“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say…”

This confession from a L.A. screenwriter about why she goes to church is pretty great. These three paragraphs about the faith of atheists were my favorite, but you should read the entire thing.

The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.”

Well, sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist. I wish I could be positive that there was no God and that Sundays were for brunch. That dead people stayed dead and prayer was useless and Jesus was nothing more than a really great teacher.

But I believe too much, at least sometimes, to be certain about that. Sometimes I feel like I believe almost everything the church teaches and sometimes I feel like I believe almost nothing, but if I’m anywhere from one to 99 percent on the belief scale, my response is the same. If it’s more than zero, I should go to church.

– Dorothy Fortenberry in the LA Review of Books.

“Lessons from the Dessert”

I’m deeply committed to the integration of an interior life that is attached to Jesus and an exterior life that represents Jesus’ priorities of justice and reconciliation in the world. These two postures are sometimes pitted against each other, or one is downplayed while the other is lifted up. My friend Pastor Daniel Hill likes to say that we lean toward being unbelieving activists or inactive believers and I think he’s right about that. This sermon (beginning at 4:30) by Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship Church in NYC is one of the most beautiful visions I’ve heard for holding together these two essentials of the Christian life.

Mourning in America

Lamenting our divided churches on the day before the presidential inauguration.

I woke up to a foreboding on the day before the presidential inauguration. It’s mostly not a sadness for the country I feel, though there’s much to mourn as we watch the decisions that will be made and the warped assumptions that will become normal. I care about these things but I’m not an expert. Also, history reminds us that the noisiest thing at the moment may not be the most important.

No, the weight of grief is tied to an unseen future in which the many Christians who support the new president continue to do so even as their fellow-citizens, many of them Christians, suffer under the president’s agenda. I cannot imagine a line that hasn’t already been crossed that will change their minds. Logically, then, we have to assume that their support will continue, that something about their experience of these days and their place within them will keep them from believing the pain of their neighbors.

The American churches have long been divided but we’ve often cooperated and this has given many of us us reason to hope. That hope, in me, is stretched thin today when one group of Christians prays for the success of the man who threatens the safety and flourishing of their family in Christ. I know this isn’t new. About a particularly horrific lynching in 1892 Ida B. Wells wrote, “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.” The silence continues.

The divisions aren’t new but today their breadth seems endless. May God have mercy on our churches, on his church. May our compromised witness to the Gospel of Jesus be restored, even now, in our desperate weakness.

Mother Emmanuel and our Broken Bodies

Before he began killing them, the young white supremacist accepted the hospitality of those gathered for the prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Forty-eight hours later, our multiracial church made the annual trip north to Wisconsin for our retreat. That first night, a time usually reserved for laughter and the silly games characteristic of church retreats, was somber. We sat in a circle, led to speak our anger and grief.

22324281121_0db9353bbb_b
Credit: Susan Broman

On Sunday, before returning home, we prayed a litany for the slain: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. And then our testimonies: What is God saying? The anger is still strong, the dangerous vulnerability palpable: Are Black bodies held sacred nowhere in this obscene land?

We stood, the two pastors, to lead the communion liturgy. Her Black body and my White one behind the bread and wine. We recited the same confessions and affirmations we do each month, more slowly this time, as though wondering about the strangeness of crucifixion words in a world that kills, always. I picked up the bread and Pastor Michelle began the familiar words. “Is not the bread we beak a participation in the body of Christ?” She stopped then, the words caught in her throat. I held the bread, looking into the faces of my family – Korean, African American, Mexican, White, Chinese, Filipino – as we wept, the pause growing long and heavy and, with its silence, true. And then, quietly, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

Today, eighteen months after his massacre, Mother Emmanuel’s guest has been sentenced to die. The anger and grief remain, undiminished by another killing. So do the questions.

The Way Out of Trouble

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]

Much of our lives involves finding a way out of trouble. Some of our troubles are self-inflicted, resulting from selfish decisions, besetting sin, or addictions revisited. Other trouble afflicts us simply because our circumstances, by our place within a world wracked by evil and injustice. This is the sort of trouble Joseph finds himself in when Mary, his fiancé, is found to be pregnant.

Joseph is caught between two competing instincts. Matthew tells us that he was faithful to the law, and so he would have been required to divorce Mary. But we also learn that he is a good man with sincere feelings of compassion and love for Mary: “He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.” Like us, Joseph needed a way out of trouble. And he finds a good enough way in his decision to divorce her quietly. In a small ceremony, with two or three witnesses, Joseph could fulfill the requirements of the law while still looking out for Mary’s wellbeing. It remained a heartbreaking situation, but the way out of trouble that Joseph settled on was good enough.

But then God intervened and suddenly Joseph’s good enough way out was no longer good enough. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him that the Holy Spirit is behind Mary’s pregnancy and immediately his view of the situation and its associated trouble changes. Previously, he had two inputs into his impossible situation: following the law and caring for Mary. But now the angel opens up his vision and he sees beyond his immediate circumstances. He learns that the child Mary carries is a miracle of God and that he has been called by God to care for this child and his fiancé.

Everything changes. What had seemed like a good way out of his trouble now pales in comparison to the options that open up before him. Of course he won’t divorce Mary quietly. Of course he will take Mary as his wife and this child as his son. Why? Because when God opens our troubled eyes to his presence we see options where there had only been dead ends; we see open doors where there had only been brick walls; we see ways out of trouble that are genuinely good rather than just the best bad choice.

Now, we might think that the way out that God provides will be the easiest, the most painless option. But look at what happens to Joseph. After the vision, he takes Mary home to be his wife. So, in the eyes of his small community, Joseph is either a law-breaker because he didn’t divorce his adulterous fiancé, or Joseph himself is the father of Mary’s out-of-wedlock child. Either way, Joseph’s reputation is shot. He has brought shame onto himself and his family. This is now how he will now be defined in the eyes of his family and neighbors.

And then, one chapter later, after Jesus is born, Joseph is forced to lead his young, vulnerable family as refugees into Egypt. King Herod has heard about the baby king born in Bethlehem and he orders him killed. Joseph goes from being a laborer in a small, quiet town – minding his own business and trying to live a life pleasing to God – to a man on the run, pursued by the most powerful, violent tyrant in the region, living as a refugee in another country.

It’s true that God will always provide a way out of our trouble. And his way out will always be better than ours, will always open our eyes to miraculous possibilities beyond our imaginations. But we must not confuse God’s way out for the easy way out, the painless way out, the cheap way out. In a world that shames young, single mothers, God’s way out will at times seem shameful. In a world that fosters violence and upheaval in one nation and then slams shuts the doors to refugees in other nations, God’s way out will at times seem impossible.

What is it that keeps Joseph and Mary faithful to God’s way out of their trouble? Why, given the shame and violence that has come their way, do they not settle for their own good enough way out?

When the angel came to Joseph, he told him that the unborn child would be named Jesus, a very common Jewish name with an uncommon meaning: God saves. He will save his people from their sins. And then Matthew adds an editorial detail: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).”

God saves. God with us.

Mary and Joseph are the first to experience the shock of God’s rescue. Through the birth of their son they discovered that God’s plan – a plan the prophets had been pointing to for centuries, a plan so unexpected that no one was looking for it – they discovered that God’s plan was for God to save his people through coming to be with his people.

God saves. God with us. Jesus.

It’s when we believe that God has come to be with us, to live with us, to suffer with us, to die for us – it’s then that see that God’s way out, despite the cost, is the way of salvation. Jesus’ story did not end with the shame of Bethlehem. His story did not end with the terror of Egypt. His story did not even end with the suffering and abandoned death on a Roman cross. Through all of this, God’s way out was being accomplished. His way out of sin; his way out of rebellion; his way out of injustice; his way out of evil and death. God’s way out was accomplished through Jesus, and Joseph had just enough faith to see it on that night in Bethlehem. Just enough faith to set aside his good-enough way out of trouble and choose God’s way out.

May we do the same. We’ve schemed and planned and strategized our way out of trouble- out of sin, out of pain, out of debt, out of relational dysfunction. We’ve settled for the good-enough way out of trouble. It’s time to follow Joseph’s example. Set down your good-enough plans for a way out of your troubles. Ask the God who saves, the God who is with you, to open your eyes to his way out. It will not be the easiest way. It will not be a painless way. But along this way you will be joined by Immanuel – God with you – who will lead you his salvation.

My Fantasy

A daydream I indulge in regularly these days.

A conversation:

Person of Color/Christian, didn’t vote for Trump: Some of the things the president-elect and some of his supporters have said make me concerned for my community.

White Person/Christian, voted for Trump: Oh wow! It makes me sad to hear that. I don’t really get why you feel that way, but I trust you and love you and believe you. What would you like me to understand to better stand with you and support you?

I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s the season for Christmas miracles, right?

A Discipleship of Resistance

What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.

First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.

And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.

Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…

+ + +

In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.

In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.

London, April 28, 1934

My dear Sutz,

I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!

What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.

The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.

In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.

bonhoeffer-and-sutz
Erwin Sutz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Cuba for Christmas, 1930.

Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)

The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.

+ + +

For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.

Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.

In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.

muller
Ludwig Müller, Bishop of the Third Reich, 1934.

Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…

This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.

+ + +

I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.

Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?

Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.

Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.

+ + +

You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.

Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the  Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.

finkenwalde
Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.

From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.