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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.

The Grand Paradox on Religious News Service

I was recently interviewed about The Grand Paradox by Jonathan Merritt for a Religion News Service post on Faith and Culture. Jonathan is a columnist and the author of several books including his latest, Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. You can read more by Jonathan on his blog and follow him on Twitter @JonathanMerritt. Below are the first few questions from the interview and a link to the full text.

RNS: You say that following Jesus is awkward and is supposed to be. Explain.

KW: The very nature of faith is tension filled. Walking by faith is foggy, unclear, and rarely comes with a sense of what the outcomes are. Just think of a time when you closed your eyes or were blindfolded, needed someone to steer you, and were groping with your arms for any wall or door jam that would tell you where you were. We don’t like tension so we look for ways to relieve it. Choosing faith, however, is choosing to stand in the tension and wait for God to be the resolution to the awkwardness we feel.

RNS: How are God’s ways “contradictory?” Doesn’t this create a hurdle for those who see faith as rational and logical?

KW: There are many paradoxes in scripture. Because of our intuitions, expectations and how we’ve been socialized, the ways of the world are counter-intuitive to God’s ways. In faith, we give to receive. We die to live. We lose our life to find it. The weak will be strong. Suffering can be a blessing. The last will be first. Faith embraces paradox and trusts that God’s ways are indeed the best. 

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Not Your Normal Book Trailer

A friend of mine from Detroit created this 45 second book trailer for The Grand Paradox. He was the bass player in the “Free Credit Report dot Com” commercials of a few years back. He’s funny.

Anyway, this is definitely a new genre of book trailer video. (*WARNING* Don’t watch right before lunch).

Nicholas Wolterstorff on Justice, Art, Love & Human Flourishing

I am often asked who has had the greatest theological influence on me.  As far as my Theology of Justice, it’s pretty easy.  No modern thinker has had a greater impact on the foundations of my thinking in justice, shalom and the beauty of God than Nick Wolterstorff. He is one of America’s preeminent Christian thinkers and his distinctions and clarity of thought are unparalleled.   It has been a privilege to get to know and interact with him. I pray you’ll catch a glimpse of his unique and significant contribution to the conversation on justice in the interview below.

Background: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Retired in June 2002) was Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, and has taught at Yale since 1989. Previously, he taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame and has been visiting professor at several institutions. He has received many fellowships, including ones from the NEH and the Danforth Endowment. He is past President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and serves on its publication and executive committees.

KW: What originally motivated you to begin writing on the subject of justice?

NW: It was two existential experiences that led me to begin thinking, writing, and speaking about justice. The first occurred in September, 1975. I had been sent by the college at which I was teaching, Calvin College, to a conference on Christian higher education in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Present at the conference were Afrikaners, along with some scholars of color from South Africa, quite a few Dutch scholars, and a few from North America, Asia, and other African countries. The Dutch were very well informed about apartheid and very angry; they seized every opportunity they could find to castigate the Afrikaners. After a few days of intense back and forth, the people of color from South Africa began to speak up. They told of how they were systematically demeaned by apartheid, and cried out for justice. It was that cry coming from those people that opened my eyes and ears, heart and mind, to the importance of justice.

The other experience took place a few months later, in May, 1976. I attended a conference on Palestinian rights held in one of the western suburbs of Chicago. There were about 150 Palestinians there, most of them Christian; and they too cried out for justice.

It was the cries coming from those two oppressed people, the people of color in South Africa and the Palestinians, that moved me to start thinking, speaking, and writing about justice. I tell the story of these two “awakenings” in more detail in my book, Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Baker, 2013).

KW: What are the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about the words justice and love?

NW: One misconception that many people have about justice is that, when they hear the word “justice,” they automatically think of criminal justice. But criminal justice, important as it is, cannot be the whole of justice. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a breakdown in justice, a violation of justice; it becomes relevant when someone has treated someone else unjustly. That implies that there has to be a form of justice in addition to criminal justice, a form of justice that, when it’s violated, criminal justice becomes relevant. I call that other form of justice, primary justice. Primary justice is basic. The point of criminal justice is to maintain and secure primary justice. The relation between justice and love is also commonly misconceived.

The most common misconception is that these are pitted against each other. If you act out of love, you won’t be doing what you are doing because justice requires it; if you act as you do because justice requires it, you are not acting out of love. No doubt part of what encourages this view is the identification of justice with criminal justice. But consider primary justice. I hold that Scripture clearly teaches that love is not in tension with primary justice but incorporates it. One way of expressing your love for someone is seeing to it that they are treated justly. The second of the two love commands that Jesus issued, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a quotation from Leviticus 19. If you read Leviticus 19 and take note of the context in which the command occurs, what you see is that the love command is preceded by a number of more specific commands, including commands to do justice.

The main point of my book, Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011), is that when justice and love are rightly understood, love is not in conflict with justice but love incorporates justice.

KW: How do you see the role of justice and proper function playing out in the development of happiness and human flourishing?

NW: What one also finds in Scripture is that justice is over and over connected with what the Old Testament writers called, in Hebrew, shalom. In most English translations of the OT, shalom is translated as “peace.” I have come to think that that is a very poor translation. Shalom is flourishing, flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to the natural world, in one’s relation to oneself. And over and over when the prophets speak of shalom, they make clear that shalom requires justice. Human flourishing requires that we treat each other justly.

KW: How do the concepts of art, beauty and goodness intersect with justice and education?

NW: Art and justice, beauty and justice, are often seen as different spheres of life having little or nothing to do with each other. That’s due, in part, to how we think of art. Most people, when they think of art, think of museum paintings and sculptures, concert hall music, and so forth. I have just finished the manuscript for a book that I call Art Rethought in which I argue for expanding our perspective on art; I talk about memorial art, about social protest art, about work songs, and so on. In all three of these, justice lies at the very heart of that form of art. That’s obviously true for social protest art. But it’s also true for memorial art. The point behind a memorial is to pay honor to someone who merits such honor; to pay honor to someone for their worth or dignity is to treat them justly. And as to work songs: what strikes one in the testimony of those who sang work songs while working, especially under oppressive conditions, is that it was an expression of their human dignity; they refused to be reduced to animals. In expressing their dignity, the singers were treating themselves justly.

These comments only touch the surface of the relation between justice on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other. In my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan there is a wonderful organization called the Inner City Christian Federation. ICCF builds and rehabs houses in the inner city. And it insists that every house it builds and rehabs be beautiful—not elaborate beauty, simple beauty. It sees that as part of doing justice to those who live in the inner city.

KW: How have you seen the conversation on justice change over the course of your teaching career?

NW: When I first began speaking and writing about justice in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I found very little interest; audiences for my lectures were invariably small. Things have changed drastically; witness 5,000 people showing up for the 2012 Justice Conference. The attitude has especially changed among young people; I had the impression that the average age of those who attended the 2011 Justice Conference was about 26. I don’t know what accounts for this change. But it has been wonderful for me to watch it happen and to be part of it. I hear some people expressing the worry that justice has become a fad among young people. I’m not sure that’s true. But if it is, I can think of worse fads!

The Justice Conference 2015 in Chicago

Pictured: Ken and Mark Reddy in the Auditorium Theatre

I just returned from a great trip to Chicago where I was able to tour the historic Auditorium Theatre, the site of The Justice Conference 2015. The Auditorium Theatre, designed by the firm Adler and Sullivan, was built as part of the rebuilding work after the Great Chicago Fire and finished in 1889. The building is one of the most historic and beautiful buildings I’ve been in. I can’t wait for everyone to experience it!

It was also great to meet with Mark and Vicki Reddy, the Executive Producers of the conference who just moved to Chicago from Sydney, Australia. Mark & Vicki are amazing folks and come with decades of experience. Their passion for promoting a Jesus+Justice conversation in the church is inspiring. (They also have pretty cool accents!)

At the conference this June, we’re going to have some pretty cool Kilns College events at the conference. More details on these events and opportunities will be forthcoming. However, one of the events will be an exclusive event for those who have applied and been accepted to one of the Kilns College grad programs–distance or onsite–by the early admission deadline of May 1st.

If you’re thinking of applying, now is the time!

To register for The Justice Conference, click here.

To get more information about Kilns College Master of Arts degrees in Social Justice and Innovation & Leadership, check out the website and be sure to let us know if you’re going to be at the conference so we can meet you and keep you informed about the Kilns events.

Why I’m Giving Up Peace for Lent

Guest Post by Jon Huckins

The violence of our world seems to be spiraling out of control. Every news outlet is filled with the latest tragedy and for many, the violence has struck closer to home than they ever imagined. Sadly, much of the violence is being done in the name of religion. Religion — at its best — is designed to be a conduit for right relationship. At it’s worst, used as a tool for manipulation and violence. While the former is certainly happening, the latter appears to be one step ahead at the moment.

If ever there were a time where the work of peacemaking seemed soft and unrealistic while proposing some kind of fairy tale future reality, it is now. If ever there were a time to set aside the way of reconciliation for the way of revenge, it is now. Peacemaking appears to be a royal waste of time reserved for the ignorant idealists.

Yet, if ever there were a time the exact opposite case could be made, it is now. In recent history, there has never been a time peacemaking is more necessary. In fact, the moment we deny the necessity for peacemaking, we deny the very mission of God and the vocation of God’s people. God’s work is peace — the holistic repair of relationship — and the vocation of God’s people. We aren’t pawns in a divine drama that will end in an atomic holocaust allowing us to apathetically put our hands up in resignation because “everything is going to hell.” No, the Jesus’ Community is to announce the reality of God’s kingdom and participate in God’s activity of making all things new. And not just in some future world, but NOW.

Where do we start and how do we keep hope in a world of war? 

We need to give up peace for Lent. 

When the world is filled with violence, it is easy to get so caught up in evaluating and critiquing big picture, systemic issues (and the figure heads they represent) we often don’t make any effort to look inward; to do the hard work of unearthing the lies we believe about God, ourselves and others. The “peace” we need to give up for Lent is the pseudo-peace that says we are immune from contributing to the violence we see around us. When we tell ourselves that all the violence in the world happens “over there” because of “them,” we give ourselves a free pass from confronting our own evils that overflow into the world. 

To wage peace, we must first (and continually!) wage war on the evil within that keeps us from embracing our vocation as ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor 5).

Our prejudice.

Our isolation.

Our “othering.”

Our paralyzing fear.

Our stereotypes.

Our insecurity.

Our need for revenge.

I was recently sitting with a friend, a leading Muslim scholar and teacher, who adamantly denounced the corrupted definition of “Jihad” proposed by extremists and amplified by our fear-funded news-outlets. He said, “True Jihad is simply to face the evil within so that we can better reflect love to the world around us.” I was deeply convicted both of my falling pray to stigma and stereotype and by the long process inward that would be required to face the evil within.

Jean Vanier, practitioner and seasoned guide on Christian community, says, “We create enemies because we haven’t confronted the enemy within us.” This begs the question, who are the “enemies” I have created as a result of my inability to face the “enemies” within?

This week is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day pilgrimage of introspection, repentance and re-alignment that leads to Holy Week on the Christian calendar. It is a season of confronting the evil within so we can wage peace in the midst of a broken world. It is a season of reflecting on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and acknowledging the decisive peace God waged in Jesus. The evil has been dealt with and the Kingdom has broken through. It is now our job to acknowledge and live into the reality of a Kingdom of peace despite the kingdoms around us that promote the opposite. The Jesus Community is called to be Salt and Light in THIS world, not some distant-future reality. It is to live as a reminder of the way things were meant to be all along. To seek the holistic repair of relationship. To be an instrument of peace.

During this Lenten season, may we turn our sights inward and confront the evil within that keeps us from embracing and living out the decisive peace waged on the cross and embodied in the resurrection. 

May we put to death the evil that creates and confronts “enemies” with revenge and be resurrected with the weapons of transformation, reconciliation and sacrifice. 

May we seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed — near or far — and repent (turn) toward a life that reflects the one we follow. 

Stephan Bauman on Changing the Way We Change the World

Stephan Bauman is president and CEO of World Relief, a leading international relief and development organization. He is also a poet, ordained minister, and strategist who considers his African friends his most important teachers. Stephan and his wife, Belinda, live near Washington, D.C. with their sons, Joshua and Caleb. His new book, Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World was just released.

KW: Stephan, what’s your story? How did you become President of one of the larger Christian relief and development organizations?

SB: I am not a likely Nonprofit CEO. I grew up in Wisconsin without much interest in justice work until my wife, Belinda, suggested we volunteer in Africa. I resisted for three years until I finally agreed to go for 6 months. I was surprised to learn that a primary need was not medical personnel, experts or technicians as I expected, but actually leaders and strategists like me. We resigned our jobs in the US and stayed for six years. The rest is history.

KW: What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned about changing the world after your years of experience living overseas and working in relief and development?

SB: Belinda and I learned the hard way. Africa changed us more than we changed it. But along the way, we gained some valuable insight, much of it from our African friends. How we do things is as important than what we do, and how we see those who suffer makes all the difference. Very rarely is someone truly helpless. More often than not they are the most important change agent for their situation and their community.

KW: How do you encourage people who feel too overwhelmed by the thought of changing the world?

SB: Too often people exclude themselves from the idea of changing the world. “I am just an artist,” someone might say. “I am just a mom,” or “I am only an engineer,” say others. But Jesus didn’t call the well-known and well-connected but, instead, ”…all who have faith in me” to “do the works I have been doing…” (John 14:12). Overcoming injustice today requires far more than the aid worker, minister, politician or professional. Today’s movements—whether to end hunger, abolish trafficking, or stamp out extreme poverty—are fueled by storytellers, artists, entrepreneurs, students and bloggers. We’ve entered a new age of activism, and it’s inspiring, impactful, and invigorating.

But doing justice is only as good as the people who do it. The question I am asked most often when speaking about hunger, war, trafficking, disease, or poverty is what can I do? I’ve never been asked, who must I become? Doing good well is important, but who we are is equally, if not more, important. We have the opportunity to choose to live lives of radical surrender and sacrificial love, making heroes of others, not ourselves, and honoring God along the way. This is the hard work of justice, but also the most enduring and life-changing.

KW: Can you summarize the principles of your blueprint for becoming a world-changer?

SB: In brief, we need to undergo three shifts. First, we need to recover our calling. Too many people still believe calling is only for a select few yet God calls everyone. Second, we need to reframe the problem. Some of us may approach poverty or injustice as impossibilities while others tackle symptoms instead of causes. It’s important to understand the root causes in order overcome injustice. And, third, we need to understand our role in remaking the world. Extraordinary progress has been made by surprising people, that is, not just the professional. “There are no ordinary people,” says CS Lewis. Everyone can bring change.

KW: Your book has a very hopeful title, Possible, is there one story that summarizes the hope you feel about the work we’re called to as Christians working for justice?

SB: Belinda and I first met singer/songwriter Josh Garrels the year before last. When we mentioned the Democratic Republic of Congo. His response: “Where’s Congo?” Less than two months later Josh gave away all his albums through Noise Trade, a music sharing site, to help the plight of women in Congo. Over 160,000 albums were downloaded, the largest in Noise Trade history, and more than $70,000 was donated to charity. In his own words:

When confronted with such a massive crisis that is being ignored globally, I was left with the overwhelming impression of those in the midst of the suffering…being relatively “voiceless.” And this begged the question: if I’ve quite literally been given a “voice” to sing, speak, write, and have some measure of influence in my own media-driven culture, why would I remain silent?

KW: Many people wouldn’t know that you are a poet—what have you found to be intersections of art, creativity and justice? Is there a favorite poem of yours you could introduce and share?  

SB: One of my favorites is called “Do We Dare?” which was performed by Micah Bournes on his recent album. You can listen to it at

The Justice Conference Local

TJC Local Promo from The Justice Conference on Vimeo.

Do You Worship Your Worship Experience?

Guest Post by Andrea Lucado

I sat in a church I’d never been to on Sunday. It was different from the churches I typically attend for a few reasons. It was much smaller. It didn’t start on time. It was a different denomination. And the big one, the demographic, as far as social class and age, varied greatly, and I wasn’t in the majority.

I was there with a friend who sat by me and explained that this church happens 24/7. Sure, they have a Sunday service, he said, but Sunday service is a very small part of this church. It’s not the central event like it is for most churches. Here, people minister to the homeless every day. Their lives reflect Jesus in their interactions with people from all neighborhoods and backgrounds. They worship God outside the church building maybe more than they worship Him inside of it. And all of this made me uncomfortable. It convicted me. I held back tears during the service because of what I realized I’ve let church become for me: a place that makes me feel good.

I like churches with amazing worship bands – they make me feel good. I like churches where my friends go – they make me feel good. I like church to be entertaining and the sermon to be engaging – this makes me feel good. I had to stop and ask myself this past Sunday, since when was the church about making me feel good?

I asked a few more hard questions after this like, what if all churches looked this way? What if they were a little smaller and didn’t start on time and only had three people in the band but on nights, weekends and weekdays the congregants scoured the streets of their cities and served people who haven’t seen kindness or felt grace in their entire lives? What if the Sunday morning service was ok, but the Monday through Saturday service was life-changing? What if the center of the church was Christ and on the edges was the worship band and the order of events on Sundays?

Do I worship Jesus, or do I worship my worship experience?

They’re tough questions, but they’re important. This Sunday’s church had the least in attendance, wealth and refinement that I’ve been to in months, but it was one of the richest and deepest services I’ve been a part of, and I felt Jesus’ presence all in it and through it. I know he was there, and I know he was pleased with his people.

Diversity and the Witness of the Early Church

Photo Credit: Frédéric Glorieux, Creative Commons

Leroy and I were recently on a trip to Washington DC and discussed the early church and the faith community at Antioch for a blog post he was working on. When his post came out, I thought it would be fun to post it here as well!


Guest Post by Leroy Barber

As I look at the early Church, I am amazed by their diversity. They were a bunch of people who were deciding to learn a new way of living outside the norm of their society. They were Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, trying to live a different life.

First, it drew people to know who they were and how they could be a part of this new thing. Eventually, they would be called Christians at Antioch.

Second, it put them in such opposition to the status quo that persecutions began to happen. These new Christians were fed to lions and burned at the stake by folks like Nero.

It is remarkable that even though Christians were heavily persecuted, people kept wanting to become Christian! Acts tells us that the Church was added to daily. In contrast to today, a time when Christians are quite comfortable and people are leaving church in droves, I can’t help but wonder if we should call ourselves Christian. We simply don’t resemble anything close to the early Church. We walk down the “Romans Road” to belief, but in many cases that is where faith ends. It seems that in the early Church people preferred authenticity, even if it brought persecution.

And here we introduce the idea of hospitality. The idea of hospitality wasn’t a part of some cultural norm to show one’s status or sophistication. It was a way of life to help people who were wandering about because their families disowned them for following Jesus. Hospitality was a necessity of life and the norm of a struggling community caring for each other. Those early Christians even sold their belongings to meet each others’ basic needs. Can you imagine selling your stuff so that your neighbor can eat? I have experienced such hospitality in some of the most vulnerable places around the world. And I have been deeply blessed.

How did we get here, friends? How are we so separated by race and culture? More importantly, how do we begin to live into our call again as Christians? How do we recapture the moment when we were first called Christians?

It seems to me that the call is once again or perhaps has always been a radical one, meaning that at all costs we give our lives for one another. We sacrifice for strangers. We love and give to people across racial, cultural, political, denominational, gender, and economic lines. If we do this, there would need to be a new way to define such a community since the idea of Christian as many know it today does not now fit this new kind of community.

To sacrifice for all? It might take an act of God. Yes, it probably would. The Holy Spirit would have to take over our lives and rid us of our fears. However, perhaps this is just what we need—an act of God to make us Christians again.

This blog post originally appeared on Evangelvision.

Small Beginnings

Photo Credit: Justin Tung, Creative Commons

Guest Post by Tom Rowley, A Rocha USA

Two weeks ago, I spent the day with a dozen other men—nine black, three white—discussing racism, black men and the Church. Appreciative as I was for the invitation by Leroy Barber and Kilns College, I was a bit hesitant. Privileged by society because of race, gender and socio-economic class (none of my own doing), I was afraid I would feel guilty, ignorant and uncomfortable. I went anyway and am grateful I did. I was given not only new friends, but also new insights—albeit still quite limited. What I now claim to “understand” is mere head knowledge about things these men “understand” as life. Small beginnings, I suppose.

And while the conversation was not about the creation or environment, the field in which I work, I was struck by several similarities. Racism and environmental degradation share roots, results and, even response by the Church.

As others have pointed out, Christian slaveowners were able to soothe their consciences and rationalize their ownership of human beings by buying into a sort of insidious gnosticism. In short, they could tell themselves and their slaves that life on Earth doesn’t matter; all that counts is the eternal hereafter. That same heresy can be and is used to justify abuse of the non-human portion of God’s creation as well.

Another related and shared root is greed—plain and simple. As the apostle Paul said, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1Timothy 6:10) That evil is evident, even when unintentional, when what I want comes at the expense of another human being or the planet (recognizing, of course, that it is impossible to live without some impact on the environment.)

As for similar results, we can see them in the devastation that racism and environmental degradation wreak on people of color. Racism inflicts physical, emotional, social and economic damage. So, too, does environmental degradation. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, as well as poor Whites, often (disproportionately according to some studies) live downhill, downstream and downwind of the smokestacks, landfills, sludge ponds and incinerators that hold the toxic byproducts of modern life.

Finally, the response by the evangelical Church in the USA to both racism and environmental degradation has been less than one—and perhaps Jesus—might hope for. We in white middle-class America are largely insulated from the practices and effects of racism, just as we are largely insulated from the results of environmental degradation. Insulation, however, is no excuse. Ignorance is not a defense. And the fact that you and I may not be blatant racists, nor have lavish lifestyles does not give us a pass. The recent awakening of the Church on both fronts is encouraging, but it is “recent”.

Interestingly, addressing one can help with the other.

Getting people of different races to sit down with one another, grasp the nettle and bridge the divide is right and good and we should do it. It is, however, exceedingly difficult. Getting people of different races to roll up our sleeves to clean up the river that runs through town or plant trees in school yards may be a good small beginning. Common ground. Common cause. Relationship. Healing.

Two examples. In Lexington, Kentucky, two churches—one black, one white—have come together to plant a community garden on property owned by the white church, but set squarely in the predominately black neighborhood. What once was a source of contention dating back to Civil War days is now a place of tomatoes, conversations and community. In Southall—a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural—suburb of London, A Rocha brought all parties together to restore a large tract of land that was a place of crime and illicit dumping. Eyesore and health hazard converted to community jewel.

The obstacles to racial justice and harmony are many and complex. And by themselves, efforts such as these are insufficient in overcoming them. And clearly this blog has only scratched the surface. But “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10)

Re-Post: Reggie Williams on Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

Reggie Williams is an Assistant Professor of Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary, in Chicago, Illinois. His research consists of analysis of the intermingling of race and religion from the modern colonial period to the Harlem Renaissance. Particularly, Christology within the Harlem Renaissance literary movement yields evidence of a prophetic Christianity that can guide peaceful resistance of oppression. Williams’ book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic, recently published by Baylor University Press, examines Bonhoeffer’s exposure to Christianity in the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s effect on Bonhoeffer’s Nazi resistance. He and his wife Stacy Williams are the parents of a son, Darion (15yrs), and a daughter, Simone (13yrs).

KW: How did your interest in this topic first develop?

RW: I first became interested in this topic while I was a PhD student of Glen Stassen’s. Glen argued that Christianity in America suffers from a problem of reducing the way of Jesus to thin principles (like personal responsibility, modesty, humility, etc…), which can be inserted into any ideology and turn Jesus into divine support for harmful ideologies. Glen saw that the slave trade in America did exactly that with Jesus, and whole traditions of Christianity in America continue to suffer from the effects of thinning Jesus down in order to see American race-based slavery as a legitimate Christian practice. That is an American injustice that we’ve not yet recovered from. But, there are other American traditions of Jesus that have not suffered from the need to make Jesus accommodate practices of domination. African American traditions of Jesus were born in the heat of domination, and tend to center on Jesus with more attention to concrete commandments (rather than abstract ideals) and social expectations. For Glen, Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem demonstrates the power of that historical reality; Jesus appropriated for domination and authoritarianism in Germany meeting Jesus identified with the marginalized and oppressed in Harlem, resulting in a transformative effect upon Bonhoeffer’s Christian identity. Glen introduced the story to me, and I took it from there.

KW: Can you compare/contrast Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and practice before and after his experience with black Christianity and the Harlem Renaissance?

RW: Years after his return from his time in Harlem, Bonhoeffer claimed that during his student years, (which scholars interpret as ending upon his return from New York in the summer of 1931) he wasn’t really a Christian, yet. In his words, he was arrogant, uninterested in the Bible, or in prayer. He didn’t attend church much, but in New York, he became a lay leader at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Upon his return to Germany, he continued to take church attendance very seriously, and he was now making use of the Bible, interpreting scripture as relevant for daily Christian living. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer began talking about racism, and “ethnic pride” as sin. Bonhoeffer recognized the Nazi race language as the German equivalent of American white supremacy after Harlem where he learned that white supremacy is a Christian problem.

KW: Can you briefly summarize how you think this affected Bonhoeffer’s work against the Nazi regime in Germany?

RW: After New York, Bonhoeffer was familiar with an African American tradition of Jesus that associated Jesus with suffering humanity, rather than with the powerful and the elite. Within an African American Christian worldview, Christian faithfulness was re-calibrated for Bonhoeffer, from the perspective of the marginalized, in whom he came to recognize Jesus hidden in the world in suffering and shame. By positioning himself as a white German man, next to black Christians in America, Bonhoeffer was enabled to interrogate Christian identity and Christian faithfulness in a way that called into question his formation as a white man, and consequently in Germany, he was equipped to do the same self reflection as a German Aryan Christian in relationship to Jewish people.

KW: Why do you think this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s experience hasn’t been explored significantly before? 

RW: Well, first, I think matters like Harlem, race, black theology and church life have been an enigma for many white theologians. The theological implications of race are legion and they are perplexing. Second, only in recent years have Bonhoeffer scholars, in America and in Germany begun to give Bonhoeffer’s study time in Harlem any serious attention. Many years ago, one Bonhoeffer scholar by the name of Ruth Zerner wrote an article that claimed Harlem was influential for Bonhoeffer’s theological development. Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend Eberhardt Bethge after he was imprisoned by the Nazis that he hadn’t changed much in his life except under the influence of his father’s personality, and after his first trip abroad. Zerner made a convincing case that he was referring to his trip to America as a post-doctoral student in 1930-31 when he mentioned his first trip abroad. Other scholars have begun to follow Zerner’s interpretive lead about Bonhoeffer’s transformative trip abroad, but they had to swim against the tide of opinion that was still arguing that Bonhoeffer was referring to an earlier trip to Rome and Africa that he took with an older brother. In all of this debate stands the difficulty of interpreting the impact of theology on our Christian identity, and Christian social interaction. Race is a complicating source of that interaction, and it has been missed precisely because it has not been respected or understood. Yet, we cannot really discern all that was going on with Bonhoeffer’s advocacy for the Jews in Germany without attention to the theological implications of race.

KW: Having studied Bonhoeffer so deeply, what do you think he would say about his rising popularity and exposure in America today?

RW: I’m sure Bonhoeffer would be shocked by his popularity. When the Nazi government arrested him in 1943, he was not a very popular person in Germany. The Confessing Church movement that had been his outlet of theological resistance to the Nazis was no longer in existence by the time of his arrest. Large numbers of the confessing church membership succumbed to Nazi demands that they show loyalty to the Nazi government by swearing allegiance to the Führer.  In that process Bonhoeffer was pushed out and to the margins of the community of his colleagues, nearly alone in his Christian opposition. Today many regard him as a hero, but in his day, he was just a young radical professor/pastor, struggling to encourage faithfulness to Christ among his colleagues. I’m sure he’d want the same faithfulness for Christians, today. I’m also sure that he’d be surprised by the many different interpretations of his radical Christian claims, and his international acclaim.

Bonhoeffer was not one who sought the limelight. He was instead one who preferred humble solidarity with other Christians within community. The urge to follow a charismatic leader was not one that he respected. Life within Christian community as the practice of submission to the will of God who is present in Christ, was Christianity for Bonhoeffer.

KW: What is your hope for those who read this book? Is there a practical application for everyday Christians?

RW: I read Bonhoeffer as one who helps us to ask important questions about Christian identity and identity formation. Our understanding of what it means to be human is tethered to notions of ideal humanity, religion and ideal community. These themes of ideal humanity and ideal community have calibrated Christianity to correspond with harmful ideologies that inform our collective understanding of race. Bonhoeffer helps us to interrogate the harmful connection between ideal humanity and ideal community as people who seek to live in the real world, in faithfulness to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. We really cannot do theological education, or Christianity, well in America without paying attention to the formation of our identity as human and Christian. I hope that readers will see the kind of work that Bonhoeffer had to engage in order to advocate for people pushed to the margins of society by the dream of an ideal community.

New Art

Thanks to former Antioch Intern, Sam Palencia, for some pretty cool hand-drawn memes for #TheGrandParadox. Sam is an art student at Cal Baptist and she is pretty much the bomb.

If you’d like to see the set of 5, or other memes and media resources for the book, visit the media resources post here.

Social Media Advice from Uncle Screwtape

Guest Post by John Sowers

The other day I took my iPhone into the Genius Bar for some work. When I turned my phone back on, I received a series of strange texts, each one cryptically signed, “Screwtape.” At first I thought it was a joke, so I played along, texting back. But the more texts I received, the more I realized it was no joke. Here are some of those texts…


Dear Wormwood, if you cannot divide them into new denominations, have them write angry blogs and sarcastic tweets to one another. As you learned in training, sarcasm is a Greek word meaning “tearing the flesh.” Make them so determined to ‘win the argument,’ that they tear at each other, like sharks at feeding frenzy. – Uncle Screwtape

Dear Wormwood, do everything to keep him disconnected from the Voice of the Enemy. Every morning, rush at him with a thousand voices. Tweets. Texts. Instagram Likes. Make him feel a small buzz of approval whenever he gets a “Like.” Soon, he will live for an invisible audience instead of those right in front of him. He will believe to be ‘connected,’ but will be utterly alone. – Your Affectionate Uncle

Dear Wormwood, have your patient become a ‘spiritual critic.’ Make him into a misguided whistleblower writing open letters and airing out his theological rage on Facebook. Twist and use him. Whisper accusations in his ear, like leprous distillments, straight from our Accusing Father below. – Screwtape

Dear Wormwood, I see you are having success with this ‘critic’ idea. I am giddy with impish delight! Your patient feels superior to others and will never learn to serve. He has forgotten Grace extended to him by the Enemy and is religiously competitive, believing, like the Pharisee, ‘I am not like other men.” – Your Proud Uncle

Dear Wormwood, your patient is interested in compassion and justice? Do not lose heart. Convince him to build a social media ‘platform’ to make a name for himself, like those at Babel. Soon, he will have insatiable lust to for superiority and will love fame more than people. He will reach for the heights, lusting for the Throne. – Screwtape


I think Uncle Screwtape is right. Not about the content of our online discourse, but the tone and the posture.

Somewhere along the way, it became fashionable for us to be spiritual critics and blog trolls, to fire off tweets and write angry open letters to one another. Our critical, knee-jerk reactions have taken us a long way from the Prince of Peace. When we act in this way, we are more like the Accuser – the “Father Below.”

So Beware! If your social media tone is anything but love, you may be walking lock-step with Uncle Screwtape’s wishes.

The Grand Paradox Parent Resources

Guest Post by Linda VanVoorst

Kids ask lots of questions. They are curious about seemingly everything! Their curious little minds can’t help but question. Teaching kids to live the way God desires also prompts many questions. Often, the answers seem paradoxical.

Imagine a young boy asking his dad “Why do you work so hard, dad?”. His dad might answer something like “I want to do my work well.” The boy extends the logic and says “And because you work so hard, we will have lots of money!”. To the surprise of the young boy, the dad says “Not exactly. You see, I work hard so we can meet our needs and help meet the needs of others.” The little boy might furrow his brow as he tries to formulate his reply. “So you mean you work hard so you can give your money away?” If the dad is honest with his son, he might say “Exactly. It’s not easy. It would be awesome to spend all our money on new toys, big TV’s and vacations. But God wants us to care about others like we care about ourselves. So, we use some of our money on ourselves and some of our money to help others.”

Living the way God desires doesn’t always make sense, especially in light of our culture. Kid logic recognizes that! However, I believe kids can grasp the importance and value of faith. Simply put, faith means loving God and living the way He desires.

I also know that kids can ask questions that often leave parents tongue-tied, making it hard to explain the importance of faith in God and His ways.

As The Grand Paradox was being written, I started to dream about practical ways to begin a similar conversation about faith with kids. How can we teach kids about the messiness of life, the mystery of God and the necessity of faith? How can we begin to answer the questions that kids ask about faith? How can we equip parents to teach kids to live the way God desires?

We had some pretty grandiose ideas, but soon realized the answer was quite simple. First, we needed to figure out what questions kids were asking, then we needed to help parents answer the questions being asked. We thought we could do this and hoped we could make it fun for both parents and kids. Who says living by faith should be boring?

We started by surveying a bunch of kids. When they were not around their peers, we asked, “What is the most confusing part about living the way God desires?”

Stop for a minute. How would you answer?

Their answers were consistent. Nearly every kid we surveyed answered with one of the following questions:

Nobody lives like a Christian. Why should I?

What is God up to?

Why am I here?

Why should I go to church?

We asked kids to elaborate about their question so we could make sure we answered the questions correctly. Then we got to work answering these four questions in a way that explains the beauty of the paradox. After a lot of head-scratching, bible-searching hours, we created a parent resource to accompany Ken’s new book, The Grand Paradox.

This parent resource provides four fun, yet to-the-point, guides designed to help adults answer the four questions listed above in a manner that makes sense to kids while not sugar coating the necessity of faith. For each question, the guide offers:

1. In Other Words: Kids speak their own language. The question is unpacked so parents understand the nature of the child’s question.

2. Important Truth: Keep it simple. There is one important truth we think kids need to know. Here you will find the words to assist you as you help your child understand the necessity of the paradox.

3. In the Bible: Kids want proof. Show them that God desires this type of faith by looking at the suggested story in the bible.

4. Check It Out: Kids often learn best when engaging their senses. Do the suggested activity to help kids wrestle with the important truth.

5. It’s Been Done: Read about a real-life hero who has lived out the important truth! Dream about living out the truth, also.

6. Ask God: Check out this short prayer in light of the important truth.

Each guide also relates to a chapter in The Grand Paradox. If you need more insight to answer the questions that might arise, check out the chapter referenced at the top of each question guide. We hope this hands-on guide aides you as you teach the kids in your life about the messiness of life, the mystery of God and necessity of faith! Download a FREE copy here.

Justice Kids Parent Resource Overview from Ken Wytsma on Vimeo.

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