bet it has that one thing we were looking for a while back."
It's fun. It's full of cheese. Accept this gift. Don't think about it. Just receive lines like, "I'm a dynamite fisher-person. I just can't put the wormy on the hooky," with a quiet grace. If we can have five Die Hard films without blinking an eye or endless Minions sequels, we can entertain this possibility.
Don't yuck people's yum, folks.
When I was a kid this was absolutely one of my favorite movies. I wore out the VHS copy at home and I haven't been able to find it on DVD for the longest time. And then Tubi was invented... and alas, I could watch this.
Five years after this movie was released, they found the actual Titanic - which made this movie even more irrelevant. In the writer's eye, he believed that the Titanic sunk in one piece. Even though the survivors all said that the ship had split in two as it sunk, there was no concrete evidence of it. Even the most historically accurate depiction of the Titanic, 1958's A Night to Remember, featured the ship sinking in one piece.
Also, when the ship was actually found, there was literally no way to safely raise it - and the ruins will no longer be there in fifty to a hundred years due to erosion.
On top of this unfortunate discovery for the film-makers, this was also nominated in the first ever Golden Raspberry Awards as one of the worst movies of the year.
If you're looking for an actual masterpiece about the disaster, I would highly recommend A Night to Remember. That movie is haunting, and actually does a great job in respecting the survivors' stories. But Raise the Titanic is not that quality by any stretch of the imagination.
So scientific inaccuracies, cheese, and horrible reception and box office numbers, this is a pretty watchable, fun movie. If you're into into 70's, 80's era cheese, this is your thing.
(Hey friends - taking a bit of a sabbatical from the blog and writing life to rest up. I found myself writing the same stuff over and over and that means I need to experience more. Here's a sermon I gave recently. I may also be switching to Substack soon - stay tuned!)
Living into Love
(Text: 1 John 2:3-11, audio link)
One of my favorite seasons of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm features Larry David starting a coffee shop business to get back at someone else. What happened was that Larry David was served lukewarm coffee, and the owner refused to own up to it. So, Larry started up another shop. Pretty soon, all over the area, celebrities quit filmmaking and start their own businesses. They’re called spite stores. Jonah Hill starts a deli because he found a hair in one of his sandwiches. Sean Penn opens up a bird store because a store refused him a refund. Mila Kunis opens up a jewelry shop because a store wouldn’t fix her watch. It’s poking fun at this culture of antagonism and self-centeredness. And whether or not the writers knew it, it kind of sums up the pettiness inside all of us. So what does this have to do with what we just heard, and what does this letter have to say to us today about things like spite?
So, with his letter, John was writing to a community facing a theological crisis. An early form of Gnosticism was starting to emerge that was still in its early stages. From the context of this letter, it is implied that since there was a belief that the flesh, or the physical body, was beyond redemption, it was okay to have no moral constraints. If there is no redemption for the body, then what point was there in doing good? One of John’s arguments is that since Jesus is both fully God and fully human, we have to trust the way that He lived was good.
In 1 John 3:10 we see exactly how this pre-Gnostic theology played itself out in the lives of those who followed it: “This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are apparent: everyone who doesn’t practice righteousness is not from God, including the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister.”
Later on in verse 16, John continues: “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help—how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”
John was noticing that a big part of this form of Gnosticism was participating in the cultures of antagonism and injustice that were happening. People who needed help were being ignored for a “gospel” that preached self over others. It was not only a theological issue, but a justice issue.
Flash forward some two thousand years, we see similar attitudes play out in our churches. Prosperity preachers stand up on the stage and boast that blessings are equal to wealth. Revenge stories in literature and film like The Godfather are celebrated (not that it’s a bad movie at all.) The people the world pays attention to the most are the people who stoke the fires.
So, how has the church responded to this culture of ego and antagonism?
When I was studying the Iraqi and Syrian church, there was a dispute over a theologian named Nestorius back in the fourth century. They ended up splitting off into what is considered the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. Today, neither side knows fully why they split off from each other and they both agree they overreacted. However, that tension is still there.
I took a local friend of mine, Robby, out for coffee. We meet once a month to talk shop about theology. He’s a Syriac Christian too. I asked him once why there aren’t many Arab Protestants or evangelicals. He took a deep sigh and said, “When the evangelical missionaries came, they thought we were all Muslims.”
This next part just feels so absurd to me, but it happened. The western evangelicals had come to a tipping point - their message wasn’t being received well. It was so much in vain that they resorted to paying Arabs to convert to evangelicalism. What they would do when Arabs would ask for aid was to say, "You'll get an extra hundred dollars if you convert to Christianity."
And well… they paid well but it didn’t pay out. When the Armenian and Syriac genocides started happening around World War 1, most of the evangelical missionaries fled and it was the Catholic missionaries, in large part, who stayed - and that is why Catholicism is the majority Christian faith around Iraq.
This animosity isn’t as felt today as our worlds have blended together somewhat. When I first stepped inside one of the monasteries in New Jersey, I was met with a priest. He was still learning English and so I used bare basic terms. I think I said, “I’m a Protestant Pastor.”
He got this huge goofy smile on his face and shouted, “Joyce Meyer! We’re the same team!”
What makes these stories so compelling is that they speak to an almost universal theme of ego and selfishness over the obvious virtues that we, as Christians, believe to be true. Stories of revenge and getting back at the Other are celebrated. If you ask critics what they think the greatest movie ever made was, they will usually jump to The Godfather - a mafia movie that is centered all around revenge. I’m not hating on The Godfather, but it is fascinating to me that stories of forgiveness and mercy are rarely celebrated in our culture.
But Scriptures tell us that is a universal problem. There was a whole group of religious leaders in first century Palestine who believed the Messiah was finally going to overthrow the Roman empire with a sword. They demanded Jesus help to kill a woman caught in adultery. They demanded that Jesus ignore those stuck in poverty or with serious illnesses, because the theology at the time said it was a result of personal sin so therefore they were rightfully earning what was coming to them anyway.
Really, how many times do we hear that in our world too?
What makes these stories feel absurd is that the church is replicating the same culture of antagonism that we often find in the world. It is easy to paint with a broad brush in this world, but a part of loving God and others is learning people’s stories.
But what is at the source of our cultural antagonisms? What is really going on?
I was listening to Tom Morello’s radio show last week. Morello, for those that don’t know, fronted both the bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. He also has a political science degree from Harvard, so he has quite an entertaining range of topics to talk about.
He talked about how spent his summers in Marseilles, Illinois. Growing up, he remembered the community being vibrant and had many good memories. He described it like a Norman Rockwell painting. He went back to visit recently, and he was horrified to see many houses abandoned and the streets littered. Confederate flags hung everywhere, drug addiction is rampant. When he talked to the kids, they said their only options for employment were the military, Wal-Mart, or drug trafficking. The poverty rate is 20%.
He then said it made sense, then, for things like white supremacy to take deep root - because these communities feel ignored. When the solution is painted to be some outside force such as immigrants, they immediately latch onto that answer because they feel seen. Whenever poverty is discussed on a national level, the first image that pops into people’s heads are inner city issues - very rarely is rural poverty discussed. A repeated comment that was made to Morello when he visited was that this community felt like they were abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans.
I’m a white, privileged, educated, male - and I often have to remind myself of stories like that whenever I feel the urge to join in on the antagonisms or when I find myself frustrated at the way things are. I’m also incredibly opinionated and stubborn about lots of things. But I need to remember that people are carrying around all sorts of stories that I don’t know about. I have to remind myself that when we find ourselves in an us vs. them mentality, we forget what the real problems actually are - and it is even harder to live in love. It is hard for the church to be the church when we dabble in the dehumanizing process of ostracizing the Other because of their politics or theology.
A Gospel that doesn’t convict its followers to live into love and to embrace the Resurrection life of cultivating peace is not a Gospel worth following. It’s not even half the truth. It’s fire insurance. I love how Eugen Peterson begins his translation of 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 in The Message:
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”
So what is John’s solution here?
Looking back at the passage, it’s one of those irritating and yet so obvious solutions that feels like a Sunday school answer - and it’s to live like Jesus lived. In the New English Translation of this passage, it says this in verse six: “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.”
And yet we live in this tension of recognizing we are sinners in desperate need of understanding of what this love is. That’s what grace is for. That’s what forgiveness is for. It’s for us to point at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Even though I’ve not been able to live in love and I’m guilty, I’m still radically and deeply loved by God - and I need to show it.”
For the Christian, we have to recognize that we are becoming by grace what God is by character. When we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we become painfully aware of just how human we are - and how much more necessary it is for our world for the church to live into this ideal of love.
James Cone wrote in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Whatever side we are on and wherever we are at, we have to remember our primary calling as Christians.
So what does this look like practically?
It means surrendering the idea that we all have within ourselves that life is all about us. One of my favorite variations of the serenity prayers goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that person is me.” Because ultimately, we cannot change people - we can only accept them as they are and witness how God is working in their lives. Love isn’t only commanded when it’s for easy people - it’s commanded when it’s for hard people too. A good quote I hear often in Christian hippie circles is: “An enemy is a friend whose story we have not heard yet.”
We aren’t the main characters in another person’s story. We don’t get to decide for another adult what choices they make, and that’s probably one of the most frustrating things about both being a human and being a Christian. But also, when you feel that urge to be angry or upset at someone - consider taking five steps back and examining the whole situation.
When I worked at the Boys and Girls Club, I would always tell my employees to look for the problem underneath the problem. I would tell them that when a teenager is caught smoking in the bathroom or when a kid tells you to go do something that I can’t repeat in a sermon, don’t look at that problem by itself. Look at what is going on in their life to cause them to act that way. That secret is true for loving anyone.
Listen to the problem underneath the problem - and realize life is hard enough as it is without any of us being a jerk or being antagonistic. Being a Christian means letting go of your ego and letting yourself be saturated in God’s unconditional level.
Forgiveness, mercy, compassion - these are the marks that John says that will distinguish us from the world. So the question we should be asking ourselves every morning is this: “How am I living into love today, and if I can’t, what needs to change?”
There is a time for confrontation, for flipping over tables, for rebuking the powers… but there is also a time for listening to the problems underneath the problem. And sometimes, what that means for us at the end of the day, is accepting a lukewarm cup of coffee and not being a jerk about it.
How are we going to live into love this week, and how are we going to view each person as having a story we have yet to hear?
Let’s close in prayer.
Check out a letter to the editor I wrote for the Daily Herald. It's about community development and the myth that more police funding ends crime. If you're an Illinois resident, please continue to support the SAFE-T Act.
Letter: For safe communities, reform legal system.
I was in a Zoom call with a friend of mine, Dan. I was in my basement at the time and I had just finished up class. We're spiritual accountability partners. He's a Catholic lawyer in the city. We pray and meet once a week, go over whatever topics we've been wrestling with. This week's topic was resentments.
"As Christians, I think resentment and anger are poisonous," he said. "It stops us from being good to others and to ourselves. I think we need to process them and give them to God as soon as we are able."
It was right then and there that I heard a loud thud!
"Hey, I need to go check something out," I said.
I looked outside and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then, I decided to walk up the stairs to the top floor - only to be greeted by four raccoons making direct eye contact with me in a pile of broken drywall. The look in their eyes was less fear and more confusion and concern.
Like they were saying, "Hey, I think we made a wrong turn somewhere."
I immediately closed my bedroom door and ran down the stairs.
I hopped back on my computer: "Hey, Dan. Some raccoons just fell through my ceiling. Could we reschedule?"
A few minutes later, I was on the phone with animal control.
"We don't do raccoons," someone said on the other end.
"Then what is it you do, my guy?" I asked.
In the meantime, I'm pacing frantically in my lawn in my pajamas at 5 in the evening. People passing by nervously waved at me. I flashed a smile.
I eventually found a private company that handled raccoons.
So, I let my church admin commission and other pastors know what was going on and then went inside the church. I drank hot tea and watched Youtube videos, as one does when nature invades.
The week was already rough. My car died in the middle of an intersection the weekend beforehand, and my professor had COVID which switched our class to all Zoom until the next week. The original plans of meeting together with my cohort in person were in jeopardy as I was also waiting for quarantine clearance.
To add extra irony to this, I never got COVID - but the raccoons gave me a head cold that made me test everyday to see if I was positive. I never was. This was just nature's middle finger.
When the private animal control person came, she was a 26 year old woman who came up to me and said: "I saw there was a mamma raccoon in the photos. She's gonna be PISSED."
"Yep," I said. "I guess so."
"I wrestle these things to the ground all the time. It'll be fine, I promise."
Three hours later, the mamma raccoon was not giving up. Since my house does not have any narrow hallways to trap live animals, the raccoons were clever in avoiding capture. The animal control woman, Marly, was yelling at them and frantically moving furniture.
"I AINT' GONNA HURT YA!" Marly yelled. "STOP FIGHTING."
I went onto my lawn and stared at the sky dejectedly. Was God teaching me a lesson about resentments? Was it possible to resent raccoons?
"Finally got them!" Marly yelled as she came outside. It was about 11 PM.
"Yay," I forced a smile.
The church handled matters very well - and they got me a motel room for three days as the mess was being sorted out.
It happened to be the same motel I reserved both during my hiring weekend for the church last year, as well as for a Greg Boyd class. Last year, around this time, I was in an in-between place of saying goodbye to rural Wisconsin and saying hello to Chicagoland. And, like last year, I had to Zoom into my community development class from the shaky wifi.
The next evening, I got a random text message: "Steve. Please move your car. I need to get home."
I thought about letting the text message go, but then I reflected on the insight Dan shared about not letting bitterness get the best of us. I replied back, "Hey, wrong number. :) "
About an hour later, I was texting with a wealthy Australian immigrant who works as a private investor. We talked until 1 AM just sharing our life stories. She's 100% hilarious, and also 100% not a scammer.
At least so far.
The day after that, I was supposed to go to a lecture by Willie Jennings. Jennings is a famous black Baptist theologian whose work had a deep impact on my own life. I looked in my bag and realize the clothes I had picked up were not... good.
So I woke up early, drove my friend's minivan to my house, and entered to be reminded of the exorcism that happened the night before. I looked around and realized how amazing it is that life can dramatically be altered and thrown into chaos at a moment's notice.
I found the clothes I wanted, threw them into my bag, and then remembered there was a book in my bedroom I wanted to pack.
I turned the corner from my kitchen and started up the stairs... only to be greeted by one final baby raccoon. It stared at me in the eyes, frightened. I quickly called up Marly again. She stumbled out of bed for this assignment and brought a plastic storage bin.
As she walked in she saw the racoon.
"Don't be scared," she said.
"It looks pretty docile," I replied.
"I was talking to you."
She was able to scoop up the racoon with her bare hands and put it in the bin without issue. I stared in disbelief at how easy it was compared to the night before.
The cleaning company came, and I got text message updates about their status as I am in class trying not to burst into laughter about the absurdity over the past few days.
I went to the Jennings lecture and sat in the back. He talked about how land ownership was a very colonial idea, and that as Christians we need to understand we don't own anything. It got me thinking back to the raccoons. It made me realize that they were doing what God intended them to do and I was the one going against the natural order of things. It made me take a further step back and re-learn that resentments were truly a self-centered way of approaching the world.
Life is too short to hold onto anger and resentments, even towards nature. What could I really be angry against at the end of the day? We have to take things one day at a time, one raccoon at a time, and realize that all of us eventually hit a point where we're frantically pacing in our front lawns in our pajamas trying to figure out life.
Some Buddhists would say suffering is grace. I would say that Christianity provides the path forward from suffering where it becomes grace. Without the raccoons, I would've never met my new Australian friend. I would've never experienced memory lane of the hiring process. I would've never had new sermon illustration material.
Those, in themselves, are small graces.
The cleaning company came, the roofers patched up the hole, and Marly told me from the get-go to not blame myself.
"Racoons just happen sometimes, man," she said. "They're really good at making sure you don't know they're there. Went to this one couple's house and they had 25 living up there the whole time. Didn't know anything about it until a baby dropped on her as the wife was taking a shower."
It turned out that the raccoons stayed in only one small section of my ceiling and, since I don't spend much time upstairs, that is why I didn't hear anything. Thankfully, the damage is very minimal compared to what could've happened - which is another grace. The church has been extremely gracious and kind with the whole incident, and it's become the stuff of future Lombard Mennonite lore.
The point is we all think we have our lives figured out until a raccoon drops on us out of nowhere, and we're forced to encounter our lesser selves.
I talked to Dan later on about the raccoon crisis.
He said, "Well. That's real interesting. Glad you got something out of our ten minute talk."
That I did, Dan.
That I did.
And... my car is fixed.
All is well.
(Below are some pics from the chaotic few days. Thanks to my church for helping move things along while this was happening!)
So a great opportunity opened up for me recently - I was added on as a writer for an unannounced comedy series. I can't go into more specific details than that at this stage. But I've been reflecting on what this new step means for me, and how crazy it is that I'm literally doing the things I've always wanted to do.
When I was fifteen, I walked out of Inglourious Basterds thinking: "This is what I want to do with my life."
Then my faith led me into ministry, and I always thought that these dreams of creativity were not to be taken seriously. When I became a pastor and hopeful theologian, I figured that was my life from then on.
In fact, when my first short story was picked up unexpectedly and abruptly, I thought: "How do I let people know I have this gift, and how do I navigate this new world? And what if I fail?"
One of the biggest reasons I started fleshing out my creative side more was from the advice of a comedian friend. When I shared that I don't know how to navigate this new side of myself and that I feel like I'd fail doing it, he made me stop and said: "Look, man. There are people who played it safe, and then during COVID they lost the safe job they hated. So, if you're gonna fail, fail at doing something you love. At least then you'll say you gave it a shot."
So I've been closing my eyes and stabbing in the dark ever since.
A huge part of my testimony involved making peace - and ultimately saying goodbye - to that kind of creativity. So my internal spiritual journey with this has been complex, because I still see myself being a minister and theologian at heart. I still believe that will express itself in whatever I do. That being said, I will be staying with my church and the Chicago area (for those wondering.) I'm very happy where I'm at.
I also did not know that this opportunity would pop up because of my life experiences as a minister, student, and working around human rights circles. Even my own community development studies and training lend me here. Long story short, it let me know that God is still at work in my life in ways I don't yet recognize. More details, per usual, will be shared as things slowly become more public.
I don't know how this will all add up in the future, but I'm just excited for whatever's next. I feel like a fifteen year old kid again, in a good non-angsty way with the same taste in music. That's a good place to be.
When I first started this blog, I wanted it to primarily focus on my writing - albeit with some Christian spirituality. I didn't intend to start anything theological, because most of my publications have been in secular journals and most of my writer connections are not Christians. But with recent events in Ukraine and the world just being awful, the preacher in me feels compelled to speak into it. This will include some of my own theological journey to embracing a more resilient theology.
I went to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017. Around that time, there was a referendum in the northern area of Iraq for the Kurdish people to become their own nation-state. The referendum passed with 93% approval from the Kurds, only for both the American and Iraqi government to respond by shutting the vote down and closing all the airports. Pretty soon, people I knew were being thrown in prisons and there were riots.
I left two days before the referendum, but I remember watching all of this unfold and then looking around me in an otherwise peaceful environment. I felt bizarre going around in my day-to-day life trying to make sense of it all. I remember telling well-intentioned Christian friends about the injustices and oppressions I saw, only for most of those same Christians to reply: "Well, at least God will make it right some day."
I don't blame any westerner for replying like that. There really is no decent, good response in the moment unless we take time to fully understand what our own role is to play.
Regardless - for the child who is now an orphan and for the family that is now homeless due to war and conflict, that answer doesn't solve anything. The thing of it is that it is so easy to distance ourselves when we assume that there is nothing we can do. But the words of Jesus tell us it's our mandate to not give into despair, or inaction, because it distracts us from the things we ought to be doing.
Miguel A. De La Torre in is book Embracing Hopelessness tells a story about taking some seminary students to Mexico to witness poverty and listen. One of the students told him afterwards, "When I looked into her eyes, I felt comforted by her hope."
Torre looked back at her and said, "That woman is either going to be homeless or marry someone abusive just to survive day to day."
He doesn't tell this story to discourage her - but to force her to see the reality of the situation. Rampant poverty and systemic injustice exists, and we can't ignore them because we sense that some day things will be right.
Grief and sadness are invited into this space of seeing these very real problems exist. But the truth is that all is not yet lost. And, while I do believe God will make things right one day, I also understand I can't make my own hope toxic and ignore the Kingdom work that absolutely needs to be done.
Basic to my own brief despair after Kurdistan's referendum. I found myself trying to cope with this bizarre trauma of feeling like my own world was falling apart. Then I discovered the work of Jurgen Moltmann, particularly his book Theology of Hope. This book made me look at the concept of Resurrection and social justice in a clear light. If I embrace orthodoxy and even Hope, then I must embrace the radical life that Jesus calls me to live.
Moltmann writes, “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it."
That's what helps me continue to hold on to hope, and that's what God invites us to today. But hope can also be toxic - inviting us to distance ourselves from the pain of others because of a vague understanding that God will make it right somehow. We may not able to control all of our circumstances, but we can do much with the little we do have if we have the resources and the willingness to understand first - and when we realize that is the space where God waits for us, there is no more empowering life we can live.
George Fox in his journal writes about an instance where he witness wealthy people have a Christmas party. Then he looks down the street from the party where the beggars were. He realized God was more with them than with those ignoring the situation. We encounter those situations every day. Are we willing to listen to that of God in our neighbor?
In Matthew 25: 31-40, Jesus preaches:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"
To truly embrace the other is to embrace God, and to identify with another's struggles is to understand what they are going through. It is in that space that God calls us to live. Even when that same neighbor is across an ocean, we can have the willingness to learn how our western culture impacts those issues and work on ways to fix things here.
Let God bless you this week with these words, and may you cling to a healthy, non-self savior centered sense of hope.
I finally found a writer's group I can fully vibe with.
They're local Chicagoland people who meet every Wednesday night, and then afterwards they usually go out to Lou Malnatti's for some late night hangout (as one does in this area.)
My first meeting there, there were two poems written from the perspective of older women basically lamenting their lost younger years - meaning, they did not understand what they had at the time. I've been thinking deeply about what they had to share. I was very grateful to hear what they had to say, and it made me pause and wonder if I was taking my own years for granted.
I've never really bought into the idea embedded in more conservative forms of evangelicalism that your younger years should be centered on finding a spouse and finding a way to settle down. I've also never bought into the idea that you should spend your time living it up (or YOLOing, as the hip millennials would say.) I think, really, the point of any life is to find that we are loved and created with intention by a God who wants to be there for us.
I have a Raymond Carver poem as my wallpaper on my computer desktop. It's called "Late Fragment." It reads:
"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth." (source)
He wrote that as one of his final poems as he was facing a cancer diagnosis, and he was filled a sense of thankfulness for his life.
It's from that perspective that I honestly say that I don't believe in wasted years, or even wasted time (as far as our experiences are concerned.) I think ultimately, in some mysterious way, when we position ourselves to receive what life throws at us with open hands, anything can become a sort-of lived grace. A common Rabbinic Jewish teaching is to use everything in our lives as teaching tools, including our mistakes or things we consider wasted.
When we do this, we realize life is about owning our mistakes and attempting to move forward. It's about learning to love God and our neighbors. It's about paying attention to what God is communicating to us day in and day out.
Frederick Buechner once wrote, "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (From Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)
I think we've been sold a bill of goods whenever there's an idea set before us of what an ideal life looks like. God is no less present in the world of a Walmart cashier than He is in the world of an entrepreneur.
When can call ourselves beloved, in both the specific and broad senses of the term, we free ourselves to see how God works in our own worlds. And, more importantly, we reflect that gift to other people. That's ultimately what makes life all the more richer: connection.
It is being beloved that we can enjoy life, and it is through viewing others as beloved that we can sense God too.
I don't know how I'll feel about this philosophy as I get older, but I figure anything that sticks close to what Jesus would teach is a pretty safe bet. I'm a huge fan of His, anyways.
I'm excited to announce I have been published in Rejoice! Magazine for the summer. Pick up a copy if my usual edgy lit journal stuff isn't your thing. Devotional writings are another joy for me, so I enjoyed working on this project.
You can order a copy here:
Hope you all have a blessed and wonderful weekend!
"Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:
'Happy are you who are poor,
because God’s kingdom is yours.
21 Happy are you who hunger now,
because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now,
because you will laugh.
22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.'" - Luke 6: 2-23 (CEB)
About four years ago, I went on a human rights delegation to Colombia with Community Peacemaker Teams. I went with an old college friend, like good Anabaptist-ish Christians. The delegation was focused on women survivors of the civil wars, and it mainly focused on the injustice of the drug trade and state corruption.
One of the delegates that went along was named Philip. Everywhere he went, he carried around clown noses to hand out to people. It quickly became more of an in-team thing and a way to add humor to an otherwise tense setting. When the team’s chemistry seemed off, he would pop on a clown nose and everyone would start laughing. It was his own way of peacemaking.
There was one riverside village we visited that was under the constant risk of illegal eviction. The women of the village were the ones to oppose them the strongest. The powers that be didn’t like that, so they tore down a home while armed soldiers kept the communities back. When we visited, we saw on the walls in Spanish the words: “God is love.”
Despite everything they had faced, they found a way to continue celebrating. There was more laughter in that community than there was anywhere else. We danced and we took selfies with clown noses. We woke up at midnight to throw a surprise birthday celebration for one of the team members. She stumbled out and stared at us with blank eyes as we blasted Spanish pop music into her room. My birthday was two days later, so I turned to one of the team members and said, “If you do this, I'll feel pressure to violate my peace witness.” And sure enough, I saw in the corner Philip popping on a clown nose in the middle of singing.
It seems strange, doesn’t it? Why would people make jokes or have a sense of humor during such a tense, hard time? Well, despite humor being something that helps relieve stress, it’s also a sign of resistance. Willie Jennings once observed that joy is an ultimate act of resistance against oppression, because no matter what the world does to the church - we can still find a way to celebrate and hold onto joy because it is a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That is what Jesus promises his audience here. He is looking at a group of people who are used to being oppressed. They want freedom. And yet, he is telling them that the Kingdom of Heaven will be found in laughter and joy.
When we gather around to celebrate Holy Humor Sunday, or as it is traditionally understood as Bright Sunday, we are not just gathering around telling jokes like buddies at a bar. We are celebrating a day when there will be no more war, no more suffering, and no more loss. We are celebrating God’s promise that, even though there is COVID, political unrest, war, that if we look at the writing on the wall, we will see that God is love. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to celebrate when things are terrible. It’s okay to put on our clown noses. As this passage says, we aren’t celebrating because things are going well. We are celebrating because we know God has the final word.
So as we share jokes and laughter, listen to the Spirit underneath it - because the Spirit is sharing with us today that this is but a glimpse of things to come. God already has had the final word. Our response is to live a Jesus-looking life, and to remember that promise that one day things will be made right.
Let us celebrate and remember that promise of continual resurrection. Let’s laugh with one another, and remember that we are never alone. The good news is even better than we think it is, and there is no better reason than that to celebrate and laugh.