The Church’s Primary Mission

July 11, 2017

endangered gospelIn thinking through the church’s mission, I want to review John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel:


John Nugent’s argument is straightforward: “It’s not the church’s job to make this world a better place. (8)” That does not mean the church retreats from the world, but engages it in the best possible way. Rather than try to fix the world, the church is to be the better place that God calls her to be. This is based on two central ideas: 1) Jesus has already made a better place in this world, so it isn’t our responsibility to do so. 2) The role of God’s people is to embrace, display, proclaim this better place. (19) In other words, our primary focus must be to demonstrate and embody the kingdom come (God’s better place) rather than engineer or orchestrate ways to make the world a better place.

Central to his argument is an elevation of the church’s nature and mission. We are called to be a nation of priests, set apart as God’s better place in the world. Nugent draws a strong line between the church and world, “between the specific calling of God’s people and the generic calling of all people. (15)”

He makes this argument through several significant points:

  1. “Culture changes from the top down, not the bottom up. (5)” – See Hunter, To Change the World, 1 – 47. In other words, grassroots initiatives are generally short-lived and limited in duration.
  1. Throughout the Bible, God’s set apart people are called to a different mission than the rest of humanity. God commissions the powers to have the responsibility and ability to make this world a better place. They do so on God’s behalf and for our own good (43). “The tasks of keeping sin in check, meeting basic needs, and making the world a better place are crucial for human thriving, but they are tasks that God has assigned to ordinary human power structures. (49)”
  1. The theme of God’s people having a specific calling, different from the world, runs throughout the Old Testament. For example, Exodus 19 reads, “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Further, the prophets uniformly testify that God’s people failed to live out the Torah, detailing every misdemeanor and cast the vision for a wholesome alternative. Yet they never fault God’s people for neglecting to make the world a better place. (56).
  1. More than any other subject Jesus spoke most often of “God’s kingdom.” And God’s people will seek first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33). Yet it is unbiblical to separate the people of God from the kingdom of God (62-63). We are the work of God’s kingdom. “Though many have noted that God rules over all creation, no Israelite prophet, priest, or king ever referred to God’s work among the nations as his ‘kingdom work.’ Rather, it is God’s work as creator and sustainer to preserve his creation and look after all creatures. (63)”
  1. The place of God’s kingdom is rooted firmly on this earth, and “though a few phrases… could be misread to suggest an otherworldly view of the kingdom, the basic plot line of Scripture runs sharply against it. (69)” In others, when we ask, “Where is the kingdom of God?” scripture explicitly describes that place here physically on earth.
  1. How does God’s kingdom come? It comes as a gift. Through the resurrection, “God communicates with unmistakable clarity that his kingdom does not come through human effort. It is a diving accomplishment from start to finish. (74)”
  1. God’s better place is not other-worldly or entirely future. It has already begun and is here. And we are not “the change agents who make this world better… God claims full responsibility for doing so. (76)” 
  1. I found Nugent’s analysis of the New Testament’s discussion for how the church acts to be a significant paradigm shift. Paul, John, Peter and others speak uniformly of how the church is to love one another, care for one another, forgive one another and be unified, serving one another. However, “by way of contrast, these authors say very little about how believers ought to treat unbelievers…. Scripture is strikingly silent as to how God’s people ought to help out needy unbelievers, improve living conditions for all people…, and speak prophetically to unbelieving institutions. (89)” Simply put, “scripture teaches us to love fellow believers – not all humans in general. (90)”

My first thought after reading this was: “This is insane.” However when you look specifically at the passages that speak of love, they almost all refer to loving one another in the Christian faith and not people everywhere. Chapter 11 alone was worth the cost of the book.

Briefly, to address your objections:

A.     “Loving your neighbor as yourself” references Old Testament love of fellow Israelite, and Jesus himself ministered almost exclusively among the Jews, something most of us prefer to ignore.

B.    The Good Samaritan? “Samaritans were Jews too,” though treated as inferior. “Jesus was inviting his disciples to reach out to estranged Israelites whom they considered half-Jews. (95)” Kinda like that relative you want to disown.

C.     Enemy love? Though the best counter-argument against his thesis, Nugent explains enemy love is not instructed by Jesus or Paul “in some abstract or systematic way” but “teaches us how to love the specific enemy currently exploiting us. (96)” In other words, love of enemy is concrete and not a general principle. It “cannot be equated with the kind of love the New Testament expects believers to show one another. (97)”

D.     The “Least of These” from Mt 25? Look at verse 40 – “who are members of my family.” These were fellow believers.

E.      “Orphans and widows” from James 1:27? We have to read this passage within the context of the whole book. These verses preview the whole letter’s content, and James does not promote care of them in general but for fellow believers.

After reading all this, I initially felt that the gospel was a little shameful and embarrassing. He anticipates this and says, “But here’s the thing: If God is who we say he is… then he knows better than us what is best for this world. If his wisdom seems foolish to us, it is because we have failed to grasp the genius of his perfect plan. It is because we are still thinking like the world and not paying close attention to God’s Word and God’s Spirit. (101)”

To summarize chapter 11, “since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating the worldly strategies for making this world a better place. (102)” The emphasis here is not that we don’t love those outside the church – that is good and right and important. But of vital importance – the church’s first priority must be to love one another well, similar to a minister must love his wife and family well before he can minister to others.

  1. Nugent’s argument from scripture and retelling the Biblical story through this lens is most important. Yet, he makes the secondary point that our attempts to help people or fix the world rarely entice others to beat down the church’s doors to get in. “Let’s face it,” he says, “We’re not the only ones helping people, and the help we offer seldom impresses. (104)” Take for example the Giving Pledge, spearheaded by Warren Buffet and the Gates, where 40 individuals have pledged $125 billion to help the world. Or look at Effective Altruism, whose exemplary generosity and self-sacrifice to help the poorest around the world is rarely seen in our churches. In sum, “we do not stand out in our generosity to needy causes. Politicians, athletes, actors, and wealthy philanthropists seem just as concerned and far more efficient. (104)”

Reflections and push-backs:

1. First, through this paradigm of church mission (ecclesiology), I loved how we might actually be able to overcome the savior mentality latent within just about every missionary endeavor whether evangelistic or humanitarian. He writes, “Our role is not only to announce that God intends someday to change this world, but to demonstrate that – in a specific sense – he already has. (86)” Again and again, Nugent reiterates that Jesus has already saved the world; he has already begun a new era of world history, and we are the evidence of that change. Therefore, the weight of responsibility to fix the world’s problems are shifted from our shoulders back to God’s – where they belong. This does not make us calloused or blind to the suffering of others, but forces us to trust God to be in charge.

2. A common critique will be the question of how this is possible in Christendom, or even post-Christendom. In other words, if our job as the church is to “love one another,” how do we do that when everyone is in the church? Nugent draws a strong line between Christian and non-Christian, those who are “in” or “out,” which makes perfect sense Biblically. The Old Testament assumes that the Israelites clearly knew who were part of their nation and who were not. And during the first and (maybe) second centuries when the New Testament was written, to be part of the church or not was clear. The lines between “God’s people (aka Israelites/church)” and the “world” were easy to define. Today, it isn’t so easy.

I think this is what Nugent is referring to in the acknowledgements for students “whose imaginations are less constrained by ‘the real world.’ (ix)” Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume Nugent’s argument as mere idealism, especially as we move more and more to a post-Christendom era here in Western society. And I think the key for navigating a healthy “in” or “out” mentality is raising the bar on church membership with concentric circles of connection and responsibility. Church must be difficult to join and easy to leave. (Unhealthy communities, in general, are the opposite.) For the early church, this was the case – catechesis was a long process, an extended rite of passage, with numerous commitments. To simply pray the Lord’s prayer and be saved or focus solely on the point of salvation is a recipe for “cheap grace” and devaluing the responsibility of being the church. I was surprised Nugent didn’t explore this idea more, especially in discussing discipleship. If the church and its role in the world is as important as Nugent testifies, joining must be taken seriously. I loved this quote – “The strength of our witness depends on the strength of our life together. (124)”

Second, I wished Nugent had spent more time on our definition of “church.” He mentions that “small groups should be integral to church membership. (139)” But I would go further – if the church’s central mission is to love and care for one another well, it seems that there has to be some sort of cap for how that is possible. I cannot love 10,000 people – it is simply impossible. It would be a feat to know their names, much less care for them. Therefore, the form – or model or structure – we have for church must follow function. We have to design our church models to best facilitate loving one another well. An excellent argument for live-in churches can be found in John Alexander’s Being Church, p. 103-154. We cannot assume Sunday morning, brick-and-mortar churches are God-ordained or the best model for living out the church’s mission. It took nearly 300 years for the early church to have much more than house churches – a much smaller group than many churches today.

3. One seeming contraction of thought is the question of whether or not humans can by human effort “fix” the world. In referencing the Tower of Babel in his conclusion, Nugent writes, “If enough of God’s people truly believe in a good cause and are truly united in championing it together, there is nothing we cannot do. (199, italics added)” He states that we could do whatever we set our minds toward, which may actually feel like God’s new creation. However, just a few pages later Nugent writes this: “We are lousy world savers. In fits and spurts we can do some good. But all human efforts to save the world are doomed to fail. (203)” I felt that Nugent may have overstated his point in the conclusion. Human effort can have impressive results that do make the world a better place, but for anything to last must be initiated by God. The struggle is knowing one from the other.  

4. One minor frustration was that Nugent is so focused on convincing his readers of his thesis that he sometimes felt repetitive. Personally, I would have preferred a condensed argument with more material and resources on how to move forward. Specifically, I can only remember one church example he recommended, and the bibliography was lacking. It felt like he was hesitant to flesh out the implications of his argument (and thereby lose certain readers). Readers who were convinced of his thesis would appreciate Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens, John Alexander’s Being Church, Janzen’s Intentional Christian Community Handbook, Vanier’s Community and Growth, Eberhard Arnold, and most things in the new Monasticism movement.

Implications and application:

  1. If you are more connected to your job or a help-the-world-endeavor than you are to a church, you may have your priorities out of order. Church is not like body building; it is more like a football game. Don’t believe the lies of individualism – you need to be deeply connected and committed to a church. Scripture assumes your faith is not a solitary venture.
  2. We need higher expectations for church membership, along with a decided focus on discipleship and spiritual formation. Our first concern should not be “saving people,” growth in numbers, or developing a bigger budget even to help people. Churches ought to focus on developing into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4) and loving one another well (John 13).
  3. Churches ought to think through how well their structure or model facilitates deep love for one another. Or is it more for the spiritual consumerist?

In summary, I’m convinced that this is how scripture describes the church – it is to be God’s better place rather than make the world a better place. This is an important change in priority and emphasis. For me this has been a significant paradigm shift in how I think about church mission.

A Challenge in How We Talk About God

May 15, 2017

A reflection of God’s motherhood on Mother’s Day

          The English language betrays us. Our third person pronouns only include: she, he, or it. And so when we speak of God, we do so almost exclusively as he. But why? Is God merely masculine? Or even more male than female? Well, no, of course not.

          The Bible speaks of God as a woman and a mother in numerous places (Hos. 11:3-4; Deu. 32:18; Is. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; etc.) . Both men and women are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). In Isaiah 42:14, God is like a woman in labor. And in Deu. 32:11-12, God likens herself to a mother eagle. To limit God’s identity to only male would be unbiblical. Why then only ‘he?’

          God embodies the best of what it means to be male, to be a father. And God embodies the best of what it means to be female and to be a mother. But God is also so much more than that. She cannot be embodied by some simple genderized pronoun. And ‘it’ fails to capture a person at all.

mother eagle          Again, why do we refer to God as ‘he?’ It seems all but certain that we do so not out of malice, but simply out of tradition or habit, little more. That habit arises from the power structures of patriarchy. Any female author of the Bible is unknown – it was written by men. And as we all imagine God, to some extent, in our own image, is it any surprise then that God is portrayed in the Bible mostly as masculine?

So I want to offer a challenge to you (and myself). Rather than merely avoiding pronouns for God, for a full year (or longer), I challenge you to speak of God only as feminine. How many years in your life has God only been ‘he‘ or father? She is all-powerful. She is a mighty warrior. She is just and righteous and good. She causes the sun to rise and set. And she cares for you deeply.

I think proactively seeking to understand God as your loving Mother in heaven will likely do two things. It will build intimacy with her. And it will elevate your view of womanhood.

Blessings, -Nate

A Paradox of Being

December 6, 2016

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” – Meister Eckhart

ensoSometimes truth is found only in the uneasy holding of two contradictory statements.

For instance, here are two statements. Both are true. And also contradictory.

1.) Your life is immensely important. 

2.) Your life is nothing.

To think of them as a spectrum fails to grasp the importance of both. No doubt, we will sometimes vacillate to one side or the other – stumbling to exuberance or despair – but to know the paradox of our being, we must accept both statements as completely true and find peace amidst the dissonance. A dualistic “either, or” fails to grasp the truth of “both, and.”

The spiritual giants who have come before us testify similarly to this truth.

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” ― Mother Teresa

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Never let success hide its emptiness from  you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation. And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul which drives us beyond ourselves.

Whither? That I don’t know. That I don’t ask to know.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

But if there’s a time to hold both truths in tension, it’s now.

Suicide rates in the US rose 24% between 1999 and 2014. And there are more suicides than homicides today (wikipedia). As US culture spirals further into radical individualism where we (almost always) have more emotional connection to the actors on our TV screens than those living next door, it becomes more and more obvious the ethos of our day fails to provide adequate meaning for human life. This individualism has led to a breakdown in community (for more, read this). We are the most social creatures on the planet and the general ordering of our species fails to meet our biological needs for social interaction and connection. So, for those struggling with lack of human connection and hope, I want to affirm the undeniable truth – You are important. You are beautiful. Your life is important. There is hope and meaning and joy to be found.

I loved the recent movie Cloud Atlas. In it they captured this truth in a profound way. Somni-451 revealed, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” It is a fact: our choices and actions – whether good or bad – ripple out through eternity.

However, with hyper-individualism has also come a rise in narcissism. (See here)

What is narcissism? It is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes (wikipedia). It is:

  • an inflated sense of self.
  • feeling entitled, special, and unique
  • often someone who lacks empathy for others
  • witnessed through increased materialism
  • admiration of the self
  • self-absorption, egocentriciscm, and an over estimation of one’s own importance and abilities.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that the younger generation is growing more and more narcissistic, more focused on becoming rich and famous (See here). The plethora of social media outlets repeatedly scream, “I am special.” “Look at me.” And I recognize the irony of complaining about narcissism on my blog speaks also to the same tendency in myself. I too am shaped by the culture around us, which does not make it okay.

Why do Millennials hate being labeled? Because we want to be unique and special. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to recognize whatever we need to say has already been said more eloquently than we can. If you disagree, it just evidences your ignorance. (So, why write anything? See point #1.) Your opinions are of little consequence. Your life is nothing more than a speck of dust lost atop the ocean. You deserve less than you’ve been given in this life.

There is an emptiness at the essence of our beings that we must accept if we are to be completely human.

Jean Vanier has said it well:

“Loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” Becoming Human, p.7

Time and again, I have found truth to be paradoxical, often contradictory. These two facts about human nature remain:

  1. Your life is important.
  2. Your life is nothing.

May we hold these in tension and find the courage to be.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”

A Few Consequences of Hyper-Connectivity

June 4, 2016

As a quick note, I wanted to reflect on the hyper-connectivity we experience with the internet. Here are four consequences:

  1. Fear – it is widely assumed that the world is becoming more and more violent. With current news and the obsession with what goes wrong, we hear about every shooting, rape, murder, suicide bombing, etc. regardless of how far or near it is to us. Such hyper-connection leads to the assumption that these terrible things are likely to happen to me. However, when you look at the empirical research, we find the opposite – violence is less. (See here or here.) And (depending on the context) the likelihood of being shot or mugged are very low.
  2. Less tolerance for delayed gratification – probably the weakest point, but I’ll mention it nonetheless. Most people today have cell phones (About 75% of planet in fact). And we tend to be on our phone, even when we shouldn’t – whether that’s driving, in class, or a restaurant with friends. Generally, we expect to be able to connect with people immediately.
  3. Dissatisfaction with your place in life – how often do you find negative posts on facebook? Sometimes, sure, but the vast majority of facebook posts are positive. Who wants to read how your dog died? Or you have cancer? Or your parents got divorced? Positivity is king. So what happens when life isn’t so great? We are taught to suppress anything that isn’t positive. Second, we constantly have experiences vicariously that we will never have in real life, whether that’s Casey Neistat wakeboarding canals in Amsterdam or snowboarding the streets of Manhattan. Or maybe it’s your friends who have traveled to the Great Wall of China, Petra, and Machu Picchu. We are constantly bombarded with places, people, and experiences that are so cool! And when we compare our lives to those others, we are left wanting more. (Not to mention how materialism makes us unhappy.) Ultimately, this leads to fear of commitment. Taking a vow of stability then becomes radical.
  4. Higher expectations – through the internet we experience the best of the best continually. Musical genius is no longer the exception; it’s expected. The best photography and art is at our fingertips. We can see galaxies light years away. (And space photos are about to get even better!) Or the best speakers, thinkers, or writers. We also see only beautiful people. For better or worse, quality is ubiquitous. And daily life may suffer.

What to live for:

December 31, 2015

If you could give one thing to a thousand people, what would it be?

My first thought is “a good family.” My second is a job with fair pay. Third thought would be an affordable home.

But the more I think about that question, more answers come to mind. A teacher might say, “A solid education.” A doctor, “good health.” A lawyer, “justice.” A therapist, “emotional healing.” A pastor might say, “Peace of mind” or “a spiritual community.” The question is really: “What does it take for human life to flourish and how do you want to contribute?” What is kinda beautiful is that people all feel called to different things, and it’s only through that diversity that quality living is possible.

What do you live to accomplish? Why do you do what you do? What are you contributing to?

The Seduction of Power

December 29, 2015

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. – Abraham Lincoln 

A few Sundays ago, I was assigned Genesis chapters 47 to 50 for the adult Bible class. In this section Joseph has become the number 2 man in the kingdom, right behind Pharaoh, and he is in charge of vast amounts of wealth and resources in the midst of a famine. As the famine continues, money is depleted. They then traded all their livestock in exchange for food. And finally they gave their land and their very selves. It reads, “So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all sold their fields, because of the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude. (Gen. 47:20-21 TNIV)”

There are always a number of interpretations to any passage, but it seems to me that Joseph resorted to enslaving the people. How could someone ever justify such an inhumane practice? He cannot just give food away or else anarchy would reign. A price has to be paid. The accumulation of resources influenced Joseph to inflict slavery on others.

Regardless of your interpretation, the principle holds true – anytime resources are gathered into one place it becomes a power. Those resources can be food, water, oil, money, you name it. And regardless of the type of resource, power has the potential to corrupt us, to corrode our very souls. I would like to say we can have power and yet maintain our integrity. But I’m not sure. My feeling is that power can never be held for too long before it begins to wear down your character. It’s like a hot potato you must pass quickly or it will burn you.

So, how should we deal with accumulation of resources, whether it be your bank account, a growing business, or societal clout? Three things come to mind:

  1. First, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. What are your true, deepest motivations? Can you recognize your own duplicity and selfish desires even in acts of kindness? How well can you dissect your own heart?
  2. We can never fully see ourselves, at least not objectively. So, anytime power is attained, a group of people (with no access to the power) must be called in to call out times and places of corrosion. In other words, we need accountability. How many people know your annual salary? Your retirement account? If you’re like most, very few. We hide because we fear losing the power we’ve attained. Power seduces us. We fear jealousy from others because they too are drawn to that power.
  3. To protect yourself from this seduction, you must give power away. If you are a person of influence, you must take the back seat and let others drive. Learn how to empower others. If you have a growing business, creatively find ways to give business away. If you have money, find ways to pass it along. Power is dangerous. Hold it for too long and it may darken your soul.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth… but store up treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and Money.” – Jesus (Matt. 6:19-24)



December 15, 2015
  • is taking responsibility for your actions.
  • forgives easily
  • is self-confident and lives authentically
  • overcomes discomforts.
  • is able to do hard things
  • embraces emotions, expresses them appropriately and isn’t controlled by them
  • knows when to speak and when to remain silent
  • is resilient in the face of trials
  • is self-aware, self-critical when needed, reflects regularly
  • is humble, able to admit wrong
  • looks to empathize with others before being understood
  • has convictions and strives to live them out
  • works to overcome biases and prejudice within
  • shows love and respect to all people, always
  • always tries to do their best
  • is able not only to take care of themselves but others as well.
  • is other-oriented
  • can take emotional risks and connect deeply
  • is wisdom

What would you add?

Time is okay.

December 2, 2015

In a recent conversation, me and a few other friends came to the conclusion that taking your time in a relationship is never a bad thing. When someone feels the need to slow down or wait on getting more serious, they have hesitations about the relationship. Time will reveal the soundness and validity of those hesitations. Either the doubts will dissipate. Or they will reveal that the relationship should not continue. Time is okay.

We have to be willing to trust and cultivate intuition – it is important to listen to the urgings of your gut. Brene Brown explains, “Psychologists believe that intuition is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process – like a mental puzzle. The brain makes an observation, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut’ on what we’ve observed.”  Maybe your gut will say, “Go for it!” Other times it may shout, “Wait, wait – you need more information!”

Have the faith to trust your intuition, and be patient as you hold space for uncertainty.


I was robbed yesterday

November 20, 2015

As I was waiting for the train yesterday, a man walked up and asked to borrow my phone to make a call. So, I gave it to him. He called someone, and long story short, ended up running off with it.

I’m left with the question of how to react to my phone being stolen. Should I feel dumb or naive for letting him borrow it? Should I be more wary and careful in the future?

In my reading this morning, the first sentence read, “No one is excused from rendering personal service to others. (McQuiston, Always We Begin Again),” which I can’t help but associate with serving that guy yesterday by letting him borrow my phone. But I’m also reminded of Jesus’ challenging call to “turn the cheek” when you are slapped. He goes on, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Lk 6:29-30)” What?!?! Honestly, that feels a little stupid, encouraging robbery even. But I think the idea behind it is the question: “how does one changes from a thief to a person of selfless generosity?” 

If I allow this situation to change me to be more suspicious and untrusting of strangers, then I am operating out of fear and not love. Jesus calls us to sacrificial love and putting the other above ourselves. The “thief” needs to move from a mental place of scarcity to one of abundance, recognizing that it is the Great Good above that sustains us, not our own efforts, whether they are condoned by society or not. So, how does that change occur? If I refuse the next person asking for my phone, is that loving? Or if I had responded differently yesterday – rather than repeatedly request my phone back, what if I had give him my wallet too? Would such radical generosity illuminate the brokenness of our interaction? Would such sacrificial love cause him to realize that stealing dehumanizes me and dehumanizes him? Maybe. Maybe not. It is also very possible that I could have just lost both. But I do think that’s what Jesus calls us to – to say, “Hey, I love you even though we just met. And these silly possessions should not divide us and dehumanize our interaction. I’m willing to just give them to you in the hope that love can grow.

And that I believe is the power and importance in non-violence training. If I had been deeply rooted in knowing and practicing love of the other, love of enemy, I might have been quick witted enough to offer up my wallet as well.

So — that’s the lesson I want to take from the interaction. I’ve got 5 thoughts that respond to it.

  1. First, I’m reminded of the passage in 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” To be honest, I was afraid yesterday. Fear is natural when we feel in danger. But as we grow in perfect in love, I believe that our love for others (or the other) can become so strong that we no longer fear them. Dr. King writes a similar idea: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
  2. Second, I recognize that most of the world (and increasingly the US) do not identify as Christians. So, to say, “Well, Jesus said it” doesn’t always carry much weight. And in fact, the name “Jesus” may sadly be an emotional trigger for some who have been traumatized by the church or Christian folks. So, despite the source of the idea, I think the question of our hope for society still begs the same ethical response. What kind of society do you want to live in? Do you want suspicion and distrust to be the predominant, primary means of interacting? Do you want people to be stuck in patterns of fear and dehumanization? Isn’t personal sacrifice worth the hope of a better future and world? I would say it is. We must expect good from each day and expect good from those around us. We must live out the change we wish to see in the world. (Gandhi)
  3. Third, getting my phone stolen is really just a mild inconvenience. I have been born with an incredible amount of privilege and opportunity. Within just a couple hours of getting it stolen, I had 4 people offer me old phones to use, 3 of which were iPhones. Christians (and anyone committed to peace and love) are called to see life through the eyes of their enemies. I do not know his story, but I can say with absolute confidence that life has been harder for him than it has for me. It is pure arrogance to assert you would not resort to stealing if you were him. You can never know. We must take  a necessary posture of humble empathy if we are to have any hope to love our enemies.
  4. There does seem to be some naivete in “turning the cheek.” At another place, Jesus also said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)” Does this paradoxical combination of shrewdness and innocence mean I just hand the guy my wallet when he wants my cell? Or do I give $10 to every person on the street who asks for a quarter? How does shrewdness factor into loving well? No doubt that answer varies to some degree for each person. But I think it involves some preparation and intentionally. One idea might be to carry a second wallet with maybe some cash and credit cards that you can lose with little consequence. Another might be to carry gift cards or actual food for people who ask for handouts. We need to prepare for surprise when violence may occur. Perpetrators of violence expect fight or flight – not shock or insanity or pleasantry. In the face of threat, some recommend asking the person their name (humanizing the situation) or the time (a mundane distracting question). Others have feigned insanity to prevent harm to others (and thereby diverting attention).
  5. Finally – and what I think may be the most important point (which I learned from my brilliant ex-wife) – “turning the cheek” brings with it a self-righteous martyrdom. We all love to be right, to in the right, and the other to be in the wrong. It feels to good to “kill them with your kindness,” to stand firm on the higher moral ground. This stokes our ego and makes us feel superior. We must critically examine and dissect our own hearts. And when we do, we always find selfish motivations and pride. Our sin and brokenness run deep – there is no such thing as a wholly pure motive. Every single thing we do has some tinge of serving ourselves, and “turning the cheek” as I’ve advocated above, is definitely no exception. We want to “love others” and help them see the error of their ways because we then can feel good about ourselves and how we are helping them. If I can help others, I can remain blind to my own problems. The truth is everyone poops. And everyone’s poop stinks. We must accept this broken state, recognizing that we are all sinful and selfish and prideful. I am no better than the guy who stole my phone. It is by only grace that anyone is saved.

Help us this day both to receive grace and to give it. Amen.

Some thoughts about marriage

October 31, 2015

If you have not heard, I recently went through the painful process of divorce. So I wanted to write up some reflections on marriage, and some things I wish I knew before taking the plunge.

  1. Don’t go into a marriage expecting to change the person. Everyone changes, but we cannot expect or hope to control the process. We must love and accept people around us as they are right now, not who they might become. It is not your job to try and change others, especially a spouse. Doing so will only lead to conflict, disagreement, and hurt. We must show others the same grace and freedom that God shows us. Don’t marry someone for their potential. Only marry if that person is who they need to be today.
  2. You cannot expect a spouse will complete you. We carry with us a brokenness or emptiness that will never be completely filled. We long for that which is beyond us and eternal, so nothing in this life will ever fully satisfy the deep loneliness inside. We must accept and embrace this in our marriages, relationships, and communities without thinking they will ever completely fill that void. A deep loneliness is at the core of what it means to be human. Failing to recognize this will lead to unmet expectations in your spouse.
  3. Your spouse will change. Despite not going into a marriage expecting to change your spouse, you both will change in dramatic ways, especially if you marry young. Therefore, it’s especially important for you to work at changing together. A certain amount of independence is important and even healthy, but with too much independence, you may head in different directions in life.
  4. Your spouse will change you. Who you become in life is greatly influenced by the person you marry. Often they will be the most influential person on your life. Therefore, marry someone you deeply respect – someone you would like to be like. For with enough time, you will resemble one another.
  5. You need more than love. The Beatles were wrong. No doubt love is incredibly important to sustain a lifelong partnership. But sometimes love is not enough. Shared values, beliefs, and convictions are also critically important for marriage. People often disagree on important issues – this is common and expected (though a challenge). Nevertheless, on the “deal-breaker” issues, it is critical there is agreement. Marry someone with whom you share values and convictions.