Lord, we woke this morning to another wave of sorrow. More of us are dead. We had to tell our children, once again, of the evil we’ve done. We have to face another grieving day, added on top of all the other grieving days. We have tears. We have anger. We are hellbent on destroying one another. You’re going to have to help us see the truth. You’re going to have to give us courage to be something different. You’re going to have to help us. Amen.
In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?
But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.
On Monday, I had every intention of getting a letter of to you, but you beat me to it. What kept me from writing my dear ol’ friend in Colorado? The City of Charlottesville, that’s what. We got a letter in the mail from one of our street inspectors giving us 10 days to trim back a long row of runaway Rose of Sharons that have been spreading themselves too generously out over our little lane. They were running wild, I’ll admit. And they were causing a problem on our narrow lane, skinny as it is. Even without the forest intruding onto the asphalt, two go karts would have to suck in their tummies to squeeze past each other without scraping paint. Did you know that in England, lots of the little avenues are referred to as a “close”? Like instead of Mulberry St., it’s Mulberry Close? Those Brits say what they mean; everything on those streets is in close, for sure.
Anyway, I had planned to trim the Rose of Sharons in a month or so when legitimate Fall weather hits, as I’m told that then I can prune away without fear of butchering them into oblivion. However, the inspector man said they had to go, butcher or no butcher. He obviously has little concern for our horticultural dilemma. I’d planned for the job to take an hour. Six hours later, I dragged my weary self into the house and called it a day.
You know, though, how Charlottesville has been syphoning off so much of my energy in so many other ways lately. Our dear, broken town has been splayed across the news, and it’s not going away–last night CNN had a link to a livestream of our town’s City Council meeting–can you believe that? In the middle of Hurricanes and DACA breakdown and North Korea shooting nuclear missiles, there sits our town council with a lead-in from Wolf Blitzer. John, I tell you, on August 12th, I experienced the most vile and vicious ways we degrade ourselves and others. I know racism and antisemitism is still very much with us, but I’ve never seen it bare its fangs– so brazen, without any twinge of conscience. And then, later, I stood between two groups of people spewing the most evil, dehumanizing words at one another. I will never forget that. Never. And though I would never want three people to die to be able to get to this point, I am grateful that now our wounds, festering so long, are in the open, that we simply cannot ignore them. I hope that now we can embrace serious national repentance. I hope that we can truly become brothers and sisters, that we can make communities where everyone truly belongs.
You talked about the In-Between. I feel that all the time. I feel it, for instance, in trying to navigate how to live well in a time where we cycle from one crisis to the next, rarely without any moment to catch our breath or think deeply, certainly no time to think clearly. One downside (of many) to the 24-hour news cycle and firehose-style social media is that we are tempted to believe we can have (or should have) our finger and our mind on every issue, every crisis, every worthy concern. But we can’t. Only God can do that. If we think that we have no responsibility to engage the sorrows and injustices of our world, we need God to expand our heart. However, if we think that we are responsible to confront every sorrow and injustice of our world, we need God to chasten our bloated (and destructive) delusions.
Of course, for many of us, our overblown sense of responsibility comes from the shame blasted out from those who like to sound like God, only with a heap of self-righteousness poured on top. A long time ago, I gave up giving someone else that level of authority in my life. I’ve got my hands full trying to follow Jesus’ voice; I can’t tune in to the million-voice siren call on Facebook too.
All this reminds me of Ignatius who often signed off his letters with this inspiring jolt: Go set the world aflame! That’ll get the blood flowing, won’t it? We do need more people striking their match. However, Ignatius also regularly insisted on our need to foster a Holy Indifference. This Holy Indifference was Ignatius’ way of describing an abiding trust in God that keeps us from getting swept away in the emotions and demands of those things (and often good things) that simply take over more energy than they should. It’s not a call to apathy, not by any means. However, it is, as one writer put it,”peaceful acceptance, realistic expectations, and careful consideration.” If we have indifference but no flame, we’ll waste our life. And if we have the flame but no indifference, we’ll just burn, burn til there’s nothing playful or hopeful or curious left in us at all.
I know saying goodbye to the kids was hard. I wish Miska and I could have walked over to check in on you and Mer after the farewells. I see those days coming toward us over the horizon. I’m going to be a blubbering dad when it’s our turn. But before then, Miska and I are celebrating our 20th. And we’re doing it in style. We’re heading to Ireland on Sunday to do a walking tour of the Kerry Way, just the bags over our shoulder, the mist on our heads, the green clover under our feet. We’ll walk from village to village. I can’t wait. I plan to practice a little Holy Indifference on the trail.
I have a friend who is in our country illegally. He’s one of the most honest, hard-working, resourceful men I know. He came here years ago in a desperate attempt to care for his family. Upon arrival, he applied for an IRS ID number so he could pay his taxes — think about that for a second. And my friend pays a fair bit of taxes because he works crazy hard, much harder than many of us who were born here. “He should have immigrated the right way,” we say. Sure, fair enough. But he didn’t. And he didn’t because he was trying to care for his family – what would I be willing to do if I needed to provide for Miska and the boys? And my friend’s been in our community for years now, made a life with us, become a neighbor. He’s the guy who’s helping out others who need a job, making our community a better place.
And yet under the current system (which they say is going to be getting even more difficult), there’s no viable way for him to make his citizenship right that wouldn’t decimate them. Whatever one thinks about the need for immigration reform (and I’m certain we can do better), if our reform doesn’t include compassion (not to mention gratitude, for crying out loud) for people like my friend, then it’s beneath the American ideal I know and love.
And now one of my friend’s daughters is starting another year of school and continues to tear up the soccer pitch. She’s got a foot that can launch a rocket. Most days, she lives in a low-grade anxiety that her dad is going to get pulled over on the way to one of his jobs and be deported. I can’t imagine what it is to live with that constant drip of fear on top of managing the fact that you know lots of people don’t want you here and on top of wading through all the normal school angst of boys and geometry and looking the right way and all the everyday stuff that makes it so hard to be a kid these days. But here she is, and she’s been here most of her life. By any standard that should matter, she’s American. And now, she has to go to bed at night knowing that DACA might be revoked, that even though she was only a child following her parents and even though the good ol’ USA is the only home she knows, we may very well come looking for her to send her packing.
Whatever immigration reform we envision, if it does not have a wide open door and massive amounts of love and compassion for my friend’s rocket-launching daughter who’s trying to wrangle her class schedule and get to soccer practice on time, then it’s beneath the American ideal I know and love. And what’s crazy is this: what I’m asking for used to be, as recent as the Bush years, a moderate position. How did things get so toxic? Senator Graham (R) who’s been working with Senator Durbin (D) on a bipartisan bill (imagine that!) said, “Who are we? What do we believe? The moment of reckoning is coming. When they write the history of these times, I’m going to be with these kids.”
Me too. I’m going to be with these kids.
So many words and actions on Saturday, so many words of repentance and sorrow and yes–hope on Sunday. But today I have no words. I’m trying to listen to God, and I’m listening to Mother Teresa. I do want to give the light of Christ.
“We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…Is not our mission to give God to the poor in the slums? Not a dead God, but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within—-words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”
It’s likely, unfortunately, that you will hear of our little town on the news this weekend. After the trauma of a KKK group arriving for a rally last month, the White Nationalists and Alt-Right are coming from the 4 corners for a rally this weekend. They say they’re coming for a peaceful demonstration, but the ideology is anything but peaceful – and some of their videos and posters are truly disturbing. A number of groups have planned a variety of responses: from direct action at the park to education to community building to events to keep people away from the boiling cauldron. There’s been murmurings of subterfuge and violence from (what I hope are) fringe groups on both ends of the spectrum. From what I hear, the National Guard should be arriving Friday night. A tempest is brewing.
Though I would never want such a moment for my home, I’ve hoped that this chaos might yield a strange mercy, the opportunity to truly hear the pain of our neighbors, to own and then mend the ongoing effects of our beloved nation’s racism. However, I’m concerned that we run the risk of merely being hardened by the rage, that we might surrender the only true power that can yield heart-deep repentance and a genuine national healing. I fear that we might have given up on the transforming power of love.
I’m not talking about a wimpy, refuse-to-feel-the-weight love. I am talking about a love that defies the temptation to outrage-gone-violent (either violent actions or violent postures or violent words). I am talking about a love that refuses that old and tired but very powerful temptation to think in terms of enemies. I am talking about a love Dr. King knew when he said, “I have decided to stick with love; hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I am talking about a love that would stand with the oppressed while weeping for the oppressor. I am talking about a love that knows deep in the bones that if we don’t get to redemption together, then it isn’t redemption. I am talking about a love that sees in every single human a beloved sister or brother, a child, a parent, one who is more than their actions or ideologies, more than their fears. I’m talking about a love that would rather surrender a thousand arguments than dehumanize another beautiful person carrying God’s very breath in their lungs.
I’m talking about a love that would carry Jesus to a cross, a love that would empower Jesus to say, in what must have seemed the ultimate act of foolishness: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” I’m talking about a love that can melt a Roman guard to tears, can turn a crucified criminal into a friend, a love that promises to recreate the world.
Perhaps this seems like the zany musings of a dreamer, recklessly naive. So be it. I’m belligerently on the side of love. I’ve thrown my lot in with the dying, forgiving Savior. Surely this transformative love seems a pipe dream. But I remember them saying something similar just before Easter morning.
Words, like ideas, gain and lose cultural steam. Thankfully, one of the words and ideas on the rise is justice. For too long, it's been too easy to wallow comfortably in the notion of my private life, my individual well-being, with little thought for the well-being of others or for how justice for the oppressed, the poor, the abused, the forgotten is essential if we are to live in a way that could be called faithful. The prophets gives us a stern dose here. No one says it better than Micah, reminding us that we are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. But the idea flows all through the Bible, cover to cover. You can hardly open the Old Book without running into the call to pursue righteousness, and the word righteousness should often be translated justice. If we are to do what is right and shine God's redemptive brilliance into the world, then justice is a non-negotiable.
One thing worth noting from Micah is how the call to justice goes hand-in-hand with loving mercy. This is a discussion for another day, but suffice it to say that if our justice is absolutist and hard-edged and feels like a stranger in the land of mercy, then something's gone massively haywire. Justice may show us our sickness and triage us to stop the hemorrhaging, but mercy's required if we're ever to be healed.
However, the way we talk about justice these days, it seems that sometimes we're acting like justice is a force unto itself. Justice is not a stand-alone concept we arrive at by sheer brain power, ethical evolution and historical perspective — then hope to God we can figure out a way for Jesus to possibly fit in. Our commitment is not to some intellectual category we call justice; rather our commitment is to Jesus who is the Just One. Justice needs Jesus.
Justice needs Jesus because our attempts at justice, left to themselves (and especially when wrongs are not righted swiftly), usually find a magnetic pull back to some expression of the same violent or dehumanizing energies that inflicted injustice in the first place. We are not unjust because humanity has a few bad apples, but rather we are unjust because left to ourselves, we resort to power plays and violence and manipulation and enemy motifs to protect ourselves or to enact the world we believe in.
Justice needs Jesus because the powers of this world have no generative, life-giving resources on their own. "Everything that is good and perfect," James says, "comes from above, from the Father of lights who does not change like shifting shadows." Every single thing that is right and true and beautiful and good comes from God, everything else is only (at best) derivative of what is true or good or (at worst) some degradation or twisting of that which is true and good. Every ounce of love and healing that exists in the universe comes from the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. God is love. The God who is love has revealed God’s own self through the first century Jew known as Jesus Christ. Justice as an ideal is very different from justice that is Jesus.
This doesn’t mean that someone needs to wear the Christian jersey to enact justice, not at all. In fact, often those who do not claim our faith reveal to us our own hypocrisy. However, all this does mean that whenever true justice happens, it’s consistent with the person of Jesus. Jesus defines justice – not us. No matter how noble or advanced or courageous our justice appears to be, if it doesn’t line up with Jesus’ way, it will ultimately, one way or another, end up inflicting harm. Justice is only possible in the world because God has made it so in Jesus Christ.
Justice needs Jesus because Jesus has uniquely and authoritatively disarmed the violent power games we humans play. Our justice often yields revenge or reverses the power dynamics or employs the notion of justice to atone for our sin or to deal with our shame. We thrive on the delusions of self-righteousness, the idea that we stand-in for justice and others stand-in for evil. And with our enraged "moral clarity," we divide the world in tidy sides and make the other to be an enemy, someone we can dehumanize. We play this game by clinging to our privilege or by bolstering our power. And we can do it even in our efforts to enact justice. Self-righteousness is insidious in the human heart. Most of us are desperate to justify ourselves, to show we’re on the right side—and it's so much easier to do that when someone else plays the part of the villain. And the violence and estrangement goes on and on and on…
Perhaps most of all, justice needs Jesus because God’s justice is not about evening the score or even merely wronging rights – but reconciliation. Paul tells us that the love of Christ compels us to reconciliation, to make friends of enemies, to envision a future beyond the enmity that fuels our outrage. There was once a Man who hung on the Empire's cross and endured the rejection of the religious powers. This man, with gasping breaths, cried out, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing." This is a strange, strange justice. This is a justice that requires Jesus.
photo by Nathan Dumlao
Roughly 4 1/2 years ago, a friend wrote to me, reflecting on the weary season she was in with their church, looking for a pastor. She asked what I’d be looking for in a pastor if I were part of a search team. I wrote her a reply that, I’m sure, was mostly unhelpful.
However, the question sent me down a rabbit hole, and I began to ponder how, over the previous decade or so, my convictions concerning what it means to be a pastor have solidified. I believe to be a pastor is at its heart to embrace a simple vocation, noble and sacred work – but I also believe the word pastor has been sullied. Big egos and power grabs and celebrities and climbing the ecclesial ladder have left us with a vocation that often feels impersonal and frankly has very little to with actually pastoring or worse, much of anything to do with God. More, I think the idea of church has hit on hard times too – what was once a place of friendship and belonging, a place of joy and grief and hope enacted together has become…well, something else.
Considering all this, I did what I normally do when trying to make sense of things – I began to scratch words on paper. However, these words grew into a story. I discovered a pastor named Jonas McAnn and a little church (Granby Presbyterian) in a little town (Granby, Virginia). The story began open-ended, with a lot of curiosity, as every good story should. I had no desire to deliver “a message” but rather to enter the lives of this beautiful, rough-around-the-edges community and see what I’d find.
I’m really pleased with the stories I discovered, the joys, the sorrows, the friendships. It feels like life.
This is an epistolary novel, told through letters Jonas writes to his congregation. I think you’ll grow to love these people just as I have.
The novel is set to release October 27, and I’ll have more to say as time draws near. But I’ll put this out there now: I really need your help. If you’re reading this, this means you’re one of my loyal circle of readers. I’m counting on you for this one.
Here’s what you can do now:
Pre-order the book on Amazon
My publisher (Eerdmans) has made available 10 Advance Reader Copies. If you’d like to be considered for one (which would mean you agree to post a review on Amazon and Goodreads and say a good word on social media in some way in October), please email me with your name and physical address. I’ll collect all the names and have a drawing on Wednesday.
Begin to spread word among your circle of friends. Word of mouth is the only way Love Big. Be Well. will grab any traction.
At times, it’s tempting to believe that the sadness has finally drowned out the joy, that all the rage or the disillusionment or the despair that overwhelms the soul has silenced every simple and beautiful song. But then you hear your two sons and their guitars, plucking their way through an old tune. You hear their attempt to find their voice, to make the words their own. You see their intensity, the way the melody gives them a language they have not accessed before. And your heart returns home again. You still know the despair and the sorrow, you’re no fool. But you know something else more: there’s still the music in the world.