Jimmy Fallon, U2 and the Kingdom of God

I came across this video recently on Facebook, even though the actual event took place back in May 2015.

Here’s the gist: Jimmy Fallon and U2 enter a busy subway station in New York in disguise and put on an impromptu performance. It’s worth a watch on so many levels.

I love this video on so many levels. I love Jimmy Fallon’s playfulness that he exudes continuously on his show. I love the U2 is willing to go along with it. I love watching the people’s utter surprise and bewilderment. Most of all I just love the joy that spontaneously erupts up on people’s face when they discover who is in their midst.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize this event, but the video did make me think about the kingdom of God and God’s surprising appearances in and around us.

Now that I am in official “ministry,” I find it all too easy to become discouraged at a lack of displays of God’s kingdom breaking forth. But is this because it is not happening or is it rather a result of not training my eyes to see and my ears to hear? Like some of the people in the video, rushing to catch their train, without noticing what is currently happening, is my life too much like this?

Worse yet, but probably truer: do I write off what I see as nothing because it looks/sounds like U2 in disguise? If I was in that subway station that day, I know for a fact that I would not have given that band another look or listen: “Just another mediocre street performer peddling for money.” How often do I dismiss the seemingly insignificant because in my sinful heart I crave the spectacular? I don’t want to hear a street band perform U2; I want to see U2 perform with all the bells and whistles.

But if I can slow myself down, internally and externally, and train myself to have eyes to see and ears to hear, I might actually notice that the street performer is more than just a street performer. I might actually notice the very spectacular and significant in the most unusual of places.

So much of the story of God at work in this world recorded for us in the Bible is the story of God using the unexpected, the forgotten, the castaways to accomplish his divine purposes. Rahab a gentile prostitute. Ruth another gentile who becomes the great grandmother to King David. And, in the midst of the Advent season, the Christmas story is the story of God showing up in the most obscure places. Easy to quickly walk past. Easy to forget. But there is the Eternal Son of God moving into our world to display God in the most profound and yet simple ways.

It did not stop with his birth—it continued throughout his life, most notably around a table in people’s home, and ultimately culminating in dying a criminal’s death. If I was alive during Jesus’ life, seeing him crucified, I would have written him off. Just another fake in a long line of unfulfilled promised Messiah (and this is exactly what happens, see Luke 24:13-35).

My simplest and quite possibly most profound task as a pastor is to give voice to the work of God first in my own life, and then in the lives of those God has me walking beside. But this takes a willingness to slow down and notice a subway station music group, which might turn out to be the best work yet.

The Single Most Important Aspect to Holiday Entertaining

dinner-tableIn the United States, Thanksgiving was just last week, which signals for us the beginning of the Holiday/Christmas season. Most often associated with the holiday season is hospitality. The parties we go to. The parties we throw. The food we eat. The food we prepare. The people we share meals with. The people gathered around our table on Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but I often stress more about the food than is probably reasonable. I want the food to be perfect. It does not help that I am a former chef. In the restaurant the drive for perfection (which I recognize is never attainable) served me well. When customers are paying top price, they deserve my best efforts.

But in my own home it should be different. No one is paying to eat at my house, nor would I ever want them to. Hopefully people are coming because they enjoy me, Claire, and Hazelle, not because of my culinary skills. And I have extended an invitation to them because I enjoy their company and want to repast with my family.

If this is the case, and I believe it to be the case, I should worry less about the food and more about my guests.

I was recently reminded of some great quotes by, who many consider the father of modern gastronomic writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. He writes:

However, it must not be believed that all these adjuncts are indispensable to the enjoyment of the pleasures of the table. This pleasure can be savored almost to the full whenever the four following conditions are met with: food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time (page 184).

On the other hand, no matter how studied a dinner plan nor how sumptuous its adjuncts, there can be no true pleasures of the table if the wine be bad, the guest assembled without discretion, the faces gloomy, and the meal consumed with haste (page 185).

The primary purpose of hospitality is opening ourselves to another person. Or to quote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin again, “To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs” (page 4). I cannot do this if I am so preoccupied with the food and the details of the dinner. This means that it’s not wise to make a buerre blanc for a Christmas gathering. This also means that if my roast burns or if the meal turns out inedible, ordering pizza will be just fine (it might also mean opening the second bottle of wine a little earlier).

As I meditate on this idea at the start of the Christmas season, I am also challenged again by Jesus’ words to me regarding hospitality:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

Jesus challenges me that as I think about who to invite around my table, the point is never to be a tit-for-tat hospitality—“If I invite so-and-so, they might do this for me.” Rather Jesus calls me to look for the forgotten, the neglected, those who might not otherwise have a place. Jesus calls me to invite people radically different from myself over to feast and to laugh.

And let’s be honest: this is incredibly hard. During the holidays I want to spend time with the people closest to me; the people who have journeyed with me during the year. And those times are good and needed.

But are those the only people I am spending time with? How can I simplify my life, carve out space to reach out to someone who cannot repay me?

As a Christ follower, I am called to practice radical, inclusive hospitality. As a church we as Christ followers are called to practice radical inclusive hospitality. And now more so than ever does the world need to witness this radical, inclusive hospitality. And what better time than when we celebrate the King of kings and Lord of lords being born a baby in a manger, worshiped by shepherds?

On This Night, We Choose to Remember

election-night-decorationsI had the privilege of leading a communion service on Election Night 2016 (November 8). I learned about this idea through reading Slow Church back in 2014. The idea stayed with me, so when I was brought on full-time at Mountain Life Church, I asked if I could organize a service for our people. Election Night Communion Services have spread to include many churches: on this website, there were over 300 churches across the nation participating (there is also a Facebook page with more information).

The idea of behind the service is rooted in understanding that as we approach the Lord’s Table, part of what we are doing is remembering that we are one body because we partake in one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). Christ’s broken body and shed blood have destroyed the walls that divide us as people; therefore, our duty as brothers and sisters is to remind ourselves of this profound and difficult truth, and to live from this, instead of the divisive and corrosive nature of politics.

The service was beautiful, reflective, and not rushed. Robert Bartko, the worship pastor at Mountain Life, and I led our people to remember that God is sovereign and we are called to display God’s love to a very hurting, divided world. (Here is the order of service.

I must confess: it was easy to remember God’s sovereignty on Tuesday night; since Wednesday morning, I have struggled a lot more. While I will pray that President-elect Trump will lead this nation well, I found his rhetoric to be incredibly hateful at times. As a white, middle-class, Evangelical male, I don’t have much to worry about, but the question I, and all of us as Christians, must ask ourselves is this: Can we truly hear the fear, worry, and anxiety of the minorities that Trump at times seemed to target during his candidacy?

We, as the church, not only need to hear their fear and worry, but also then stand and work with them to speak out against racism and strive toward reconciliation. My Life Group has been studying the biblical book of James currently. James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

For James, looking after the orphans and widows (or you could say any marginalized people in society) is more than simply wishing them well. A little later in James, he writes, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

The Evangelical church must lead the way in the days, months, and years to come to speak and continuously speak out against racism and speak for the marginalized of our neighborhoods. But it cannot be “Whites to the rescue.” We must listen in humility to their honest, true and very real fears, working alongside them to see the flourishing of all peoples.

The way forward for the church is not seeking power and prestige, but to once again listen and discern Jesus’ words: “You know that the ruler of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

May this passage be so of me and all of us.

Book Review: Slow Church

Slow Church Book CoverIf the 20th century taught us anything, it taught us that efficiency, calculability, predictability and control are to be most prized, seen most readily in large, corporate chains, most notably McDonalds. Machine-like speed and efficiency are now virtues, celebrated even in our churches. How many people can we get in the door on any given Sunday? How many people have prayed the prayer? How many people have we baptized? How many people have become members? What is the latest fad in church and how can we copy it?

But like any large social movement, there have been little pockets of resistance by people who are willing to ask the tough questions of where this path of destruction might be leading us. One of those pockets of resistance was The Slow Food Movement which began in 1986 in protest to the building of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. “The Slow Food Movement is fundamentally about the richness of common life with the neighbors who grow our food, prepare our food and share our food” (16). The Slow Food Movement has spread worldwide, and its greatest contribution might not be in the area of food, but might be in giving us pause to think through how other areas of our life might have succumbed to the pressures of this cult of speed.

Most recently, Chris Smith and John Pattison have been thinking through how the themes of the Slow Food Movement might shape a view of Slow Church, first through their blog and now in the publication of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. They survey the landscape of American Christianity and conclude:

“Many churches, particularly those driven by church growth models, come dangerously close to reducing Christian to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed and sold. Instead of cultivating a deep, holistic discipleship that touches every aspect of our lives, we’ve confined the life of faith to Sunday mornings, where it can be kept safe and predictable, or to a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ,’ which can be managed from the privacy of our own home. Following Jesus has been diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship undertaken in the context of Christian community” (14).

Over and against this mode of church, Chris and John hope to begin a broad and possibly slow conversation, issuing “a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation, and an attentiveness to the world around us and the work God is doing in our very own neighborhoods” (16). They long to savor a conversation around the dinner table on how the church can be a “way of being authentically connected as coproducers to a Story that is as big as the planet (bigger) and as intimate as our own backyards” (20).

As they begin this important conversation, they frame it around three courses: The first course is ethics, giving preference to quality, how we embody Christ in our terrior. The second course is ecology, framed by the fact that God is in the process of reconciling all of creation, which means how we do things as a church is just as important as what we do. The final course is economy, understanding that God’s economy is based on superabundance and never scarcity.

Lest you think that their idea of Slow Church is simply a means to make church sound cool and hip to our culture, especially the middle and upper White Suburbia, enamored with all things local and slow, their vision of church is rooted in deep theological reflection. They reflect on such key themes as the drama of redemption, looking at how improve shapes our participation. Our God being a “remarkably patient yet radically immanent God” (24) is also foundational to Slow Church. They reflect deeply on humanity, not in some utopian way, but recognizing how deeply rebellious and sinful we all are, yet that we were created to move beyond this through the working of the Holy Spirit into deep rich fellowship and community. And finally, in everything they develop throughout the book, the authors continually remind us that the Christian life is first and foremost a deep joy in the resurrection life – “The primary work of Slow Church is not attracting people to our church buildings, but rather cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (33).

Much of their reflection is centered around ridding the church of its McDonaldization (drawing on the work of George Ritzer and John Drane). McDonalds is driven by efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. While none of these four are evil or sinful in and of themselves, they are, for the most part, antithetical to the ethics, ecology and economy of God’s Kingdom.

The reason we have succumbed to the idol of McDonalds is the fragmentation that we are all plagued with as a result of sin. We know in our heads: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19), but is this how we truly live? Do we, do I, truly believe that God is in the process of making not just us, but all of creation whole again? If I truly believe this and truly desire to live from this fact, then I am compelled to slow down, sit and stay for a while with messy, sinful people, which includes me. It means not fleeing from myself, not fleeing from others, and not fleeing from the place God has placed me for greener pastures elsewhere.

How do we start moving away from the McDonaldization that pervades so much of our culture and church? Unfortunately there are no “five easy steps.” What Smith and Pattison advocate is not just a completely different mindset, but a completely different soulset. A striving not after what the world values, but a striving to “receive one another, our neighbors and our place as gifts of God intended not for our private good as individuals or as a church but for God’s work of reconciliation in helping out place to heal and flourish” (189).

In other words, hospitality, breaking bread together, taking the time to savor what God is already doing in our midst and joining with Him as He seeks to inaugurate His Kingdom in our church and in our neighborhood.

Chris Smith and John Pattison “challenge you [me] to imagine what our common life would look like it were centered around (a) eating together at the table and (b) the slow, eucharistic conversation that convivial feasting encourages” (209).

That is the conversation I have tried to start here on this blog. But more importantly, that is the person I want to be and that is the church and community I want to be part of.

Hospitality Perverted

If hospitality, like I discussed in my previous post, is the creation of an open space to allow people the freedom to be who God created and intended them to be (most clearly seen and exhibited when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet), then what is its stark opposite?

Dare I say: Cannibalism?

In Homeric Greece, a civilized community is a place where “people produce grain to make their bread, where they have vineyards to make wine, orchards with apple and pear trees, pomegranates, figs and olives, and where well-planted gardens provide all sorts of fresh green vegetables throughout the year. Communities like this have meeting halls where the people come together for discussion and counsel” (Food: The History of Taste, 67). And hospitality was an act held in high regard; Zeus himself was considered the god of strangers; so much so that the common practice upon receiving a stranger was to first feed him and then, once fed, to ask questions about his history and business (The Hungry Soul, 102).

In his epic The Odyssey, Homer gives us a glimpse into what the antithesis to the idea of Greek hospitality looked like through Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclopes Polyphemus. As many know, the Cyclopes are one-eyed monsters. Because of the one eye, they lack any perspective, motivated solely by the here-and-now, enslaved to an unbridled, imbalanced appetite.

The Cyclopes are further described as “lawless brutes,” having “no meeting place for council, no laws either,” and “each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor” (The Odyssey, 9:120-128). Their land is unsown and unplowed, overgrown. They live in caves in complete isolation from one another, hating community and hospitality so much that they use huge boulders as doors. Polyphemus takes better care of his goats and sheep than other humans.

When Odysseus and his men finally face the Polyphemus, they beg him to treat them as was the custom, as Zeus had commanded. Polyphemus’ reaction to Odysseus’ request? Mocking Zeus and hospitality to the extent that he snatches up two of Odysseus’ men, “knocked them dead like pups—their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor—and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap, devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all!” (9:326-330)

They Cyclopes have such a distorted/twisted view of what it means to be human that they resort to devouring humans, leaving nothing behind. Humans are simply to be tossed aside while his goats and sheep deserve the utmost care and respect. As Leon Kass observes, “For him [Polyphemus], not nature or the divine, but ‘one’s-own-ness’ is supreme” (The Hungry Soul, 112). Kass continues, “One-eyed, without perspective, he is confused about what is truly near and far, about what is superficial and what goes deep, indeed, about that which is truly his own—the human soul and its openness to learning and loving” (112). Everyone that is only slightly different is a threat to who he has become, and therefore, must be destroyed, taken to the furthest extreme in cannibalism.

While no one might be practicing Polyphemus’ deeply perverted hospitality, I do wonder if there is not some sort of spiritual cannibalism we as sinful humans all struggle with? We may never resort to physical cannibalism, but do we spiritually cannibalize others who are different from us?

This spiritual cannibalism brought to mind Paul’s words to the church at Galatia: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed” (Galatians 5:15).

Life in the Spirit and becoming more and more like Christ is not an easy, straight-forward process. It is messy; it can be disorienting; it can raise a whole lot more questions than provide answers. Unfortunately our tendency is not to embrace said process but to look for shortcuts or easier means. Along the way we are tempted to think that these shortcuts are the means of sanctification and require others to adopt the same. If not, they can be ostracized from the community…devoured and destroyed…instead of “serving one another in love” (Galatians 5:14).

What am I doing that might be cannibalizing others? What practices/ideologies/theologies of the church might be cannibalistic in nature?

Hospitality and Being with Others

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love,” John 13:1.

So begins Jesus’ last night with his closest friends in which he washes their feet, shares Passover with them, inaugurates the Eucharist and gives them their marching orders for when he is gone.

What always astounds me about the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples is the very fact that Jesus decides to share it with his friends who are about to betray and desert him. Peter is there—the disciple who swears up and down that he will never, ever, in a million years betray Jesus. And we all know how that worked out for Peter. And yet Jesus still washes Peter’s feet and extends to him the bread and the cup.

But more astounding to me is the presence of Judas. The same Judas whom Satan had already convinced to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. And yet, Jesus, knowing all that was about to happen, still washes Judas’ feet and as far as I can tell extends the cup and bread to Judas.

I wonder how this passage can speak into our theology of personhood and hospitality. I wonder what this passage means for my theology of strangers, and even more so, my theology of enemies. Who are my enemies? What is my responsibility towards them? And bigger still what should the stance of the Church be towards those we disagree with?

I wonder when it comes to specifically the issue of homosexuality, which seems to be the issue for the Evangelical church right now, why is this passage never talked about? Shouldn’t the fact that Jesus washed Judas’ feet on the very night Judas betrayed him somehow inform what it means to be with others? And if so in what ways?

Jesus never excused sin; he actually upped the ante. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus redefined sin that makes me, and everyone I come in contact with, guilty of murder and adultery. When Jesus meets with the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, he calls out her behavior as sin. And when the woman caught in adultery later in the same gospel is alone with Jesus after all of her accusers have left, Jesus tells her, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

But what compels these women to leave their lives of sin is not judgment and rejection and a hard-line stance, but rather a radical, life-altering experience of love. They realize that, contrary to their culture, they are so much more than their sin, and that they are loved even in their sin.

What is so hard for me to wrap my heart around is that Jesus knew that Judas was not going to repent, and yet he still opened the door of hospitality to Judas till the very last minute. Till the very last minute Jesus was inviting Judas into love; Jesus never stopped inviting Judas into love.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen describes hospitality in this way:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are not alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. (pp. 71-72)

This view of hospitality is scary and raises more questions than answers, but we have to be okay with the questions instead of thinking everything is so cut and dry.

I really do not know what it means that Jesus washes Judas’ feet and Peter’s feet, but I at least want to ask the question. And I want to dialogue with others about what this means.