Insurgent Savior

because-jesus-faith-ceramic-mug-root-1kei1018_1470_1This year, if you are truly struggling for something to buy for that relative back east whom you hope not to see more than a couple of times a decade, you could do worse than take a look at hallmark.com. For instance, there is the ‘Because Jesus’ mug. Indubitably, if you wish to confound Great Aunt Mabel, send her one of these and she will never speak to you again because all of her time will be occupied with trying to figure out ‘what’ because Jesus… Of course, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Jesus is best consumed, it would seem, when most open to modification. One could imagine an entire evangelism campaign centered on the ‘Because Jesus’ slogan. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, I will stand on your street corner preaching loudly to the neighbors. ‘Because Jesus’ is happy to be Jesus, I will be happy to play Christian rock on my car stereo at high volume with the windows down at busy intersections. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, we will invade your country until my Jesus is also your Jesus – although I suspect that last one might pre-date the mug by a year or two.

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The ‘Because Jesus’ mug intrigued me when I discovered it because it speaks to how pervasive the customization of Christ has become. For instance, the other day, I went shopping. One of my great shortcomings as a preacher is that I rarely ever shop. It might count as a spiritual discipline – I’m not sure. Either way, unless someone is talking about ‘what happened in CVS this morning’ on NPR, I can feel from time to time that I might be missing something important about life in America. It was reassuring, therefore, to have the opportunity to go shopping this week at my local grocery store. At last I was in the mix with everyone else, navigating meter upon meter of wrapping paper and Christmas tree decorations.

christmas-greeting-cardsI had gone shopping to look for a couple of Christmas cards. The first thing that struck me was how very difficult it was to find a card that was just about the birth of Christ and not also about something else. Card after card read something like this, ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come…May Your Christmas be as Bright as Your Smile’. I couldn’t send that. I’m an Episcopalian, we’re not supposed to encourage smiling. I kept on looking, but in vain. I could feel the color drain out of my face as yet another promising piece of artwork was undermined by the reminder that the real reason for the season isn’t Jesus; it is me. I was everywhere, and there was little I could do to stop it. ‘Treat yourself to something special this Christmas’, it said as I tried to make my escape down the cosmetics aisle. Towering letters hung over me as I made a left down by the wine – ‘Have an extra merry Christmas on us’. It was all I could do to make it back to my office at church and put BBC‘s ‘Lessons and Carols from Kings’ on a repeated loop on YouTube.

img_5887I lived a cocooned life, and I liked it, I guess. Yet, following a period of lying down in a dark room for a while, I realized something: Jesus was cocooned too. The Lord of all creation, lost somewhere between the super sale on candy canes and dashboard bobbing Santa heads. From this dark epiphany, the day only descended. That evening, my family and I went out to see a neighborhood nearby which at this time of year can be seen from space. We knew that we had arrived at the right place because the kids no longer needed to ask if we were there yet. In fact, they could no longer speak at all, such was the mesmerizing bedazzlement of the several million lights that twinkled in the night sky in San Diego suburbia. ‘Why are we here?’ I mumbled faintly to myself, but it was too late, I had been sucked into their sinister game. I too gawped and gaped and guffawed.

IMG_5880.JPGIf you have ever imagined a scene that you would construct outside of your house if neither money nor sanity were an object, then you would have imagined it too late – because it would have already happened here. My family and I had stumbled upon another reality altogether. Frosty was there, and the entire cast of Frozen, many times over, were with him. Santa was a staple, as were his reindeer. Yoda made a surprise appearance. One resident had even stuffed his car full of soft animals and pretended that this counted as a Christmas display by crudely placing a couple of fluorescent stars on his hood. I knew that should this man – for it had to be a man – ever came out of his house, eye contact would have to be avoided at all costs. It was at this moment, somewhere near to a giant Homer Simpson trapped in a giant Manhattan-themed snow globe that I decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be all that bad to give up the priest thing and move into illumination sales. This street alone could pay for my kids to go to college.

IMG_5885.JPGAnd then it happened. The renegade house. Simple. Understated. A crib. A message. A name surround by light. I was saved from what surely would have been a disastrous career as a salesman. Jesus was back; a holy insurgency amidst the festival of festivities. I stood there and admired it for a while. As I did, I imagined that in centuries gone by, perhaps it was so that the great, towering cathedrals of medieval Europe dominated the local landscape so much that it was the Church that made the locals’ heads swing as religion sought to dominate the cultural imagination. Perhaps, then, this is a fitting circle – that we have come back to the backwaters, to the one, anomalous house that had room for a family in flight and great need. The Light of the World born behind the main thoroughfare, in a place fit for animals and their muck. An insurgent God, whose love will not extinguish a dimly burning wick. There it was. Grace upon grace.

Come, Emmanuel.

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The Truth Shall Set Us Free

hot-news-illustrationI was listening to a radio piece on NPR this week about the role of fake news in our country. A segment from the Diane Rehm Show was played wherein Scottie Nell Hughes, political editor of RightAlerts.com, claimed the following: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts”. Syntax would also seem to be on the way out, but that is another issue. The first thing that struck me about this statement was that it was, rather ironically, not a fact. It was itself a piece of ‘fake news’. Facts, it turns out, are still with us. For instance, it is a fact, that now in my early 40’s, if I run around a soccer field for 90 minutes trying to keep up with players in their 20’s, I need to lie down in a dark room the following day while my body responds to the shock. No amount of fantasy will change that reality. I am no longer as spritely as I once was.

It turns out, though, that Ms. Hughes wasn’t really talking about facts but belief: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.” For Ms. Hughes, the possession or not of the facts is not the operative thing; it is whether people believe they have facts or not, even if they don’t have any at all. If they believe that a claim about the world we live in can be supported by facts, then that belief in the possibility of facts is as good as having the facts themselves.

5c91cf319caeaf5979c47a452a3b262bThis certainly seemed to be the train of thought that North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch utilized when he fired his assault rifle in the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington last weekend because he believed it lay at the heart of a Democratic Party child sex-trafficking operation. Mr. Welch had apparently been motivated to carry out the attack by false allegations made on multiple social media sites. It is a living study in the power of persuasive falsehood. Mr. Welch seemingly believed that there were facts that supported the theory about the pizzeria being part of a sex-trafficking operation, even if those facts were not actually at his disposable the day he decided to carry out his own ‘investigation’.

Inscription_Theatre_Leptis_Magna_Libya.jpgOf course, people have always been economical with the truth if it has suited them to do so. Adam and Eve didn’t get us off to a good start with that one. However, the current shift away from fidelity to the facts presents a certain crisis for society at large in an age when information is not only so readily available online, it is also disseminated across vast swaths of people via media that is able to influence individual and collective views and actions at a whim. The Roman Empire was good at propaganda. They emblazoned it amidst their civic spaces in the form of great archways and inscriptions making clear to the populations that they had subdued, that life in the Pax Romana was a life worth embracing. Resistance was not only futile, it was suicidal. What the Romans did not have was the ability to tweet or post or ping millions of people in a single communication. They did not operate on the principle of media saturation as a means to enter the minds of possibly otherwise reasonable people capable of discernment. Falsehood erodes our capacity for discerning truth. The more we are immersed in a universe of falsity, the harder it is to discern reality from the construction.

191942Truth matters. Counter to Ms. Hughes’ assertion that we are in a post-factual age, the Church must take up a role that has always resided at the heart of its theological life: the practice of truth-telling. Liturgically, the act of truth-telling takes the form of confession. There can be no reconciliation, no real relationship, no opportunity for mercy to birth authentic forgiveness without that which we have done and that which we have failed to do being laid out in the open. Human beings need the light of truth-telling as fundamentally as they need air and water. Truth does indeed set us free because it provides us with the opportunity to start over again in our lives amidst the complexities of  friendship and love, of common life and individual ambition. Truth enables grace to be felt in our lives as a living and transformational power. Without truth, grace remains only an abstract hope, not a present gift.

truthu-png_1_20150221-394Dorothee Solle once remarked that the phrase, ‘The truth will make us free’, is an invocation to God so that the truth may not be forever buried in lies. We live in a time when the truth is indeed in danger of being buried. For every falsehood that is uttered about the ‘dangers’ of certain immigrant groups living in America, the promise of America   as a nation of all-comers is diminished, until the values that we may have assumed were held in common are no longer visible in our life together; they are buried beneath a facade of fear and exclusion. Solle incites the Church to take up its vocation of truth-telling trusting in a God who does not stand in power over the world, but who is ‘grieved as we are’, ‘small like us’. It is in this ‘small God’ that we must place our hope, for the struggle to proclaim the truth about one another is a struggle that most often begins from the underside of history. The Church will need to sharpen its skills of attentive listening if it is to be a conduit for truth that has the capacity to set us all free. We will have to listen and we will have to speak, over and over, until our hearts beat with the longings of God himself. Truth upon truth, one life at a time.

In Praise of a Politician

_92255475_senatorludlamHe is courageous and honest. He has stood up publicly to speak the truth about something to an entire nation that most of us can’t even tell our friends and family. He has been praised for how his bravery has opened up a country-wide conversation about something that really matters. And to boot, he is a politician. His name is Scott Ludlam, deputy leader of the Green Party and a Senator in the Australian Parliament. Last week he announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from the Senate in order to treat depression and anxiety. How many of us would have that fortitude?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately one in five adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness each year. Nearly 7% of U.S. adults had a major depressive episode last year and 18% experienced some form of anxiety disorder. When you target specific demographics, the prevalence of poor mental health is striking. According to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness. Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition, and 46% of people who are homeless live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

10182645744_00a02d4e11_zYet the prevalence of poor mental health, even among those demographics who suffer disproportionally in our country, needs to be considered alongside the relational impact that being designated as suffering from mental illness can have. In my own work on mental health and the Gospel of Mark (Mark, Mutuality and Mental Health) I learned of the profound impact that stigma can have on a person’s sense of identity and agency. Such relational dynamics have been found to lead to discrimination that takes a number of forms. One study found that more than half of respondents in a U.S. survey said they would be unwilling to spend an evening socialising with, work next to, or have a family member marry a person ‘with mental illness’. People known to have suffered poor mental health can face prejudicial behaviors ranging from denied insurance policy applications to opportunities for employment or career advancement.

14718869408_5e2be622f6_kThe tragedy added to this is that a significant percentage of those who struggle with the psychological and social impact of mental illness face this cocktail of challenges alone, often untreated and kept hidden. Again, according to NAMI, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Across ethnicities, the picture is worse: African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of Caucasian Americans in the past year and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate.

All of this – the under-treatment of mental illness, the persistent social stigma, and the disturbingly high incidence rate among certain demographics and at-risk populations – makes Scott Ludlum’s act of speaking truth to societal power with regards to his own struggles a timely reminder that public servants can act for the common good. On this, our Election Day, a politician half a world away offers us a glimmer of what it might look like if our own political leaders lived more fully into their vocation. In The Republic, Plato argues that in order to properly govern one must be a lover of wisdom, balancing intellectual capabilities with the virtues of self-control and discipline. Our politics is meant to offer to the ‘polis’, the city and by extension the nation, the best of us.

hopePerhaps the most generous thing that could be said of this election is that the best of us is yet to come. That is, after all, the great promise of democracy – we get to start over. We need to start again, profoundly so. People of faith, no matter how they vote today, can play a crucial part in that, for we are among those who trust in hope, not as an act of blind optimism but as the strength found in the God who makes all things new, even those parts of our lives that look well-past repair. Tomorrow we have a chance to start over. Let us each play our part and find our own voice of honesty and courage.

Baking, Brexit and the multicultural hope

(Spoiler Alert: If you are a fan of the BBC show ‘The Great British Bake-Off’, please note that the winner of that competition is named below…just in case you haven’t seen it yet.)

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I have just come back from a week’s vacation in Britain. Our kids were delighted to see me back, along with my youngest child. I suspect part of that was because they love us, and I know that it was also because I arrived with a suitcase filled with British ‘sweets’. Each bag of ‘Jelly Babies’ and ‘Chocolate Fingers’ is a nostalgia trip all of its own, taking me back to a childhood spent in small town England, where even the weather was about average. It was Thomas Wolfe who said ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, writing of an author who writes a book with frequent and less than flattering references to his home town, much to the chagrin of its residents. One of the points of the novel is that it is hard to live into a life that you no longer can find yourself in. As I wandered along the aisles of the grocery store, picking out packets of unnecessarily high calorific value one at a time to the giddy delight of my five-year old daughter, I did question what it was that I was up to. You can’t eat your way back into the past, although I think there are some of us who have tried.

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It turned out that the topic of food and belonging was high on the national agenda the week we were there. The BBC were expecting their highest ratings of the year for the final of the ‘Great British Bake-Off‘. Three newly minted mini-celebrities in their own right were competing to claim the other crown available to subjects of a monarchical system of government – the crown of public hero number one. The British love a common man or woman hero, and the eventual winner of the bake-off was right in that mold, Candice Brown, a physical education teacher in her local public school, a somewhat ironic profession for someone who has now beguiled a nation into eating themselves into the winter and perhaps beyond. She cried when she won and I suspect one or two others did with her. Record viewing figures of people watching three strangers bake on national television.It’s a great and odd story all at the same time.

brexitThe other major story – which seems to be always the other major story on that side of the pond – was Brexit. I think that it is safe to say that the United Kingdom is now officially in the depth of the Brexit-blues. In the space of our singular week there all of the major banks had threatened to leave London’s financial heartland for a more Euro-friendly destination on the continent; Prime Minister, Theresa May, was revealed to have warned Goldman Sachs in a private gathering of directors of the perils of a ‘leave vote’ before the summer referendum only to be all but silent during the then Cameron government’s public push for the remain campaign; and British Universities had seen a 9%-12% drop in EU applicants for their places the coming academic year. Incidents of racist hate speech, intimidation of ethnic minorities, and shameful comments made by one individual that refugee children from the just-closed ‘Jungle’ encampment in Calais were staying ‘three days too long’ in his Kent village while they were being processed for settlement in the UK brought the week’s sorry news cycle to an unsavory end.

It is safe to say that Brexit has laid bare how right Angela Merkel was when she publicly stated a couple of years ago that multiculturalism was a failed experiment. Add to that the rhetoric of our own presidential race, and it can be argued that much of the progress that we had taken for granted had been won in terms of multi-ethnic diversity and integration, women’s rights, and our sense of what it means to belong to a 21st century social democracy is now under question. I can’t help wondering if the fascination with a baking competition also serves as a timely and perhaps needed respite from what must at times seem like an ever-decreasing circle. And for those who have a connection with both sides of the pond, as I do, that our own reality TV winner should now be within a hair’s breadth of the Presidency is a parallel that I still find hard to fathom. Yet here we are, at a place in time when sectarianism is seemingly all the rage, and London’s 2012 Olympic vision of multicultural unity in our diversity seems now like a distant and even far-fetched dream.

sarahg_canadianculturaldiversityAnd so, we might well ask, where now is our hope? Theologians, when faced with such époques of apparent disintegration are less inclined to be nostalgic about a supposed golden age of the past (which makes my recent investment in the British candy industry doubly problematic) and much more interested in articulating what is called an ‘eschatological hope’. Such a hope, whilst with it sights set well beyond in the consummation of history and the reconciliation of all creation to its Creator, is rooted in the daily struggle of here and now and it does so not with a sense of defeat about the present moment but with deeply founded hope. Christians are called to be eschatological people, human beings who can see the already but not yet fulfilled kingdom of God in their midst. It is because of this that people of such a faith are able to see the bridges that join us one to another even in seasons of deep division and mistrust. They are able to see such bridges not because they trust in humanity’s capacity for goodness as much as they have set their lives upon the subversive power of a God whose love is so vulnerable and self-donating that it is able to withstand even the most over-cooked ego. Christians have this hope because in the end God’s grace is always more than our pride and privileging of the self over others.

And so, I wonder whether this might be a time for people of faith to call the people around them to a holy curiosity for one another, the kind that I suppose does turn a nation’s gaze to a PE teacher’s baking talents and weeps with those who weep for joy, sharing somehow in that moment of simple human connection. German theologian Paul Tillich called the divine the ‘Ground of All Being’, which to oversimply it is to say that you and I all get to share a space for existence that transcends any attempts we may muster to set us apart from one another. Multiculturalism does not need to write its obituary in the back pages of Brexit’s socio-political fall-out any more than the American dream of a great melting pot of humanity should concede defeat in our own season of political discord and polarization. If a baking competition has the power to remind people that they can still share life with one another, albeit via their television screens, perhaps you and I are capable of sharing life too.

God and Politics

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A story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not become fire?

What if our vocation were to become fire, casting light on dark places? What if our calling in this world were to be as people through whom the brightness of heaven could be seen? What if we saw light and beauty as God sees it?

Perhaps these are not the normal questions you ask yourself when you brush your teeth in the morning, and it is unlikely that your fingers have turned to flame recently, but the truth about our sojourn on earth is that you and I walk in the presence of living miracles, six billion holy flames criss-crossing the planet every day. Some are risking their very lives as I write this, desperate to stay afloat across the Mediterranean in the hope of a future beyond the bombed out streets of Syria. Others are gambling working women and men’s futures on one rogue Wall Street trade. There are those who will save a life tonight and there are those who will take one.

deepr_human_dignityHuman dignity is the foundational premise of civilization. It is also fundamentally a theological truth. We are infinitely beautiful, fashioned in the image of a love-giving maker. As a Christian, I have to commit to the embodied difference of the other, to the irreducible right of that other to be valued and honored and seen as God’s own. The calling of Christians, indeed the calling of everyone, is to see each human life as God sees it: as infinitely valuable.

It is because of this Christian conviction of the inviolable value of others that I believe churches should find their voice in this most critical time in our national life. Churches should be free from electioneering because people should respected to think freely about their vote. Yet churches should also be free to take their place in the public square. The rhetoric of the last many weeks of campaigning has uncovered the fissures that pervade our life as a nation, fissures that are characterized and deepened by an increasing permission people feel to be able to speak of one another in ways that do no justice to their humanity. We have heard  entire ethnic groups and nationalities caricatured, people with disabilities mocked , women belittled and degraded, people’s body image maligned. Our vocation is to honor one another, and the churches’ vocation is to remind society of that calling, a calling that transcends political and religious affiliations. It is not possible for our political life to engage in such a mutually diminishing season of campaigning and still remain as it was before we began. Ugly and hurtful rhetoric impacts us all. We have all been lessened by these months of public conversation.

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And so I appeal to the churches, to Christians, to any person of faith, ‘Why not become fire?’ Why not realize our vocation to cast light on dark places? Let us stand up as people of faith and call out with passion and power the denigration of human dignity when we see it around us. The desert fathers and mothers went to the wilderness in order to draw themselves and those who encountered them closer to the holiness of God. Perhaps we, as their legacy in Christian community, might do well to ponder where our wilderness places should be after this election, as we seek to heal and once more see our fellow human beings as a source of wonder and joy. Mahatma Gandhi once said when asked what he thought of western democracy that it was a ‘great idea’. It was a potent statement of subversion and hope. America is still a great idea; an idea worth fighting for.

A Blazing Fire

tumblr_static_deep-blue-ocean1About 170 years ago, Kierkegaard famously said that faith in God should feel like we are being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water – the waves of the deep crashing onto the rocks below, the wind howling, nothing to hold onto but the trust that God is actually a reality. Since I learned of Kierkegaard’s love of the terrible awe of God, I have often felt that it was a shame that he never had the chance to meet my grandmother, because the two of them would have got on very well. By and large, I was afraid of my grandmother. I never heard her shout. She never once raised a hand against me. In fact, it didn’t take me too many years of life to stand as tall as she did with her diminutive frame. Yet my grandmother could fill me with dread.

When I was a child, my grandmother’s house on the coast of south east England was something of a wonder in my life. It was four storeys high, plus a cellar I never did dare to descend into. The reason for that was partly because I was convinced, as the 25th or so of her grandchildren, that the cellar was where she kept the remains of my various cousins who had dared to disobey her over the years. It was also because in my grandmother’s house, a number of the 30 or so rooms were out of bounds for little boys. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse into one of them and steal a vision of fine furniture, or a grand piano in the corner, or paintings that the young could barely look at, let alone breathe near. Her home was to me like a small palace of wonder and mystery; a museum of sorts with trinkets from my missionary great-grandparents in China and collection pieces from my eccentric great-Aunts’ assortment of knickknacks from Victorian Britain. ‘You have not come to something that can be touched’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it,  just might have well have been emblazoned on the doorframe of the front door.

cathedral_stpauls2One of my warmer memories of my grandmother was the one occasion I think when she came to hear me sing at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, as our parish choir sang evensong on Easter Monday while the Cathedral boys and men were on vacation. St. Paul’s was and still is a place of splendor even more untouchable than my grandmother’s home, and I can remember how the ushers, who directed traffic under the great cathedral’s dome, never smiled, but instead pointed worshippers to some dark huddle of chairs at the side for the unsuspecting visitor to stay absolutely still on, and at all costs, never to make a noise until the closing hymn. After all, this was God’s great English house, and it seemed that God didn’t care too much for visitors. As a child, then, both God and grandparents were fearsome things: like a blazing fire, something that cannot be touched.

All of this now makes me think of Annie Dillard’s wonderful appeal to church goers today that they might have ‘the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke’. She says,

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On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’. 

Isn’t that indeed Kierkegaard’s point with his image of faith as being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of the deep below? Faith must not be for us an experience that wraps us up in the comforting blanket of certainty and familiar religion; rather it must be the place in our lives to which we have been drawn out, suspended above all of our pretense at control and power, drawn out at last to a place of honesty and freedom.

Such honesty begins in our recognition of where it is we are gathering when we do in a church building on a Sunday and in whose name. To worship the living God is to come to a blazing fire, to draw near to a burning bush, to ground that is holy enough for us to tremble as we enter it, where wise prophets of old took off their shoes as they walked upon it. It is to come to a pillar of fiery light, illuminating the path of slaves set free.

3f19d0fYet the fire of God is not meant to make us afraid such that we stay away; it is meant to transform us, like slaves who finally taste freedom after bondage. The liberation the blazing fire of God gifts to us is one that sets us free from the tyranny of believing that the only vision of life available is the one we can muster for ourselves. For God’s blazing fire of light in our darkness is the voice of truth we so often repress that tells us we are beloved, that we are of God, that incarnate within us is all that we ever have needed to be and to live freely in this world.

Yet freedom does not come to us without cost. Fire burns. Like the smelter’s fire that refines its gold over and over again, each time removing the dross, the blazing fire of God’s love for us will bring into the light the gods we have fashioned in our attempt to give value to ourselves – our money, our standing, our power, our desires fulfilled. And as they are brought into view we will have to choose: either to continue to enslave ourselves to their empty promise of fulfillment, or to face the painful honesty of change. Such pain sets us free, yet truth be told, most of us are not ready and willing to embrace such an honest journey. Indeed, left to our own devices, many of us would rather spend a lifetime avoiding who and how we really are in favor of bumping along the surface, and take pleasure as a consolation prize for the happiness honesty might gift us with – which is why life together matters.

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To commit to life together in a community of faith is to be counted among those honest brokers in the kingdom of God, the motley crew of saints and sinners whose vocation it is to notice when one of us has been doubled over by life. For the blazing fire of God is meant not only for our own transformation, but for the freedom of others. Such fellow travelers are those who are to have the courage to be the hands of God in the lives of others, to dare to touch the untouchable blazing glory we each inhabit as children of a living God. And as such, the body of Christ is called to notice one another, to lift one another up, to see the blazing glory of God in the eyes of everyone that comes into their lives.

In this season of searing political rhetoric that burns as much as it enlightens, I wonder if our country could do with such people even more than it usually does. Everybody falls once in a while, even people who run for office. Everyone needs a chance to stand straight again. A fire blazes for each of us. Let’s look for it with awe and wonder.

What is our witness?

timthumbThis week I asked a group of college students what it is that makes a martyr a martyr. The context was a discussion of ancient Christian martyrs whose sacrifice for the sake of their faith was likened to the ‘pure sacrifice’ of their Savior. These late teens were discovering for the first time the claim that when Polycarp, the early 2nd century bishop, was burned at the stake he would not die for each time he was stabbed his blood would put out of the flames. The burning of his flesh was also claimed to have smelled like baking bread. I asked the students why people would want to make claims such as those. Why would someone want to remember another person’s death in that way? We were trying to get underneath the ideas not only for their appreciation of ancient Christian practices but for the sake of the practices that might end up defining their own lives. Having shared how the etymology of the word ‘martyr’ reveals that at its core it is about bearing witness, I asked them ‘What is your witness going to be?’. There were a few murmurs. It was nearly time for lunch after all. We will try again next class.

kneeling‘What is your witness going to be?’ is clearly a question for our times. Just this past week, the members of Garfield High School football team in Seattle, Washington, went to their knees as the National Anthem was played before the start of their game. It was a political statement of a group of young men who wanted to show their solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who has been kneeling for the anthem since pre-season in protest at the lack of racial justice in America in a spate of shootings of African-American men at the hands of police, the latest being just yesterday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to the Seattle Times, the Garfield High team members were rallied to kneel for the anthem not only because of Kaepernick’s protest but because they had discovered the words of the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner, which offer a chilling warning to slaves who might flee their owners,  “No refuge could save the hireling and slave; from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. I imagine that this particular group of millennials, a generation perhaps wrongly characterized as suffering from political apathy, would have plenty to teach our nation about the sort of conversation we should be having about the words we choose, so unreservedly, to celebrate. Perhaps it is time we all took to our knees and ask for forgiveness for having retained that third verse for as long as we have.

106898053_a_woman_wearing_a_burkini_walks_in_the_water_august_27_2016_on_a_beach_in_marseille_france-large_trans7s7bfnyh2wf3flaspa2wlzei-y5bzh9nswddv6qx6h0Of course, the spirit of liberty so celebrated here in the United States was first inspired by the revolutionary events that founded the modern Republic of France, a country it would seem in a convoluted struggle with what it means to be free to bear witness to one’s religious identity. An Australian Muslim woman was apparently harangued on the Villeneuve-Loubet beach in the south of France this week for wearing a burkini. According to the BBC, Zeynab Alshelh, a 23-year-old medical student, had travelled to Europe to show solidarity with local Muslim women who still face hostility despite a high court ruling overruling a ban on burkinis. It is a confused picture of what it means to be free in a country supposedly founded to safeguard the people of the state from the machinations of established religion. Secularism when enshrined constitutionally should mean that people are free to disagree, to express their worldviews without fear of censure. I suppose each of the nations we belong to must look more odd from a distance than they do from within.

publicfaithfinalSo where does this age of witnessing to witnesses leave those of us who proclaim a witness to an infinite source of hope and reconciliation? It is in many ways not a question that we can afford to take our time in answering. In just a few short weeks, the American people will cast their votes and elect someone to bear witness to American values and aspirations to the world beyond. Ours is a time when anyone, seemingly, can say anything, no matter how divisive or egregious, and find that their voice is not only heard in the public square but that it is celebrated. One of the candidates has run a large part of their campaign on the back of such a strategy. Given this, it behooves those who profess to have faith in a God of compassion, of other-oriented relationality, of self-donating love, should make their own voices heard and bear their own witness in public life however that opportunity might be afforded to them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said that when people tell him that politics and religion should not mix he asks them which Bible they have been reading. Christianity is a public faith. It is intended to be expressed and enacted in the life of the world Christians believe God has not only made, but which God seeks the restoration of. There is a long way to go. Let’s not leave it all to the football players. They will need some subs sometime soon.