There is something mysterious about food. When human beings of any time, any culture, any income bracket, any religious persuasion or lack thereof, and any cuisine decide to cook and eat together, something sparks. The ritual of the table preparations, the incense-like aromas of meat and vegetables, and the way someone needs to say something before we all dig in--all of this smacks of something sacred.
Another day, another tragedy. USA Today reports that 2017 has been the deadliest year in at least a decade for mass shootings in the US. Allegations continue to surface about powerful men sexually harassing and abusing the people around them. All of this after a summer/fall of nearly unprecedented natural disaster in our hemisphere. How can we keep from going numb?
It's a natural reaction to too much pain. Let's shut down the nerve centers that tell our brains something's deeply wrong. When it comes to our emotions, we're sometimes afraid if we feel the pain we won't be able to function. So we distract ourselves with entertainment, addictions, and self-interested time consuming goals for our careers or travel experiences. If we're busy or distracted, we won't have time to feel, and we won't be in danger of shutting down.
But the truth is quite the opposite, if we don't feel the pain we won't be able to function because we will not address the cause of the pain, the thing threatening to destroy us.
This Sunday, as you no doubt know by now, dozens were killed and many more wounded in a mass shooting inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Yesterday, I could not keep the tears from streaming down my face as I listened to NPR's descriptions of 18 of the 26 killed--grandparents and little children among them.
And when I go online and look at our collective response as a nation, if I'm honest, my hopes are not raised. It seems like we are having the same exhausting and seemingly unproductive conversations we've been having after shootings in Vegas, on university campuses, at elementary schools and in movie theaters. What will shake us up enough to dislodge us from our partisan certainties, and open us to dialogue about real changes? If this doesn't do it...It's hard to say what will.
But this week, tempted by despair that anything will change, I actually found renewed faith in the writings of a self-described agnostic (which surprised this pastor, but maybe shouldn't have).
Our identity statement as a church, one we came to after 8 months of life together, is "We are a spiritual family centered on Jesus and committed to justice for the whole city of Oakland." But why the whole city rather than a particular neighborhood? Why not focus our efforts hyper-locally?
It's a good question. Especially in the age of churches moving away from regional approaches in favor of being a neighborhood church, our statement could seem behind-the-times. In fact, there are deeply important things to learn from renewed hyper-local approaches to building church communities. They encourage actual relationships with actual people. They emphasize deep commitment to a place and a community that goes beyond our consumeristic desires. Hyper-local churches can do life together during the week in their community, rather than driving in for Sunday services and driving home to separation from those they call family. All of these things and more are ideals we strive to embody in Oakland Communion as well.
So why do we have a "whole city" approach to our mission and identity? Because we believe our life should always be adjusted to our locale and our course shaped in light of our context.
For four days this month, my wife and I backpacked through the Grand Canyon. It was one of the most epic adventures of our lives so far. The staggering cliff faces, the trifle-like layers of schist and sandstone, the bizarre peaks that looked like they were teetering on a knife's edge--everywhere we turned our eyes or pointed our camera shocked us with beauty. But if any of the days tempted us not to notice, it was the grueling descent.
We need to talk. Your anxiety is getting out of hand. Sometimes it presses you into frenetic service, spurring you in the side until you wear yourself out on the altar of "His Excellency." Sometimes, no doubt out of self-preservation, you perform the anatomically challenging task of stuffing your fingers in your ears and hands over your eyes, so that you can pretend there is no amazing feat to achieve. You vacillate between stressed-out striving and overwhelmed evasion of responsibility. It seems hard for you to do the slow and steady, day-in, day-out, diligent but imperfect stuff of life. I get it. It can be hard for me too.
As I see it, this belief, that belonging is fundamentally about birth into a particular community, legal status, or benefit to the existing group runs into at least two enormous problems for me. First, it is completely unable to deal with the historical reality that present day America is a result of illegal immigration onto Native American land that brought unspeakable harm to the existing community. Secondly, while it might comport well with nationalistic sentiment, it absolutely flies in the face of my Christian conceptions of belonging and home.
Three years ago today, Michael Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The community was rocked. Many of us were in mourning. We were angry. The officer who shot him was not even indicted, but there was nothing new about that. Amidst all the pain, chaos, protests, and posts, Steph and I felt like we needed the company of our friends. So we opened our home and asked folks, "Hey, you wanna come over and process how we are thinking and feeling together?"
That night, one of us mentioned their Christian faith and how it gave them certain ways of thinking about what happened to Mike and many others like him. A friend of mine, who isn't particularly religious, responded, "Wait, can you clarify something for me? You're saying that your faith has something to do with these broader systemic issues? It's not just about your personal life?"
This past week at our Ceasefire Collective Conversation, we decided to introduce a new note into the music of the Ceasefire Collective: Micro Groups. A micro group at its best is a group of 3 people who know each other deeply, strengthen each other's faith, share each others' burdens/struggles/celebrations, and genuinely share life together.
But why form Micro Groups as part of the Ceasefire Collective? Why start groups for the purpose of intimacy and relationship within the group whose mission is to foster wholeness, justice, and peace in the city of Oakland? Isn't that about us and not our neighbors? Isn't that selfish?
It could be. It absolutely could be.
Sometimes I think I'm more important than God. This does not come in the form of grandiose delusions of my cosmic power. I do not go around demanding the worship of the masses. I claim my deity by simply refusing to rest. And when I refuse to rest, to stop, to cease my daily striving to be productive and to make an impact, the Bible says I'm acting like I'm more important than the Creator. Because even God rested.
One of my favorite things in the world is staring at dirt. That's right. Not even watching grass grow. That would be way too interesting. I would rather enjoy a good soil-gazing session. Why? Because of what's about to spring up from below.
I just planted some beans, carrots, and lettuce in my garden, and even though the package says they'll sprout in 7-10 days, I'm out there on day two, staring at the dirt. I almost feel as though if I don't blink they'll break out of the earth more quickly. It never happens.
Sometimes I find myself staring at dirt in life. The soil has been amended. Seeds have been planted and watered. The sun is shining. It's day two, and no reasonable person would expect a sprout for a while. But there I am. Trying to make them grow by sheer force of will. I want to do something. Surely, I'm not just supposed to wait.
This Sunday, July 9, we will be meeting in the restaurant at the Washington Inn, rather than our normal room. There was a scheduling conflict with the hotel, and they needed the space where we normally meet. I guess that's just life in a startup church like ours.
Little moments of flexibility like this remind us about how we need to be flexible in the big moments as well. When the terrain changes we need to adjust how we plan to traverse it. That's called adaptive change.
I recently read a post from a former seminary professor of mine decrying the falsehoods and double-speak of the current administration. What caught my attention was not the post itself, but a reply from a person who didn't know my professor:
"...we don't know each other, but I think your harshness is anything but like what our Savior [Jesus] would do and say... I am calling you to repentance."
Bracketing the specific content of the original post for a minute and whether it was something Jesus would say, I was intrigued by her claim that "harshness" and Jesus are mutually exclusive....that harshness is "anything but like what Jesus would do and say." I was intrigued because it was such a clear statement of "Buddy Christ"--Jesus as the nicest, coolest guy that ever lived-- which is a relatively popular picture of Jesus in our culture. And I think it's a belief that finds practically no evidence in the accounts of his life.
One of my biggest pet peeves is poked when Christians use jargon, or "Christianese", without explaining it or really understanding what it means. It's a pet peeve of mine not because I'm so much better but because I used to do it constantly, and I didn't even understand what I was saying. I used the words that made me sound like I knew what I was talking about without really knowing what they meant. And I don't just mean their dictionary definition. I mean how these words show up in real life.
One of those words is "Faith," and knowing what it really means has changed my life.
Lesslie Newbigin, who as a young man was a Christian missionary to India, wrote:
Many years ago a Hindu friend of mine, a very learned man, said to me something I have never forgotten: "I can't understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion - and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don't need any more!
I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it." (A Walk Through the Bible, 4).
The Bible is a story. Or, more accurately, it's an epic saga. But the way Christians sometimes treat it, you might never know that.
Perhaps the most common reason (of the many reasons) people come to religion is control. Life feels unpredictable. I'm not sure how to process what's happening. I don't feel like I have any semblance of power over my circumstances. Well, maybe I should try religion! Doesn't that usually boil down to something like, "God can control the uncontrollable?" And if I obey certain rules, if I pray a particular way, and if I am a part of the right group then God will control things in my favor, right? So we develop practices, laws, and boundaries so that, effectively, we can control God (or at least control how he relates to us), and thus have some control over our untamable lives.
Christians have often been just as hung up on this way of using religion for the sake of control as people of any other faith. But Pentecost, the Sunday we are about to celebrate this week, ought to completely wreck this view of God and how to relate to God. Pentecost is about God's gift of his Spirit.
Where do you find joy? I don't mean, in this case, what practices bring you joy, what people cause joy to spring up in you, or what experiences have brought you joy. No. What physical space is a space of joy for you? What are your geographies of joy?
For me, it's the garden. I love waking up in the morning and watching the progression of the fuchsia blossoms, the true leaves sprouting on the tomato seedlings, the radishes peeking their red heads up over the soil. I find joy in the fact that when I pick a spinach leaf to sustain me, I'm actually not hurting the spinach but giving younger leaves more room to flourish and grow. It brings me joy to see plants from last season volunteering themselves in this one and reminding me of a past crop. My garden is a physical space of joy for me.
Christian theologian Willie James Jennings, says "Joy is fundamentally tied to space." If joy is something that happens to us, arises within us, in the actual contexts of our lives then it happens in the spaces where we live.
Every day I wake up and read the news. Of course, it's filled with presidential politics these days. But it's also filled with stories of tragic accidents, security breaches, North Korean missile testings, and epic malware attacks across the globe. I've noticed, after reading story after story and watching commentary after commentary, that if I'm not careful something can sneak into my soul that threatens to strangle my joy: Cynicism.
I'm convinced that the great enemy of joy is not sorrow, but rather cynicism....
Have you ever known joy during the very heart, the deepest part, of your suffering? During high school I had an experience like this. I was dating someone who had become very important to me. We spent hours upon hours every night on the phone. I would drive hundreds of miles every weekend to spend just a few hours in person with her. And then one day, without explanation, she broke up with me.
Now, I know that the ending of a high school romance doesn't score very highly in the suffering olympics, but anyone who has been rejected by someone for whom they cared deeply knows how it can pull the tears from your eyes. It feels like Darth Vader has the death grip on your stomach. It feels like part of you has been torn away. Well, in the middle of that pain, inexplicably, as I was pouring my heart out to God in prayer, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. It did not cancel out the sorrow or push it aside. They just...coexisted. Like companions. Joy and Sorrow together. And it made the sorrow bearable.