Joy to the World (and Me Too?)
I want to rejoice this Christmas. I want to celebrate the Prince of Peace. I want to know with whom I can rejoice this year.
Allegiance to The Prince of Peace
As an angry teenager I renounced Christianity as a sham. I thought that most of the Christians I knew were so different from the Story they told that I could not take them seriously. I argued that we are beasts and we might as well live like it.
After a successful hostage rescue in 1985, the USMC left me to wander Israel for a week. The historical realities of ancient Israel awakened my curiosity. How did the biblical Story explain the morally ambiguous world I fought for? Were the promises of “Peace” possible in spite of the evidence to the contrary?
One year later I pledged my allegiance to The Prince of Peace. That is when I began to struggle with two questions:
- What am I supposed to believe in addition to “Jesus is the resurrected Lord”?
- Who do I belong with in my journey forward in the Way of Jesus?
My struggle with those two questions in 1986 continued as I planted churches among the poor, often with the financial support of upper middle class American Christians. Over the past three decades I have preached the Prince of Peace on every continent outside of Antarctica. My companions have been Christians, rich and poor, from all over the world. Joy has been common on this journey. My initial concerns never completely left me, particularly the first of the two, though 2016 reversed the order and intensity of the questions.
I believe that The Lamb is greater than The Beasts
Apocalyptic obsession was an early problem with my efforts at resolving “What am I supposed to believe?”. Way too much of my gospel understanding was entangled with “End Times” speculations. I learned how to see details in the Text and in the news as synonymous, though frequently needing to be re-adjusted. Eventually I realized those trees formed a forest.
The final book in the Bible is not “Revelations” about scary things.
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ” is about how Truth in Word & Deed ultimately overcome in and through Jesus (Rev. 19). The Story is about the character of God and humanity as revealed in The Lamb. Humanity is lured to justify, even worship, the beastliness of wealth and power. Christ shows the True Way, even as antichrists keep looping back to alternative religious veneers of the worldly ways; the Beastly ways.
Revelation 5 contains a vision of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. John turns, hoping to see a Godly Beast to counter the Worldly Beasts. Christian bookstores used to sell posters of The Lion. Christian addiction to militancy bought that false image. What John saw was not an über-beast of God to defeat The Beast of the Adversary. What did John see?
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. Rev. 5:5,6
“Lamb first, then Lion” is a compromised belief I once held. No longer. The Lamb has always been the Way. It was for Abel, for Abraham, for Jesus and for John. My allegiance to Jesus is an allegiance to sacrificial love, to The Way of The Lamb.
I believe that The Lamb > The Beasts
I belong with the vulnerable lambs, not the lamb-frocked beasts.
One of my best friends working among the vulnerable with me once felt comfortable sharing a racist moment. We had just seen an irredeemable action film.
“Wasn’t that disgusting?” he asked.
“All the killing?”
“No. When she kissed the black man. Why did they have to show that?”
I tried to figure out how deep these feelings went, but my respect for this man was, and is, an obstacle in me untangling it all. The issue was raised and dropped quickly. Over time, however, an uncomfortable collection of beastly thinking from fellow Christian sojourners grew too significant to overlook.
In 2012 I accepted an invitation to a staff position at an American mega-church. I joked about the fog machine ministry to voice my discomfort with being an insider among such wealth and power. I was part of a project to raise tens of millions of dollars in a couple of years, including distributing wealth locally, nationally and globally. I couldn’t completely suppress my cynicism. I asked in an early meeting if we were going to be using pictures of African children to fund an expensive suburban expansion. A man who eventually became one of my most reliable friends openly expressed his shock at the implications of my provocative question. A few years later he brought it up again, shaking his head as if to settle the unresolved contradictions.
My time on staff taught me to appreciate people and programs at a megachurch in ways that I did not expect. Programs for the poor and the vulnerable, fully funded by free will offerings of American Christians, are often profoundly moving examples of The Way of the Lamb. But my celebration of generosity to the least of these was undermined by a recurring hint of lingering loyalties to beastly ways.
The Problem behind the problems
Social media used to be a tool for connecting with family while I was overseas. International terrorism, along with other major concerns, became discussions among friends and strangers about how we perceived the world and the responses to those concerns.
In those discussions, Confederate flags and other issues of racism began to elevate hidden layers of concern about American Christianity. I began to debate with friends about things I could not believe they wanted to hold on to. The biggest concern was when debates ceased to be about what was true and right and instead be about what was wanted regardless of whether anyone else thought about it. This underlying craving for familiarity, of American prosperity and security was hard to see in others. And then came the presidential race of 2016.
I will not rehash the overly familiar arguments of the past 18 months. What I will say is that by November 7, 2016, I had heard too much that was too foreign to my convictions. The day before the election I chose to separate from a community that had, in my opinion, rationalized for beastly alliances more persistently and intentionally and officially than I could in accept in good conscience. I thanked those I served under, explained my struggles as concisely as appropriate and stepped aside. I do not know enough to judge them, and so I do not seek to raise an issue with them or about them. All I know is that I had to maintain my integrity as best I understood it, and so I had to leave.
Where is the Joy?
It has been six weeks and I’m still not well. I have called out to friends publicly and privately hoping that they will help resolve some of the wounds of 2016. Some have tried arguing things through, others choose to simply ignore the problems. The main result has been an awkward alienation. Am I even worth talking with, or have I hardened my heart so much that trying to reason with me would only make things worse?
I want resolution with people. The Peace I long for would be mutual agreement on what matters, even if we all had to adjust significantly beyond our current positions. A Peace I’d be happy with would involve an acknowledgment of where our disagreements remain, along with a humble request that God would judge us individually as we trust Christ to be our reconciler in due season. For some I might even have to accept that the only peace we have is as former friends, now revealed to be more distant in convictions than once believed. I do not want that, but I prefer it to the silence of a relationship unworthy of vulnerability.
I am open to rapprochement for the sake of Peace.
I am open to The Way of the Lamb.
I pray that I will share companionship with others welcoming the Prince of Peace at the end of 2016 as well.
~ Shalom y’all!