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Justice Needs Jesus

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

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Love Big. Be Well.

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.

 

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There’s Still the Music

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.

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Better Words, Sometimes Fewer Words

We’re drowning in words. And this is a crisis because we need good words more than ever. I think that those of us who work with words are a big part of the problem (I am, I know). We need to roll up our sleeves and put in the serious sweat.

Anytime we can cut three words and replace them with 1, do it. Anytime it’s possible to turn a 30 minute sermon or lecture to 15 minutes, then by God make it happen. This is not always possible, and sometimes beautiful, truthful language needs lots of space to breathe. But if we writers or preachers or teachers don’t have the fire-in-the-gut that leads to that magical ingredient: piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished.

Now, we don’t need to be perfectionists about this, and God knows there’s more than a few times for me when a Sunday or a deadline’s rolled around and I just have to go with the best I can do. But let’s make that our dead-level aim: to do our best. And our best, I’m convinced, is almost always going to be less/smaller/quieter than what our first impulse suggests.

I also think we’re drowning in nonsensical, eyes-glazing-over words because some of us just really like our words (a lot) and they somehow signal (or lead to, we hope) validation. So the more words, the more we feed that frenzied quest to be noticed. I get it. I want to be noticed. I want people to give me the thumbs up. I want people to think that what I have to say is worth tuning in for, and I cringe to think of how often I’ve offered sentences that were really just me jumping up and down for attention. But that’s a soul-killing game, let me tell you. And it never pays off. And in that lustful glut, we end us saying all kinds of things that we don’t even really mean or understand, all in our attempt to sound clever or catch the attention of the passing parade. Exhausting. For everyone.

And if you’ll allow me a moment more (am I not heeding my own advice here?), we have piles of superfluous words because some of us are working out our every anxiety on paper for the world to see. I’m all for honest writing (please, give us more), but there’s a difference between writing that’s human/real and writing that’s exhibitionist. The former is a gift to the reader/listener. The latter is selfishness masquerading as courage. And I fear we’ve created an entire industry out of this masquerading bit. If we’re going to claim honesty, then let’s get really honest about this.

At any rate, for those of you who work with words, I’m your brother-in-arms. Thank you for bleeding on the page. And for those of you who read or listen to our words, thank you for keeping us honest. We’re in perilous times, and I’m with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” And words, I believe, are (at their best) a crucial part of this beauty.

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A Future Born in Mercy


Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”

I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.

The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.

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Pentecost Goes Like This

For lots of enlightened, sensible Christians, Pentecost is like the crazy uncle: he can tell some real barn-burner stories, but you sure as heck want him out of sight anytime company’s over. It’s easy to see why we’ve arrived here, with Acts’ wild images of the holy tempest blowing and the fire dancing on heads, not to mention the zany circus show you land on with late-night televangelists.

However, Pentecost tells us the story of how Jesus’ promise to bring heaven to earth is happening now, right in front of us. The Holy Spirit’s wind arrived “from heaven,” and it blew right past all the inhibitions, all the religious resistance. God decided it was time to send a shockwave of mercy, hope and renewal; and so the Spirit came. And life exploded. Grace erupted. In a matter of hours, those who’d been sworn enemies were locking arms, those who’d been rejected were welcomed like long lost family, those who didn’t have two pennies to their name were all of the sudden eating like kings. When Heaven arrives on earth, it can look lots of different ways, but it always looks at least something like this.

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Dear John ~ 29 May 2017

Dear John,

It’s Memorial Day. I wish you and the fam could all stroll over to the house this afternoon. We’d fire up the grill, play a little cornhole or maybe take rounds picking off targets with the new air rifle the boys and I bought. For Wyatt’s birthday on Saturday, we stuck his old cellphone up on a box in the yard and shot it to smithereens. The boys love stuff like that…yeah, it’s only the boys who love it, not me at all… Anyway, we’d eat and shoot stuff and sit on the porch and watch the sun go down as the fireflies lit up the yard. We’d give thanks for the life we’ve been given and for those who’ve given their life for this life we’ve been given. We’re going to have a few other friends with us this evening–you’d like them. Anyway, since you and Mer have all the kids home from the far reaches, I know you’ll have a good day over there on Snowwood Drive.

Memorial Day always sneaks up on me, a stealth holiday. But then something about that seems right. A day of memory, a day of gratitude. It seems right to me that it’s quiet. This morning on my run, I listened to a friend narrate via podcast the story of his wife’s Uncle Floyd who piloted a helicopter rescue squad in Vietnam. En route to another downed copter, enemy fire struck Floyd’s craft. They never found his body. Decades later, however, a group of Floyd’s military friends and family returned to the village near the crash site. Discovering the village had no modern medical care, they opened a little clinic in Floyd’s honor. The drama stretched taut, however, when Floyd’s sister met the two men who shot down Floyd’s helicopter. She describes how she experienced no anger, only compassion. The ravages of war had wounded them all. Compelled by her faith, Floyd’s sister felt her heart open wide. She wanted healing not only for herself, but healing also for those who were once named enemies.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we’re ratcheting up this enemy posture, how often now we’re divided along the simplistic storylines of us vs. them. That old storyline (and it’s at times freely wielded by some on the right as well as the left) makes it remarkably (and disturbingly) easy to castigate another beloved human made in God’s image with broad stroke assumptions, almost glibly easy to assault someone’s dignity or paint someone in a corner where they are silenced through a dehumanizing brand of shame.

I’ve participated in a number of civic actions recently. It’s important to stand alongside those who are being silenced or those whose lives bear the weight of unjust histories and unjust actions that are happening now. In some of these moments, however, I leave with the weight of an even greater sadness than I had before. I saw one teenager at a rally (a fellow not part of the mainstream opinion) surrounded by an angry circle, with a ferocious energy that felt like it would swallow the boy whole. I don’t agree with the boy’s point of view at all, but I wanted to go stand by him, to wait with him until the fever died down, to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone, to have a conversation and hear him tell me where’s he’s coming from, what makes him afraid, what gives him hope. I stood nearby until things died down, though I was never able to talk with him. That evening, we were there to speak up for those who are beloved by God. And also there was a boy in the midst of that seething circle who is beloved by God.

I am more convinced than ever that the powers of this world are simply unable to ultimately win these moments. The way of the crucified Jesus, offering sacrificial love with wide open arms toward the entire world (the ones who want this love and the ones who abuse this love) offers a profound critique to the easy inclinations of my own heart and to the simmering rage of the powers that be. There’s right and wrong, thank goodness. However, in the Kingdom of God, there is no us vs. them. There is only us, all of us, in need of mercy. 

Well, sorry if I got preachy there at the end. I wish you were here so we could talk about it in person. But until then, letters will have to do.

 

Your Friend,

Winn

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The Good News of Ascension

For Christians, today is Ascension Day. It’s supposed to be a day of feasting and joy and hope, but the day’s now ignored in many traditions, perplexed as we are by what it means, what’s the deal? Is it the anticlimactic downer, after Easter’s wild rush of hope? Did Jesus just jet off, the first intergalactic space traveler, into some far away existence, leaving us to muddle along for some indefinite (and very long, we now see) time, hanging on by the skin of our teeth?

No wonder those first disciples stood gawking up at the clouds. With this kind of story, I’d stand there scratching my head too.

The Ascension is the promise that God-gone-human was not a passing whim but that God loves the body and all the joys and goodness of being human and Jesus now takes this true humanity and joins it to God the Father. And Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and hopes and longings and deep scars and crushing fears and carries them to the Father who gathers them into the very center of the Trinity, all with the promise that we too, in all our splendid humanity, will one day be renewed and find complete joy in God.

The Ascension does not mean God is far removed and we’re to just make out the best we can – exactly the opposite. We’d only say such a thing if we completely misunderstand what “heaven” means. The Ascension assures us that the God who is flesh in Jesus is also present with us everywhere, by the Spirit, loving us, calling us into life, beckoning our wayward hearts.

The Ascension assures us that Jesus Christ has ascended to the good and generous and powerful throne, to rule over, watch over, and provide diligent care over the whole of creation. This means all of us – and every spec of this world in need of healing. This means the universe is in good hands. This means the story ends well.

The Great Story really needs Ascension. I’m glad we have it.

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He Really is a Prophet

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

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A Pastor’s Picture

Being a pastor is often a joy, but like every vocation, it’s far from peaches and cream. Stanley Hauerwas once said that being a pastor is like being slowly nibbled to death by ducks. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a church like that, but there are days when it seems like I should have stayed a stockbroker or tried my hand as a backcountry guide or maybe become one of those pro Minecraft gamers on YouTube.

There are days when you watch someone you love walk away or you are riddled with questions just as it seems like an answer’s what everyone needs, days when your pastoral energy’s flat as a pancake, days when you feel like you had something really worthwhile to offer in a sermon – only to crater that baby with a class-A nosedive. There are days when you know that all you really can do – all you’ve really ever been able to do – is invite people to Jesus’ Table, to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to remind us of The Story, to hold your hands wide and break that bread and invite people to come on home. And though you know this is all you can do, you hope it is enough.

And then one day, a child gives you a picture they drew of you in that moment. And your heart swells with gratitude. And you whisper to yourself, “It’s enough. It really is enough.”