Do Not Fear (Isaiah 40-41) – A Sermon

When I preach for Tulane Chi Alpha’s weekly service via Zoom (we usually meet face to face), we plan the messages and the service to be very brief. To stay on point and keep to time, I manuscript my messages. Here’s one from yesterday that I hope might prove timely for others, as well.

Raging seas, bloody moons, smoke and darkness obscuring the sun – distressing signs and omens. These images of nature at war cause humans to lose hope, fail in courage, lose strength. They are helpless.

We find these kinds of images in the OT prophets and through the NT. This biblical language is often symbolism for apocalyptic upheavals in the human world: wars, the rise and fall of empires and rulers, events and movements that shake the foundations of societies and cultures. These symbols portray the painful unsettling that marks turning point moments in history and the human devastation in their wake.

This is our moment, “unprecedented times,” and all. The most turmoil, fear, anxiety and uncertainty the USA has known in nearly two generations, more than 40 years. The hearts of people are melting with fear, foaming with rage, floundering in anxiety. What is God’s answer in this time?

Isaiah 40:26-31

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

    Who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one

    and calls forth each of them by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength,

    not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, Jacob?

    Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord;

    my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know?

    Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

    and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary

    and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

    and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah is prophesying in the moment between empires: Assyria and Babylon, with Persia right behind. These mighty powers are clashing with each other while ruthlessly conquering other small kingdoms. Israel and Judah are swept up in these conquests under the judgement of God. There is nearly constant war and devastation all around. 

The character, power and promises of God are being called into question.

In chapters 40-41, Isaiah sets up a rotating scene of courtrooms and creation where God, Israel/Judah and the nearby nations (those conquering and being conquered) come to ‘trial’. We see God vs. Israel, God vs. the nations and God vs. the idols. Within this kaleidoscope of judgement there are multiple invitations into the rest and strength of God, multiple guarantees of God’s care, concern, power and presence, and a repeated command to God’s people to not be afraid.

The idolsIsaiah 40:18-20 

With whom, then, will you compare God?

    To what image will you liken him?

As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,

    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold

    and fashions silver chains for it.

A person too poor to present such an offering

    selects wood that will not rot;

they look for a skilled worker

    to set up an idol that will not topple.

People choose and create different kinds of idols, different images of imaginary strength and security based upon their social class, cultural values and ethnic heritage, but the root is the same.

41:5-7

The islands have seen it and fear;

    the ends of the earth tremble.

They approach and come forward;

    they help each other

    and say to their companions, “Be strong!”

The metalworker encourages the goldsmith,

    and the one who smooths with the hammer

    spurs on the one who strikes the anvil.

One says of the welding, “It is good.”

    The other nails down the idol so it will not topple.

In the second passage, the islands (or the nations) are coming to face God, who is sovereign over the international calamities they desperately fear. God has invited them to be renewed in strength (41:1), but instead they turn to make another idol, an idol they have to nail down in hopes that it won’t topple.

Idols are clearly futile. They are the cobbling together of human ignorance, hubris and craftiness. They are symbols of hopes built upon anything other than God, human efforts to stave off destruction, to have something permanent when everything is crumbling, things like national pride, democratic dreams, social justice rhetoric, governments, brands, corporations, Facebook…

Isaiah 41:29

See, they are all false!

    Their deeds amount to nothing;

    their images are but wind and confusion.

They cannot save.

Humanity, in the face of problems and powers beyond its control seeks to build or make something to save itself, but salvation is only in the Lord: the One not contained by human minds (Is. 40:13-14), the One who sees and knows all, unconstrained by time or space, the One who created everything and before whom all the nations and empires amount to nothing (40:15-17, 21-24).

This impulse in premodern times and cultures is explicitly religious, and often takes the shape of statues, shrines, temples and sacrifices. Times have changed and idols have changed. Especially since the Enlightenment, these impulses take the shape of rationalizing away risk, empirical investigation to conquer nature and solve problems, marketing imagery and celebrities to wash away the anxieties of responsibility, and all sorts of tools and toys for self-actualization. And there is still the premodern, modern and postmodern penchant for political power and militarism. We don’t bow to statues or build religious temples today, but idolatry lives on long and strong.

Today, our democracy is in question. We know that our news media is compromised – which source is not drowning in its own fear of the other side? Scared journalists cannot report the truth, and power hungry politicians and their backers thrive on fear and twisting the truth. Our culture has been losing its capacity for graceful disagreement, for trusting the motives of those we disagree with. We are gaining speed on the tracks of making enemies, canceling those we dislike and fear, rather than growing in our capacities to build a common good together.

I sometimes fear for the future of the Church in America where so many Christian leaders stand for what seems absurd or against what seems like common sense. Yes, I think some of them are dead wrong, but when I let fear turn into an anger that threatens my capacity to love them, bless them and pray for them, I’ve turned away from the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and bowed down to an image my self-made or culture-derived image of what things should be. I’ve given up seeking understanding in order to discern truth together in favor of slinging mud and accusation. Lord, have mercy.

What have we been turning to as a nation?

What have you been turning to?

God promises to be with His people, to deliver them and calls them out of fear!

Isaiah 40:11; 41:10-14

He tends his flock like a shepherd:

    He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

    he gently leads those that have young.

So do not fear, for I am with you;

    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

“All who rage against you

    will surely be ashamed and disgraced;

those who oppose you

    will be as nothing and perish.

Though you search for your enemies,

    you will not find them.

Those who wage war against you

    will be as nothing at all.

For I am the Lord your God

    who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear;

    I will help you.

Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob,

    little Israel, do not fear,

for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord,

    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.

Jesus taught his disciples not to fear those who could merely kill the body. Instead, they should fear the One who can destroy both body and soul. Their fears should be driven out by contemplation of the Creator God of infinite power and absolute sovereignty, who is also their loving shepherd and very Good Father.

The place of fear in the human heart–dread, ongoing anxiety and worry, not alarm or momentary fright–belongs only to God. Anything else we fear is an idol, something taking space in our hearts and minds that belongs to God alone, something staging an insurrection against the rule of God’s shalom.

Where do you turn in the time of alarm? The moments of deep unsettling?

Do you turn to diversions (pretty idols)?

Do you turn to self-reliance or hope in the machinations of society (practical idols)?

Do you turn to worry, fear and anxiety (passive, miserable idols)?

Or, do you turn to the God who set the stars on their courses in the heavens, who made all things and orchestrates history to bring about the salvation of His people rescued out of every nation?

God gives strength to the weak and the worried. “Just as the Lord’s attributes include eternity, creativity, self-sufficient strength and wisdom, so they also include sharing strength. This is not a spasmodic or occasional activity but part of what he is.” (Motyer) He will overcome where we must otherwise fail, and he will give us strength to triumph where we must otherwise faint.

The Living God proves His trustworthiness to Israel and the nations through Isaiah by foretelling the rise and demise of empires and kingdoms through dire warnings of impending doom and promises of redemption and renewal (41:17-29). The Living God has proven His trustworthiness forever to all people through the Gospel we confess in the Creed: Christ has come. Christ has died for us, the ungodly. Christ has risen and conquered death!

It is time to lay down and demolish our idols of diversion, human reliance and fear!

Conversation Questions for Response

  1. How have you observed the things we often take for granted being exposed as failed idols over the past year in your personal life, or in our nation?

2. How does fear affect your ability to be the kind of person Jesus calls his disciples to be (loving God, neighbor and even enemies?)

3. How can you turn away from idols and look more fully into the wonderful face of Jesus this week? This year?

2020: A Year in the Books

I love books, always have. 2020 started with a goal to increase my reading (including audiobooks) from 3 to 4 per month. When COVID struck, I increased the goal again, and with help from books I read with my boys for bed-time I accomplished my reading goal and read more books in a year than I ever have as an adult.

Here’s the full list and some notes on several that really stood out this past year. Also, I wrote some summary reviews and responses to a few of the books; they are hyperlinked in the lists.

Children’s books I read with my boys: We read with our boys for bedtime every night, and the older boys (8 and 7) like to read longer books now, which is great fun. Jen and I rotate, so it can take a while to get through some books, but here are most of the “chapter books” I read with the boys this year.

The Green Ember series by S.D. Smith is great, in general. It’s intentionally an heir of The Lord of the Rings, including faith-based themes. Instead of humans, hobbits, dwarves and elves, the protagonists are rabbits and the minions of evil are wolves and birds of prey, and the books are intentionally for children in the elementary to middle school range. Honestly, I think the first three books are all better than Ember’s End, which is the conclusion of a four book epic, but this book was still fun, albeit a bit drawn out, and overly focused on violence. None of the first three books carry those weaknesses.

The Narnia series by CS Lewis is classic for good reason. We had so many hearty laughs reading these books, especially The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair. The plots are quite good for children’s literature and it was great to see my boys key in on the major symbology. They are already looking forward to our next reading after Isaac, currently five, makes it to six and might be ready to enjoy them.

  • The Magician’s Nephew – CS Lewis
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  • The Horse and His Boy  CS Lewis
  • Prince Caspian – CS Lewis
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – CS Lewis
  • The Silver Chair –  CS Lewis
  • The Last Battle – CS Lewis
  • Ember’s End – S.D. Smith
  • Rabbit Hill  and  The Long Winter – Robert Lawson
  • The Mysteries of Spider Kane – Mary Pope Osborne
  • The Rescuers – Margery Sharp

Fiction I read to keep things interesting: So, Cry, the Beloved Country is one of my favorite novels of all time. I first read it in A.P. English as a senior in high school, gave it a second reading a decade or so ago, and loved it again this past fall. I appreciate Paton’s simplified approach to dialogue, and his capacity for communicating complex emotions is remarkable. The story follows an elderly Anglican priest in apartheid South Africa through his personal tragedies, which echo the nation’s tragedies. Read it and your heart is likely to grow.

Silence by Shūsaku Endō is also excellent, but deeply discomfiting. I read the novel because the Martin Scorsese film from a few years back was riveting, so I thought Endō would be a good author to check out. Scorsese’s film is even more brilliant in my estimation after reading the novel. In some ways, the story is told even better on screen. The film is also slightly less upsetting in the way it poses the deepest questions of loyalty and faithfulness up against compassion and self, but I think the questions might resonate even more powerfully through the film because of the slight decrease in discomfort.

And, just for the record, I did not enjoy or like Cormac McCarthy no matter how hard I tried, even if I did appreciate some aspects of his unique style, including a presentation of dialogue somewhat reminiscent of Alan Paton’s.

  • Farside – Ben Bova
  • The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky (2nd reading)
  • Silence – Shūsaku Endō
  • Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton (3rd reading)
  • The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF – ed. Donald A. Wollheim
  • Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

Social Psychology, Sociology and Cognitive Sciences: This is a wide range of different, but connected material. Most of my reviews came from this small group of books this year, but that has much to do with how much I was writing when I read them, and little to do with the value of these books up against the value of others. Since I’ve already written about half of these, I’ll just throw this out there: The Culture Code is a fun read and a very helpful book for anyone involved in leading groups of people.

History & Biographies: So many good reads here. I don’t have time to write about all of the good ones today, so I’ll just highlight a couple and let my readers know that I think all these books are meaningful reading, except perhaps the book on Erasmus (informational but very dull to me) and the biography or M’Cheyne (I didn’t even finish, honestly).

The Great Pandemic was a tour de force. I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase before, but this book was brilliantly written, and the audiobook recording was excellent. Obviously, a book about a pandemic is apropos for 2020, but this book does much more than recount the history of the 1918 flu pandemic. Charles Berry uses that virulent virus as an opportunity to explore the development of modern medicine in the United States, its transition from bleeding with leeches to research based medicine. I highly recommend this book.

Becoming Dallas Willard was a watershed for my life. I had known of Dallas Willard and read a couple of his books before this year, but his legacy was brought more fully to my attention through The Ruthless Elimination Hurry (see below), so I got a hold of this audiobook and learned that Dallas Willard wasn’t merely a great writer, but was a modern day saint, a man whose life echoed Jesus in all he did. The forward by Richard Foster was enough to convince me that not only was I interested in how Dallas Willard became Dallas Willard, but I want to study Dallas Willard so that I might become like him.

The Color of Compromise is a book I’d like to recommend. Jemar Tisby does an excellent job exploring and exploding some deep ugliness in this history of American Christianity. Honestly, that’s not all that difficult to do. What makes this book worthwhile is Tisby’s gentleness and brevity. He says a lot in a relatively short book, and he explores some really egregious hypocrisy without succumbing to bitterness. I could sense his love for the church through this book.

Two more great books I have to at least mention: The Hiding Place is a must read. At the Existentialist Cafe was just plain fun for me and helped me remember and rediscover my love for philosophy.

  • Bakht Sing of India: The Incredible Account of a Modern-Day Apostle – T.E. Koshy
  • Becoming Dallas Willard – Gary Moon (audiobook)
  • No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green – Melody Green
  • How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone – Brian McCullough (audiobook)
  • Erasmus and the Age of Reformation – Johan Huizinga
  • The Great Pandemic – Charles Berry (audiobook)
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism – Jemar Tisby
  • At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell
  • Biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne – Andrew Bonar
  • Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World – Jon Sensbach
  • The Hiding Place – Corrie Tenboom (audiobook)

Christian Living, Ministry and Leadership: This collection and the following (Theology & Devotional Literature) overlap at points; my arrangement is mostly personal and to keep some authors together.

Both Bonhoeffer and Willard have become very dear to me, and I will be reading from them and about them and around them throughout 2021. The Divine Conspiracy is a classic that has helped solidify a profound life change within me. Life Together is also a classic, and after my second reading I love it more than ever. I’ll try to write about both of them another time, and I’ll definitely have more to write about Bonhoeffer and Willard this year. I might also read some more of James K.A. Smith going forward. I’m grateful to have been recommended in his direction this year, another step in rediscovering my love of philosophy.

Just a month or so before the COVID lockdown, I read The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, and it proved to be a game changer for me. As an author, I thoroughly enjoyed John Mark Comer. He made me laugh out loud and literally cry. He also helped me understand some significant opportunities to make life changes toward peace, humility and joy. The final third of the book where he attempts to go very practical wasn’t the best, in my opinion. Otherwise, it’s a book I’d happily give to anyone. It’s a quick and easy read. Go for it.

  • Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese – I’Ching Thomas
  • Lead So Others Can Follow – James T Bradford
  • How to (Not) Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K.A. Smith
  • Meditating On the Word – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry – John Mark Comer
  • Domestic Monastery – Ronald Rolheiser
  • The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard (listened to and then read)
  • A Short Method of Prayer – Madame Guyon
  • On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts – James K. A. Smith (audiobook)
  • Dirty Glory – Pete Greig (audiobook)
  • Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge – Dallas Willard
  • Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2nd reading)
  • How God is in Business – Dallas Willard

Theology & Devotional Literature: Revival is not always easily defined among Christians, but in the simplest terms, it’s a movement among God’s people toward Him and His purposes in new zeal and faithfulness. I experienced such a movement in my teens in Grand Rapids, MI and I want with all my heart to see another such move within my own life, family, ministry and beyond. This led to exploring Charles Finney’s classic Lectures on Revival, along with learning that this text played an influential role in forming some of Dallas Willard’s view of life within the Kingdom of God. This book is exhilarating in how it challenges so much ‘nice’ religion. At times, Finney borders on being overly formulaic in how one might accomplish a revival in his insistence upon God’s constancy and faithfulness to respond to prayer and obedience. There are many take aways from this book, but the greatest may simply be the conviction that God is responsive to His people. When God promises to respond to humility and repentance, we can be certain of it. When God promises to hear and answer prayer, we must be certain of it. When Jesus gives the gift of the Holy Spirit and tells his disciples to wait until they receive power from on high, it is the duty of every disciple to be filled with the Spirit; we only have ourselves to blame for living mediocre spiritual lives.

The most gut-wrenching book I encountered this year was James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone is an academic theologian, but that does not hinder the pathos of this text that covers similar ground as Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, but in a much more bracing and focused fashion. Cone explores the history of lynching in the United States and the parallels between these atrocious murders and the public, semi-legal, brutal, humiliating lynching of Jesus, the Son of God. This is not a long book. In fact, I listened to it for free on the Hoopla library app. I think every honest American Christian should engage this text and let it lead you to repentance. You can take or leave the liberation theology within Cone’s writing, as that becomes a subtext to the most important lessons of this book: the capacity of people to dehumanize others in order to bolster their own view of themselves is appalling and terrifying.

Christianity Rediscovered is a missiology text from a Catholic missionary to the tribes of Kenya and Tanzania, mostly the Masai. I love this book! This was my third or fourth time reading it, and it continues to help me rediscover the essence of the Gospel and expose cultural trappings that I’ve allowed to encumber my own faith, as well as the faith I proclaim. This lesson: learning to recognize what is God’s truth and what is human, temporal and relative is too often in short supply among pastors and missionaries. St. Paul argued furiously for the purity of the Gospel and its freedom from social and cultural constraints, and God’s people today need to relearn how to fight that fight. That is part of what Fleming Rutledge works to accomplish in her tome The Crucifixion. I don’t have space to explore that work today, but to mention two of her primary theses: 1) Christ died for the ungodly! 2) A quote from Anselm: Nondum considerasti, quanti ponderis sit peccatum (“You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is”).

  • King Jesus Gospel – Scot McKnight (audiobook)
  • Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots – J.C. Ryle
  • Silver Shadows – FW Boreham
  • Lectures on Revival – Charles Finney
  • Sovereign Grace: Its Source, Its Nature and Its Effects – D.L. Moody
  • What Christians Ought to Believe – Michael Bird
  • The Gospel of the Kingdom – George Ladd
  • Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice – eds: Mae Elise Cannon and Andrea Smith
  • Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters – Wesley Hill
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James Cone (audiobook)
  • Christianity Rediscovered – Vincent Donovan (reread)
  • Absolute Surrender and Other Addresses – Andrew Murray
  • The Crucifixion – Fleming Rutledge
  • The Root of the Righteous – AW Tozer (audiobook)

Biblical Studies: The New Testament in its World is an excellent resource that I highly recommend. Reading While Black is an excellent introduction to exploring the Bible from the African American perspective. McCaulley makes this book very accessible. Any American Christian who is not black or does not have roots in the black church would find this book very enlightening and helpful in understanding some significant differences in Christian experiences. And, I have been told by a black friend that he wants to put this book in the hands of every black college student Christian to help them make sense of the Gospel from their lived experience, especially when they face peers who try to tell them that Christianity is a “white man’s religion.”

  • 1&2 Thessalonians NICNT – Gordon Fee
  • The New Testament in its World – Bird & Wright
  • Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope – Esau McCaulley
  • Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society – Anthony Saldarini

Now on to put another year in the books!

Goodbye 2020 – I’m Grateful

As we come up on 2021, I’m grateful. In many ways, 2020 was the wildest, weirdest and most challenging year of my life. Yet, in other ways, it was one of the very best years of my life. 2020 was hard for the world, and very hard for the USA, and I’ve felt deep sorrow through those pangs. I’ve mourned for the deep divisions in the USA, and the visible and vocal disunity among Christians here. I’ve had some painful conversations, which became gifts. Like so much of 2020, the harder things got, the more I found joy filling my life. As so many fought depression, anxiety, fear and hopelessness, I found the light of hope shining ever more brightly within me.

Here are some reasons for the joy and peace I’ve experienced:

  1. My wife is simply the greatest ever. She doesn’t complain; she is powerfully frugal, and she keeps life simple. She is also a rockstar mom and gave me a new baby boy this year.
  2. A new baby boy! Elliot is healthy and amazing.
  3. Homeschooling is not easy, but we are glad for the opportunity to teach our boys at home for this stage of their lives. The pandemic made our gratitude that much greater. My sympathy goes out to tall the parents that have had to work through online and hybrid schooling; that is far more challenging than traditional homeschooling.
  4. Being a missionary: I love the message of Jesus, and having the privilege. to make it my full-time vocation to teach and share that message is one of the great joys of my life, and that joy increases year by year.
  5. The generosity of God’s people: As a missionary, I (and the ministry I lead) am dependent upon the charitable giving of individuals, families and churches to have a living. Despite all the economic upheaval of 2020, my family has been incredibly well cared for. God’s people have continued giving in the midst of it all.
  6. Time to slow down: The lockdown came at a great time for me. I had recently read this great book called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, and when everything shutdown in March I was forced to try to put some of the lessons into practice. 9 months later, I continue to live at a healthier pace, and am simply less ‘driven’ than before. My dreams are no smaller, but my fear of failure has been whittled to nearly nothing.
  7. Another positive aspect of the slow down has been more time with family. I’m blessed with four boys, now. They are growing up as fast as boys always do, and I’m grateful to have been forced to be more present to them.
  8. Books: The lockdown also presented some time to me for reading. I set some goals and have continued prioritizing reading and audiobooks to the point where I’ve read more than 60 books this year, where my usual average is 35-40. (I’ll write about these books in the coming days and weeks.)
  9. Hope and spiritual vigor: The strength and stabilizing power of my hope in God has become more and more obvious during this year, as has my hunger to know and encounter God more fully. I have experienced the goodness of God internally and externally this year and I am full of hope for the future.
  10. I’m also grateful to have been spared from sickness in 2020. In fact, my entire extended family has remained COVID free this year, and my father in law has beaten cancer twice!

Matt’s Absolute Essentials for Successful Jesus-Centered Small Groups

Something I put together some years ago, and thought I’d share.

These Values and Activities are listed, basically, in order of importance.

Before any of these comes the prerequisites of loving God with all of your being and loving your neighbor (soon to be small group member) as yourself.

1.    Prayer: Only by consistent communication with the Lord Jesus can we discern what we even should be trying to accomplish in and through our small groups, as well as what the Holy Spirit is working on in you through the experience of leading the group. This includes praying over every meeting, for the Spirit is the one who will do the work most needing to be done.

2.    Prayer: You have to pray for the members (or future members) of your small group every day. This is the first step in learning to love your people through Jesus and is your most important service (ministry) to them. This time will also increase your awareness of your people and allow for times of creativity in how to encourage them individually and as a group. Sometimes this will be very brief, other times it should take at least several minutes.

3.    Accept and Act on Pastoral Responsibility aka LOVE YOUR PEOPLE: Small group leadership in the Jesus way is a shepherd activity: you are helping feed God’s sheep through this role of service, you are caring for their souls, if even only in a small way (but maybe in a very big way).

4.    Define What Success Is and Act Accordingly: Lots of people have lots of different definitions for what a successful small group looks like, but what are you looking to accomplish? This must be defined, or you’ll never know if you’ve failed or succeeded, nor will you have a map for determining which direction you should be headed. Your definition must closely align with your co-leader’s (if you have a co-leader), but does not have to be identical to anyone else’s. 

        This must be fashioned in prayer, should be in line with the vision and mission of the larger community your small group is a part of, and should consist of the following components: real friendships and people getting closer to Jesus. Usually, this will also include at least a little bit of growing in understanding and applying God’s Word.

        This is a big deal and will take some time to do well. ***see below   

5.    Communicate Love to Your People: Do the people God has given you to serve know that you love them? How do they know this? Find creative ways to demonstrate your love to them on a regular basis: serve them, send encouragements, value what they value, speak the truth in love, be generous, spend time together, hug… And, tell them you love them–say it out loud (unless that’s totally culturally inappropriate).

6.    Spend Time Together Outside of a Regular Meeting: Just do it. What happens in the group meeting will rarely make it into real life if the relationships don’t make it into real life; and if the relationships don’t make it into real life, they aren’t worth much of anything. I could say more, but I don’t think I need to.

7.    Involve Others in the Servant-Leadership of the Group: This inspires group ownership and is essential to real discipleship. The members of your group need to find their own places of service within the Body of Christ. Some of them will be leaders of small groups in the future. Some of them have much better ideas than you do. Some of them are the keys to reaching new people with the love and truth of Jesus Christ. This is not “your” small group. You want it to be “our” small group, but remember it should first be Jesus’ small group.

        This will often start really simply: someone to bring a snack, host the meeting in their room/res. hall, say an opening prayer, bring a fun ice-breaker, facilitate an outside get together, etc. But, this should grow, sooner rather than later, to group members helping you lead the meeting itself, and then to them facilitating the discussion on their own with your feedback.

8.    Communicate and Invite Constantly: However your regular gatherings look, you’ve got to have people present for it to be meaningful. People forget, people get busy, people sometimes need an extra reminder to shake them out of their <whatever> that might make them decide to skip at the last minute. Also, if you have any interest in welcoming new people into your group, you need to invite new people all the time, every week. Sometimes, you’ll invite the same people over and over again, but if you’re only inviting the same people over and over again, don’t expect many new people. Communication and invitation also sets the example for your members.

        Be willing to feel awkward, but try to avoid being obnoxious. Hint: most people feel awkward about giving invitations long before they feel awkward about turning invitations down.

9.    Do Creative Things in Your Meetings: Don’t let the group devolve into simply a Bible study or some other kind of self-help conversational group. Get real life into the group. Pop outside the box and get inside one another’s heads, hearts and histories. (That’s a good one, remember that: heads, hearts and histories.) Meet in a different place. Do something fun. Serve someone. Your imagination is the limit; just be sure you don’t exclude people by what you do.

10.    Plan Well for the Weekly Meeting: You will have regular small group times, partially, because structure is what facilitates growth (think the skeletal system). Since you’re going to have these meetings, make sure you’re prepared to lead/facilitate them well. Don’t teach. Don’t preach. Make sure Jesus is the primary guest. Remember: heads, hearts and histories. 

     And yes, sometimes, the group will need someone to do a little teaching or encouraging, exhorting or even preaching; just don’t make that your default.

    This is so far down the list, because if the other things are not happening, it might not make much of a difference how well you’ve planned for your meetings, as they’ll be fairly lifeless and/or empty.

11.    Learn. Grow. Ask Questions. Receive Coaching: If you think you’ve arrived or look only to yourself to figure out challenges, you’re shortcutting yourself and your small group. You know this; act on it.

***How to define what Success Looks Like:

Ask yourself some of these kinds of questions:

  1. What will the people in my group be doing/living like in 5 years if this group is successful at being part of their spiritual formation?
  2. What will the relationships within this group look and feel like?
  3. How many people will be a part of this group?
  4. What sorts of people will this group draw in?
  5. What sorts of people will this group live among and influence? What will that influence look like?
  6. What will people in this group value? How will that shape their lives and relationships within and outside of the group?
  7. How do you hope a first time guest to the group would describe the group to a friend?
  8. Is your vision large enough to stretch your faith, yet specific enough to know when you reach it?

No One Can Become You – God Loves Variety

In this sea nearing 8 billion living souls and all the billions who’ve lived and died before, how does each carry value?

So many lives are so similar. We meet ourselves in the stories of others all the time. One of the most enriching and liberating human experience is that sense of identification with another who shares their story of anxiety, internal dissonance, loneliness or failure; a story stunningly similar to our own. Thoughts and feelings, addictions and experiences that we had thought were our private, unique burdens and shame lose their paralyzing power over us when our story resonates richly with another’s. In the areas where we feel most painfully unique, it is our sameness that is most meaningful. And on the other hand, we know the crestfallenness of learning that another, or even many others, have matched or even surpassed our most treasured skills and accomplishments. Our tragedies and victories, ugliest warts and wounds, and most glamorous gifts and glories all meet their match, it seems, in the face of some other.

Are we actually unique?

Of course, at the biological level, the vast majority of us are differentiated from every other homo sapiens on the planet past, present or future. The sheer number of possibilities for new arrangements of genes and the capacity for fresh mutations, alongside the messy necessity for each of us to have two parents combining their genetic material to make ours, makes the exact repetition of our genetic story impossible, unless you happen to be one of the copies populating the planet: identical twins and triplets… But how truly different does that make us from on another, these tiny genetic variations? I mean we’re 98% chimps if we’re just looking at genes, and only 30% differentiated from plants!

We also all run on the same basic impulses. We have common compulsions towards survival, reproduction and self-preservation, even the will to exert ourselves over our environments. So much of our behavior is unconscious response to stimuli, and these instinctual desires drive us all. What is an individual? What is human variety? Is it all chance?

Our fingerprints are individualized! Even identical twins have differentiated fingerprints arising from slightly different environments within the womb. And our ‘brain print’ is also individualized, unique and not to be duplicated. The folds on the surface of our brains and the nearly innumerable connections between neurons build the structure and physical texture of our brains, determining by and large how we perceive, process and respond to our life and world. This is wildly unique, yet automatic. None of us decides in advance what kind of structure our brains will have. In fact, much of it is genetically predisposed, or structured in utero, with the rest being deeply imprinted in the first two years of life, long before we begin exerting conscious will upon our environment. The unconscious part of our neural-cognitive reality is so profound that many neurologists and cognitive scientists question the notion of free will decision making all together. It’s all quite fascinating, yet has disastrous potential to remove all sense of agency and meaning from our lives.

I started out asking about our uniqueness, and I think I’ve begun to uncover a perspective that may prove our uniqueness, yet leaves us with another question: does any of it even matter? The thing that makes us ourselves, what is it? Is it unique? Is it valuable? Is it free?

Value and freedom are essentially knit together here. If we are not free, but merely complex systems responding to stimuli, it’s hard to argue for any value beyond that of an ape or a computer, or maybe even a flower, Does complexity bestow value? Probably not, unless we’re merely thinking of utilitarian value. But we all long to be more valuable than our functions. And the good news is that we are, because while our freedom is far less extensive than we like to imagine (at least early in the journey of freedom), that freedom is real enough to grant us responsibility and that is something that is irrevocably valuable, rife with meaning.

As our brain grows, the capacity of our mind to reflect upon itself increases, and we can begin to make decisions that go against automatic responses. Sometimes, these decisions may be random, yet in highly focused moments we are aware of directly contradicting our ‘hard-wired’ responses. And, if we continue on the path of freedom, we not only reflect upon our cognitive processes, we can begin to intentionally work upon our own neural structures (cognitive habits). We can, through practices like prayer and meditation and service (and many others) begin ‘re-wiring’ our minds, so that we become more and more likely to respond, automatically, to certain stimuli in ways that coincide with our values. This is personal transformation by the renewing of our minds. For Christians, this is essential to the path of discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus. There is an immense field of wonders to explore here, but let’s leave that for now to avoid running too far afield from our primary inquiries regarding uniqueness and value, because God loves variety.

We are immensely differentiated, yet so similar. In the areas of life we tend to take pride in like family or tribe or ethnicity of origin, or group belonging, or even personal achievements, we are uncomfortably similar. And that same uncomfortable similarity carries over into our urges to denigrate those we see as other; we all bleed red, fail and succeed, and want the same basic things. Few of us grow our souls in the freedom God gives to the extent that we are truly different than the others around us. And while that is a great pity, and probably another opportunity for me to think and write about another day, I find myself rejoicing in an unexpected reality.

This essay has taken me on a journey and I like where its taken me (thanks for joining me). I intended to investigate God’s love of variety on an individual basis, since I had recently done so on a cultural basis. I’ve discovered a fresh appreciation for how God loves our variety.

See, we don’t accomplish uniqueness; it’s one of the givens of our existence. In fact, our uniquenessess, as played out in our bodies and brains, are not only not within our choice or control, but they are powerful limits upon our fields of choice and control. And it is in that givenness that God begins loving each individual, celebrating the new variation upon the great theme of home sapiens, this species somehow imprinted with the imago Dei. And it is from within this givenness that our value and responsibility take shape, and our uniqueness begins to blossom. We don’t achieve uniqueness, but we can cultivate its fruition. No one will experience the exact set of stimuli that you will in your life, and those stimuli shape and reinforce your automatic responses. They are also the fodder for your conscious mind to reflect upon in the journey of potentially imposing your will upon your future automatic responses (as well as upon those decisions that seem to be weighed out and made in the realm of deliberate consciousness). No one can become you!

The story of your life is non-repeatable, and even in those common moments where you experience the same stimulus as someone else, in the same moment, from the same perspective, with the same breakfast in your belly, you will perceive the event vastly differently. Your senses will be differently attuned via genetics and previous injury, experience, practice and preference, and when the perception hits your brain, it will process through a series of neurons and synapses unlike anyone else’s in all of history. The past experiences your mind will use to compare, contrast and comprehend this new stimulus are again, unique nearly beyond imagination. Not only are you non-repeatable, but no one else can even have one single experience that would be exactly the same as yours. We do not perceive our world or experience our lives objectively or without interpretation. It’s not just your whole mind-history that is different, but your neural connectivity is unique at the level of each nerve cell.

God loves variety.
God loves life.
God chooses you.

God can not repeat you. God can never be heard, known, rejected, loved, obeyed, praised, worshiped… by anyone else in the same way as you would. And while you and I don’t have the faculties to discern all of these fascinating difference, we can learn to appreciate them more and more if we care to, and in that process we would become more and more like our infinitely loving God who discerns all things.

The Bible concludes with a vision of the end: heaven and earth united, and God’s people enjoying a world made right in every possible way. Within that vision there are multiple musical scenes—millions upon millions of voices singing the same songs of praise to the One God, but no one, absolutely no one can sing those songs the way you will.

An Urgent Message

SLOW DOWN!

In this era of doomscrolling and deep divisiveness, I have an urgent plea for all of us. Actually, there are two please here, but they are intertwined.

First, for everyone: let’s turn off our digital devices more. Look at the trees and the grass or wriggle your toes. Read a novel or go for a stroll. Snuggle with someone you love or just take a nap. And, if you’re of the mind to do so, pray! We will not save the world by scrolling the news feed and its incessant buzz of trumped up news to feed our anxieties–since when is it national news that someone received poor service on a plane? We will not change anyone’s heart by scrolling the inane comments on their insane social media posts.

Stop the insanity and do something sane. With a clear mind and an unburdened heart (pray!), you might do some good for someone in the world, and you’re a lot more likely to have something meaningful to contribute to the next civil discussion you engage in with someone who thinks differently than you do. Anxiety feeds off of and breeds anxiety in others. Don’t feed that demon – starve it! Please!

Second, for those more prone to faith in Jesus: let’s listen more and listen a whole lot better! A favorite phrase of Jesus’ was “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” You’ll find it in the Gospels and in the Revelation. The words of Jesus are to be heard and obeyed. This kind of statement resonates with the Hebrew imperative, shema – Hear, Listen, Obey. Nothing profound here. But, I’d like to turn your attention to another impactful Jesus statement from Matthew 25. In his epic, eschatological parable of the sheep and the goats, the Son of Man tells all of humanity that whatever they did or did not do for “the least of these,” that is what they did or did not do for him, the Lord of history and the King of the heaven and earth.

Who are these least ones? There is some debate upon that, but even taking the narrowest interpretation of the passage will serve my purpose today. The little suffering ones might only be traveling teachers and preachers of the Kingdom of God – disciples of the Lord Jesus who carry his message far and wide. I think this is an overly narrow reading, but let’s work with it, because this is why I bring it up — LISTEN. Listen to the brothers and sisters of Jesus you find yourself least likely to prefer, least likely to agree with, least likely to spend time with on accident, least likely to attend weekly worship with. If we don’t listen to them, then we are not listening to Jesus.

This doesn’t mean they are infallible representatives of truth, but if we take Jesus seriously, then we must listen. We must hear and listen and take to heart. Listening does not mean hearing someone’s story and then correcting their experience in order to make it fit our predetermined understanding. Listening means entering into their world and seeing with their eyes and feeling with their heart (compassion, empathy, love). When you listen like this, you change, you might even find the need and courage to repent. Each of us left to our own personal understandings of the world are full of contradictions, unchecked hypocrisies, blind ignorance and prejudices. We need one another in order to know ourselves and our world with greater clarity. We need one another in order to preserve the bond of peace in the Body of Christ.

This is urgent: SLOW DOWN AND LISTEN!

Lessons from Babel: God Loves Variety

The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 can be a head scratcher.

What was God thinking?
What was God after?

The story goes that a group of people, shortly after Noah’s great flood, decided to gather together to build a city in a plain called Shinar (aka Babel or Babylon). They would build a tower in their city to reach into the heavens. Why? The wanted to escape becoming scattered across the face of the earth and forgotten. God gets wind of their plans and ‘comes down’ to check it out. God’s assessment is that humans will be capable of anything they can imagine if they all cooperate, so God confuses their communication. This proliferation of languages presages the dispersal of peoples who go on to become the myriad of nations and cultures referenced in Genesis 10, rather than a single, undifferentiated and localized people.

What was Babel?
What was the problem?
What was God’s goal with this intervention?

A common interpretation goes that God was concerned human beings would ‘succeed’ in some manner of making their way to the heavens on their own strength, efforts, merits, works; that they would achieve god apart from God. This is the sin of Eden all over again in different clothes. Of course, this kind of rebellious religion is the bane of St. Paul in his epistles to the earliest churches, and also seems to be a significant factor in Jesus’ fraught relationship with the Pharisees and scribes. Thinking one has God when one most certainly does not is a doubly damning delusion.

A simpler, less Evangelical interpretation of the Babel story has it simply as a myth to explain the diversity of peoples in and around Israel, with a strong hint as to why they were not the Chosen People as Israel was.

I think there is insight to be gained from each of these approaches, but they are too short sighted to work as I think God intends this narrative to work. Let’s explore this story from a vantage point of the whole Canon of Scripture and build a bridge from Genesis 11 through Abraham (Gen 12) and Solomon all the way to The Revelation (yes, the crazy book at the end of the New Testament).

But before going forward, we need to step back to Genesis 9 where God blesses Noah after the great flood. Noah here receives the same blessing and commission that the original human family received in Eden, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth…” God liked the little image bearers He had created, and wanted them to continue the creative process, to spread out and fill the earth. After human failure, God still wants this to come to pass, so the blessing and commission is repeated to Noah and his family.

After a curious, but rich, story about Noah liking his own wine too much, and a ‘table of nations,’ we come to Genesis 11 where the people make their way to Babel, which is Babylon, and they decide to stay in one place in order to make a name for themselves and not be scattered. But God had just commissioned (read commanded) humanity to fill the earth–you can’t do that from one city. One city to rule them all in the darkness bind them – one totalizing system, turning people into cogs.

Babel is the Bible’s first mention of Babylon, and as you continue reading, you begin to see that Babylon is not just the city Empire that destroys Jerusalem in 587 BCE, but Babylon is, figuratively, Egypt and every other human empire that seeks to make its own name great by pulling people into itself and trying to universalize itself.

God values variety.

After Genesis 11, we are introduced to Abram and Sarai (later upgraded to Sarah and Abraham), the parents of the nation of Israel, the people who will be God’s chosen ones among all the scattered peoples of the earth. When God calls the childless couple, God tells Abram that all nations will be blessed through him, through the nation that will rise from his progeny. God also promises to do the hard work of making Abram’s name great, rather than Abram needing to make his own name great. God will give Himself away to all people through Abram, for God Himself is to be Abram’s ‘shield and very great reward’ (Gen 15:1).

The history of the people of Israel is long and winding. They often find themselves subjugated to the huge, militaristic empires that neighbored Palestine: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia… Their story also includes resistance to the totalizing, culture flattening aims of these empires, which is seen especially in the biblical book of Daniel, and also in the inter-testamental histories preserved in the books of the Maccabees. Yet, in between liberation from Egypt and exile to Assyria and Babylon, Israel finds itself prosperous and powerful over many nearby peoples. At the pinnacle of their power, King Solomon records revenues of 666 talents of gold annually (1 Kings 10:14) and institutes slave labor–the oppressed have now become the oppressors. And now, the likening of Jerusalem to Egypt, Sodom and even Babylon (Rome) in Revelation 11:8 makes more sense. Solomon’s splendor is like any other king or emperor or Beast (Rev. 13:18)–a splendor for its own blessing and boasting, rather than the blessing of all others and boasting in God.

But, I’m actually writing about variety, not Empire, so let’s continue. Solomon and his heirs failed to be different from the surrounding nations and failed to be a blessing to the nations (see Isaiah’s assessment all throughout his book). And all these other kingdoms act like the powerful nations of our own day, seeking to exert their power over other nations and pressing them to conform culturally. That pressure today is often monetized and media saturated, rather then merely militaristic, but works to the same goal. Even Daniel and his friends, after being violently removed from their destroyed homeland literally face the music of the megalomaniac emperor: their captors seek to leverage food, fashion, music, education and raw displays of wealth and power to shock, awe and manipulate their affections and allegiances. But they refuse to bow, and God vindicates their loyalty to their own nation, customs and One True God.

God loves variety.

Nowhere in the Scriptures, do we get the impression that God rejects any culture, though God clearly and radically judges aspects of cultures and societies: materialism, militarism, murder and mayhem, idolatry and injustice in all its manifestations. Rather, God dreams of the varieties of humanity retaining their variety, yet forsaking the will to domination. Because it wasn’t the confusion of languages that scattered the peoples from Babel, but their unwillingness to be unified in diversity. The will to domination and conformity that started the conscription of brick-makers, forced them apart when communication became difficult. And yes, there is a very nice allusion to the brick-making slavery of the children of Israel in the Babylon called Egypt here, and maybe even to the brick-making slavery reintroduced by Solomon in Jerusalem to build his own great name (his palace), and tower to heaven, The Temple (1 Kings 9:15).

So, Jesus prays that his disciples and their disciples will be one, and St. Paul tells the Galatians and Ephesians that old divisions of nationality are washed away in Jesus the Messiah (John 17; Gal 3:28; Eph 2)! The differences are not erased, but the divisions are. This is huge! Gentile Jesus people were encouraged to relinquish their gastronomic liberties in order to fellowship at table with faithful Jewish disciples, and the Jews who trusted the Messiah were encouraged to not worry about where the meat might have come from if receiving the hospitality of a Gentile lover of Christ (Acts 15; 1 Cor. 10). The table guests maintained their ethnicity, but put away exclusion for the sake of embrace. Paul’s more individualized metaphor of the body of Christ makes it plain that though he longs for the Christian communities to be unified, the members are not all the same or even similarly gifted, and it’s better that they are different (1 Cor. 12-14)!

Revelation 7 is awe inspiring. Gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb (Jesus) is a great multitude beyond numbering (Heaven is not going to be poorly populated!) from every nation, tribe, people and language worshiping God and giving thanks for the salvation the Lamb has won for them. They are all dressed in white robes, yet clearly identifiable to John as differentiated peoples, language and culture groups. God loves variety.

As the vision of Revelation draws to a close, God’s new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, comes to earth, Its gates are always open and the kings of the nations bring their treasures into it. No people group is excluded, and their people-hood seems quite intact as their leaders bring the best of what they have and produce and are to God in the City of God. What are the treasures of your nation? Could it be the fashion, music, art, architecture or maybe husbandry or agriculture or science?

Or, what about your personal contributions to the Kingdom of God? Everyone wants a name that will not be forgotten, and God is in the business of establishing great names that last where people fail. Just ask Abraham, David and Jesus (Gen. 12; 2 Sam. 7; Phil. 2). In Revelation 2:17, Jesus promises a new, eternal, personal and unique name to all who overcome. Your individual story and abilities, the tone and timbre of your song are uniquely precious to the God who loves variety, and loves peoples, and loves persons. I believe God takes eternal delight in every human story, a story never to be repeated, but always to be remembered.

The Three Most Important Words We Will Ever Say

These words are the truest expression and declaration of the human soul as we know it. Only one human has ever succeeded with God and his purpose while failing to make this declaration, and it is in response to his clarion command that we first recognize this truth about ourselves and our world.

Many readers, maybe you, seeing the title, The Three Most Important Words We Will Ever Say will likely jump too far ahead of me today. They (you?) will run ahead to love: “I love you!” The human soul longs to make this proclamation even when the affection is unrequited, but of course, longs to hear the same words in return. However, to say “I love you,” and truly mean it, some serious soul work is first in order. And to continue meaning it and receiving it, this “I love you,” the soul work must persist.

To say “I” and know what I mean by it, I need an accurate understanding of who this being I claim as my own soul is: what are its virtues, values and vices, its hopes, dreams and goals, its motives and emotions. The fact is that we all gravely misunderstand ourselves, and often we do so with great intentionality and even relish. Left to our own devices we have little will to clearly see our own faults or failures and the deep fissures in our commitments, the fables of our idealized self; nor do we desire accurate measures of our merits, being quite satisfied with our gross overestimations. But, if I don’t even know who I am; if in fact, I happily deceive myself regarding who I am, how do I truly proclaim my love or devotion or commitment, or anything truthfully about myself? Surely, I cannot.

And then Love – what is the meaning of this word to a being wholly committed to self-preservation, even the preservation of an acknowledged false self? Maybe I can love myself in some convoluted manner, maintaining a commitment to my own happiness, but certainly I have no capacity for a sustained lifestyle of making way for another to thrive in joyful reality. If I don’t even make way for the reality of myself to be known, how will I make way for another and all of that person’s needs, demands, preferences and, probably, deceptions, as well?

The untreated ‘I’ can not really fathom another ‘you’. For, all that it sees becomes either an extension of itself or an object for its own use. No, before uttering in truth the primary three words, mouthing “I love you” is merely another myth of self-deception.

Jesus, being the smartest person to ever live, rightly understood our wrongness. So, when he began to exercise his authority as the ascendant king, his first command was a direct attack on our greatest slavery, our addiction to cultivating a false image of ourselves within our own minds and before all the world–an exhausting life that has left us all weary and heavy burdened. Do you remember Jesus’ first imperious demand upon his first listeners? The first command he taught all who would become his apprentices in the way, the truth and the life?

REPENT!

Stop trying to fool yourselves, because you haven’t fooled me, and you haven’t fooled the Father (who is right here in the radically accessible heavens)! It is time to admit the truth, so that you might be shaped by it and become the children of God you were designed to be.*

The three liberating word we must all confess in order to be healed, to live in truth and to begin the journey of knowing love and life are these:

I am wrong.

The only way to a different life than the one I currently have is to open my eyes and ears and heart enough to receive the truth that exposes my inadequacies, and then to humbly and gratefully confess my errors. Until I can confess these faults, I will be stuck in them, and as long as I consider my current thoughts and views unassailable, I remain outside the influence of any and all truth tellers, even or especially Jesus.

Of course, this reality of our wrongness is not limited to the ‘spiritual’ or religious regions of our existence. It’s true everywhere. It’s true with good science at its simplest and most advanced practice; it’s true of good journalism and historical inquiry; it’s true of all learning and growth toward maturity and beauty. It’s even true of sport: my jump shot is trash and always will be so unless or until I at least figure out what is wrong with my current practice.

The rightness and goodness of confessing our wrongness is true also of relationships. Human connections are injured so easily, and how are they to be healed without admission of wrongdoing? How can I ask forgiveness or even receive forgiveness, if I can’t admit I was wrong? And how can I preserve a relationship or build a new one in the face of passionate and profound differences of opinion if I cannot admit when I am wrong?

Ultimately, what we want to be able to say is, “I was wrong.” This is not putting future wrongness out of sight, but it is the place of new understanding, and the opportunity for a new way of living. “I was wrong about love, but now I know differently.” “I was wrong about anger, but now I know its danger and I live more graciously.” And so on.

When I apply this to interpersonal disagreements, I come into life and joy and leave behind bitter harangues and anxiety. I know that I very well may be wrong in what I think and in how I perceive the world, so I am open to learn new things, new facts about reality. Learning is not accumulating arguments to buttress my current perspectives; rather, learning is open inquiry into the nature of things and faithfully following the results of that inquiry where it leads. If my current perspective is true, that will shine as I encounter challenging counter-arguments, penetrating critiques and questions or confusing facts. But, if I close down in anger, unwilling to find myself wrong, then I cannot and will not learn anything new, whether I happen to be right or wrong about any such momentary thing.

As a learner, my conversations, discussions and even debates are liberated: I am not trying to prove my point or prove myself to myself or anyone else. While I, along with everyone else, enjoy being heard, as a learner I am a listener and I enjoy each opportunity to gain fresh insight into a particular topic of inquiry, or better yet, to gain fresh insight into the person(s) speaking with me.

When I am a humble learner concerned with truth, then not only am I free, but so are those I speak to. They do not owe me anything, nor do they need to prove themselves to me. If it turns out that the evidence favors my current understanding, they lose nothing in my eyes. Now, I might have to work to convince them of that, but there are tools especially for that occasion: honoring their being, respecting their right to disagree, stilling my tongue when they have come to the end of listening. And, if the argument turns up truth that proves me wrong, what joy! Now, I have learned and I can honestly thank and celebrate my sparring partner.

But, what’s most likely to occur in these conversations? Most often, our discussions will cover the same old ground, and we won’t learn much new about the topic of concern; however, there is a good likelihood that falsehoods I held about you will be exposed (if I’m listening well), and maybe you’ll have the same experience (if you’re listening well). We may still disagree, but we now know and understand one another better, and that is grounds for learning to say and mean, “I love you.”

*See John 1 and 8 and Matthew 4-7 for the biblical background to this rough paraphrase on Jesus’ first announcement: “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens has come near!”

Summary Review of The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Eldon Ladd

This book has been on my reading list since college, circa 2000. 20 years later, I’ve finally made time to read this short book originally published in 1959. The sociological history behind the necessity of this book and its slow, but long-term effects upon Evangelical theology could be a potential doctoral thesis. There is so much in terms of application, practical and ideological, that I want to dig into as I type; however, besides this brief intro, I’m going to stick to a simple review of the book’s contents. In future posts, I’ll explore the real life import of this theology of the Kingdom in depth.

The books begins with they question of What is the Kingdom of of God? Ladd makes a quick survey of relevant Old and New Testament passages and proposes a few basic concepts in response to this question. First, the Kingdom in the Old Testament is interwoven into the primary narrative of the scriptures: there is One Creator God who is at work in history through Israel to redeem/restore the lost authority or dominion originally granted to humanity in the Garden of Eden. Second, the proclamation of the Kingdom by Jesus, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” is the central theme of all that Jesus did and taught. His teaching explained the way to enter the kingdom; his mighty works proved the kingdom’s presence and power; his parables illustrated life in the kingdom; and the prayer he taught his disciples called and calls for the ever fuller expression of the kingdom in and around the lives of the community of disciples.

The Kingdom of God (heaven) is central to the life, message and mission of Jesus. To borrow a phrase from Dallas Willard, it is ‘the effective range of God’s will.’ Ladd says, it is “[God’s] reign, His rule, His sovereignty.” Rather than a realm, it is his power or authority. This is important as it explains what one is receiving when accepting Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom. It is not an invitation to a place but a call to submit to the rule or reign of God here and now, hence the call to repentance.

The next question Ladd addresses is the temporal location of the Kingdom of God: is it present today or at the end of the age? The Bible evidence points in both directions.

Ladd argues, in a somewhat dispensational* manner, that the Kingdom is both now and not yet. This now classical eschatological framework is essential to much contemporary scholarship and preaching. The Kingdom will not be fully revealed until the literal return of Jesus Christ, yet it is available today through trust in the Resurrected One who has opened the door to the future fullness in his own body. Where Jesus is heard, experienced and obeyed, the Kingdom, the rule of God, is in effect. One enters the Kingdom life now in order to prepare for the Kingdom of Glory when Christ returns.

With this in mind, Ladd spends much of the rest of the book exploring how the Kingdom of God exerts its influence upon the present world. This influence is primarily in and through the lives of those who receive Jesus’ invitation to follow him and learn his way of life: the students, disciples or apprentices of Jesus.

Life in the Kingdom begins with true knowledge of God, true fellowship with God which is the gift of Jesus Christ. Eternal Life is this personal knowledge of God, and it is the essential experience of the Kingdom Life. The next step of this Kingdom experience is loving fellowship within the community of God’s redeemed people here on earth, the Church. This is lived in the reality of the Holy Spirit’s enlivening presence. “The transforming life of the Spirit of God which will one day transform our bodies has come to indwell us and to transform our characters and personalities (78).”

After exploring the life of the Kingdom, Ladd turns especially to the Sermon on the Mount in order to look into the righteousness of the Kingdom, that righteousness that must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Mt. 5:20). In response to that high standard, Ladd argues that “The Kingdom of God gives to us that which it demands; otherwise, we could not attain it (79).”

Jesus teaches through the Sermon on the Mount that what or who you are is more important than what you do, and the reign of God in the human heart will produce a life of righteousness. The teachings of Jesus in this sermon are not to be a new law for external fulfillment. While we must take his words deathly seriously and ruthlessly eliminate sin from our bodies, we realize that removing body parts does not remove wickedness from the heart. One can fulfill the literal words of Jesus without embracing the heart transformation he is prescribing.

It is important to see through this that Jesus is primarily offering illustrations or examples of what Kingdom righteousness looks like in real life. Sometimes, the literal application will be the appropriate response to a given situation, but even Jesus did not understand “turn the other cheek” to be a universally binding, arbitrary law to be slavishly mimicked. We see this clearly in John 18 when Jesus is struck on the face. He doesn’t turn the other cheek but questions his assailant on whether or not it was right to strike him. To paraphrase, “If I said something wrong, tell me what it was; if not, why are you smacking me around?”

The illustrations Jesus gives us call us to pray for forgiveness and to submit in trust to the leadership (kingship or lordship) of Jesus. Only when Jesus reigns in the heart through trust can the heart be liberated to love without reference to self, to have the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So the Kingdom demands a response: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “The essence of repentance is a decision which determines the quality of present life and future destiny (97).” This is a radical decision that looks like violence in its vehemence, straining every nerve to enter in (cf. Mt. 11:12; Lk. 13:24; 14:26; 16:16). Nothing must be allowed to come between the disciple and his teacher, not even self-protection. Taking up one’s cross is not about carrying a burden but dying. “Denial of self does not mean that I am to deny myself things. It means to deny myself, not to deny things to myself (104).”

This also carries sociological, dare we say, political ramifications, “for the sons of the Kingdom cannot help but exercise an influence on human history for they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth (121).” The church carries on a spiritual battle between satanic evil and the rule of God, but these forces both express themselves in the realm of human relationships: individual, social, even geopolitical. “Therefore we must press the battle against the powers of darkness where we find them until the day dawns and the light of the knowledge of God shall fill the earth (122).”

Finally, Ladd discusses when this glorious consummation of the ages will come. He follows the line of Jesus where he proclaims that the good news of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, and then the end will come (Mt. 24:14). With this in mind, he exhorts the church to take seriously the commission to make disciples of all nations, and to live in hope. “The Bible alone, of all ancient literatures, contains a philosophy of history, and it is a philosophy of redemption (133).”

*This dispensational tendency is more evident in the first half of his chapter on Israel, but I will not explore that in this review. Suffice it to say, that Ladd avoids the main pitfalls of a dispensational eschatology and does not adopt a wholly pessimistic or escapist view of the end, but rather sees the church’s responsibility to be salt and light at both the individual and the social scale.

Summary Review of The End of Policing by Alex Vitale

When, in response to the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter activists and their allies began making #defundthepolice and even #abolishthepolice go viral, I decided I needed to find out what was up. Obviously, as disturbed as I was (and am) by police brutality, especially when driven by systems of racial injustice, the idea of getting rid of the police seemed rather silly, at best. I was also not at all interested in joining the bandwagon of anger that burned in the directions of vilifying all police officers, and beyond. So, in the spirit of listening and learning, rather than barking first, I read a couple of articles online and found my way to this book, The End of Policing. The arguments made by the author are likely unpopular with many in my circles, but I hope they will follow my lead, and listen and learn. Yes, I have formed a positive opinion toward many of the arguments made by Alex Vitale, and I think the future of the United States hangs in the balance of our being willing to at least listen to him (and others). If we cannot listen to dissenting opinions, what do we have left of liberty or democracy?

My Summary Review

Alex Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. His 2017 book, The End of Policing‘s cover has his thesis printed on it, as if it might just be an extraordinarily long subtitle: The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the past forty years, as a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.
Vitale works through several aspects of policing in the United States to prove this thesis and to suggest some alternatives to the current arrangement.

A few important considerations before exploring a few of his primary arguments: First, Vitale, while responding to the rash of police killings that mobilized the initial rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, does not see individual police officers, even ‘bad ones’, as the primary problem in such cases. In case this is not clear from the thesis statement/subtitle, Vitale sees the system of policing and the criminal justice system back of it, as inherently problematic both for the public supposedly served and for the officers who work within the system. Second, the book is published by Verso Books which describes itself as “the largest independent radical publishing house in the English-speaking world.” This, along with Vitale’s location within the field of sociology is important to remember; this is not a piece of objective journalism, but published with a political purpose. That however, does not invalidate the reality of the research involved, nor the suggestions made. Third, this is a work built upon critical theory which seeks to identify the structures of power in a society, usually with the aim of exposing oppression and its sources in order to liberate the oppressed. One significant challenge of a book like this one is that while it can clearly reveal injustice and effectively articulate the kinds of structures (legal, cultural, and the like) that perpetuate that injustice, it does not have a lot of data to support the effectiveness of its proposals for justice. This problem exists because systems of power rarely make a lot of space for the exploration of alternatives to their domination. There are examples Vitale can point to, but they are few and far between. Widespread adoption of ideas and projects like those he proposes would be, by and large, radical experiments.

Vitale addresses the historical roots of American policing and some of the contemporary mindsets therein, the war on drugs, border policing, criminalizing homelessness and mental illness, police in schools, policing sex work, gang suppression and political policing. In all of these arenas, Vitale finds troubling trends of intrusive policing that overly criminalizes the poor and nonwhite. While I find that his assessment of policing sex work seems a bit one-sided (downplaying the dangers of trafficking), his assessment of gang suppression too anecdotal, and his assessment of police among the mentally ill a bit thin, most of his case is well established. I will explore four of his most compelling, to me, points below.

The Historical Roots and Contemporary Mindset of US Policing

Police forces in the United States began in Boston and New York in the 1820s and 1830s primarily in order to quell labor unrest for the benefit of the industrialists and at the bodily expense of the strikers. These new police forces were also employed to enforce the mores of the nativist Protestant population that was rife with fear and bigotry against the newly arriving immigrants from Ireland and Catholic Europe. “It was the creation of police that made widespread enforcement of vice laws and even the criminal code possible for the first time. These morality laws … gave the state greater power to intervene in the social lives of the new immigrants.” The history of policing the poor for the comfort and benefit of the wealthy (or white) has continued through police history.

The criminal justice system excuses and ignores crimes of the rich that produce profound social harms while intensely criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms. When the crimes of the rich are dealt with, it’s generally through administrative controls and civil enforcement rather than aggressive policing, criminal prosecution, and incarceration, which are reserved largely for the poor and nonwhite. No bankers have been jailed for the 2008 financial crisis despite widespread fraud and the looting of the American economy, which resulted in mass unemployment, homelessness, and economic dislocation. American crime control policy is structured around the use of punishment to manage the “dangerous classes,” masquerading as a system of justice.

Vitale argues that something much more than reform is needed now. Many police forces are entrenched in a ‘warrior mentality’ where the officers can “see themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public rather than guardians of public safety.” On top of this, by the very nature of criminal justice and policing priorities, no matter how unbiasedly pursued, will continue to punish poorer residents most. Most uniformed officers make no more than one felony arrest per year. With the rest of their time and energy they are often encouraged to criminalize all disorderly behavior or engage in ticket-writing campaigns (that always disproportionately hurt the poor). This sets them up as the enemy to the poor who live in high-crime areas and leads to a public that resists the police, viewing police work as often intrusive and illegitimate. Police then “respond to this resistance with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.”

Vitale then asks,

Is our society really made safer and more just by incarcerating millions of people? Is asking the police to be the lead agency in dealing with homelessness, mental illness, school discipline, youth unemployment, immigration, youth violence, sex work, and drugs really a way to achieve a better society? Can police really be trained to perform all these tasks in a professional and uncoercive manner?

Criminalizing Homelessness

Homelessness is usually considered a blight upon our urban centers, and most of us, when honest with ourselves, tend to see the homeless as a nuisance at best, a risk to our safety at worst. Nobody wants a homeless camp near their home or across the street from their business. So, our cities call in the police to bust up these camps and to generally harass the homeless population, sending them in and out of jails and courts at a tremendous financial cost. However, criminalizing homelessness does nothing to address or alleviate the underlying problems or the suffering of the homeless. Instead of being helped off the streets, they are routinely bullied, badgered and arrested. Vitale presents a fairly compelling alternative that would see these criminal justice and policing dollars redirected away from police forces and jails (hence, defunding the police) toward effective rehousing initiatives that do, over the long-term, help those who are homeless, and likely cost less tax payer dollars.

The War on Drugs

The war on drugs can hardly be considered successful from any angle of public safety. Drug use continues apace across the nation, and we now spend nearly $50 billion a year waging this war primarily on the poor and people of color. Today, half of all federal prisoners and a third of all state prisoners a locked up for drug crimes. Warehousing these prisoners is a massive economic burden on the state, but even more so on the communities from which they came–communities left bereft of fathers, mothers, leaders and labor.

Vitale reports on an interview given by Richard Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisory, John Ehrlichman in 2016. Its content is shocking, but it is the foundation upon which the war on drugs was built, and the aims of that war have not changed much since:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Drug use in the USA is at or near the root of much of the homelessness nuisance in our cities, as well as their gang activities and sex industries, and its dangers go beyond. However, increased aggressive policing and incarceration have not stopped this deleterious social past time or its accompanying swathes of crime. Vitale argues, with many others, that it is time to end the war on drugs, which is actually a war on the poor and mostly brown and black people and communities, and reinvest some of that energy into medical intervention for addicts seeking to get off drugs and into regulating drugs in ways that actually make people and communities safer from drugs, criminals and police. The upshot of this is that not only would we save the money currently spent on the drug war, but the tax revenues from a regulated, decriminalized drug industry would likely more than pay for the social services Vitale asks for.

Border Policing

Nearly 40% of all federal prosecutions are related to immigration. Vitale argues that “migrants have as much right to international movement as corporations and international elites.” And, “By opening the doors to capital and goods but not to people, we have created tremendous pressure to migrate.” The enforcement of immigration laws is by nature bigoted and even racist. Take a look at the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of US v. Brignon-Ponce where officers are granted the right to stop, question and demand identification from individuals for ‘looking Mexican.’ This ruling was based in part on a “1953 federal law that gives Border Patrol agents the right to suspend constitutional protections within a hundred miles of the border and stop, search, and ascertain the immigration status of any person, whether or not they have any probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.”

These kinds of policies serve to keep migrant workers on the wrong side of the law. It is well established that, as the US economy currently functions, migrant workers, with and without documentation, are essential. Yet, these workers and their families continue to be criminalized, which puts them outside of the protections of the law. Instead, they are subject to exploitation, dehumanization and brutality from their employers, real criminals and the police.

Conclusion

In the end, Vitale argues for a more ‘justice for all’ oriented approach to public spending and policing that would value life and liberty, save lives and dollars: fewer police altercations that could result in violence, and far fewer arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments. It’s worth noting that US Police kill around 1,000 people per year. Police in Great Britain (where few carry firearms, but the populace is at least as safe as in the USA) have killed a total of 50 people between 1900-2016!

Vitale is willing to admit that there could be small increases in some crimes and drug use if his recommendations were enacted, but remains confident that if significant portions of the funding currently allotted to law enforcement were reallocated to social services and programs for the people and communities currently at most risk from crime, those very people and communities would be empowered to build much safer and more productive lives. This remains a question of profound debate, but I think Vitale presents enough data to prove his ideas are not pure fantasy and should be considered thoughtfully, especially in light of our nation’s current convulsions.

*image credit: https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/24/world/defund-police-crime-social-welfare-intl/index.html