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A.J. Swoboda on Faith in the Darkness

A. J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. A. J. started and serves Theophilus Church in urban Portland. He is the author of Messy and is the coauthor of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology and the recently released A Glorious Dark – a book that embraces the tension between what we believe and what we experience, showing that it is in the very tension we seek to eliminate that God meets us.

KW: What personally drew you to write on this theme?

AS: A two-year struggle with alcohol.

Interestingly, “darkness,” is a rather important image a serious reader can’t overlook in the overarching story of Scripture. As we delve into it, we discover that the Hebrew word for darkness (arafel) is mentioned some fifteen times throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. And, paradoxically, over half of these references are directly related to God’s immediate presence. To draw out an example, we find an interesting interplay in Exodus 20:21 between God and darkness when Moses enters into the arafel, the darkness, and within, has an encounter with God. Oftentimes darkness is indicative of God’s presence—God is in the arafel.

Still, the image of darkness rolls out even more through the New Testamnent. Of course, Jesus lay in a tomb of darkness on Holy Saturday. Yet within that penetrating darkness, a glorious resurrection would soon take place. It is true: “in God there is no darkness at all.” (Jn. 1:5) But, the opposite isn’t true; God can enter the darkness and break through its hollow trappings. In anyone’s life, there are so many aspects to my existence that seem so hard, challenging, and “dark.” But the good news is it is there, in the darkness, that resurrection can happen.

Over the course of a short two-year period I wrestled with a struggle with alcohol. It was anything but easy. But, in the midst of the struggle, I met God.

I write on this because I think God can be found in the darkness.

KW: Why did you choose to frame the ideas in the last three days of Holy Week?

AS: What has historically been called the Triduum serves, in my mind, as a perfect way to imagine the full-bodied life of following Jesus. On Friday, Jesus dies in a horrific, painful, unjust execution. On Sunday, Jesus raises from the grave in the triumph of resurrection and joy. And on what I call “awkward Saturday,” Jesus sits in the tomb in the mystery, ambiguity, and uncertainty of the day in-between.

I don’t believe we have the right to pick and choose the days we selectively wish to live into. The follower of Jesus is invited to walk through all three days.

This is, of course, hard to do. We love to embrace the parts of God that we like and reject the rest. So, in effect, we choose to love God on our own terms. “God, I’ll love you if I get x, y, and z.” But in the end, the Triduum does not allow such prejudice. For to love God on the basis we get what we want it to effectively give God a prenuptual agreement.

That isn’t love. Love is falling head first into who the person is, not who we want them to be. The Triduum forces us to deal with all the difficult and joyous things of God.

KW: What do you think we miss if we only focus on one of these days? How does that affect our faith and daily life?

AS: Ask the person who gets everything they want.

One of the paradoxes of the human existence is that the people who actually get everything in life they want—the cars, the success, the homes, the 401(k)—can often be the least satisfied. How could this be?

It is really hard to convince a people who, as consumers, have everything they want at their fingerprints that they need to pick up a cross and follow daily. Consumers make really lousy disciples. Why? Because they are constantly unwilling to give up the very thing Christ is asking them to. When we focus on the one day we want (for instance Sunday), we will eschew all forms of pain and suffering. And, in the end, we will end up looking down on those who do suffer and have pain as though they don’t believe or have faith that is misaligned.

Jesus was the most faithful person in history and died with nothing. Everyone had left him. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were taken. And yet he was the most satisfied.

The last thing we need is a God who gives us everything we want and is rather willing to give us exactly what we need.

KW: What would you say to those currently sitting in the awkwardness of Saturday?

That Saturday is as important as Sunday and Friday.

Sit there. It is an important day. In my experience, those drawn to Saturday tend to be the smart, critical folks who believe in the mind as a faculty given by God. I agree. A Saturday person asks questions, they relish ambiguity, the love the mystery of it all and are cool sitting in it.

But, and this is my challenge, we aren’t meant to live in Saturday forever. One of my favorite philosophers once said that deconstruction is a good place to visit, but it makes for a diabolical home. I agree. It is good to sit in Saturday—ask questions, ponder, wonder, enjoy the uncertainty—but don’t stay there forever.

We are created by God to find. Everyone in our culture seems to embrace wholeheartedly this idea that being a spiritual seeker is good. Fine, seek, they would say. But, the minute someone claims to have been a spiritual finder, they are arrogant, closed-minded, and bigoted.

I believe that the gospel invites us to actually seek for the purpose of finding. Seeking to seek isn’t true seeking.

KW: What practices or disciplines have you used to help navigate the glorious dark that is faith?

AS: Read authors you normally wouldn’t read.

Develop friends you normally wouldn’t befriend.

Ingest parts of the Bible you normally wouldn’t chew on.

And, mostly, entertain the idea that Jesus is always going be bigger and more mysterious than you ever imagined.

It is helpful to recognize that following Jesus is hard mostly for the fact that Jesus is wild, not caged. Jesus, one finds, isn’t tame. He isn’t docile. God is feral. This wildness of truth can’t be trapped into words or phrases or idioms; truth is the very wild God in Jesus. Yes, words can convey and convince people of the truth. But words are not a zoo where we cage the wildness God. I like the words of Richard Baxter, the famed Puritan father. Baxter had a way of describing the beauty and wonder and wildness of Jesus. He once wrote: if it fits in a spoon, it can’t be the ocean. Did you hear that? It’s a beautiful idea—Baxter’s point was that God can’t, God won’t, and God shan’t fit into our perfectly crafted spoons. God can’t be contained by the boxes of our words, our ideas, or our theologies. Truth goes beyond all that stuff. God’s bigness is always bigger than our spoons.

Truth is like a shark. In the words of Norm from the movie Jaws, truth always “needs a bigger boat.”

KW: Why did you write this book?

AS: Two reasons.

First, I wrote this book so that my three-year-old son will someday know that God invites him–all of him—into his life. Not just the parts that he thinks God will like. God wants all of him. The dirty parts too. I want him to read this book someday and know God is wildly in love with him; all of him.

Second, I suspect there is a whole group of Christians in the world who have been dupped into believing that Christianity exists for them to hide the reality of their broken lives. I think we we will use Christianity either to: 1) put on make-up so that we look like nothing is wrong, or, 2) take off our make-up to enter the presence of the Almighty as we are. Christianity is not a way to photo-shop the pain out of our life.

I want my reader to take off their make-up and come.

He wants to dine with us all over again.

Removing Our Leaven


Photo Credit: Ohad, Creative Commons

Guest Post by Justin Kron

Most people have heard of the tradition of Spring Cleaning.  Its origin is most likely associated with Jewish people who would thoroughly clean out their homes and their diet of leaven (anything made with yeast) prior to the festival of Passover; a holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Israelite slaves from slavery in Egypt some 3500 years ago.

In many Jewish homes this practice of removing and refraining from eating leaven during Passover is still followed today, and like most Jewish traditions the physical picture can be a pathway to understanding a spiritual one.

In the Torah we learn that leaven (aka, yeast) was associated with sin.

[The grain offering] must not be baked with yeast…Like the sin offering and the guilt offering, it is most holy. Leviticus 6:17

The absence of leaven, therefore, was associated with holiness, or that which is without sin.

While there are instances in the biblical narrative when leaven is used to paint a positive picture of a spiritual reality (e.g., the expanding nature of the kingdom of God), it was particularly associated with behavior that was destructive.  In the New Testament we see both Jesus and the Apostle Paul use leaven in this way:

Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).

Your boasting is not good.  Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?  Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are.  (1 Corinthians 5:6-7a).

And herein lies the deeper spiritual reality that we are beckoned to consider.  We have leaven that needs to be cleaned from the homes of our hearts and the crevices of our own souls.  We know this about ourselves.

But let’s be honest about our leaven.

Removing our leaven is not our natural inclination. 

If given the choice, we would rather point out someone else’s leaven that needs to be removed rather than dealing with our own.

In fact, it’s quite likely that we’re in denial about how stale and moldy our leaven has become.  Therefore, it is necessary to identify and acknowledge that your leaven really is that bad.

Your jealousy, your greed, your insecurity, your irresponsibility, your dogmatism, your priorities, your vanity, your racism, your insensitivity, your busyness, your rage, your addiction, your pessimism, your stubbornness, your apathy, your laziness, your self-absorption really is that bad. In fact, it’s so bad that you’re probably thinking right now about all of the other people who struggle with the aforementioned issues rather than focusing on your own.

This leads to another reality about removing our hearts of leaven.

Removing our leaven is not a job we can manage on our own. 

Getting rid of my leaven requires help.  But many of us don’t want help because it means confessing that we have it to begin with.  This brings us back to the original sin in the Garden of Eden.  Pride.  Pride is the desire to be autonomous; the desire to go it alone.

If you’re familiar with the story of the Exodus, then you know that the Israelites backs were up against the Red Sea as the Egyptians were closing in to recapture them.  There was no way out.  So once again, they cried out to God for help.  It was a call of surrender, for there was no hope apart from divine intervention.

So it is with our leaven.

Cleaning the home of our hearts requires outsourcing. You need help. I need help.

This is one of the core reasons why people turn to Jesus.  He promises help.  If Moses is the divine instrument in the Exodus story that God uses to free the Israelites from physical slavery in Egypt, Jesus is the divine instrument in our story that God uses to free our hearts from the bondage of sin.

Jesus, speaking of himself as the Son, said—

Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36).

Jesus promises freedom from our leaven.

This is what John was speaking of when he said—

Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Jesus came to help us get rid of leaven, every last crumb of it.

A Cordial for Healing

Often God blesses us by giving us what He knows we need to live effectively and fulfill the calling He has for us. Both Lewis and Tolkien have interesting ways of expressing this in their two famous book series, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas meets the Pevensie children and provides them with the items necessary to carry out their calling as kings and queens of Narnia: a sword for Peter, a bow and arrows for Susan, a bottle of healing cordial for Lucy. As you might guess, each uses his or her gift wisely and at critical points in their subsequent battles.

Their brother Edmund isn’t there, because he has been taken in by the charm of the evil White Witch. What gift does he receive from her? Candy. This is a gift that consists of momentary pleasure, instant gratification, and nothing that will actually prepare him for his role as a future king. Because of his decision to leave his siblings and follow his own desires, Edmund has to wait much longer to receive his true gifts

Frederick Douglas once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” To me this is wisdom. To avoid landmines is a lot more efficient (and pleasant!) than picking up the pieces after hitting them.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the elven queen, Galadriel, provides to Aragorn a sheath for his great sword, to Legolas a bow, to Sam a box of elven earth for his garden, to Gimli a lock of her hair to remind him of his reconciliation with the elves, and to Frodo a vial of starlight to keep him safe in the darkness of Mordor. All of these items had great significance and lasting value, particularly in the eyes of the gifted.

Both Lewis and Tolkien had a rich theology of blessing. They illustrated well that the best gifts are not luxury items or “cotton candy” pleasures, but rather the specific items we need to succeed in our calling. The best gifts equip us to accomplish the tasks and live the lives that God has for us.

It is an interesting question . . . If I looked for God’s hand of blessing set in my context, what would He give me? Would it be wisdom for parenting? Would it be endurance to bear up under stress? Would it be patience or grace for the day’s interruptions?

What would God give you that would enable or enhance your success in ministry, family, or His calling on your life?

Additionally, Jesus tells us an astounding truth: the more we use the gifts God has already given us, the more gifts He will give. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the talents (an ancient form of currency). In this parable, before a rich man goes on a long journey, he entrusts three of his servants with money. He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, and the last servant one talent. While their master is gone, the first two servants invest the money and double what he had entrusted to them. The last servant buries the money in the ground, knowing that the master will demand it when he returns.

When the master returns, he is pleased with the first two servants, who multiplied their monies, but he is furious with the last servant, who buried his one talent. He was outraged that the servant didn’t even bother to do the bare minimum with the money—put it in the bank, where it would earn interest. He takes away the one talent and gives it to the servant who has ten.

“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Matthew 13:12). He who has much will be given more—because that servant is using it well, or in other words, using it for the kingdom, justice, and will of God in this world.

Stewardship begets blessing.

Just as the behavior of children and employees either earns or forfeits trust and responsibility, our stewardship of God’s gifts will elicit His rewards or His disappointment. Being faithful leads to blessing (and blessings take many forms).

Faithfulness with what we have is one of the surest ways to experience a greater blessing from God.

Picture a classroom of second graders for a moment. Imagine there’s a difficult child bullying his fellow students and disrespecting the teacher. I cannot affirm that child. Even if I know his story, that he came from a troubled home, and want to comfort and encourage him, there is nothing in his behavior that I could encourage. I could love, I could forgive, I could listen, but I could not affirm the behavior. Affirmation, after all, is a form of encouragement.

Sometimes I think God is desperately waiting for us to give Him one small indication of obedience so He can pour out His full measure of affirmation, encouragement, and blessing. A father cannot encourage a wrong heart, but delights in affirming whatever good he can. In time, the nurturing of small acts of obedience gives rise to the fullness of character and blessing.

Partially excerpted from The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith.

The Conversation on Race, Story and Justice


Photo Credit: Robert Martinez, Creative Commons

Guest Post by Leroy Barber

The Justice Conference is meant to foster deep conversations on the things that matter to the heart of God. It seems that in today’s world the conversation on race seems to be getting lost and I am not sure this is a good.

In Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow she warns that the idea Americans are past issues of race in our society is a very dangerous position.

So many people among the white majority tell me, that they are tired of talking about race. As an African American man, I find it kind of funny that the folks who are the least threatened by the negative outcomes of racism are most tired.

Why are people tired of discussing race? Is it because we refuse to make the needed changes that would help the problem or do we feel guilty?

Does the anger that comes along with the discussions frighten us?

Are we tired of explaining the same thing again and again? Do we feel misunderstood?

Have you lost too much and the pain of talking about it is too much to deal with?

Where can we go with the conversations? Native Americans still suffer major devastation in a lot of communities. African Americans and mass incarceration is one of the most dire justice issues of our time. Many latinos are intimately connected to immigration and the challenges it brings to families and communities. And Asian communities still have very little voice in many arenas.

We are tired, but we will only drive ourselves further into the morass if we don’t talk.

There is something we can learn here from South Africa. Bishop Tutu and the priority he put on story is a significant lesson that emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission just opened venues for people to tell their stories—no matter how atrocious they were. People were allowed to process them openly for months and they listened to those who were hurt and those who committed the inhumane acts.

Perhaps we need this kind of activity. Maybe we don’t need more debate at this point, but for stories to be told.

Let’s create space for people to talk and for people to listen.

Stories from those who are hurt and stories from those who hurt others are important to tell and to hear.

As Americans we love to solve problems—but race and racism seem to be problems we cant solve. Maybe we have tried too hard to solve problems and we should just stop and let people talk and listen to each other.

Tell your story. We will listen.

Share your pain and we will acknowledge it.

In any case, we cannot sit around and let racism go underground when so many are still hurt everyday by its insidious nature.  There are too many discrepancies in education, housing, job opportunities, and rates of incarceration that play out along racial lines that we can’t be silent.

Neutrality allows the racist to get comfortable is his or her position and actually grow into deeper postures, a little joke here and there eventually turns into beliefs and decisions that hurt people.

The progression is subtle but the repercussions are toxic.

Even though we’re tired we have to keep talking even when it gets uncomfortable. Even when it’s awkward we have to speak up on the little things that can become lethal if they go unchallenged.

I’m excited to be co-hosting the race and reconciliation pre-conference track at The Justice Conference this June in Chicago along with Ken Wytsma. Our goal is to sink deep enough into theology that our understanding of God will shape and form our understanding of everything else—especially when it comes to race, forgiveness, equality, solidarity and reconciliation.

I look forward to having you join us for this much needed conversation on race, story and justice at this poignant moment in history.

For more information on The Justice Conference, visit http://thejusticeconference.com

Prayer for Peace: Reflections from the Holy Land


Melissa McCreery and Tamara Wytsma by the wall dividing Israel and Gaza in Netiv Ha’Asara.

Guest Post by Melissa McCreery

I wrote the prayer below while sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, reflecting on a week filled with some of the most uplifting conversations and experiences, as well as some of the most devastating, that I have ever experienced. A week that seemed to flirt with the line between joy and sorrow, hope and hopelessness, compassion and contempt.

I took this journey with 25 other amazing women, led by The Telos Group. Telos is a genuinely pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, and pro-peace (yes, it’s possible!) nonprofit leading pilgrimages in the Holy Land, with the vision of bringing awareness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and placing voices, thoughts, experiences and PEOPLE to the conflict…so many beautiful people. Kilns College is leading a trip with The Telos Group in November 2015. If you’re interested in attending, email us to get more information or reserve your spot.

After spending eight days in the Holy Land, I am only starting to even begin to comprehend the history, the people, the conflict and the deep emotion found there. This prayer is an honest cry to God, as I wrestled with all that I had heard, seen, witnessed & experienced.

Lord, You are here

You are here on the shores of Galilee

You are in the walls of Bethlehem

and the stones of Jerusalem

You are here in the darkness of our pain.

You are here in the lament of the widows — their husbands lost to violence, to a hatred that breaks your heart

You are here, in the eyes of an Arab child, a refugee in his own land, the only home he’s ever known a cinder block locked behind a fence

You are here, in the quiet prayers of your children

and in the loud shouts at the Western Wall

You are with the Rabbi, with the Priest and the Imam.

You are with us all

In this land of bright moons and subtle stars, of rolling hills and quiet deserts

Of calls to prayer and songs of Shabbat

You shed a tear for the deaths of innocent lives, lost to a violent act

You shed a tear for the misguided and desperate young boy who claimed those lives

You lament with us and our despair

You cry, even as we cry out to you

“God, why? Why the hatred? Why the vengeance? Why the killing of your children, of your sons and daughters?”

And through it all You are faithful and Your love endures.

You are the Prince of Peace

You give hope to those who have no reason to hope

You bring peace to a land riddled with agony and to hearts that weep

And your faithful reminders can be found everywhere…

In the beautiful green hills of the Holy Land

In the fragrant aromas wafting out of a young Israeli mother’s kitchen

and the similar smells — of cardamom and cumin and za’atar— coming from the kitchen of her Palestinian neighbor.

In the farmer, planting and re-planting his fig and olive trees in the red earth of his family’s farm.

In the warm embrace that spans generations, genders and ethnicities

You smile as we refuse to be enemies; refuse to succumb to the lies of the world

You laugh with us as we experience the smells, sights, history and people of this land; as we gain a glimpse of what you see in each of us

And then, in your still comfort and warm embrace, you speak to us

You lead us and guide us

You love us… Always always, you love.

And now so must we.

Four Ways to Help you Walk in the Tension of Faith

While in grad school, I ran across the author Henri Nouwen, who articulated the tension—or paradox—of faith as well as anyone I have read.

His answer, unlike most I have heard, does not whitewash the messiness of life or explain away the mystery of God. Rather, Nouwen wrote that an essential part of life is learning to “live the questions” faith engenders.

To wait on the Lord.

To pray our pain.

To accept confusion.

Nouwen’s answer resonates with the honest picture of faith I see in Scripture. Life is, as stated by my Old Testament professor, relentlessly difficult.

Life is messy. God is mysterious. And accepting this tension-filled truth, no matter the circumstances, is the pathway to peace.

Jesus promised suffering in Matthew 16:24, and as testified in Scripture, those most clearly called by God and most definitively used by God are often given the most challenging circumstances.

Life is messy. God is mysterious. And accepting this tension-filled truth, no matter the circumstances, is the pathway to peace.

With all of the difficult issues and disturbing events in the world, I find myself struggling to accept this as much as I have in a long time and to ground myself once again in “living the questions.” As tempting as it is to simply whitewash the issues, push them down below our conscious thoughts, or squeeze them out by binging on TV or movie-watching, as Christians, we can’t afford to do so.

Choosing faith, despite the messiness of life and the mystery of God, is the essence of biblical trust. It is the faith in the “not yet” of many of God’s promises about His reign of justice and commitment, that every tear shall be wiped away. Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

It’s not that the world is messy so we should leave it that way. It’s not that the world is messy and I can’t be a part of fixing it. But the messiness of the world elicits questions that God may or may not give me answers for. And so—in the midst of confusion, mess and pain—walking by faith means that I walk with the questions.

Here are four ideas to help us learn to live the questions in the midst of the messiness:

1. Read books that don’t claim to answer all the questions.

We all love self-help books and manuals that promise resolution to the problems and difficulties we’re facing in life. These books are simple, easy to read and give us lots of things to do.

While this kind of literature has its place, make it a priority to add to your yearly reading books that don’t set out or promise to resolve all the tensions you’re facing.

Whether it’s a biography of Francis of Assisi or a novel like The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, find and read literature that acquaints you with the messiness of life and gives a subtle glimpse of the simple beauty faith presents when it flowers amidst the confusion and chaos.

It’s also important to read from authors you might not entirely agree with. Find voices who challenge your assumptions and contribute different perspectives.

2. Pray long enough that you’ve run out of things to say to God.

Much of prayer is precipitated by our desire for answers from God. We seek reasons for the trials we’re enduring and resolution to the challenges behind which we don’t see any purpose.

Praying long and slow allows us to run out of words … run out of anxiety … run out of demands. After time, whether a half hour or half a day, we begin to ease into the realities with which we’re confronted. We begin to open ourselves up to hear the questions God would have us ask and to see the additional realities we’ve been selectively ignoring.

In the end, solitude, silence and long prayer results in a full conversation with God. Like the biblical figure of Job, we may not get direct answers to our petitions, complaints and requests, but we will be answered, nonetheless.

3. Find your place in creation.

Psalm 8: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him?”

Soaking in the beauty and magnitude of the Creator’s handiwork, David finds himself struck with awe. He wonders how the God who made everything in the universe could be interested in him. David’s trust in God isn’t the result of getting all his questions answered, but actually comes from discovering a question to which he has no answer.

Nature or creation can have a steadying effect on us. In many ways, it is where we can gain the greatest sense God’s presence.

4. Get your hands dirty.

The messiness of life and the intractable nature of global injustice can often paralyze or cripple us. We can retreat, put up walls and stand helpless on the sidelines feeling like it’s all too big, too scary and too confusing to do anything.

As Christians, we can’t shrink from pain, we can’t gloss over the struggle of others in order to maintain our illusions and distance, we can’t hide or pretend.

Jesus valued those who loved and served without question and without reservation. We might not have answers, but we can love.

Find a nonprofit. Engage immigration reform in your community. Gather a group of friends to read, study and brainstorm ways to engage locally and globally. Make a friend who doesn’t look like or think like you, and learn to build bridges. Give financially to an organization making a difference—it doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something. Wage peace.

As we grow older and grow up, as Christians, we can’t shrink from pain. We can’t gloss over the struggle of others in order to maintain our illusions and distance. We can’t hide or pretend.

Ours is to engage.

Ours is to stand together in solidarity.

Ours is to suffer forward (is that not what biblical faith is?).

Ours is, as Nouwen said, “to learn to live the questions.”

Living the questions doesn’t mean ignoring the problems, it simply means choosing faith, hope and love despite not having all the answers.

Partially excerpted from The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith.

Should Christians Who Are in Debt Give to the Lord’s Work?

Many people who want to give charitably and tithe to the local church have been asking me recently what my thoughts are on how to navigate giving versus debt reduction. It’s challenging question that I’ve been asked a lot. This time I reached out to one of my mentors – Ed Underwood – with the thought that he would have wiser, more seasoned reflections. As a result, he wrote the post below sharing some of his thoughts that I think are a helpful conversation starter regardless of where you land on the topic.

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Guest Post by Ed Underwood

After conversations with hundreds of Christian seeking guidance concerning their finances, one question occurs more frequently than any other: Does God want us to give to the Lord’s work even when we’re deep in debt? 

The underlying assumption is that God is more displeased with debt than He is with Christians who do not engage in their community responsibilities to support the work of the local church. The presenting strategy is, “We need to get our finances under control, then we’ll have enough to give.”

One well-meaning believer pulled me aside after a sermon on stewardship to remind me that a believer should live free from the love of money. I agreed with his statement, but then I asked him some probing questions: What’s the difference between a believer who loves to spend their money and a believer who loves to save their money? Isn’t it possible that both could be putting their trust in money rather than the Lord? Wouldn’t that make them both idolators?

Jesus said plainly in Matthew 6:19-21 that our heart follows our money. It’s not the other way around. It isn’t that I should get my heart right and then I can invest in His kingdom with pure motives. It’s that God knows our flesh is hardwired to trust in money. So, the flow of our money not only reveals what we really believe about our security and happiness, it also pulls our heart toward the final resting place of our money. And that’s true whether the final resting place is an impulse buy that brings temporary happiness or a savings account that makes us feel secure.

I’m unsettled with the “Christians are inferior if they have debt, tear up your credit cards for Jesus” crowd. There are relatively few passages in Scripture that tell followers of the God of the Bible to live debt free. Admittedly, there are verses in Proverbs teaching us the wisdom of managing our money. But this concentration on living debt free as the number one priority of our relationship to our money before God seems to me to be a decidedly first world concept.

For most Christians in our present world and through church history, the pressing problem for them is to find the money to survive. Yet, God is asking them to invest in His kingdom from their poverty. An idolatrous heart is relying on money rather than God. For some reason we’ve decided that those who are building portfolios are more spiritual than those who are living beyond their means.

The solution isn’t to replace one idolatrous view with another idolatrous view. The solution is to change our idolatrous heart. I believe that the only way to rescue, deliver, or save my idolatrous heart from the love of money is to invest in Jesus’ kingdom. When I send my money to my church, a missionary, or a work bringing healing in the name of Christ, my heart follows. I start thinking about the church or the missionary or the work instead of what I could buy or how I could invest.

When someone asks me the question, “Should I give to the Lord’s work even when I’m in debt?” I answer, “Yes, you should.” I know that the only hope for their idolatrous heart is to start investing something in what the Lord is doing on earth. It may only be $20/week, or 4% of their income. But it’s a start on the path toward healing.

Question: How have you seen your investments in the Lord’s work change your heart and your attitude toward your money?

Why I Think Doubt is Necessary


Photo Credit: Dru, Creative Commons

Faith isn’t destroyed or diminished by doubt. The opposite is true: faith is the answer to doubt.

When you are in the desert and are dying of thirst, collapsing in the sand won’t take you to water. When you are drowning in the ocean, becoming motionless won’t save your life. Why when we are doubting do we often believe that bringing our Christian walk to a halt will provide us with answers? We get hung up by our doubt, refusing to move forward until we have answers.

Sometimes we inadvertently or even deliberately hit the brakes to create distance between us and God. That’s why turning to sin in the midst of doubt is such a bad idea. The progression often goes like this: we get hurt and say something like, “I am really struggling with my faith. I need a break from church for a while.” Usually that also means a break from prayer, a break from the Bible, and a general break from our Christian community and even our moral code.

But if we were to be honest and say what’s really going on, it might sound more like, “I’m not sure God exists or loves me. So I’m going to isolate myself from Him, His Word, and all the people I know who believe in Him. Instead, I’ll turn to the things I know will give me satisfaction and pleasure until I feel happy enough to believe in God again.”

How can we expect to find God by deliberately pushing Him away?

We all understand that cheating on your spouse isn’t going to solve marital problems. It may bring satisfaction for a while, but it certainly won’t fix any problems. Instead, it will most likely be catalytic in the ultimate destruction of the marriage. Our relationship with God is no different.

Throughout Scripture, God never challenges whether doubt should exist. It is the one point of unity between us and God—the recognition that we struggle with faith, belief, and trust. Where we differ from God is what we think should follow doubt. We think the burden rests on God to erase our doubt. God knows that the burden rests on us to continue to trust and wait on Him, even in our doubt.

Our programmed response to confusion is doubt, while the Psalms teach us to respond to confusion with faith. We think doubt demands an answer. God thinks doubt demands faith.

We look at doubt and think it needs an urgent resolution. God looks at doubt and thinks we need patience and endurance.

It could be said that when we think doubt is the problem between us and God, the reality is that an absence of faith or trust might be the real problem.

Partially excerpted from The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith.

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Here’s a brief discussion about doubt that I had with Tony “The Beat Poet” Kriz in his Off the Highway blog series.

Living Justly: An Interview with Jason Fileta


Micah Challenge is a global Christian campaign to end extreme poverty. Inspired by scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, and covered in prayer they advocate for a more just world. Extreme poverty and hunger will not be overcome by securing more food, but by securing more justice. It is for this reason that they engage in transformational advocacy, which is the process of challenging ourselves and our leaders to change behavior, policies, and attitudes that perpetuate injustice and deny God’s will for all creation to flourish. They recently released a book called Live Justly to encourage the church in this endeavor. Their Director, Jason Fileta (@fileta), discusses the organization and their book in the interview below.

KW: What is the inspiration behind Micah Challenge and the book Live Justly?

JF: Micah Challenge was born out of a desire to see justice permeate the structures and systems of society that impact the most marginalized communities.  Micah Challenge was launched by Rene Padilla, the Argentinian theologian, alongside of christian leaders, pastors, and community developers in the Global South. After decades of Kingdom minded community development their was a keen sense that the decisions made in the halls of power, often in the Global North, impact the very villages and communities they live and work in. Simultaneously, there was a sense that as evangelicals we had largely lost the sense that living justly was central to discipleship. So, Micah Challenge was launched to hold the most powerful to the interests of the vulnerable through advocacy, and to come alongside the church and disciple people towards living justly.

Live Justly, the book, emerged 9 years into our work.  We had seen justice become somewhat of fad, and too often simply an “action a year”. Our desire was to uncover the biblical concept of justice, and inspire people to actually LIVE justly.

KW: How would you summarize your beliefs and philosophy about living justly?

JF: Living justly can at times feel like a burden, or set of rules, rather than a part of being a disciple. By anchoring our desire to pursue and live justly as a response to who God is, and what God wants for our world, there was much freedom. Being an active citizen and advocating to my leaders for justice became an act of worship, not duty. Buying fair trade became not a chore, but an act of defiance to an unjust system that grieves God, and an act of proclamation that there is a better way. Living justly must come out of of a posture of worship–otherwise, these lifestyle choices so easily become a set of rules and regulations that create what I call “Justice pharisees”….you know the type. The freedom to let every aspect of our lives reflect our kingdom priorities as an act of worship—from our purchase to our prayers is the core of living justly. It brings us closer to God. It helps us testify to who God is in a broken world, and it unifies our passion to follow Jesus with our passion for justice.

KW: What are some of the biggest obstacles you find about moving from caring about justice, to actually living justly?

JF: The biggest obstacle encountered is that living justly is by it’s very nature counter cultural. Our lives are sustained by the oppression of others. This is a fact, one that is deeply troubling, but is also very hard to see. The dominant American culture does not lead us to consider the person who sewed our clothes, or who is fleeing from a war we started as our neighbors. Too often we let this dominant culture influence our finances and even our prayers! Once we become aware or how counterculture living justly can be, the cost is often too great. This is why Live Justly is so focused on the things we already do, and infusing those decisions with Kingdom values. We all buy food, pray (I hope), have relationships, etc. By beginning to infuse these actions with God’s values and justice we see change–in ourselves and in our world. This gives us the courage to take some of the bigger, scarier steps towards living justly.

KW: Are there a few practical tips you can offer to help on this journey?

JF: Take on the journey prayerfully. It’s not an easy study. It will force you to really look at your life, your decisions, and convict you in different ways. Incorporating daily prayer is crucial as you work through what it is that God is trying to show you through the ten sessions. We absolutely believe that justice is part of the very nature of God, so a deep, personal encounters with God are critical for this journey.

It’s also important to take this journey as a community. We believe that we cannot live justly without seeking authentic community, and we have group questions for discussion and activities particularly so you can process as a part of a community. It’s not that you can’t do this study on your own, you certainly can, but it helps to have a group of justice-driven people around you going through the same information and life changes. Many hands and many voices are what will change systems and structures that are unjust, and authentic community is essential to keep us all on a just pathway.

Finally, don’t let other people tell you how you should be experiencing Live Justly. While we want you to do this within community, we strongly believe that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts. God may speak through others, but really pray about the action and decisions you want to make regarding what you’re learning in Live Justly, and don’t let the convictions or decisions of others define how you respond to the study.

KW: How did you decide to focus in on the 6 topics of Advocacy, Prayer, Generosity, Consumption, Relationships & Creation?

JF: We wanted to engage people in practical ways. These 6 topics are biblically based and represent a different facet of life in which we make daily decisions. The symbol of Live Justly has a circle around it, and that was very purposeful. The circle represents the holistic nature of living justly. If we are incredible advocates, but do so at the expense of our personal relationships, then the circle is broken. If we are compassionate to the impoverished, but fail to challenge unjust structures that cause their oppression then too, the circle is broken. The circle represents a holistic, unified lifestyle of justice within the 6 areas explored in the study.

KW: Can you give an example of how you address each of these different topics?

JF: We address each topic in a way that is practical and can inspire action. For advocacy we challenge the reader to look at how our policies here in the United States affect people around the world. We then give the reader the tools to take action to support good U.S. programs and policies. With prayer we explore the power prayer holds and seek to inspire intercessory prayer for big issues. Consumption and generosity specifically look at how and where we’re spending our money. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want, so our values should be reflected in our spending. Therefore we should be giving more, consuming less, and when we consume we should ensure our purchases are ethical ones.

Authentic relationships are at the heart of living justly, so we need to ensure our relationships with our family and friends reflect this. We also need to realize that we can’t truly help the impoverished if we do not know them, so we should make sure we give ourselves opportunities to get to know those most in need in our communities. Lastly, God has given us the task to take care of his creation, and we have not historically done a great job at that. As Christians we need to ensure we’re taking creation care seriously and incorporate practical things like recycling and taking public transportation when we can. They’re small changes that can have a huge impact.

KW: What has encouraged you most since live justly has been released?

JF: I’ve been most encouraged and excited about the amount of energy and unity I see forming around the study. In the NGO world there have often been massive walls between those of use doing advocacy, community development, and direct service. Live Justly seems to be breaking down some of the walls because organizations for from each of these sectors are eager to use the study with their supporters. My prayer is that we can continue to see a unification around pursuing God’s Kingdom and his justice rather than our own kingdoms. The Christian NGO world has a lot to learn about living justly in relationship to one another, and I hope Live Justly can help bring more unity.

KW: What has surprised you most about the response to the book?

JF: I’ve been most surprised by the international interest in Live Justly. I wrote this book for a US audience because that is who Micah Challenge USA is working with, but we’ve sold books in 10 different countries. A church in Belfast Ireland went through the study as an entire church this past summer, 2,000 Nigerian youth are going through the study this summer as part of a mobilization effort to seek peace and environmental protection in Nigeria, and schools in both india and the dominican republic have lead students through the study. I’m amazed at the hunger the church has to be challenged, to live authentically, and to see justice done!

Kilns College Spring Banquet

Anyone who knows me knows how excited I am about Kilns College these days. There are a lot of cool things coming up that are fun to think about and talk about. The annual Kilns College Spring Banquet is one of those times when I get to share my excitement and the vision for the college. If you live in the Northwest and would consider coming, check out the invite below or click here to get more info and register. If you don’t live in the nearby, we’d love for you to consider making a donation toward our work or joining one of our graduate programs. Feel free to email us if you’d like to get more information.

In the Name of Love

Guest Post by Peter Heltzel

U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was my High School anthem in Mississippi in 1984. Playing it loud at pep rallies, it incited our school spirit, but there was something revelatory about the song; it unveiled a dark undertow of human discord and suffering that we could relate to, especially my African American friends. With the driving momentum of a military march, Bono’s clarion call protested British troops shooting 26 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972. America’s Bloody Sunday was in the deep South, down in Selma, Alabama on Sunday March 7, 1965, when hundreds of men and women, black and white, walked resolutely over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to meet a phalanx of Alabama State Police and Selma law enforcement under the command of Sheriff James Clark.

In a storm cloud of tear gas, the marchers were brutally beaten back with billy clubs. A man bashed in the head, a woman thrown to the pavement, black bodies strewn across the bridge, the blood of the martyrs flowed into the Alabama River crying out about racial injustice in the South. Named after Senator Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate Brigadier General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK, the Pettus Bridge traversed the chasm of our country’s racial divide. Courageous and committed mother Viola Lee led the march for her son Jimmie Lee Johnson, murdered by Officer James Bonard Fowler while participating in a peaceful voting rights march, unarmed, in Marion, Alabama on February 18, 1965. Viola wanted to march her son’s brutalized body to the State Capital in Montgomery to awaken the conscience of the nation, but James Bevel, Director of the SCLC Selma Voting Rights Campaign, persuaded her that focusing the march on Voting Rights would be more strategic.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march in Selma, joined by a growing group of student activists like my colleague Rev. Eleanor Moody-Shepherd, an African American student at Alabama State University, who joined the 5 day, 54 mile march down Route 80 to Montgomery. The march inspired President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, and while we celebrate that legislative victory, the work of justice and the fight to register people of color to vote continues.

The first week of April I take our New York Theological Seminary students down to Selma for an intensive course called “Going Home: Southern Religion and the Civil Rights Movement.” We walk the freedom trails from pain to promise—together, seeking to bridge the black-white divide. I’m always shocked at Selma’s Voting Rights Museum by a video of Sheriff James Clark who, when asked if he had any regrets about the police brutality of that bloody day, shows no remorse, stating he was following the laws of the Constitution of Alabama to use force when necessary to subdue the citizenry. Like many white people, Sheriff Clark simply does not get it. Race matters in America. In 2014 at least 56 unarmed black people were killed by police officers, more than all the other races combined.

As an anti-racist/pro-reconciliation Minister in New York City from Vicksburg, Mississippi, I renounce the sin of racism, committing myself to following black leadership in the #blacklivesmatter movement as we continue to advocate for legislation to end racial profiling, demilitarize our police and establish a real living wage for all. While violence begets violence, Dr. King argues, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” Given the racial strife in America, we need the strength to love as we struggle for justice and strive for reconciliation. “Early morning, April four, Shot rings out in the Memphis sky, Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride,” sings Bono in another U2 classic “In the Name of Love.” From Selma to Syria, Derry to Donbass, a growing group of ordinary citizens are rising up in the name of love to end the violence. We will keep meeting. We will keep marching. We will keep moving until we see “justice roll like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

I Think I Hate Reading the Bible (Please Don’t Tell Anyone!)


Photo Credit: Olga Caprotti, Creative Commons

Guest Post by Ben Larson

I’ve been reading the bible almost every day since I was very young (with the exception of three or four years of doing my own thing in college). Sometimes I read a lot; sometimes I only read a verse or two, but I try to maintain the discipline of cracking it open for at least a minute or two every day.

And I’m going to be a little vulnerable here: sometimes it really feels like a discipline.

I’ve often felt insecure talking to Christians that are in a season in which they love reading the bible. They’re learning something earth-shattering with every word, jumping around between twenty different bible studies, and talking about what they’re reading with everyone they meet. My experience with bible reading often leaves me feeling a little less enthusiastic, and I sometimes feel like an outsider or somehow “lesser” than people that are really into it.

And don’t get me wrong: I love reading! I’m almost always in the middle of reading between three or four books. In fact, sometimes reading other books helps fuel me for bible reading. When I was in my teens, my bible was a KJV bible (written in the 1600s), so I would warm up for reading it by reading Shakespeare…it was easier to understand the Elizabethan English of the KJV if I preceded it with a few intriguing scenes from Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. Now I spend around an hour reading every night before I go to sleep – after about two minutes of reading the bible.

Maybe bible reading has become more tedious for me because I’ve been reading it every day for the last twenty years. But whatever the reason, sometimes I just really don’t feel like reading scripture. Which makes me feel like a lousy Christian.

I know spiritual discipline isn’t about legalistically following God’s rules or feeling lousy about ourselves, so a few times over the years I’ve deliberately taken a break from bible reading, just to get healthy about it again. And I’ve discovered something fascinating: within days I begin to feel disconnected from God, disconnected from my own spirituality, and bitter about the rest of my Christian practice. I start to resent other things that are important to me: church, relationships, serving, prayer, simply loving others.

Even if I’m not learning something transformative every day, the discipline is somehow aligning me spiritually with God in a direct, measurable way. It’s kind of spooky, really. In a way, I would say that bible reading has become the front lines of my spiritual life. When I begin to lose the battle there, I begin to lose my focus on Christ in every other area of my life.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that bible reading isn’t optional. Ezekiel and I are joined at the hip, for better or worse. And, for me, hating something I do every day isn’t an option either. So here are some tricks I’ve developed over the years to grease the gears and make it easier to enter into bible reading and get excited about it:

(1) Buy a new bible. I have mixed feelings about this one, because it’s so American. But at some level, I am a product of my culture, and if having a new bible that’s a little more exciting to read or crack open or toss in the passenger seat on my way to work helps, I’m all for it. Plus I bought a new bible two weeks ago and it’s really helped, so I felt like I had to share.

(2) Read twice a day. Sounds counter-productive, right? But the nice thing about reading twice a day is that I can skip reading once if I’m exhausted or just need a break, and sometimes that’s enough to break the monotony and get me back on track. I’ve been reading right after I wake up and right before I go to bed for years now, and another side affect is that bible reading feels a little more like normal daily life – like brushing my teeth – which has helped it to feel less like an interruption.

(3) Stop. It really is okay to stop reading the bible for a while. I won’t judge you, God won’t hate you, and you can always start reading again. I recommend replacing it with something else that maintains the reading habit unless the reading is the thing you need a break from. Maybe a devotional, a prayer book, a spiritual development book, or even – God forbid – fiction. And whether you replace it with something else or not, I definitely recommend setting a specific time for the break, rather than leaving it open-ended. That’s how you “accidentally” go months or years without reading the bible.

(4) Go to your favorite books. There are a lot of really cool read-the-bible-in-a-year (or even ninety days) programs out there, which can be really helpful if you’re a new Christian or simply desire to develop a holistic picture of the bible. But the downside is that – at least for me – they can make us feel like we’re supposed to be cycling through the entire bible every year. Then I find myself poring over never-ending personnel rosters in Numbers for weeks, ready to set my bible on fire and never open it again.

I do think everyone should be familiar with the whole bible, not just pick their favorite books and camp there, but that doesn’t mean I need to slog through Levitical law every February – especially if bible reading has become difficult or legalistic for me. My go-to books are Ruth, Esther, and the story of Samson in Judges. Whatever biblical books speak your language the most, don’t be ashamed to retreat to them when you’re feeling spiritually dry…in fact, that’s probably when you need them the most.

(5) Do a guided study. Nothing brings bible passages to life faster than understanding more of the history, cultural context, and intention behind them. If you’re a natural scholar, this can actually help a lot. Or it can make bible reading feel like schoolwork, which might be worse. But if it works for you, go for it!

(6) Read with a friend. If you’re an extrovert, bible reading by yourself might feel a little bit like you’ve been locked in a closet until you’ve finished your homework. Meet up with a friend, find a way to talk about and externalize what you’re reading. It might help more than you’d expect!

(7) Switch up the routine. Sometimes the very “routineness” of bible reading becomes the source of tension. Switch to reading at a different time of the day. Or read for longer sessions once a week. There are no rules and no one is watching you, so find a rhythm that works for you.

(8) Be honest. Our spirituality will only be as authentic as we are. Be honest about what you struggle with. Talk to God about it. Talk to other people about it. You’re not the first person who has wondered whether we needed all sixty-six chapters of Isaiah. There’s no sense in pretending it’s easy when it’s not.

The last thing I’d leave you with is a simple reminder that the bible is a gift. God is mysterious, and spirituality is a strange journey sometimes. Even though bible reading can sometimes be tedious, I am truly grateful for the thousands of years of writings from imperfect people like me to illuminate, encourage, and course-correct along the way. I don’t think I could do it on my own.

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:4-6

Meet HD Weddel


I can’t remember when I’ve been as excited for something new as I am for the upcoming Master of Arts program in Innovation and Leadership beginning this fall at Kilns College! Not only is the topic relevant, but the new adjunct faculty we get to incorporate is mind-blowing.

If you have been waiting to move to Bend, here’s your excuse.

If you have been waiting to go back to school and get your masters online, here’s your chance.

If you are a teacher, non-profit leader or pastor and are hungry for growing in leadership, creativity and a theology of influence, this is your time.

Look no further than HD Weddel, this past year’s Principal of the Year in Oregon, for reason to sign up now.

HD is currently a consultant for new Public School Administrators across the State of Oregon and was previously the Principal of Bend High School from 2005-2014. He was the Administrator of the year for Bend LaPine Schools and Principal of the Year in the State of Oregon in 2014! Prior to his years in administration, he was a public education teacher for twenty-four years and coached various sports. He also served as the chaplain for Oregon State University football for ten years.

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Innovation & Leadership from Kilns College here.

Want to Hear from God? Slow Down.

A new piece I wrote for RELEVANT Magazine wrestling with some of the ideas brought up in The Grand Paradox was just published. Check out the brief excerpt below and read the rest on their website.

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Deadlines. Relational drama. Global injustice. Multiple jobs. Financial stress.

Life is relentlessly difficult and moves insanely fast. The world is changing and evolving every moment and the pressure to keep up, stay current and get ahead can be all consuming.

Can I hear God’s voice above all the noise?

One of the most significant challenges of our rapid culture is the sense of urgency it creates.

Urgency is good for getting things done. A healthy sense of urgency helps us to be focused and productive.

Urgency, however, is less suited for reflection and rest. In many ways, it is at odds with waiting on the Lord, seeking God in silence and solitude, and meditating on Scripture. Urgency has a powerful magnetic pull that can keep us from hearing God.

Read the rest of the article here

On Bamboo, Justice, and Spiritual Disciplines

Guest Post by Dr. Amy Stumpf

Six stalks of bamboo sit on my desk. Three are just regular bamboo stalks that grow straight up. The other three are slightly more expensive “lucky” bamboo stalks that have grown in some decorative shapes.  That bamboo didn’t just randomly grow into an artistically twisted pattern. I suppose that long ago, in its younger days as a bamboo sapling, a bamboo engineer tied the new shoots onto a form. As the shoots grew, the new growth was tied and tethered to the desired form. And now the result is a stalk of bamboo that looks like the form (in my vase, a heart and a spiral) rather than a straight stick. I call this curly bamboo my “spiritual discipline bamboo” because it reminds me of the nature of the spiritual disciplines. If we are to grow, against our nature, into the likeness of Jesus Christ, we have to tie and tether ourselves to His form.  The disciplines are those ties and tethers that hold us to the form of Christ so that we grow away from our natural bend, into Christ’s supernatural bend. The form is Christ; the ties are the disciplines.

As I think about the various “ties” and “tethers” that the Bible teaches, of course the traditional disciplines of prayer, scripture intake, meditation, worship, tithing, service, fasting, come to mind. But I have become increasingly troubled that we have long neglected or categorized as something other, the biblical discipline of justice seeking. When I review the lists of disciplines presented by the “spiritual discipline gurus” like Donald Whitney, Richard Foster, and Dallas Willard, I see nowhere “justice seeking.” I’m sure they would all be in favor, even wildly enthusiastic, about justice. Who doesn’t love justice? And I am not saying that Christians aren’t getting serious about doing the works of justice; in fact, the works of justice seeking are on the rise – I work with college students, and they ALL want to be activists and world changers. But I am saying that we have usually failed to understand justice seeking as a spiritual discipline.

When we do see justice seeking as a spiritual discipline it elevates and enriches our work. A spiritual discipline requires practice, patience, and intentional submission of the discipline to the Holy Spirit so that it becomes transformative and not just sentimental. And most maturing Christians don’t think that the disciplines are optional, or some have the “gift” or “calling” of a discipline, and others are off the hook. No, we think the disciplines are necessary for all followers of Jesus Christ, as a means of bending us into the likeness of Christ. No Christians should look like wild bamboo.

Understanding justice seeking as a spiritual discipline can also help dissipate some of the suspicions that still linger over the issues of justice. Not infrequently I encounter people who are concerned that my enthusiasm about activism may be a mark of liberalism. But when justice seeking is not focused on the “good cause” but a means to focus on the Good Shepherd, then justice seeking can no longer be relegated to some form of radicalism.

Throughout the scriptures, seeking justice is a primary way that God’s people practiced and established their bend toward God. Most every time God is dealing with His people’s spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, giving, serving, and other disciplines that bent them toward piety, He also strongly connected it with justice seeking; and when they bent away from justice seeking, God said they were falling away from Him (for example, Is. 1:15; Amon 5:21-24).

In a “cool to care” generation where justice seeking is popular, we would do well to remind ourselves that it is not just a fad or justifiable moral indignation; it is an enduring spiritual discipline. Justice seeking transforms our hearts to resemble God’s heart. The disciplines are a means to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7),” and the Bible is clear that seeking justice is a demonstration of God-likeness, exhibiting his character and work of “right making.” The habitual practice of overcoming our own inertia, our own limitations and business, and focusing on the concerns of God, causes us to develop eyes, ears, hands and hearts that look more like Christ’s. We grow a bit more on the “form” because justice seeking is regularly tethering us to that form.

When we see justice seeking as a spiritual discipline rather than a “ministry”, it subtly changes our expectations. We do justice seeking not because that is the best God can do for the world (though, of course, He does use it for the good of the world). We do it because it forms and re-creates us into beings who are more compatible with our God, and who develop a desire to live in a reality that is dominated by His ways. That desire will be fulfilled in heaven. But in the meantime, we do well to fall in love with all that the new creation will be – a community of justice and peace.  As important as outcomes are, especially in freeing those who suffer terribly, we realize that justice seeking is ultimately NOT about outcomes for victims; it is about inward transformation of the seekers. Perhaps this is why Christ insists on using His people for the work. And as a spiritual discipline, justice seeking is a lifetime exercise, not a weekend experience.  You would think me a very poor Christian if I said “Oh, hey, next weekend I am going to pray – isn’t that cool?!” because you would be thinking “Doesn’t she pray every day, even multiple times throughout the day?” And yet I cannot tell you how many times justice seeking is an annual excursion rather than a habitual way of living and loving, of earning and spending.  The disciplines require ongoing attention and regular practice if they are really going to tether us to Christ’s likeness. I don’t suppose my bamboo engineer just tethered the bamboo for a day or two each month, and expected the baby stalk to end up curly.

Clearly as a spiritual discipline, justice seeking requires…DISCIPLINE. Often justice seekers lack discipline. We are drawn to and motivated by the hype, the drama, and sensationalism, but we aren’t quite as convinced that daily study and, heaven forbid, drudgery, be part of the work. Often justice seekers haven’t studied, equipped, practiced, or given their best excellence. We want to show up and be effective. But undisciplined efforts simply will not make a dent against the disciplined expertise of abusers and exploiters, who go to great lengths to develop their skills of abuse and terror.

Categorizing justice seeking as a spiritual discipline also provides a corrective to a bad habit that justice-seekers have – we often think we are RESPONSIBLE for bringing about justice. But God has taken responsibility for that enormous task. Justice seeking as a spiritual discipline rightly puts the responsibility for “getting the job done” right back on God, who has taken responsibility for justice making since that ignoble Fall; and it restores justice seeking to its rightful place, not as “responsible” but as “responsive” to God’s interests and movements.

Often I see justice enthusiasts (and I am one of them, to be sure) using the spiritual disciplines to get ready to do the work of justice, and that is a definite MUST, since it is a direct clash with the powers of darkness. But consider making “justice seeking” one of your intentional daily or weekly spiritual disciplines. How can I seek justice today and tether myself to the form of Christ so that I grow more like Him?  We don’t want to be enthusiastic stalks of bamboo, growing like crazy, but not growing into a form. Justice needs more than our passion, it needs discipline.

Walking with God – Part 1

I don’t post a lot of sermon videos, but when I found myself toward the end of this one wishing my daughters were in there to hear it, I realized it was that good.

Do yourself a favor, watch this one all the way through.

The Just Shall Live By Faith

A common theme in the Old and New Testaments is that “the just shall live by faith.” Why is it that the just person must live by faith?

It is simply this: if we are not looking out for ourselves, then we have to trust that God is looking out for us. If—in following Christ’s call on us to give our lives away on behalf of the voiceless oppressed—we have to put ourselves in places and situations over which we have little or no control, then we have to lean into God’s sovereignty. If God’s direction takes us through unhealthy or dangerous paths, we can only move forward in full reliance upon Him.

It is a paradox—albeit one clearly stated by Jesus Himself and later by His disciple John and His apostle Paul—that the person who wants to find true life must first be willing to lay it down, to die to self. But the blessing in the paradox is this: as we give over control to God, He will look after us.

“The just will live by faith” simply states the obvious: that if I live outside of myself, if I live to give and serve, if I think of others as being as important as myself, if I live for justice—what ought to be—I have to trust that somehow I am going to be taken care of. I have to believe that it truly is better to give than receive, and that God really does watch over and sustain the just.

This is not to say that God’s will for our individual lives is of supreme importance, much less that obedience to His call will mean that He preserves us from sickness, suffering, or even death. But we can be assured that only as we take our rightful place in His master plan can we find the path to all the blessing He has in store for us.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who spent her later years immersed in the creation of a document that furthered the cause of justice all over the world, prayed the following prayer every night:

Our Father, who has set a restlessness in our hearts and made us all seekers
after that which we can never fully find, forbid us to be satisfied with
what we make of life. Draw us from base content and set our eyes on far off
goals. Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee
for strength. Deliver us from fretfulness and self-pitying: make us sure of
the good we cannot see and of the hidden good in the world. Open our
eyes to simple beauty all around us and our hearts to the loveliness men
hide from us because we do not try to understand them. Save us from
ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new.

Jesus is out to set our world right. Because our world is not right, we are faced with the tension of the way things are (truth) and the way they ought to be (justice). In Christian discipleship, therefore, joining Jesus’ justice project means stepping out in faith and relishing the paradox—finding our lives as we’re giving them away.

Partially excerpted from The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, The Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith.

What is Lent?

Guest Post by Pete Kelley

After years of joking with my Baptist friends about ‘giving up Lent for Lent’ and ‘fasting from fasting’, I now find myself a firm believer in the observance of the season of Lent.

About 10 years ago I decided to give Lent a try and I haven’t looked back since.  It has become a season I enter into each year with fear and trembling, but at the same time joyful hope.  For me, food has always been more than food, so fasting in a significant way requires me to relearn how to receive life directly from Christ. It’s a painful but deeply rewarding experience every year.

While Lent is sometimes considered by Protestants to be a “Catholic thing”, the reality is that followers of Jesus from all traditions of the faith have been observing Lent ever since the earliest days of Christianity as a way of growing in their faith and expanding their capacity to receive and give the love of God.

For a point of reference, early Christian leaders discussed the practice of a season of fasting before Easter during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which makes the idea of Lent at least as old as the doctrine of the Trinity.  Lent is not just a “Catholic” thing; it’s a Christian thing.

If you’re not familiar with Lent, here are a few basics on what Lent is, what Lent is not and why to observe Lent.

Lent is: 

A six-week season in the Christian calendar prior to Easter. Officially, Lent is comprised of the 40 days before Easter, not counting the Sundays, or 46 days in total. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for “spring”.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.

A time for spiritual growth. In the ancient church, Lent was a season for new Christians to be instructed for baptism and for believers caught in sin to focus on repentance. In time, all Christians came to see Lent as a time to be reminded of their need for self-examination.

A time to create space for God through fasting. Lent is meant to reflect the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and resisting temptation prior to His ministry. By practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting, we follow Jesus into the wilderness, resist temptation and pray.

A time of preparation. In Lent, we prepare for a jubilant celebration of the resurrection and its promise of new life. Turning from the old self at Lent and experiencing a dying of old ways prepares us to truly experience the joy of Easter.

Lent is not:

A biblical requirement. Christians are free to observe it or not, as they feel led by the Spirit and according to the practices of their particular family and church.

A way to earn more of God’s love and grace. God already loves us more than we can imagine. His grace is given freely without regard to what we do. That’s the definition of grace. So, we must not think of Lent as a time to earn what has already been given to us in abundance. Rather, it is an opportunity to open our hearts to receive more of God’s grace, to grow in God’s love for us, and to share his grace and love with others.

Why Observe Lent:

Lent exposes our idols.  This is pretty embarrassing, but when I fast from food, I sometimes find myself searching for pictures of food online – looking for the comfort, security and pleasure that food gives.  Fasting quickly exposes those things in our lives that we look to for what only God can be.

Lent trains us to suffer well.  As followers of the Suffering Servant, we shouldn’t be that surprised when pain, loss and rejection come our way, but many Christians find themselves unprepared to “rejoice in all kinds of trials” because we have grown accustomed to comfortable lives.  Fasting is a season of voluntarily discomfort that prepares to us experience God’s presence when true suffering comes our way.

Lent builds our “no” muscles.  Following Jesus requires us to say no to many things in order to say yes to Him.  No to that impure thought.  No to holding that grudge.  No to the drink that would be one too many.  The discipline of fasting strengthens our ability to say no, not just to things we are fasting from, but also to other temptations and impulses.

Messages from Antioch Church

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