Words of a Christian White Man

Growing up in church as a young boy I would occasionally hear people say, “If I make it to heaven one day I would be happy to be a doorman, just so long as I am there.”

The implication was that the joy of being in heaven would far outweigh even the lowliest position.

While the people who said this were unfortunately more concerned with the end goal of “making it to heaven one day,” they unknowingly stumbled onto something I think we need to revisit today in our churches… the desire to become humble, meek, and lowly servants.

While Jesus never gave any indication that a person ought to wait for the future to become a servant (or that becoming a servant is somehow a future consolation prize of heaven), he did have quite a bit to say about the importance of lowering ourselves and becoming humble in the present.

In fact, all of Jesus’ teachings were rooted in the idea that humility and weakness in the present actually brings heaven to earth. According to Jesus, there was something profoundly divine in the death of our ego, in dying to oneself, in taking on the character and disposition of a servant and lowering oneself below others.

Think about it.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

When you give to the needy, do it in secret.
When you pray, do it behind closed doors.
When you fast, do not draw attention to yourself.
When you are invited to a banquet, do not take the place of honor, but take the lowest place.

Whoever is humble like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever sells their possession and gives to the poor will have treasure in heaven.
Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.
Whoever has been last will be made first.
Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.
Whoever wants to follow me must first pick up his cross daily.

For Jesus, the pathway toward greatness was always about humbly giving of oneself for the benefit of another without expecting accolades or special attention.

I know this kind of mindset is radically contrary to our Western mentality. Our culture and society are consumed by notions of ascent, status, and power. And these Western values have crept into our churches, even though they are antithetical to the actual teachings of Christ.

Yet Jesus’ words continue to beckon those who claim to follow him, not toward the wide road of ascent but the narrow path of descent, not toward the wide road status but the narrow path of humility, not toward the wide road power but the narrow path of weakness.

If you are wondering why I started in this place… here is the reason.

The wide road of ascent, status, and power perpetuate inequality and injustice, while the narrow path of descent, humility, and weakness are the foundational characteristics of reconciliation. And to the extent that churches pursue the former to the latter… they will never be effective at reconciliation.

I know that the word reconciliation is difficult to understand, but it is a word that every single Christian in the world ought to know better than anyone else.

Understanding and practicing reconciliation is absolutely essential for those who follow Jesus. One writer of the New Testament even says that followers of Jesus are to be servants of reconciliation. We sacrificially and voluntarily work on behalf of people, relationships, communities, and the larger world to help piece them back together and help restore them. But while reconciliation is an integral and essential responsibility of the Christian, I am not sure many understand what it is or how it ought to happen.

The word reconciliation (Greek katallage) means an adjustment of a difference, a restoration to favor.

Reconciliation is the patient work that removes hostility between people and God, between individuals, between people groups, and works to alleviate inequities in systems so that right relationships are restored.

As those who follow Jesus, it is obvious that we work to help restore people’s relationship with God. We hear that in our churches all the time. But it goes even further than that in how we are to humbly and selflessly work for reconciliation between people and within societal structures.

As Christians, when we see inequity and injustice (a difference in treatment, favor, or privilege), it is our responsibility to actively work on behalf of those who suffer injustice to make adjustments so that people and systems are restored and work rightly for all.

If you did not know it before, reconciliation is essential and absolutely paramount for anyone of any race who follows Jesus.

But for the white Christian… you and I especially have a huge responsibility in working for racial reconciliation in the United States.

When I look at the history of my black brothers and sisters in America, I see a system that created a difference in treatment, favor, and privilege. I see a system that created brokenness, hardship, and immense pain. I see a system that is still broken in many ways and has not been fixed or restored. I see a system that has not fully made adjustments in the difference.

I know you may be thinking that you personally did not create the problem and that you are not currently perpetuating racism. I understand. I have not personally owned slaves. I have not discriminated against people of color. I do not demean or dehumanize black people. Even more, like me, you would probably say that you have black friends.

But that is not the point.

As those who follow Jesus, we have been given the important and humble work of reconciliation. We have been given the responsibility of identifying differences and working to make them right. This is not a matter of opinion. This is literally the point of Christianity- to be reconciled to God and then to work for reconciliation in our relationships and communities.

But I have to tell you, reconciliation is impossible when your mind has already been made up about who is right and who is wrong and have already taken sides. It is impossible when you only care about preserving your own rightness and privilege. It is impossible when you refuse to see injustice and then lack empathy toward those who are suffering.

That is why so many white Christians in America have such a hard time working toward racial reconciliation. There is more interest in holding onto and preserving the Western values of ascent, status, and power than embodying the way of Jesus in descent, humility, and weakness.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, racial reconciliation would be one of the most essential tasks of the white Christian.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would be first in line asking our black brothers and sisters to forgive us for our past and present racism. (Again, you may say you didn’t personally cause the problem, but descent, humility, and weakness tells us that asking for forgiveness is the right thing since our ancestors are not here to do it for themselves).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would not just take a knee with our black brothers and sisters, we would wash their feet and then lie prostrate to the ground before God in remorse for what they have suffered in hopes of beginning to restore trust between us. (No one is asking you to take a knee or lie prostrate for the political organization #BlackLivesMatter. But for flesh and blood black people).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would tell every black man and woman we see that their lives matter and have immeasurable value. But it would not just be evident in our words, it would be evident in how we work to restore their communities with our time, energy, effort, and resources.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would begin working in the present for what we envision in the future when all is made right and all races live, work, eat, and worship together, while celebrating the God-given beauty and uniqueness of our cultures in peace and love.

The work of racial reconciliation is possible, but it must begin in humility and weakness, contrition and forgiveness. What does that look like for you as a white Christian? What does that look like for your all-white church? I would love to hear what you are thinking/doing in the comments.

Peace and love…

Brandon

What Really Matters

No one needs another opinion right now, right?

It seems as if social media has inadvertently made everyone an expert in politics, social issues, and now infectious diseases.

God bless us for our good intentions.

I am not interested so much in offering another opinion on our current global pandemic. I know my skill sets. I will instead leave that for those who actually spend their lives researching, doing clinical work, and treating patients. They are the ones to whom we should be listening right now. And we are grateful for the important work they do.

Many of us have studied the words of Father Richard Rohr over the years and have always come back to one of his most profound insights- that great love and great suffering have the ability to create the potential for spiritual listening and larger seeing. And it is along these pathways by which a person, a family, a community, or even a world may be transformed.

There is no question that we find it so much easier, and so much more desirable, to move along this pathway when it is by the means of great love.  Conversely, we have a much more difficult time discovering anything redeemable, or of value, when it is found down the road of great suffering. Suffering can very easily break us down and move us into a place with varying degrees of worry, anxiety, helplessness, or despair.

This isn’t a judgment on how any of us individually process suffering, or even a judgment on those who suffer emotionally or psychologically. Six weeks ago, I went to my family doctor because I was experiencing anxiety for the first time in my life. Changing variables in my work life had produced a tightness in my chest and a feeling of being strangled. Fortunately it wasn’t a heart attack, but the reality of how anxiety can consume a person and it was a real experience for me. So I truly understand how deeply situations and our mental health can deeply affect us.

But despite where we may be internally, learning to listen and see in our suffering, or choosing to be fully present in our suffering, there is always a continuous invitation of the Spirit open to everyone, all the time, even and especially to those who have been deeply affected at the physical, emotional, physiological, or even spiritual level.

So no matter who you are, where you have been, what trauma you have experienced, or what you are currently experiencing in your life, this invitation welcomes you into a safe and quiet space where you are allowed to breath and then patiently listen and see amidst your suffering.

But while many of you may already be suffering, the potential for greater suffering always exists, which will necessitate more safe spaces and more patient guides to walk with people through the chaos and along the path of suffering.

There is no question that closings and cancellations, limitations on social functions, the loss of business or savings plans, the loss of employment and mounting bills, and the potential hospitalization or death of loved ones who have been infected will all certainly create varying degrees of suffering among us.

You may know exactly what I am talking about right now.

But I wonder if in this suffering, we will begin to walk together, truly walk together, to discover opportunities to learn, serve, and be transformed, rather than be consumed by our collective despair and antipathy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not the canceling of events, large social gatherings, and other disruptions as personal assaults or attacks on our personal liberties and livelihoods, but as selfless moves we can all make together to protect our most vulnerable.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the services that have been disrupted or how we no longer have everything at our fingertips or how inconvenienced we have become in some things, but all of the great opportunities we have to come together and use our resources to help our brothers and sisters who have reduced hours, who have lost jobs, who are losing business, or who are having a hard time making ends meet.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ugliness and divisiveness of politics and everything that works to divide us in our most difficult times, but all the ways we can unite without labels or affiliations to serve the greater good.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ways we have been, or will soon be, isolated and quarantined from each other, but all of the ways we can still be with one another and creatively reach out to talk, encourage, pray for, or maybe even sing with one another, like our brothers and sisters in Italy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not lives with significantly limited options, isolated at home and on social media all day, but the opportunity to spend real face time with family around the table or to breathe fresh air in nature, while rediscovering our hearts and natural rhythm once again.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see that this time is teaching us, through abstinence, to appreciate all the things we had previously taken for granted.

It’s true that not every experience of trauma or suffering can easily be diverted by perspective or prayer. We will have to endure the anguish and pain of some traumas and sufferings head on. But in even that, we will have hopefully learned that we are not alone in this thing and that we truly have each other. We will have come to the realization that there is so much goodness in our lives and we will see it differently moving forward. And maybe, just maybe, through this suffering, we may learn to see each other differently, to learn to respect each other despite our differences, and to uncover a humanity below the surface that we may have forgotten was there.

Walking with you in this,

Brandon

HELL 10

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

I was talking to one of my best friends by phone the other day. She was seeking advice from my wife and I about a very difficult situation in which she finds herself with her mom, who is older and essentially wheel-chair bound.

Her mom owns a house, but is unable to live independently and care for herself. Seriously concerned about her well-being, my friend welcomed her into her own home and began caring for her.

Unfortunately, this is not what her mom wanted. She insisted upon returning to her own home, even if it meant putting herself at serious risk. And being that my friend does not have a legal right to make decisions on behalf of her mom, and being that her mom is of the right mind to make decisions, my friend complied with her mom’s wishes, even though she believed that it was to her mom’s detriment.

She could not force or impose her will on her mom.

Even though she loves her.
Even though she wants to care for her.
Even though she wants better for her.
And even though she can visualize her living a life in greater wholeness and fulfillment.

Her mom said that she would just prefer to go home in isolation and face death.

The truth is that one can’t force a person to receive or reciprocate love, or force a person to want a better life for themselves. And even though one may be able to visualize, and even long for, a person to live in greater wholeness and enjoy the loving community of others, it can still be refused.

Although highly historically symbolic, if the book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of where this future trajectory in God is ultimately heading, we find that our future is not being whisked away to a disembodied Heaven, but resurrected into a renewed and restored creation in which God’s habitation is now among us. While all of creation has been groaning as a woman in labor, that which is being birthed in the present, and then fully delivered in the future, is a new creation.

Although it is impossible to imagine Heaven and Earth coming together as one, like a marriage, and even more impossible to imagine this union giving birth to a new creation, we are given images of what it might actually be like in Revelation.

In this marriage of Heaven and Earth, God’s dwelling is now among us and there is wholeness, completeness, and harmony in all things. And it is in this place where we at last find perfect union with God within ourselves, with other people, other cultures, other nations. It is where we each bring our pains, our burdens, our heartaches, our failures, our misgivings, our injustices, our tears and they are all wiped away in mercy and healing and restoration. In this new creation, there is no more death and no more sorrow.

And the community that lives in this city of new creation is full of life and love and celebration. It is a community in which creativity flourishes, in which occupation animates the spirit, in which serving others is our greatest gift. And it is a community in which the lights never go out and, despite the unfounded belief by some that there is a wall to keep others out, the gates of this city will never close.

This community never stops loving and never closes the city gates on anyone. Their invitation for others to join the celebration and feast at the table never ends.

This may be surprising to you, but the text also suggests that there will be those who have chosen to live outside of this city of shalom, outside of this community of life and love. That may be why Jesus says that the path away from life is wide and leads to apóleia. While apóleia is typically translated as destruction, it can also mean to be cut off from what could have, or what should have, been. It is a loss of well-being.

That is the judgment and punishment of God. It is God allowing a person to walk away from life and love and everything that makes them fully human and fully alive.

God can’t force a person to receive or reciprocate love, or force a person to want a better life for themselves. And even though God can visualize, and even longs for, a person to live in greater wholeness and enjoy the loving community of others, it can still be refused.

But the fundamental difference between our life experience now compared to our life experience in the new creation is faith.

While faith in the present is the belief in things unseen, in the new creation there will no longer be faith. We will finally be in the presence of God’s love-essence and will no longer need to have faith in what is unseen because it will be fully revealed. While humanity has walked in dark shadows, grasping the walls in faith to find our way forward in God, in the new creation we will finally see and experience this love with no need for faith.

What we have only tasted in part in the present, will be fully realized in the Age to Come.

And I wonder, in light of this fully realized future reality, who will be able to stand before this cosmically-sized love of God without being completely transformed?

In my opinion, no one.

That’s why I believe all will ultimately be saved.

I imagine each of us falling to their knees and saying, “My God, my God. I never knew.”

For our God is a consuming fire. And it is this love-essence that cleanses, purifies, and brings to the surface the truth of our lives and who we have been. It’s no wonder that John the Baptist said that there would be one after him who would baptize with fire.

For it is in this fire where one faces opportunities lost and injustices inflicted in their lifetime and views them in light of God’s eternal love. This experience may elicit anguish, consuming sorrow, and shame, but surrounded by the loving kindness of God, it is also the place where self-reflection and contemplation meet and transformation begins.

And in the distance is the loving community of God with gates and arms open wide. Like the father awaiting his long lost son, they are all standing united at the city gate welcoming home every prodigal, reminding them that they have always been worthy, they have always been loved, and that they have always belonged.*

If you are having trouble with this idea that God will be generous in mercy in the Age to Come, it is for this reason that Jesus told the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

In this parable, the landowner paid the same amount to those hired late in the day, as he did those who had worked all day. As you can imagine, this angered those who had been working all day. But in response to their anger, the landowner asks them if it is not lawful for him to do with his money as he wishes. He then calls out their agony at his generosity.

The point of the story is to be joyous when God surprises us by rewarding everyone equally, even when others join in at the last moment, even when they miss all of the work in the vineyard, and only drink the wine at the Wedding Feast.

So whether it is in this parable, or in any other parable or teaching that reveals the wisdom of God, it never makes sense to our limited human wisdom. Our every inclination in trying to understanding the way God works has always been wrong. God’s kingdom-ethic is always upside-down and always antithetical to our ways.

So as the overwhelming majority of Christians believe that 95% of all humankind will burn in Hell for eternity at the hands of a retributive God, I am inclined to go with the God of unconvention, the God of surprises, the God of restoration.

The God who says that the ways of human beings are not his ways. The God that cares more deeply about the integrity of the heart than religious pretense or ritual. The God that partners with and elevates the outcast, marginalized, and stigmatized as the greatest in his Kingdom. The God that takes the seat of least importance in the back of the room rather than the seat of honor in the front. The God that leads by serving. The God that blesses when cursed. The God that turns the other cheek when hit. The God that forgives when being tortured. The God that loves by dying. The God that wins by losing.

I am putting all of my chips in on that God.

The God that just might have the audacity to restore EVERYTHING and have mercy on EVERYONE, even and especially when the so-called wisdom of the overwhelming majority says that it should all be destroyed by fire and sent to Hell.

And if this is really who God is, who will we be in the Age to Come?

Will we be angry and indignant at the unending patient mercies of God to redeem everything and everyone? Will we be the accusers who say, “But not that person! They don’t deserve it!” (Even though we all know that none of us deserve it). Will we be the people who gnash our teeth because we refuse to ever be in community with that person, that group, that nationality, that race?

Or, will we be on tippy-toe among the crowds lining the streets in celebration for the God who never abandons and who tirelessly seeks out the one? Will we be standing at the gate with our arms open wide joyously welcoming every person home into this community of shalom? Will we be standing among the multitudes in exaltation as Christ baptizes them in the Lake of Fire and then raises them up transformed as a new creation in this resurrection life?

For it is in this, the greatest story ever told, that God will be all in all. For every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, but it will not be as a result of fear or threats of punishment of Hell, but because of the goodness and mercy of God and a love that reveals and transforms the hardest heart. We are not being saved from Hell, but being invited into the love of God. And it is in this love that every disparate part, in heaven and on earth, will be brought back together in wholeness and unity and harmony.

This is the renewal of all things.
This is the restoration of all things.
This is the reconciliation of all things.

This is salvation for all people.

And behold, all things are made new!

Peace and love…

Brandon

 

*I believe the model for this is in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 2: 5-8, Paul writes, “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”

 

Additional Quotes from the New Testament and Early Church Fathers

We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life. – Clement of Alexandria

Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. ‘Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,’ for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection. – Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397 A.D.)

All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? – Clement of Alexandria

In the liberation of all no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord’s passion the devil alone was injured by losing all the of the captives he was keeping. – Didymus, 370 AD

Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in he fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all. – Didymus the Blind

For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetural, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them…the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them. – Diodore of Tarsus, 320-394 A.D.

The Son “breaking in pieces” His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18;6 says: i.e., to restore them once again to their former state. –Eusebius of Caesarea (65 to 340 A.D). – Bishop of Caesarea

These, if they will, may go Christ’s way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335 to 390, Oracles 39:19

For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, when every creature shall have been made one body.” He also says elsewhere, “Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390

Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire. – Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390

So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all” – Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3

In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. – St. Jerome, 331-420

It appears to me that there is a deed that the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. — This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well. – Julian of Norwich, 13th Century Christian Mystic

I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures. – Jerome, 331-420

And all people will see God’s salvation. – Jesus, Gospel of Luke

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. – Jesus, Gospel of John

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. – Paul, Letter to the Corinthians

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. – Paul, Letter to the Corinthians

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Paul, Colossians

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. – Paul, Romans

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. – Paul, Romans

As a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. – Paul, Letter to the Ephesians

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. – Paul, Letter to Timothy

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people. – Paul, Letter of Titus

That in the world to come, those who have done evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine bounty. For never would Christ have said, “You will never get out until you hqave paid the last penny” unless it were possible for us to get cleansed when we paid the debt. – Peter Chrysologus, 435

I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of (Gehenna’s) torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of his goodness. – St. Isaac the Syrian

The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them. For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being. – St. Macrina the Blessed

The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. – Theodore of Mopsuestia, 350-428

In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impiety. – Theodoret the Blessed, 387-458