I am grateful for freedom.
And to those who have made my freedom(s) possible.
I am grateful I have the right to vote and worship God how I choose. I am grateful I got to marry who I chose. I am grateful I do not live in daily fear in or outside my home.
And yet in the midst of all of my gratitude this July 4th, I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's words about peace in Wishful Thinking:
"...we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of real peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of other people, whether they live on the streets or under our own roof-and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them-we can never be fully at home anywhere."
I think the same can be said about freedom. Can there even be real peace without freedom?
Will you join me this July 4th in asking the question, "Who is not free yet?"
Who is not free to worship how they choose?
Who is not free to marry who they choose to?
Who lives in fear inside/outside of their home?
Who has no voice in religious, political, and business institutions?
It shouldn't take too long to identify at least one person if not an entire group of people.
Then with the voice of the Holy Spirit and the entire tradition of the Holy Scriptures urging us on, let's take the next step and do something about it. Like those who gave their lives for our country's freedom.
Then this will truly be "the land of the free and home of the brave."
Good Friday is coming in a few weeks and with it, some theology I simply cannot stand anymore.
It's found in many worship songs like Jesus Paid it All, In Christ Alone, One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails) and more. It's called substitutionary atonement or penal substitution in theological language. And it's heard so often, you might even think it's the only show in town when it comes to explanations and understandings of the cross.
Richard Rohr, writes in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, “For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus 'died for our sins'— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033–1109] and has often been called 'the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written')..."
I could not agree more. No matter how sweet sounding the music, the image of God portrayed by such lyrics is a petty, powerless and/or blood-thirsty tyrant requiring some kind of payment or transaction before those He's created can be forgiven, loved, and rescued from eternal damnation. There are lots of problems with this theory. One major problem is that if we read the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Psalms and Prophets, we discover a long-suffering God who was forgiving and willing to forgive long before the cross occurred. Rather than a belief that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary to change God's mind about us, we can see how Jesus' life and death invited us to change our minds about God. Jesus was simply following in his Father's footsteps of relentless, sacrificial love. I have a problem with lyrics and theology that proclaim the opposite.
Given this theology is taught through song and sermon in many churches (I taught it years ago as a youth pastor!), we're not apt to actually stop and think through it ourselves. It took me a while to admit that something seemed "off." There would be songs that seemed fine up until the "wrath" or "debt paid" lyrics showed up affecting the whole song. As I questioned this dominant cultural voice in American Christianity, I realized there were others experiencing the same internal dissonance. I also discovered there were other views about the crucifixion (always have been) besides substitutionary atonement. And that one no longer represents my viewpoint...
The movie, Gran Torino, on the other hand does. Spoiler alert, if you haven't seen it and want to, you may want to stop reading, go watch it and come back later. And be aware, there's violence (although let's be honest, there has to be if drawing any kind of connection between it and Good Friday). Back to the movie, I did not see it coming, the ending of Gran Torino. In fact, I imagine I got a taste of being stunned the way the disciples might have been stunned on that Good Friday long ago...they simply never saw it coming. Yet the Gospels tell us Jesus did (and so did Clint Eastwood).
If you saw the movie but cannot remember the ending, go check out a Youtube clip of the end. The final scene is so rich in symbolism, I'm not even going to get into all of it (plus it would take away from your own disturbances and observations). All I know is that Gran Torino gave a pretty good glimpse of my view of Jesus' death on the cross in less than 5 minutes.
A quick overview of the movie...gruff Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a recently widowed Korean vet. He's fairly estranged from his own family when he gets drawn into the drama of his Hmong neighbors. Young Thao tries to steal Kowalski's Gran Torino after being pressured by his cousin to join the neighborhood gang. You know that Eastwood is not going to let that happen! This event leads to Kowalski developing a relationship with the family and getting an inside look at the cycle of violence and poverty experienced by the Asian community in his neighborhood. He sees how his well-intentioned advice to Thao to get a decent job and stay away from the gangs simply doesn't work, no matter how hard Thao tries, he and his sister cannot escape the brutality and injustice. It requires something more to liberate Thao and his sister. And that's where we start seeing Kowalski's single-minded intensity and there's no mistaking he is planning something. What he's planning, we have no idea.
Although we know something is about to take place when one night he shows up at the house where the gang members hang out and begins to yell in order to provoke them. One by one they come out with guns drawn. We're expecting "an eye for an eye" moment thinking Eastwood will whip out a gun and give them the justice they deserve by picking them off all in a row. What we're not expecting from the foul-mouthed Kowalski is "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) And yet he does. And on purpose. His stunning and creative act of solidarity and sacrifice releases Thao and his sister from the cycle of violence. They were "saved" by his blood.
In a perfect world, the prison system would reform the perpetrators and they'd be "saved by his blood," too. It's not a perfect world and Walt doesn't rise again in three days, so there's only so far the comparisons can go but I think it's worth noting the image of Christ found in Walt's sacrifice.
First, let's admit that Walt himself could be a stumbling block for some. In which case, I ask us to ponder what one who "walks in the way that leads to Life" really looks like. Is it being a nice, moral citizen who tries to avoid or point out sin (but can have a habit of ignoring the cycles of violence and systemic injustice in his own "neighborhood")? Or might one resemble Walt, a crass, politically incorrect "sinner" who not only notices the violence and injustice, but steps into a Christ-like path which will set his neighborhood free? Setting his face like flint, he walks right onto that sidewalk for an act of love which will rescue his neighbors from being held captive by a cycle of violence they are powerless against. Sound familiar?
Jesus knew his message would provoke the authorities. He knew that such ire would inevitably turn him into a scapegoat (a person or people group on whom we unfairly pour out our wrath, making them "pay"). He knew it is human nature to look for a scapegoat. So much so, it becomes a religious necessity for nearly every culture (some even beating literal goats to death as the name suggests)! One can see how Jesus' bold message about what to do with friends and enemies does not fit, but in fact destroys both the necessity for and violent cycle of sinful and superstitious scapegoating.
Bigger isn't better in Jesus' view (even when it comes to God). Being the stronger bully or in the bully's gang never leads to the kind of life Jesus invites, it only adds fuel to the cycle of vengeance. However, many Christians have no problem with this because the image of God passionately sung about is a fickle, vengeful one (and remember, we become like the God we worship). Plus if we agree that Jesus paid it all, we're safely on the winning side. However, in the cycle of violence, there is no winning side. In a stunning reversal of what we would expect from a winning "savior," Jesus chooses solidarity with the suffering of the scapegoat and dies.
Jesus knew the pull of scapegoating loomed large. After his resurrection, knowing some of his disciples had a propensity for zealous anger (once they knew they were safely on the "winning team"), he headed off any plans to go after the ones who had killed him. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus meets his disciples in the room they were hiding in, breathes on them, tells them to receive the Holy Spirit then talks to them about forgiveness (20:21), a topic he talked to them about at the Last Supper and even voiced from the cross.
It seems the disciples had a choice (and so do we). Be chained to the cycle of violence or have hearts and minds freed up to carry out the mission Jesus began.
What is that mission?--a completely different way of being in the world (which includes the religious one!). It's the subversive, dangerous and life-giving way of loving God and our neighbors (whether they be Hmong, Muslim, Mexican, Irish, disabled, poor, or LGBT+) as we love ourselves (which includes parts of ourselves we like and parts we'd like to treat as scapegoats). It's that kind of love that frees. It's that kind of love that Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., the young Palestinian girl Malala Yousafzai, and Walt Kowolski knew would cost them something, perhaps even their lives.
If someone wants to write a song about that, I'll gladly sing it.
If you're anticipating tension around the table this year, here are 7 ways to invite (or perhaps choose) life to be your table companion.
Begin by offering yourself hospitality. When we welcome every part of ourselves, we lift the burden of demanding others to give us what they may neither be willing nor able to give. So in your mind's eye, give yourself the look of approval or hug of acceptance you need!
Do away with the “kids table” this year. Allow them to join the “grown ups.” Sure, they may spill the gravy, but their simple presence may open our eyes to the Kingdom and hand us the keys. If you're hosting, you'll find it's worth the messy table cloth.
Let humor pull up a chair. Here's where kids at the table are helpful once again! When it's not at the expense of anyone else, laughter can be common ground (like enjoying good food).
Keep Jesus' meal of thanks in mind. Around Jesus' supper table was a member of the radical Zealot party, a tax collector, some fishermen, a beloved disciple, a doubter, a hot-head and a betrayer...if these were Christ's table guests, what do we expect?
Remember the broken Body of Christ. Breaking bread together can be a tangible reminder that we follow a God who works through brokenness. Just as love flowed through the broken body of Jesus, love can flow through each of us, the broken Body of Christ. Be on the lookout to receive love from a broken person and to be a broken person through whom love shines through.
Leave or give others permission to leave. Jesus gave permission to one of his followers to leave the table. Rather than continue the charade of authenticity he said, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). In his case, he was about to betray Jesus. Did Jesus withdraw his love in that moment? No! He never stopped loving him, but he recognized when Judas was putting on an act. You or others may be itching to be somewhere else, unable to truly be present (in a life-giving way). No need to force yourself or others to hang around in misery (or make others miserable)!
Know that love is messy. Much messier than spilled gravy. The love of Christ isn't a pecan pie-gooey kind of love. It requires healthy boundaries and sacrifice. Both may not look or feel like love to you or others in the moment. That's okay, the book of Luke (12:51-53;18:29-30) warns that Jesus-followers must be prepared for family relationships to not reflect a Norman Rockwell painting. The path of and toward life rarely looks like it. But it's worth the journey!
A prayer for all who are gathering at a table this week:
God, may we welcome our family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers to the table as we welcome ourselves. May we recognize that not only do we have brokenness in common but we can find common ground in food and laughter. May we not shy away from awkwardness or tension but enter in with childlike curiosity. Give us discernment. Remind us of the permission we can give or receive to leave (without shame or shaming, without blame or blaming) on behalf of love. Thank you for the ways You join us at the table disguised as our own lives. May Your love be present in and with us as we break bread together.
In Christ's Name, Amen.
When a part of your body is hurting,
don't you pay attention?
With the gentlest touch and care
you tend to it,
sometimes asking for help,
not wanting to cause further harm,
giving it time to heal.
My dears, a part of the Body is hurting.
Today I'll be spending time with, even sitting beside, those who are voting for the candidate I did not vote for. Can you guess where I'll be?
In a sanctuary with other Christians gathered for prayer.
I imagine there will be petitions on behalf of both sides. Each longing for a specific outcome. Prayers offered for opposite results.
This election has both caused and shone a spotlight on divisions between friends and family members. At times it's been utterly barbaric. It would be easy for the church to be no different.
So I'm going to the Noon prayer service not only to join others in prayer but as a prayerful reminder that this is what the Body of Christ looks like...made up of people holding different views on politics, theology, raising kids and sports teams...and we do not need to let these things cause hate-filled division.
I don't believe the Spirit of God is as interested in the results of the election as much as what the Body of Christ is going to do afterward.
If the candidate I voted for wins, I'm not going to make a big deal about it on social media or elsewhere because I know there is real anxiety held by those who did not vote the same way.
If the candidate I voted for loses, I'm not going to make a big deal about it on social media or elsewhere because it doesn't change what God requires (at least according to the ancient prophet, Micah).
On Wednesday I'm going to trust that our work continues and together, with all of our differences and opinions, we can still...act with justice, treasure the Lord's gracious love and walk humbly in the company of our God.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.