Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act III)

This part three of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act III: The Word made flesh

I am a man of faith…But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.

Jayber Crow (page 356)

Faith and hope does not come cheaply. It must be practiced. It is a virtue as much as it is a gift. Flimsy or saccharine hope does no one any good, though maybe it somehow feels more certain than taking small steps and noticing the present moment.

For anyone’s hope to endure and be joyful, we must consider all the facts. Waiting (and all of life, for that matter) may very well include unexpected events outside of our control. COVID-19, for example, has left many of us carrying different forms of loss as we move forward with our education, families, and work. This visceral challenge to hope cannot be swept under the rug. Even as I write this reflection, we are in one of the most contentious political moments of my lifetime and, despite many signs of hope, the next few months may very well pose an existential threat for all of us, not to mention those who are most vulnerable here and around the world.

So what does hope actually look like? I’m going to suggest it involves our bodies and relationships and what has been called by some mental health professionals “completing the stress cycle.” A lot of this I’ve grabbed from a book called Burnout written by identical twins Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski. According to the Nagoski sisters, “emotions are cycles that happen in your body. They are neurological events, and when I say neurological, I mean not just happening in your brain but your whole nervous system, the intelligence of your body extends to your nervous system from the top of your head to the tip of your toes and also beyond your skin. Emotions are an involuntary neurological response. They have a beginning, a middle and an end…In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

So how do we get unstuck and complete this stress cycle? How do we meaningfully put into action the hope of Advent? The following steps may not sound like earth shattering news or even very spiritual, but trust me the proof is in the pudding. You will have more space in your life for all the things that truly matter if you allow yourself to practice these suggestions:

  1. Move
    1. Body movement allows our brains to think and reflect on ourselves. It helps our bodies to feel safe again. Think about yoga, massage, acupuncture, even acting or singing at the top of your lungs (hello Gaby!), dancing, jumping on the trampoline, sports, beach walks, riding bikes, holding your pets, martial arts, and even boxing. 
  2. Breathe
    1. Slow, deep breaths relax our bodies. Try out the 4-7-8 Exercise (it’s a way of breathing deeply). So you inhale and count to 4, hold and count to 7, and then exhale slowly counting to 8. You can also use the Jesus Prayer by combining your breathing with, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner”. Of course, breathing with body movements like yoga, exercise, and even singing are other ways.
  3. Talk to people
    1. “Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place,” say the Nagoskis. “Just go buy a cup of coffee and say ‘nice day’ to the barista. Compliment someone’s earrings. Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck.” Over 40 years of attachment and bonding research shows our biological and emotional drive for really basic human connections like a smile, eye contact, attention, and touch. Let’s watch this short clip about the “Still Face” experiment to give you an idea of what bonding looks like: https://youtu.be/apzXGEbZht0 
  4. Laugh
    1. One BIG way to complete the stress cycle, to not get stuck with the stress lodged in our bodies, is through laughter. Wanna to try a little experiment? Let’s watch this bunk bed scene from the movie Step Brothers. Notice how the step- brothers seem to do whatever it takes to connect with their parents and each other (FYI: profanity warning y’all): https://youtu.be/ulwUkaKjgY0.     
  5. Speak to loved ones
    1. Specifically, I want to draw attention to receiving encouragement from our elders. A conversation between Bryan Stevenson and civil rights activists Ms. Johnnie Carr and Ms. Rosa Parks illustrates this point. Bryan retells his meeting with them where he had just explained all the projects they were doing. He says, “I’m just throwing all of these things out. And when I finished giving Ms. Parks my rap, she looked at me and she just said, “Mm-mm-mm. That’s gonna make you tired, tired, tired.” [laughs] And Miss Carr leaned forward and she said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
  6. Cry
    1. A couple weeks ago I heard some sad and distressing news. I was in the middle of my work day when I just began to cry. I thought I was alone in the room, but I didn’t see Julissa behind me. She came close, held me, and allowed me to finish my tears. Crying didn’t change the situation itself, but my body felt better and I had a moment to exhale. It was a relief to finish a tearful emotion.  
  7. Do something creative
    1. The Nagoski sisters write: “the arts—including painting, sculpture, music, theatre, and storytelling in all forms—create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.” So watch a movie, read a book, behold a sunset, visit immersive Van Gogh, write music, shoot photos, act, make something with fabric and cardboard and tape (hello Santiago!), produce videos.
  8. Confession 
    1. This is so important. We are bound to one another in relationship, forgiveness, and truth-telling. We must embrace this personal and collective accountability in order to get the release we need. The goal is always redemption, restorative justice, and mercy, not just paying back the debt or feeling the punishment.   
  9. Find the exceptions
    1. We must acknowledge, with humility and gratitude, the many large and small exceptions to the bad news and negative outcomes we see. For example, Trump lost the election! Some of the election details are not finalized, but the fact that Trump lost and, legally, will have to accept defeat means that we have some relief in store for us. Even now we feel it. Also, we can note the almost total rejection of violent resistance by the majority of marginalized communities. Also, we can consider our friends and family who love us and support us despite our weaknesses, our mistakes, our failures, our disappointments. This is a real cause for joy and thankfulness. 
  10. Do the next right thing
    1. The God who woke you up this morning, the Angel who visited Mary and invited her into this liberation project, also invites us to do and say the next right thing in our story.
  11. Dependence on God
    1. God’s power and mystical presence among us and within us to give provision and security and freedom even when all the oppressive structures are still there. Even when it doesn’t look like there will be a positive outcome. Even when we lose hope that God is here in our midst. Even then, God is restoring and revealing the Holy Spirit to us, in love, passed on through Mary’s song, through Jesus’s embodiment, through all the disciples and their descendants, and also now through us.
  12. The time is now
    1. Take action, no matter how simple it may seem. Hugs make people feel safe. Stress hormones actually help us take control of our lives, make decisions, and put our hands to work. This energy needs to be released. Compare the victims of Hurricane Katrina who were literally strapped down and prevented from getting to work with the victims of 9/11 who instinctively ran home (and were safe) across the Brooklyn Bridge. The PTSD rate spiked after Katrina, but did not after 9/11.       

In closing, I want to tell you about my friend and fellow member of Bethel AME Chico, David Phillips. I see him embodying this kind of hope. Every Sunday he goes to the people who live on the streets in downtown Chico and gives them food and a smile and a warmth that comes from his heart. Why does he do that? Because his son, Desmond Phillips, used to drag him along even though Desmond had enough mental health problems to easily excuse himself from reaching out to others in this way. When Desmond was murdered, shot 16 times in their own home by Chico police officers during a mental health crisis, his father adopted his son’s hope and activism. He simply kept going to feed Desmond’s unhoused friends in the city plaza every Sunday. He continues to lift up Desmond’s life and express gratitude for God’s presence when he could just as well feel powerless. He thanks Desmond, he thanks God every single day.

David Phillips teaches me that hope is not as complicated as we sometimes fear. Hope looks like holding a child’s hand. Like passing the ketchup. Like giving way to someone walking past us on the sidewalk. Like saying the names of the people we have lost. Like smiling and hiking and breathing deeply (yes, behind a mask). Like David Phillips handing out his sandwiches in the park.

Do you believe this hope is true? Please take a moment now to reflect on your life and the people you call family. How can you cultivate hope in this week to come? What small step can you take?

Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There, recorded by Washington Phillips: https://youtu.be/w2h7sPK4XK4

Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act II)

This part two of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act II: The waiting

In March of 1965, nonviolent activists from the Dallas County Voters League, SNCC, and SCLC organized protest marches from Selma to Montgomery. Their first attempt to cross into Dallas county via the Edmund Pettus bridge resulted in what subsequently became known as, “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers as well as local police used billy clubs and tear gas against marchers, including the late US Representative, John Lewis. It reads, “Mounted police [even] chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.”  

That same evening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists began planning to retry this bridge crossing only two days later. A legal battle to stop them was also underway. They had to decide whether to disobey the pending court order or continue their plans to cross the bride. One account reads: 

[A]fter consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of [March 9th]. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice.. 

But then something strange happened. He “stopped and asked them to kneel and pray.” You can only imagine what was going through his mind. Would he be leading all these people into another “Bloody Sunday”? Or would they finally break through this stronghold of whiteness in the south? We know the end of the story: 

After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery…” 

Indeed, I’ve noticed in my own life that waiting does not feel like courage when I’m actually being attacked. No, it feels like permission, like a trauma waiting to happen. We are physiologically set up for this response. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster and take shorter breaths, our eyes dilate, peripheral vision increases, our hands and feet get colder as blood rushes to our major muscles. We humans are biologically primed to fight or to escape or to freeze. Of course, this response also may occur at unhelpful times, when there is no discernable threat. Traumatized people, in fact, are often simply triggered by thoughts or memories, loud noises, a song, a smell, and even colors. As a therapist I know that chronic trauma, especially during childhood, may require years of mental health care and practices to integrate and feel safe again in one’s body. So given this reality, how do we even stand a chance against the traumatic social injustices and personal threats we face? How would you respond to this waiting? 

For the Selma to Montgomery marchers, it unfolded in unexpected ways. First, President Johnson was moved by the trauma he and the whole world witnessed. He issued a public statement condemning the violence and promised to introduce the Voting Rights Act in a matter of days. This, however, would not be the end of the story. No, a happy ending was not unconditionally promised for those who waited. Here’s how to account reads: 

That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama…

Of course we know, on the other side of this story, that the National Guard eventually protected marchers as they completed their pilgrimage to Montgomery. But maybe we do not remember how the waiting continued, even then, and would keep an unflinching account of every loss, of every person living and dead who had no other choice but to keep moving, to keep waiting. Even when they reached Montgomery, another loss was waiting there. The account continues: 

That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act I)

This part one of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act I: The Prophecy

The Isaiah and Luke scripture readings for today are two of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. They speak to God’s justice and form the center of Jesus’ Gospel truth: we all receive good news and favor for the hungry and oppressed. Many of our cultural prophets today get paid when they prophesy wealth and privilege, but these Advent prophets came from a different source, through an oppressed people, right as they struggled to breathe, right when someone’s knee was on their neck. Their bodies longed for the day when righteousness would prevail and justice would sing. They wanted to enter that song for themselves in “garments of salvation” and a “mantle of praise.” These prophetic witnesses shared their reason to rejoice. As Mary proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46b). But what happens when hope is a luxury you cannot seem to afford? What happens when the promises of justice do not seem real or when evil continues without any recourse? How do we actively wait? 

I recently re-read a journal entry where I recorded a dream Gaby told me about in late October 2017. This is what she said her dream was about: “There was a volcano right next to the White House and it burned Donald Trump and he died, but it didn’t burn the White House and nobody else got burned.” Now I’m not sure if she would qualify as a biblical prophet, but her dream has that same wild and giddy-eyed tone that I feel in Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

I’m also re-reading Revelations with new eyes right now, the big prophecy at the end of the New Testament. I finally see it in a different light. Instead of it being a triumphant story about an all-powerful God torturing and crushing weak and disobedient humans, I now see that while it indeed tells the story of a war, the actors and violence are mainly between humans. On the one side, you have the most weak and vulnerable: the poor, the enslaved, and the faithful minority who saw their powerlessness as integral to their faith. On the other side, you have the most powerful and violent: the rich merchants, the kings, the generals who saw their destruction and oppression as integral to their supremacy. 

On the surface, without the vision of this prophetic story, the weak and vulnerable cannot win. They will lose every time, no questions asked. They always have. But with the prophetic story, the faithful minority (who would be called atheists by the Roman governmental powers) has the spiritual vision to rise up and fearlessly face the storm that is coming, and to be witnesses against all who do not believe that God is (and has been) drawing a line around them, claiming them, and also placing them in the midst of a war. They catch The Revelator’s vision. They see those self-legitimizing powers give way and self-destruct within their own promises of freedom. The propaganda falls, along with Babylon. When the seals and woes are released everything from agriculture to entertainment to Wall Street to congress must indeed change. These realities will not and cannot be ignored. 

And yet only the faithful few who see the prophetic story will recognize that the war against mighty heavenly powers is being fought on their behalf. That God has not abandoned them and will take them all the way through. That they are now an integral part of his mission to save and rescue. That they will be protected, even as some of them will die. That they will execute a new story from within the ruins of a destroyed community. 

This is because they have a source of power that is hidden in their forgotten, discarded, nobody, poorest of the poor, discredited status. Indeed, instead of shame, God has given them garments of praise, beauty for ashes. The masses may not repent of their dependencies on exploitation, racism, exclusion, homophobia, greed, global capitalism, violence by the sword and smart bomb and drone attack. They may not turn away from sexual idolatry or ruination of this world. But the ones who know the story are seeing God’s universe being set right again. And this is a cause for celebration, even while action is taken under duress, for their salvation is closer every day. 

This fight is happening without them becoming another oppressor. This is also a cause to rejoice. They choose a new way. They announce that the cycle of violence is over, it stops with them. Because they will not fight back, but instead entrust themselves into the hands of a Creator who has not left their children or their children’s children defenseless. His action on their behalf “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” to address the injustice, the failures, the perpetual violence, the slavery, and to bring about the freedom and shalom we all need right here in this moment. God herself will answer and it won’t be a disappointment, no matter how desperately long we must wait.

Dismantling Whiteness: “Some things I like since becoming anti-racist”

20180731_170521My now deceased grandpa Walsh gave me this little AA book back in January of 1998. Nowadays it’s held together by some duct tape and love; I treasure it and, in fact, read it daily. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day I was rapidly heading off the rails: substance abuse, petty crimes, as well as many other self-destructive things. I’ve been on a whole different trajectory for the last 20+ years. In fact, it was in April of 1998 that I eventually came to my senses, only a few months after my grandpa handed me this book and told me to call him anytime I wanted help. Although I don’t currently drink or use drugs and I never really considered myself an alcoholic or even an addict, I have found it fairly straight forward to apply the wisdom of the 12 steps to my own need for recovery from any number of things. If you just read between the lines (a little), the message is pretty darn clear no matter what idea of recovery might be appropriate. For example, take this passage here:

June 4–A.A. Thought for the Day

Some things I like since becoming dry: feeling good in the morning; full use of my intelligence; joy in my work; the love and trust of my children; lack of remorse; the confidence of my friends; the prospect of a happy future; the appreciation of the beauties of nature; knowing what it is all about. I’m sure that I like these things, am I not?

I realized that the things a recovering alcoholic likes about becoming dry can also apply to the new freedom I’ve experienced as a witness for racial justice. So, here’s my own list of things I like since becoming anti-racist:

  • I have a purpose every morning.
  • I feel enlarged by my vision of solidarity with others.
  • I have real friendships from across racial lines.
  • I relate better (and more authentically) with others.
  • I have more emotional range and bandwidth.
  • I’m now part of a solution to the problem.
  • My ability to tolerate conflict and tension has grown.
  • My possessions and money are given new meaning in reparations to people of color.
  • My children see themselves in Black and Brown leaders who model self-love, wholeness, and truth-telling.
  • I’m passing on to my children the beautiful way of racial integration.
  • I have learned to pray, read the sacred text, and imagine God from Black and Brown experiences.
  • I feel a sense of joy and peace in my work to dismantle whiteness.
  • My white family members respect me more when I tell them the truth.

I’m sure that I like these things, am I not?

Adiós, amigo. Te vamos a extrañar.

This video from 2015 begins with an interview with Gustavo and a picture of his family.

My friend Gustavo Delgadillo recently contracted COVID-19. He and his wife both got sick actually. They have been leading a community of seminarians and social advocates from their home in Huancayo, Peru. Their recent relief efforts led them to bring food and other support to Venezuelan refugees as well as to the Ashaninkas, an indigenous tribe who have been hard hit by this pandemic. This afternoon I just learned that Gustavo passed away. I’m so sad to hear he’s gone and that their family must now deal with this huge loss. I’m still trying to process it all myself.

Gustavo was a humble and courageous person. He was an intellectual in the best sense, sharp and inspired. He led a life of service and repentance in the midst of some really challenging personal and community-wide circumstances. I will always remember him as a fellow brother, hero, and friend. He is survived by his wife and two adolescent children.

I am going to put together a collection to send their family for funeral costs and other needs they may have. I’m not sure how else I can help from here, but if anyone feels moved to contribute, please contact me.

What does God’s power look like? (Part Four)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power in the midst of threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Four is another reply and reflection on God’s help in a time of pandemic.

April 19th, 2020

Jason,

I think I’d like to reply to this interesting passage:

I remember you saying at some point that Jesus never taught us to divide the kingdom of God into “the already” and “not yet,” but to instead focus on, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Is that more or less accurate? I ask because we all see a pretty dramatic difference between our present world and what God will bring about when He makes all things new. So when it comes to the kingdom of God now, what can we expect?

I guess I think Jesus, by his life, showed us what to expect. And it seems his first followers experienced the kingdom of God in much the same way. There was a dramatic difference between their lives before Jesus and after, and there was also a dramatic difference between their lives and the lives of most other people. Wasn’t there? Like in Jesus’ life, sometimes this meant things changed around them, miraculous deliverances, their ability to do the seemingly impossible. And sometimes it meant that they experienced the sufferings and loss that others also experience (or even more so) but they were able to respond in an amazingly different way. We see this also in the lives of many more of Jesus’ followers throughout history. These real and dramatic differences make apparent the actual presence of God’s kingdom that Jesus said was “in your midst,” here and now.

But this does exist “in the midst” of so much that is not the kingdom of God. We look at all that and wonder why God doesn’t fix it, if he’s so loving and powerful. If it was up to us, we’d fix it, wouldn’t we?

We keep trying to fix it. We’ve found that we can do so much to change things around us, by working together and through technological advancements. We’ve solved so many problems, cured diseases, reduced pain, organized society, made human life longer, more comfortable, more well-ordered. We’ve been so successful that it seems we think that’s the whole point of life. (Or we hope that’s the point?) Then we wonder, indignantly, why God doesn’t seem to be dedicating himself to this project as eagerly as we are.

But even with all our medical, societal, and technological advances we are still so isolated, lonely, confused, enslaved by our fears and lusts–lost. We are not so capable at fixing this problem, though it is more fundamental. So we throw ourselves into fixing everything else around us and try not to think about our inner isolation and bondage.

Jesus made it clear that he was interested in addressing this more fundamental problem. This deeper, more important problem. He came preaching the freedom and deep connectedness that God’s love offers us. That comes through abandoning our own fears and desires and will, and depending on God to provide and protect and guide us. It’s not a problem we can fix. Only God can.

And through our life experiences, God is working to bring each of us to himself, to bring us to the point where we abandon our own strength and reach out our hand to God. What is needed to bring us there is somewhat different for each person, I think. So none of our lives are exactly the same. At some moments we need deliverance, and other times we need to go through the shadow of death. Sometimes we need the pain to be taken away, and sometimes we need the pain. Maybe to help us see more clearly, or help us let go. That has been my experience. I wouldn’t presume, though, to know what someone else needs at any moment. But I believe God can know and can provide the escape, or the hardship, that will help us most in the place we are in our journey to God. God offers this in love, with mercy, so that we will not be broken but be made free.

That does seem relevant to the current upheaval in our world. But everyone’s experience is different and it’s impossible to say what exactly God is doing with all these experiences in so many different lives. Except that he’s trying to draw each of us to himself. This is the goal, not perfecting our society or the environment in which we live. The kingdom of God is found in following Jesus, no matter what’s happening around us. It’s real. And it’s now.

peace,
Paul

What does God’s power look like? (Part Three)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Three is another reflection and some questions I sent about God’s help in a time of pandemic.

April 4th, 2020

Paul,

Dallas Willard has been famous for saying, “We have no reason ever to be anxious” and “This present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.” You wrote something similar: “I believe our world is the right environment for what God is doing, the right environment for personal repentance and abandoning ourselves to God’s grace.” I really resonate with that and yet those statements seem so radical right now in the face of a global outbreak and other more difficult losses around the world. Like you, I don’t see a “slow transfiguration of our violent world” in the Bible or Jesus’ teachings. I do, however, see lots of patient waiting and anticipation–perhaps a very long wait–for the big changes we need in our society. 

At the same time, I don’t want to forget the biblical witness and my own experiences of God’s power, hope, and change (like Jesus’ resurrection, my own freedom from addictions, or the Israelite’s liberation from Pharaoh’s hands). God has faithfully ordered things in such a way that we can pray for help and receive “far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). These graces do not always happen with such dramatic intensity as the day I gave up drugs or when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, yet I still pray as Jesus taught: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Could our experiences of grace be a foretaste of the New Jerusalem that will come? 

In reality, it’s probably easier to look back on God’s power than to claim it is happening right now. You wrote, “In the end, God will give us the perfect environment, the perfect society. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here and now.” So the question I keep asking myself is what does it mean to receive the power of God today? Can we expect our environments to change at all? Individual repentance and grace are definitely what we need, but I also think about the justice we long for and need. During the late 1950s, for example, many young black students in Little Rock prayed for an end to Jim Crow and the terror they experienced from lynching and white violence. Some took steps to integrate the schools in spite of the danger. They refused to comply with “White only” laws. They believed God gave them dignity and strength and that He heard their prayers.   

I remember you saying at some point that Jesus never taught us to divide the kingdom of God into “the already” and “not yet,” but to instead focus on, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Is that more or less accurate? I ask because we all see a pretty dramatic difference between our present world and what God will bring about when He makes all things new. So when it comes to the kingdom of God now, what can we expect? This may be asking too much of our conversation, but I’m also trying to understand how it relates to our current situation: Is this pandemic a mercy? A form of judgement? Is it somehow God’s will? Or even from God’s hand? 

What does God’s power look like? (Part Two)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. Part Two is a reply to one of my first emails.

March 15th, 2020

Jason,

My thoughts on your comments have hovered around this line from the book: “God consents to our reluctant consent, resulting in this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.” I guess I don’t believe in “this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.” I mean I don’t believe that is what God is doing. So this could be at the heart of much of the misunderstanding.

Do you see this “slow transfiguration of our violent world” message in Jesus’ teaching (or the rest of the bible)? There’s prophecies of a new world, but the biblical description I see is something sudden and complete, clearly a gift of God. The new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. But I don’t see Jesus teaching that the world is going to become nonviolent (or godly in other ways either). He says the world will persecute his followers, and the more so the more closely we follow. There’s no suggestion that I see that this will only be for a while, that eventually everyone will all become followers of Jesus and persecution will end. And I don’t see that occurring yet, over two thousand years later.

What I hear from Jesus is that God wants us to change (repent) and follow him by accepting his power, because it’s impossible to do it by our own power. (This reminds me of your AA comments.) This is what God is trying to do. And this doesn’t require a nonviolent environment, a garden of Eden. I believe our world is the right environment for what God is doing, the right environment for personal repentance and abandoning ourselves to God’s grace. After Adam and Eve sinned, God changed their environment. What they needed then was struggle and suffering and challenges much bigger than them.

People keep trying to create a more perfect government or more advanced society. Individuals are sacrificed for the advancement of human society. I think maybe we think God has the same goals. But God cares about each individual infinitely. God is trying to save the individual, you and me. In the end, God will give us the perfect environment, the perfect society. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here and now.

And I don’t think the point of nonviolent, Christlike actions is to transform society (like some activist technique). These actions are meant as witness. They are meant to reach out to the souls of others and appeal to them to change, to hope, to love. They are meant to do exactly what God is doing.

What does God’s power look like? (Part One)

A friend and I have been discussing the promise of God’s power alongside threats to human flourishing and the struggle for justice. The discussion started right before COVID-19 hit California and a few weeks before the murder of George Floyd. As we continued talking and more events unfolded, our emails came into sharper focus. My plan is to post a series of our exchanges here. I’ll start Part One with one of my first emails.

March 9th, 2020

Paul,

Like you wrote in your old discussion, I can also see how God is ordering all things “for the working out of his own good purposes,” especially when we see oppressors. God does some sort of jujitsu move with their intentions, taking the side of the weak and vulnerable person, bringing judgement and mercy into the situation. He upholds the lowly in their faith. Yet He leaves the strong to their own devices (and painful consequences), for perhaps they too can change their life. The biblical witness seems to confirm all that and it’s been my personal experience as well.

All this is encouraging to remember. I feel most empowered to depend on God in these ways when I recall how He has protected me, rescued me, healed me, and transformed my many addictions into new life and freedom. Of course, in the context of the whole world, I’ve had a relatively easy life. Many other people and situations come to mind. The hardest ones might be, for example, natural disasters (like the Tornado in Nashville), child suffering (like kids fleeing war in Syria), and more or less preventable situations (like extreme poverty, hunger or starvation). In these situations, many different people are responsible and it even seems creation itself has become complicit.

In our current book, A More Christlike God, it says that “those who love as Christ did” are filled with supernatural love and will bring light to the world. The author writes:

God consents to our reluctant consent, resulting in this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.

Love will have its way, because while it may look like passive consent to extreme violence, it is nevertheless “stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, more vehement than a flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it” (Song of Sol. 8:6-7). The death and resurrection of Christ are the firstfruits of the destiny God’s love has arranged for the whole universe.”

Those lines sound pretty good to me, even poetic and beautiful. But how does this happen? Can God ultimately save us if He has limited himself to what the author calls “nonviolent consent”? What does God’s power look like in the face of really terrible things that we see happen?

In Memory of George Floyd

To arrive like this every day for it to be like this to have so
many memories and no other memory than these for as
long as they can be remembered to remember this.

Though a share of all remembering, a measure of all
memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a
truce–

a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.

I can hear the even breathing that creates passages to
dreams. And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you
me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.

from Citizen: An American Lyric
By Claudia Rankine