We Know Where to Find Jesus, But What If We Don’t Want to Go There?

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By the time John the Baptist reevaluated his entire life calling in the prison at Herod’s palace, Jesus was well on his way out into the wilderness. Nothing added up. If Jesus was the Messiah, why wasn’t he in control of Herod’s Palace? Why were the corrupt priests still ministering in the temple? Why were the Romans still taxing, demeaning, and executing his people? 

Why wasn’t Jesus in control? 

John couldn’t make sense of the power that Jesus exerted throughout his ministry. John expected a Messiah who would take over. Instead, he got a Messiah who wandered in the wilderness, healed the outcasts, forgave notorious sinners, and spoke about a vague Kingdom of God without ever crowning himself king. 

How could Jesus be a king without the office and position of a king? 

The riddle of Jesus was as confounding to John as it would be for us today. There’s no doubt that many Christians today would struggle to believe in and follow a religious “leader” like Jesus who wasn’t married, didn’t have a large following, and never assumed any kind of official office or put together an organization/denomination. 

Jesus wasn’t organized, systematized, or influential according to our own terms. While he had a certain amount of authority and clout because of his powerful teachings and miracles, he never took on a formal position. That latter point made no sense to John. 

I was reminded of these lessons about John from my book Unfollowers when I read a post by Sarah Bessey over the weekend. Sarah gives evangelicals “permission” to step away from labels, traditions, and positions for a season in order to grieve and to rediscover what following Jesus may look like for them. Everything in her post resonates with my own experiences in evangelicalism: the need to grieve its worst parts, the desire for distance and space, and the reassembling of my faith out in the wilderness apart from religious structures. 

We don’t get to remake faith according to our own terms. We can only seek out Jesus wherever he may be found, and as the story of John the Baptist teaches us, Jesus spent a lot of time in the wilderness. 

Like John, we all crave some sort of validation, an external marker that tells everyone: “Look, I’m on the right side!” 

We can feel the tension of Jesus’ audience all over the pages of scriptures. His disciples asked when they would be able to reign on thrones with him. They followed him to his ascension asking if he was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel. They wanted clear, external validation that they were on the right side. 

I can feel the same tension today. I’ve always wanted to be associated with a group that is successful and right. Whether that’s been a group of fundamentalists destined to be raptured someday soon or a rag tag band of progressive evangelicals who are trying to figure out prayer and service to the poor, I want my choices to be validated by institutions and groups. I want to belong to something bigger than myself and to have a kind of position or rank or recogniztion within that group. 

Jesus consistently denied his followers any kind of office or position. They were just a bunch of uneducated nobodies who followed that “Messiah-wanna-be” for three years. They never received any kind of validation or position that meant a thing among their contemporaries. Jesus even discouraged them from taking the title “rabbi.” 

And so where does that leave us? 

Can we find contentment on the margins and in the wilderness, with only the validation that comes from Jesus? Do we need positions, titles, labels, or recognition in order to serve, bless, or pray? Do we need an institution to recognize us? 

As much as I crave the roots and traditions of my faith, I have also seen how institutions and power structures can become a snare and an idol all their own. I live daily with the tension of seeking to learn from the founders of my faith while also embracing the wilderness that Jesus has called me into. 

At some point every day, I have to face my desire for validation and recognition within a structure or organization. Most importantly, as I stand in the prison made of my own desires, I wonder where Jesus is. Why isn’t he here with me? Why hasn’t he given me what I want? 

The answer is found in the barren wildnerness where titles are never given and have no value any way. I can follow Jesus out there, but I have to let go of my own plans first. In that sense, I have quite a bit in common with John the Baptist. 

5 Reasons American Christians Love to Get the Book of Revelation Wrong-A Guest Post for Zack Hunt

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Zack Hunt is one of those bloggers who often says what I wish I could say. His American Jesus blog mixes theology and commentary with his sharp whit and radar for the absurd in American Christianity. I always enjoy dropping by his blog because I feel like I can let my sarcastic side off the leash a bit more. This week I’m writing about 5 Reasons American Christians Love to Get the Book of Revelation Wrong. Here’s the introduction below…

Christians in America have ZERO incentive to interpret the book of Revelation correctly.

Learned Bible scholars have presented compelling interpretations for years that provide biblically grounded and compelling explanations for its symbols and predictions. And guess what? They aren’t big fans of the rapture—a theological innovation of the 1800’s that rose to prominence because of marketing and chance rather than its accuracy.

Among today’s biblical scholars there’s a strong consensus that the majority of the book of Revelation addressed events that concerned seven first century churches in Asian Minor—you know, the seven churches the letter is ADDRESSED TO.

No worries, those liberals don’t REALLY care about understanding the Bible.

My goodness, Christians in America, especially the evangelicals, love to butcher the book of Revelation into sound bite sized, attention-grabbing, uninformed nuggets of speculation that drizzle in just enough biblical study to make their speculations look biblically legitimate.

If you live in America and you want to understand what the book of Revelation is really about, good luck. There are five really good reasons why Americans love to get it wrong:

Read the rest at The American Jesus.  

The Correct Theology Didn’t Help These Guys: My Guest Post for Micah J. Murray

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I’m guest posting for my friend Micah J. Murray, a talented up-and-coming writer who has written some of the most powerful blog posts I’ve read over the past two years. After you read my post, be sure to subscribe to his blog.

They witnessed miracles. They listened to hours and hours of perfect, undeniably correct teaching. They’d even had the future predicted for them.

They still doubted.

When calamity struck, they bolted. They didn’t join their friends in prayer. They didn’t wait for clarity. While they had every reason to believe, they couldn’t make sense of their experiences. Doubt was too much for them.

I wish we knew more about those two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus. There’s no doubt that they possessed more accurate information about Jesus than we could ever know. They’d lived the story of Jesus. They saw miracles. They listened to his teaching. They knew his death was coming.

At the times when things don’t add up about Christianity or the Bible, there are times when I can relate to their desire to run away.

I take comfort that Jesus showed up even as they ran away.

Read the Rest at Redemption Pictures.

World Vision, Consumerism, and Replacing Children Like Cell Phones

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World VisionGiving to charity can become yet another facet of American consumerism.

As Americans consume more technology, food, clothing, and furniture, giving to charity can alleviate guilt over our affluence. We can make a donation, and it could save us from asking hard questions about our lifestyles. We can say, “At least I’ve done something.”

I’ve seen the influence of consumerism in the way some former World Vision donors are planning to simply “swap” their sponsored children for another, supposedly morally pure model. If they don’t like the  decisions of World Vision when it comes to its hiring practices, they can just switch their loyalty to another charity brand and pick up another kid to support.

It’s consumerism running amuck in our benevolence.

World Vision is one of many charities that has attempted to overcome the cold financial transaction of charitable giving with something far better: relationship. By linking donors directly with children, they offer them a chance to develop a relationship.

A donation to charity can become just another notch in a consumer’s to do list, as if that donation relieave them of guilt or an obligation. I think we can all sense that tension when we donate money to a worthy cause. However, when your money is directly tied to the well-being of a child you know by name, whose face you see in a picture every day, you have a chance to move beyond merely alleviating your moral guilt. You can become a partner, perhaps even a distant surrogate family.

You can swap pictures, share stories, and become involved in each other’s lives.

Many donors at World Vision and other charities get this, but in light of World Vision’s shift in hiring practices, it’s likely that at least 2,000 donors didn’t get the point of it all. Unconfirmed reports on Twitter have mentioned:

These former donors didn’t see the value of the relationships with their children when there was a tiny, minute risk that the purity of their donations could be “corrupted” by the future presence of LGBT, married Christians. Within mere days of the announcement about World Vision’s policy change, over 2,000 donors dropped their kids. Relationships? Done.

Just… like… that…

Welcome to American consumerism kids.

For those former donors the relationships with children in need didn’t take center stage. They were more committed to the culture wars and the impact of their donations on themselves than they were on the impact on the children whom they’d committed to support. 

We can argue all day over whether World Vision truly took a step toward middle ground by allowing married, LGBT Christians onto their staff. I believe they did all that they could to remain open to both camps in Christianity, even if the more conservative side defines compromise in very strict terms. We may argue whether World Vision went too far and who caused this “crisis.” That end of this debate will go on and on among a continually dwindling number of Christians.

However, there is no debating that those who dropped children over this issue have illustrated that they never really understood the way World Vision works in the first place. They didn’t grasp the importance of personally connecting with the children they sponsored. When you’re in a relationship with a child through a charity, you don’t hold children accountable for hiring policy changes at the charity. For these donors, remaining holy and adopting a moral high ground in evangelical culture meant more than ensuring their children receive 3 meals a day and can attend school.

These former World Vision donors behaved exactly as you would expect consumers to act and nothing like you would expect a family to behave–at least, a healthy family.

Seeing all of this unfold reminds me just how important it is to put people before our personal dogmas and culture wars. Seeing the ugliness of this conflict reminds me of why Jesus told us that loving God and our neighbors are the first two commandments. If there is ever a tough decision we need to make, our first question should be: Is this decision loving or harming my neighbor? 

World Vision has given us the gift of relationships with precious children. Our financial support for them is but a small part of the transaction. The larger good is that we get to be a part of these promising young lives.

We can be a part of restoring these relationships. We can let these kids know that they aren’t rejected or abandoned, that they aren’t just commodities we can swap like cell phones, that their stories matter to us and that we will help them find the support they need.

You can support a child today at World Vision.

You can also contact Nish Weiseth if you know of a child who has lost support.  


My Least Favorite Gospel Stories: When Jesus Alienates His Family

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I wish that following Jesus made family relationships easier. When I wrote about his homecoming to Nazareth for Unfollowers, I was reminded that theology and family don’t always mix well.

In Luke 4 we read that Jesus returned to Nazareth in the power of the Spirit and made an of announcement about his ministry. His talk in the synagogue went well, people spoke in glowing terms of his teaching, and it sounded like they supported his ministry. However, things quickly went downhill.

I wish that the friends and family of Jesus from his home town embraced his message. Instead they insulted him, suggesting that he was no teacher or religious authority. They said he was just as ill as everyone else and that he should focus on healing himself rather than others.

Jesus could have just walked away and settled in his cozy fishing village by the Sea of Galilee. Rather, Jesus spoke like a prophet, announcing that he would take his message to the Gentiles and that they would listen. For the Jewish people who identified themselves as God’s chosen people, there was no insult more cutting than this.

While there’s no denying that the mission of God throughout the New Testament has consistently been to make one people out of the Jews and Gentiles, the proclamation from Jesus was understood as a loss and an insult to their Jewish identity.

Years of military conflict, ethnic strife, and exploitation had further fueled the anger of the people in Nazareth toward the Gentiles. However, Jesus wasn’t one to let history dictate the plans of God to reconcile all people together as one. He was blunt and honest.

In my own experience, I’ve tried to be direct and blunt about my beliefs with my family. Sometimes I was insensitive and  even wrong. Sometimes I stuck to my beliefs, and my relationships suffered for years as a result.

I’m encouraged to know that Jesus’ mother eventually came around, moving from doubter who thought him crazy to one of the disciples baptized with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. However, in this story at least, Jesus was clearly at odds with his friends and family, and he essentially dumped gasoline on it all before striking a match.

God’s salvation is going to the Gentiles?

That’s heresy.

It was bad enough that the people tried to toss Jesus over a cliff.

I don’t know how close they got to actually throwing him over the edge, but the simple fact that this was even remotely possible drives home how ugly things can get when we are at odds with family members over our beliefs.

How Did Jesus Reconcile with His Family and Friends?

As distrubing as it is to read that Jesus was nearly killed when he returned to his home town, there is a glimmer of hope in the Gospels. After all, even James, the brother of Jesus, became a leader of the church in Jerusalem. 

We don’t know all of the details, but there’s one simple detail we dare not overlook: time. 

Over the passage of time, the offensiveness of Jesus faded for at least some of his friends and family members. 

In my own experiences, time can do much to mend relationships. We can only do so much to reconcile with family and friends when we’re split over our religious beliefs. At times we won’t see any progress, and we’ll start to wonder whether things will ever change. 

At a certain point, Jesus got through to his family or his family at least bonded together when the Jewish leaders plotted to kill him. However it happened, many of the people closest to Jesus went from angry mob, to insulting doubters, to grieving disciples, to Spirit empowered disciples. 

There Is Hope for Divided Families

The story of Jesus’ conflict with his home town and family offers us the kind of hope we can overlook–the hope that conflicts with loved ones and trusted friends can essentially evaporate over time. As days, weeks, months, and years pass, we may not arrive at unity or agreement, but the edges of our arguments can dull over time. 

As the years pass we’ll change, rethink our priorities, and see each other with different perspectives. We may even find peace with each other over the issues that once upset us the most. 

An Interview with Jennifer Luitweiler about Seven Days in May

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The internet is a place where lots of people speak their minds, but few do so with as much grace, passion, wisdom, and wit as Jennifer Luitweiler. I’m always grateful to read her writing because she isn’t afraid to tackle the tough topics that tug at our emotions and challenge our minds. Her novel, Seven Days in May, is the latest expression of her bold and brave writing as she tackles a forgotten and unsavory story about the city of Tulsa:

What’s the elevator pitch for Seven Days in May?
Seven Days in May is set against the most violent race riot in American history. A pair of girls, white and black, run up against societal and literal, physical barriers in their hometown of Tulsa. They girls witness the events that spark the riot, and may not live through it.

How did you come across this story?
When I moved to Tulsa in 1995, the district that burned, Greenwood, was nothing much. Boarded up buildings, a few businesses here and there, and one small section that had been rebuilt by Francis Ford Coppola to film the moving The Outsiders. I had no idea that there had been a thriving African American community in Tulsa, or that white leaders led a strategic siege on that property and people.
Talk a bit about how you moved from your research into creating these characters?
Most of the reports from the time lead us to city leaders, both black and white. As was generalized at the time, these positions of power were held by men. So, as I researched, I kept wondering what it was like to have been  married to an extremist, bent on marginalizing another set of humans. I wondered what it would have been like to manage the domestic relationships of they time, when it was common for white women to employ black women in their homes as domestics. From there, I had a germ of an idea, about the women behind the men. I found some fantastic academic work about how black women moved from slavery to domestic work after Emancipation and the Civil War; most often there was tremendous mistrust between the employer and employee. The most interested bit I found was that as the white women felt extremely influential in the lives of the African Americans they employed, the black women often held back, and even made up stories about, their real lives and ideas outside the white homes. From there, I imagined my women characters.
What are the most common responses you receive from readers and people who attend your speaking events?
Mostly people say they had no idea that this happened. And that doesn’t surprise me. As a city, we are just now beginning to be honest about what happened. I get that; it’s shameful, and believe me when I say that those who pay attention in Tulsa still carry that shame. Also, I hear about the way I captured small details of the time, and I also hear that the relationship between the girls is irregular. And it is. I don’t want to spoil the story, but there are indications that there were clusters of white and Native Americans who helped the fleeing black people, and that’s a component here.
How has this book shaped the way you view Tulsa?
My view of Tulsa is how I would view any adopted thing. It was not “mine” or “my home,” for so long, mostly because I kept it that way. I tried not to put down roots or to care, but this city and its history are truly American. Writing the book has taught me about reliable sources, and urban legends, and given me a thirst for more of the hidden stories. What I found is that while I was interested in the riot, I am mostly interested in how a group of events and ideals lead to flashpoints that we later recognize as historic. It’s fascinating, really, to see chain reactions in time. And I want to find more of those here.
How has writing this book shaped the way you look at race relations today?
You know how when you learn you’re family is expecting a baby, and suddenly pregnant people seem to be all around? Or when you learn a new word, and it’s ubiquitous? That’s how I feel about the book and race relations. People say we’re post racial, but not in my city. Tulsa is literally divided by a highway that borders what used to be Greenwood. North Tulsa is generally one thing, and south Tulsa generally another. It was much less diverse when I first moved here. I find that I am sensitive to the racial spin, or lack thereof, in media reports. Whites are often quick to shift blame away from racial factors. Also, I feel like I need to be sensitive to the fact that I’ve never been segregated by color. I recently spoke to a class of students, and afterward, I was speaking with an African American man. I asked him what he thought about the info I shared, and about the riot in general. He said he had only recently learned about it, and that even though he understands it happened, he doesn’t want to live in the past.  That kind of shattered my stereotype and that is good.
A team of Sydney Crosby’s play a team of Wayne Gretzky’s. Who wins and what’s the final score?
I’d rather have a team with Mario on it. But I’d have to give the win the Great one. Darn you.
Seven Days in MayTell us where folks can buy this book:
Seven Days in May on Amazon and on CreateSpace.
Thanks, ED!

Spiritual Growth Lessons from… Caiaphas?

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I’m guest posting for my friend Kris Camealy today about the least likely source for a spiritual growth lesson: Caiaphas, the high priest in the Gospels. Here’s a sample of where I’m going.  

When I think of Caiaphas, I think of a scheming, murderous, angry priest dressed in black who became obsessed with murdering Jesus. Just about everybody loves Jesus, so it’s hard to imagine how anyone could plot to kill him. Caiaphas appears so evil that he’s hardly recognizable as a real historical character.

I used to see Caiaphas as a kind of foil for Jesus. We need him in the Gospel stories to show us just how good Jesus could be, even forgiving his worst enemies.

I’ve since learned that there’s another way we can relate to Caiaphas. Yes, we may not be plotting the murder of a major religious figure, but we can learn from the qualities, actions, and values that made Caiaphas who he was and determined the course his life took. We may never turn out anywhere near as bad as Caiaphas, but he does serve as a magnifying glass for the ways we can go off track in life.

Read the Rest at Kris Camealy’s site.