pre-flight safety instructions: how the church can uniquely respond to the cost of whiteness

a yellow-haired woman in a tight scarf is going through the pre-flight safety procedures from the front of our flight—“in the event that anything should happen,” a disembodied voice speaks over the intercom—while i watch and wonder, is anyone even paying attention? who, if anyone, is this helping?

soon, i’m no longer watching this stewardess unfold and fold a laminated pamphlet in the unconscious movements she’s made countless times before, but looking around at fellow passengers: asleep, reading, talking loudly to one another. i see only one woman who seems to be following along. but as soon as i spot her, eyes forward, she is soon flipping through a magazine.

what else happens right in front of us, i wonder, that we blindly allow to unfold before us?

• • •

returning home after speaking on reconciliation at a private Christian university in the midwest, the theme of whiteness is fresh in my mind. in particular, the way it exists largely unnoticed. one of the themes that arose during my visit is the fact that whites can choose to think about race or not.

“i’m always aware of the fact that i am a large black man when i enter a room,” demetrius (“Meech”) edwards, an oakland pastor shared with a group of students and church members in berkeley last fall. humor, meech shared, is a way to make sure others aren’t afraid of his body.

i realized then that I have never had to think about how to make sure others aren’t afraid of my body.

• • •

are there other processes playing out in front of our eyes that we intentionally don’t attend to? i wondered from this late afternoon flight. are there any parallels to the stewardess going through safety protocol, now wrapping a plastic tube around one fist and pulling down on a cup-shaped facemask with the other? what rituals, what processes, what people are we aware of but choosing to ignore?

growing up, i don’t remember thinking much about race. i spent my elementary through high school years in a small farm town, where dairy cows outnumber people 10-to-one and the lone, blinking stoplight is more of a luxury than a necessity. people of color were far and away the minority at my school.

one of the largest producers of raspberries in the world, our valley’s fertile soil was home to many hispanic migrant workers, though their children largely kept to themselves. in a high school of less than 500 students, there were fewer than five black students—three of whom were related—and only two indian students, who were siblings.

• • •

“there’s no such thing as ‘white,'” someone on the panel said at one point in our evening conversation at this Christian university. “it’s not real; it’s made up.”

i took her point. race, and especially whiteness, is a social construct, conceived for the systematic, preferential treatment of some over others. but to call whiteness “not real” was insufficient, and disrespectful to those who have felt its destructive reality.

less than a year earlier, minutes from where we were seated, philando castille was shot to death by a police officer inside his own car while reaching for his identification. the aftermath was famously live-streamed by his girlfriend, while his four-year-old daughter tried to console her from the backseat. rather than say whiteness is “not real,” i prefer ta-nehisi coates’s language: “she thinks she’s white.”

whiteness is an individual and communal mindset, voluntary or involuntary, with real effects. the worst of which is not a visible mob of white men carrying citronella tiki torches, but an invisible assumption of superiority that overlooks more insidious violence.

• • •

as a graduate student in durham, north carolina, public transit became a part of my daily life. when a bus route was introduced that stopped near our home, i was grateful to no longer ride my bike to and from campus, to no longer be the stinky guy in seminar.

taking the bus home one evening, i boarded alongside other backpack-clad students. so engrossed in my book that evening, i didn’t realize when i had boarded the wrong bus. when it stopped to unload passengers at a city bus station, and allow others to board before changing routes, i sill didn’t notice, head down in my book.

fifteen minutes into this new route, i looked up and realized i had no idea where I was. those on the bus no longer looked or sounded like me. they talked loudly, laughed loudly, and cussed openly. music played from somewhere on the bus at a high volume. the streets outside didn’t look like the streets i knew. i didn’t recognize any of the homes nor any of the stores.

with no social or geographic handholds to locate myself, i was completely disoriented. i suddenly felt i should act different—change my posture, maybe, change my tone when i speak up to ask the bus driver for help—so as not to stand out, but i didn’t know how. i also wondered if that would only make my presence more glaringly out of place.

reflecting on this experience, i began to wonder how many others feel the same way in what i might describe as “normal” situations: the classroom, worship, the grocery store.

• • •

our son was born in oakland a year and a half ago. a historically multi-ethnic and economically depressed city, oakland is becoming increasingly gentrified by the day—thanks, in large part, to the influx of tech employees spilling across the bay from san francisco. last i heard, oakland is now tied for the third most-expensive city to live in the united states.

what will it mean for our son to one day tell others that he was born in oakland?

growing up in an area where she is an ethnic minority, the lone white girl in her preschool, our daughter will be forced to think about race in a way that i never did—thank God.

as we are slowly becoming more aware of our own whiteness, my wife and i are thinking and talking about helpful ways to discuss this with her, attending classes at church, bringing it up in family conversation.

on a recent drive home we asked emma what Jesus looked like.

“i don’t know,” she said.

a fair enough answer.

“how about his hair,” i asked. “what color do you think Jesus’s hair is?”

“black,” she said.

my wife raised her eyebrows. potential good news.

“how about his skin,” she probed. “what color is Jesus’s skin?”

“white.”

that our then-four-year-old daughter thinks a middle-eastern, jewish man is white—without any effort on our part—reveals the power and prevalence of whiteness in shaping our collective imagination.

we’re not likely to always get it right, but fumbling our way is better than blindly pretending it doesn’t exist, or isn’t happening right in front of our eyes while we laugh, read, chat, or sleep.

• • •

“where are you finding hope on this topic?” dr. claudia may, associate professor of reconciliation studies at bethel university and the panel’s host, asked the six of us from our seats in the front of the lecture hall. i mentioned the fact that these conversations are beginning to happen in our churches and on our Christian university campuses as a sign of hope.

“i’m hesitant to beat the drum for progress, but i think we’re becoming aware of the fact that whiteness is costly,” i said. “not just to others, but to us, too. i don’t think we’re as aware of the ways that it’s costing us, which is why we need others to help us see.”

“one of the ways your privilege is costly to you,” rev. jim bear spoke up from his seat in the front of the room, “is that it has costed you your people.”

rev. jim bear pointed out the fact that when we were invited to share our stories at the start of the evening, all of us referred to our ancestors, but several of us referred to our family’s history as ‘they,’ rather than ‘we.’

“you’re separated from your people, your ancestors. ‘white’ is not a community.”

this is, i think, one of the great benefits the body of Christ can offer in our unique moment.

amidst what has been called a shame culture, where people cannot speak about deeply important matters like race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, and more without fear of being publicly shamed, the church can be a safe space for us to think and talk about the issues affecting not just some of us, but all of us, without fear.

only when we can talk freely and openly, with those whose experience has been unlike our own, will we will be able to begin to imagine how to move toward positive change. as the writer eula biss has put it, “if you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something.”

the church has the unique opportunity to be such a space: a diverse body of sisters and brothers of every color whose primary identity is not rooted in who we voted for. it’s a place where the starting assumption is that we’re imperfect, and so we do not have to be crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing. a place where we can offer loving correction where needed, as God works in and through us toward peace, justice, and reconciliation.

• • •

are there other processes, systems, and social realities carried out in front of our eyes in such banal ways as the stewardess’s pre-flight safety instructions that we choose to ignore or simply fail to see them?

there must be. but i cannot think of any at the moment, try as i might. most likely blind to them, i need a loving community that includes those whose position differs from my own to point them out for me.

not created for goodbyes: an imaginary conversation

“the way i see it,” lewis says from somewhere in the back of my mind. “you have two options.”

“either you love, but you remember that to love anything means your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”

“that’s right,” i say.

“or, if you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one.”

“sounds easier,” i say.

“well of course it would be easier,” lewis says, his voice now booming. “wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.”

“but in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

we sit silently for a moment in the wake his words, sit silently in the reality that they name.

“those are your two options, the way i see it,” lewis says. “but my bet is you already know you don’t want to live like that.”

i nod. but my heart is so tired of saying goodbye.

a surprise friendship

i’m sitting on a second-story patio in berkeley watching the sun go down over san francisco. the air gets cold in the sunset’s wake. i tuck my chin into the neck of my coat. tears warm my cheeks.

i’ve just said goodbye to a friend who wandered into my office several months earlier. far from home, sindre was preparing for a paper, struggling with community, and looking for some familiarity. so he wandered into church and asked for prayer.

“you’re braver than me,” i told him.

after several months of conversations—favorite musicians, writing, following the One we call Christ in berkeley, excitement and passion of falling for a classmate, stories of feeling like a foreigner in a strange land—we share a meal together before he leaves.

“hey man,” he says after saying goodbye. a few steps already down the sidewalk, i turn back.

“i love you.”

he boards a flight home to norway days later. i don’t know when, or if, i’ll see him again.

why’d You call me here, i ask, watching the sun go down over the city by myself. to give my heart away to so many who are bound to leave one day. seems like a cruel trick.

love my sheep, i hear.

“to love is to suffer,” dostoyevsky pipes up from somewhere, his words dressed in a thick, russian accent. “there can be no love otherwise.”

the other Voice nods a knowing nod.

where you’re supposed to be

“somehow i failed to realize how transient these relationships would be when i took the role of university minister,” i tell doug, an older pastor friend who served in my current role a decade and a half before me.

we’re sharing several plates of tacos, chips and salsa, and poutine in washington the next week.

“i hate it,” i tell doug. “i hate the goodbyes. i’ve been crying all week”

“that’s why you’re where you’re supposed to be,” he tells me. “if you weren’t, you’d be in the wrong role.”

“so take your time. get it all out. and then get back and get ready for another year.”

before leaving, i visit greenacre’s memorial park, to see my grandfather’s headstone for the first time. another goodbye—the hardest i’ve ever had to say.

christians never say goodbye

someone introduced me to sabrina shortly after the new year, after a church service in berkeley. this is something of a routine.

hearing that she’s a university student, someone introduces her to me. i do my best to be myself, while also telling her about what we do in university ministry, which is harder than it sounds.

she looked uninterested. i didn’t mind.

several months later we were meeting for coffee.

“this has been the hardest year of my life,” she shared. “and even though i believed in God before, it wasn’t until this moment that i prayed to Jesus for the first time.”

“i love You. i trust You.”

a month later, sabrina is baptized at the front of the same church. by the end of the week, she’s preparing to return to china, to reunite with her family after being away for seven years.

“if i go back,” she tells me, “i won’t be returning.”

at the end of a walk around berkeley’s campus on a warm june afternoon, i share with her a story.

“c. s. lewis was saying goodbye to a friend in oxford one afternoon, an american by the name of sheldon who was preparing to return home,” i tell sabrina, turning from telegraph avenue onto dana street.

“and after shaking hands, lewis says, ‘i shan’t say goodbye. we’ll meet again.'”

“‘besides, christians never say goodbye.'”

“that’s beautiful,” sabrina says. “so what do you say, then?”

“see you later. goodbye for now.”

back at church, we step into the elevator in silence.

“but it’s still tough,” i say. “the goodbyes we must say are still hard.”

she nods.

“see you later,” i say, a minute later.

memories are not people

“it’s still really difficult,” ignacio tells me when i ask how he manages to say goodbye to so many friends, year after year, teaching at oxford.

we’re seated around a table, a small group of friends, in c. s. lewis’s old dining room. after two years in oxford, it’s my last night in the country. i don’t know when i’ll return again. don’t know when or if i’ll see so many friends again.

“it’s still really difficult. not with everyone, of course, but with those who get into your heart.”

he pauses for a moment.

“it took me a couple of years to learn this, but memories are not people, ryan. when you realize that, you realize that life changes, but those people are still there, and that makes saying goodbye not nearly so difficult.”

not created for goodbyes

what i have felt most strongly lately is a desire to never have to say goodbye again.

“if i find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy,” lewis speaks up again.

like never wanting to say goodbye again, i think.

“the only logical explanation is that i was made for another world,” lewis says, finishing his thought.

“we were not created for goodbyes,” i say.

i do not think the christian vision of eternity is a reunion of family and friends on a celestial seashore. that’s too anthropological, too horizontal.

we will not spend eternity gazing at one another. we will not stand eye to eye, but shoulder to shoulder.

but i do have hope that the christian vision of eternity will mean no more goodbyes.

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (revelation 21.4).

our goodbyes are penultimate, not ultimate, is what lewis was trying to tell his friend sheldon. they’re not the final word, but the next-to-the-last word.

but they’re no less real for it.

two options

and what more shall i say? for time would fail me to tell of jenna, emily, and lucas, of so many afternoons sharing life under an oak tree on campus or over coffee in milano.

time would fail me to tell of christian and trevor and kelsey, and so many early mornings crammed into my office around scripture and bagels and coffee. of taylor and winnie and discussing relationships or calling over coffee or pancakes.

time would fail me to tell of bret and gary, the shared life, the heartache of goodbyes.

“the way i see it,” lewis speaks up again. “you have two options.”

i give a silent, serious nod. the truth of his words are now grounded in my experience.

“but you know you don’t want to live like that.”

an open letter to my wife on calling

a few months ago, i was asked to speak to a group of mothers on calling. i’ve never thought about how to speak to moms on this topic, and i realized the person i should start with is my wife. so i wrote this letter to jen and read it aloud to introduce my talk. i’m sharing it here in hopes that it stirs up some helpful conversation where it’s desperately needed.

hey hun,

so i’m giving this talk to a group of moms on calling, as you know, and i’m realizing i have not actually given much thought to how i would explain calling to you—even though you’ve heard me speak on calling, you’ve read my writing on this topic. how I tend to think and talk and write about calling, I am realizing, has largely been for myself, not you.

i’m slowly realizing that so much of the way that i think, write, and talk about calling has more to do with me—my giftings, my passions, my hopes, my dreams—and less to do with you. in my most fearful moments, i worry that i’ve masqueraded my hopes, ambitions, and aspirations as God’s call—the ultimate trump card. i realize now, having been asked to speak to this group of moms, that the way i think about calling has not always served you well.

i’m sorry for that, hun.

i realize also that i’ve written and even taught others in a way that has, if not explicitly, at least implicitly suggested that God calls me more than God calls you—or at least that God’s call on my life is more important than on your life. for that, i’m deeply sorry, hun. if God calls either one of us to anything, God most certainly calls you just as much as me.

i’m sorry for not doing a better job of giving you time and space and voice to follow God’s Voice, even as i have been so caught up in the work of listening to God’s call on my life, and helping others do the same for their life. i’m sorry for living in such a way that has most likely led you to feel as though if God is calling out to you it’s somehow less important than God’s call on my life.

my heart aches to think that i have, unintentionally, given you a picture of a God who cares more about my life than yours.

i hope that this opportunity to speak on calling with other moms will challenge me–and not just this once, but continue to challenge me to think about how God is calling out uniquely to you, how i might give more space to encourage you to listen to this call, and then encourage you to live faithfully into that call.

thanks for believing in this crazy call on our lives all those years ago, hun. thanks for continuing to believe in me, even when i struggled to believe in myself. i could not do this without you even for a day.

yours for always,

ryan

c.m. “bud” kinsey: a life remembered

the following are my reflections on my grandfather’s life–a man who shaped my life more than anyone else–offered as the eulogy at his memorial service on january 5, 2017.

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good afternoon, my name is ryan pemberton, and i’m “bud” kinsey’s grandson. on behalf of our entire family, thank you for joining us to celebrate and remember his life.

some of you here will know that i have a deep appreciation for the writing of english author c. s. lewis, perhaps most well known for his chronicles of narnia series. lewis begins one of the books in his beloved narnia series with this line: “there was a boy called eustace clarence scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

we’re gathered here today to remember a man named clell manardy kinsey, though he didn’t deserve it. which is at least partly why people called him “bud” most his life.

family members and bank tellers, waitresses and co-workers alike all called my grandfather, “bud,” and they meant it. they called him “bud” because, like eustace clarence scrubb, he deserved it.

 

i. bud’s life

clell manardy kinsey was born in st. george, south carolina on september 23rd, 1930, to weldon poozer kinsey and his wife, cornelia alice kinsey. no offense to any mothers in the room, but my grandfather would want you all to know that he grew up with the best mom in the whole world.

 

catching dinner

number 10 in a family of 12 children, my grandfather was born in the south in the dustbowl era: one of the most financially fraught periods in our nation’s modern history, which explains why I—and so many of our family members—grew up with grandpa’s well worn phrase: “i’d rather you have too much than not enough.”

my grandfather grew up learning how to catch dinner for his family: rabbits, fish. setting rabbit traps with grandpa was something my cousins and i grew up doing for fun; for my grandpa, as a young boy, it was a matter of having dinner or not.

he once told me a story about flipping a coin with his brothers at the start of the day to decide whether they’d go to school or go fishing. when the coin landed straight up and down in the sand, the choice was easy: fishing it was.

 

mechanics, engineering, and football

my grandfather earned only one “a” in school, and that in woodworking, which surprised me to learn as an adult, given that he was the one who most motivated my academic achievements.

where he excelled was working with his hands: my grandfather was a lay engineer and a skilled mechanic. he never met a pile of tarps and rope he didn’t like: creating the most intricate tarp system you ever saw over his back deck each winter.

in his last days, even when he could no longer speak, and could only barely move, i watched my grandfather slowly and patiently weave his hospital bed remote control through his bed’s metal bars, preventing the remote’s cord from getting caught when the bed was raised or lowered, and leaving the remote precisely at hand level.

he also excelled on the football field: though his mother initially refused to let my grandpa turn out for the team—worried that he’d get hurt—when she later heard just how good he was, she gave in.

 

military years

after high school, and in the wake of world war II, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. army, trained at fort bliss in el paso, tx and fort lewis in washington state, and then served with an artillery unit for one term, before returning home.

after a couple years at home, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. air force, attending training school for auto and engine mechanics, construction equipment repair, metallurgy, welding, and leadership. “be a leader, never a follower,” he used to say.

my grandfather served our nation for decades, domestically and abroad, working as a mechanic and later as a site superintendent in his final years of service.

 

marriage & kids

along the way, he met a striking young woman named phillis at a swimming hole near richland, washington, who he married in late september of 1952. the couple had four children: laurie, michael, karen, and barb.

as a family, they traveled the world. my grandfather was stationed in salzburg, austria just after they were married, and 10 years before “the sound of music” was filmed there. their family later spent time in florida, washington state, okinawa, kansas, and wyoming, even while my grandfather was stationed elsewhere at times.

never one to talk much about his days in vietnam, his time there haunted his dreams for years to come.

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grateful for where i stand

my grandfather once told me a story about waking up one morning when he was serving with the red horse combat civil engineering unit. he and his friend mac decided to move tents that day, for no reason beyond a gut feeling.

that night a rocket hit the tent next to where they had been sleeping.

“there were holes all over ours,” he told me. “that was just another time i could have been gone. every night I pray to our God through the Lord Jesus Christ thanking Him for where i stand.”

he retired from the military in 1970 as a master sergeant.

 

value of a hard day’s work

my grandfather was one of the hardest working men i’ve ever met.

after serving in the military for more than two decades, he moved his family back to washington state, where he would work at arco’s cherry point refinery in ferndale as a welder, before finally retiring from there, too.

he taught me, and so many of my cousins, the value of putting in a good, long day’s worth of hard work, even though he was retired for as long as I can remember. he always stayed busy, always had projects going on around his house: repairing his pool, the deck, working in the yard, or tending to his garden.

one of my most lasting pictures I have of my grandfather is of him in a pair of sun-bleached swim trunks, smelling of coppertone sunscreen, working barefoot in his backyard.

 

serving others

Like a good writer, my grandfather showed, rather than told me, the importance of serving others. in his retirement years, i watched and even at times joined alongside him as he volunteered for a number of organizations: the local children’s museum, meals on wheels, and elsewhere.

 

a series of boxers

when his youngest was in high school, my grandfather and grandmother divorced. he later remarried, sharon, a mail deliverer with the u.s. postal service, who had several children of her own—debbi, katrina, and george—expanding his already large family, and giving even more people the opportunity to benefit from knowing him intimately.

my grandfather and sharon took in and loved a series of dogs—all boxers. clell, bucket, and fancy were a few of those fortunate enough to have my grandfather as their owner: waking when he awoke, staying up late listening to old country music together, singing and playing the harmonica, and napping when he laid down on the couch to “think,” as he used to call it.

 

II. to know bud

2439 moore st.

for several decades, my grandfather lived in the home at the southwest corner of moore and alabama street in bellingham: “2439 moore street,” as he taught me to recite as a young boy, in case I ever needed it.

with a lawn that was always immaculately kept and where for many years a tall, leafy willow tree stood to greet guests, my grandfather’s house was home to countless family barbeques, pool parties with friends, watching the fireworks over bellingham bay on the fourth of july, crab feeds, low country boils, and more.

my grandfather regularly could be found cooking in his den for family and whomever they wanted to bring along. when the food was ready, he’d get one of the children to ring the dinner bell and shout, “beans are ready!”, regardless of whether beans were actually being served.

 

loved a cigar

some of us remember the rich smell of pipe tobacco grandpa used to smoke from his recliner in the corner of his living room at the end of the day. but mostly it was cigars for grandpa.

that man loved a cigar.

in fact, it’s not easy to find a photo of him without one. and he loved to share, as you’ll likely notice in the slideshow later.

 

looked sharp

though he was never showy, my grandfather always took care with his appearance. he (not so secretly) dyed his hair on occasion in old age, and he made sure it was brushed before bed each night to the very end.

my grandfather was one of those rare types who was well dressed without being materialistic.

“let’s go to kmart and check out the latest fashions,” he’d say to me as a young boy. or fred meyer. or sears, while picking up a new bandsaw blade.

i never realized the humor in that until I wrote that line.

 

masterful storyteller

my grandfather was hands down one of the most creative people i have ever met. and he was a masterful storyteller.

if you never heard the one about finding his boxer, clell, cleverly disguised as a gambler at the nooksack casino, you’d better ask somebody.

 

a humor beyond quirky

but perhaps one of his greatest traits was his sense of humor. “quirky” doesn’t quite do it justice.

when the magic eye pictures were at the height of their popularity—those images you had to focus your eyes on just so in order to see a three-dimensional ship, eagle, or some other discovery—my grandfather installed a series of framed, fake magic eye images in his living room: tall, narrow pieces of felt with a bronze title underneath.

in the late 1990s, my grandfather, my cousin alvin and I took over sole ownership of the alphabet. let that sink in for a minute. there’s a faded, framed certificate, which we had made up at kinko’s, on his refrigerator to this day to prove the fact.

always one for a practical joke: memories of the fast cat, hitting a ping pong ball over the house, and more still bring a laugh to our family and friends.

but of all the jokes he made and played, so far as I can remember, my grandfather never made others feel bad, which is the best kind of humor.

 

nicknames 

he used to love to give nicknames: rip, mo, spider, doc whistler, broken ukulele, little hammer, and countless others that he created from scratch for those he loved.

like many things with my grandfather’s sense of humor, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

 

finding a keeper

the first time my now-wife jen stopped by my grandpa’s house without me, some fifteen years ago, she had my brother and sister with her.

as he often did when people dropped in, my grandpa asked if they’d like something to eat. when they said sure, he made them grilled cheese sandwiches with peanut butter.

jen finished hers and complimented the chef on his culinary creativity. later that day he phoned to tell me that i had found myself a keeper.

 

electric grin

my grandfather loved a good joke, and he had an electric grin that lit up his entire face and made you want to share any good joke you knew with him just to get a peek at it.

ask any waitress at denny’s in town or any teller at us bank; his was the smile against which all other smiles will be forever measured.

 

inventive euphemisms

bud kinsey never met a euphemism he didn’t like. and when one wasn’t readily available that suited his purposes, he’d invent one.

stamp, thinking, billy jar, and so many others served as code words for spotting an attractive woman, taking a nap, and the makeshift urinal he kept in his car for emergencies.

 

proudest achievement

but of all his efforts, it was bud kinsey’s family that he was most proud. you couldn’t make it far inside his home without coming face-to-face with framed certificates and newspaper clippings of his family’s accomplishments decorating his walls.

with four children of his own, and countless grandchildren and great grandchildren, someone was always stopping into 2439 moore street, just to say hello—and they would always be greeted the same way: with an open door, a smile, and, if they were young enough, an invitation to check out the “goody drawer.”

like my cousin bj recently wrote for my grandfather’s obituary, bud kinsey was a magical man who pulled candy from his twinkling ceiling.

it’s just what he did.

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not sensational; quietly exceptional

My grandfather was not a sensational man: he was not gregarious, he preferred not to be the center of attention.

but he was a quietly exceptional man, leaving an immeasurable impact on so many of our lives with his consistent, diligent, intentional, creative love.

not sensational, but quietly exceptional. that’s my grandfather.

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III. remember your stories

and he was always teaching me, he was always teaching all of us. he still is.

remember your stories, that’s what so much of grandpa’s life taught me. remember your stories, and tell them to one another.

write down your stories, grandpa says. It doesn’t have to be anything special, just tell me about your day. tell me about waking up. tell me about going to sleep.

tell me about seeing your children for the first time. tell me about seeing your children after a long day.

tell me about your life.

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remembering a moment for a lifetime

tell me about coring a watermelon and filling it with chocolate pudding. tell me about helping a bunch of young cousins remember a moment for a lifetime.

tell me about sitting in a circle on the kitchen’s linoleum floor, using a toothpick to punch a pin-sized hole in an egg, and taking turns sucking the yoke out.

“put some salt on it,” grandpa says.

tell me about smelling the salty bay air before the sun has risen, about sliding your fingers between a crab’s claws and shell and yanking until it’s insides become its outsides, and then staring in shock as its big pincher grabs the skin between your thumb and pointer finger.

“it’s making friends with you,” grandpa says.

tell me about your friends. tell me about the time you had your friends over for a pool party and your grandpa served everyone blue-dyed corn on the cob.

“why’s the corn blue,” your friends ask.

“because that’s just my grandpa,” you say with a shrug.

as I said, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

because he was trying his best to help you remember your life.

 

remember me

like our experiences and stories about grandpa—some of them are shared, and some of them are unique to each one of us—there’s a story about Jesus found only in luke’s gospel; it’s a story about remembering.

it comes from the very end of Jesus’ life.

luke tells us that when Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state, he was hung up on a cross between two convicted criminals, one on his left, the other on his right (luke 23).

we’re told that one of the criminals, in his pain and anger, began to ridicule Jesus.

“are you not the Messiah?” he asked, sarcastically. “save yourself, and us!” (23:39).

but the other criminal, in just as much pain, surprisingly sticks up for Jesus.

“do you not fear God?” he asks his fellow convict. “we have been condemned justly, but this man has done nothing wrong” (v.40-41).

and then he turns to Jesus with what is, perhaps, the most human request: “remember me,” he says.

“jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (23:42).

“Remember me,” the thief on the cross with a whole lifetime behind him says, a lifetime he cannot change. cannot correct. cannot redeem.

and yet, he has the gall to say, “remember me.” my God, remember me.

it is, of course, the same thing grandpa was always telling us: remember. remember me. remember who you are.

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stay afloat

i was reading with the window open one spring afternoon when a cottonwood tree seedling, what grandpa used to call “cottonballs,” came floating through my window and landed on my book.

seated there, i heard my grandpa’s words: “when the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when you know we can open the pool.”

smells of coppertone sunscreen, working on projects around the house, napping on the couch (or “thinking,” as he put it), and so many other memories suddenly flood my thoughts.

“i’m going to teach you how to float on your back,” grandpa says to me from the deep end of the pool in his backyard one hot august day as a young boy. “so that way if you’re ever stranded or in trouble, you can keep yourself afloat until help comes.”

“you can keep afloat this way as long as you need to,” he told me.

but you’ve got to remember.

 

“when you remember me,” frederick buechner writes, “it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that i have left some mark of who i am on who you are.

“it means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us.”

“it means that if we meet again, you will know me.”

“it means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

 

“remember,” grandpa told us, so long and so often that we nearly tired of hearing it, each year when our stories would be due for the annual chili cook-off memory books.

“remember,” grandpa used to say, and keeps saying still in our minds and hearts.

remember your stories, he’d say.

“remember me,” i hear him saying now.

remember me until the tears fall like rain, rain that falls so hard on a tin roof that it sounds like bacon crackling and spitting on a skillet, as my grandpa used to imagine as a young boy just hoping there’d be breakfast to eat when he awoke.

remember me until the tears fall like a storm you think might never pass, remember me until you can barely breathe because your throat is so tight.

and then keep remembering.

and then, well then you’re free to do with your memories as you like, to keep them to yourself or to share them.

i must share mine. i am called to remember and to point. but you can keep yours if you like.

tell me about your day, or maybe tell yourself, if you’re likely to let it pass you by otherwise. but you must remember.

 

“i have thought sometimes that the Lord must hold the whole of our lives in memory, so to speak,” marilynne robinson writes. “of course He does.”

“remember me,” the strung up thief says at the end of his days. and Jesus says, “don’t worry, I will. today you will join me in paradise.” (luke 27:43).

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Lord Jesus, i thank you that you remember us and our loved ones when we are tempted to forget. i thank you that you remember us into eternity, into peace, that you remember us home.

thank you, Lord, for the gift of bud kinsey, a legendary man who we were gifted to know all these years, and who remains with us through our memories in his absence. be the comfort for our tears, I pray; be good to our father, grandfather, great grandfather, and friend; and help us to always remember.

in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

how to speak of God’s love?

the following is the final message given to a gathering of university students in berkeley, california in a semester-long study of Jesus’ response to the question: what’s the most important commandment? (mark 12:28-31)

so to wrap up our series on love, i want to shift our focus from our love of God, love of others, and love of ourself to God’s love for us. after all that we have been talking about this semester, we can be left thinking the most important thing is our love, but i want to flip that tonight.

the yale theologian miroslav volf puts it this way:

“in the minds of most people, christianity is supposed to be about love of God and neighbor, even though…at the heart of christianity does not lie human love at all, but God’s love for humanity.”

the most important love is not ours, according to Christian tradition, but God’s love for us.

but here’s the thing: it’s tough to talk about God’s love.

how do we speak about God’s love that’s not met with an immediate eye roll? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that’s not reduced to sentimentality?

or, perhaps even more importantly, how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t ignore the incredible suffering in the world? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t give the impression that we live in complete ignorance of the world happening all around us?

as the peruvian priest and theologian gustavo gutierrez has asked, how do we say to the poor, to those with no rights, “God loves you”?

the first thing i did when i woke up this morning, even before getting out of bed, was check a facebook alert on my phone—which is never a good idea. and i noticed a news story a friend of mine shared that made me want to stay in bed all day.

the story was about a massive international child pornography sting involving the arrest of 348 adults and the rescue of nearly 400 children. those involved in stopping the multi-million dollar international operation said that they had never seen anything like it before, in terms of the sheer quantity of video confiscated and the horrific nature of the acts carried out against these children.

perhaps most tragic among the findings was that among those arrested were 40 school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, six police officers, three foster parents, and nine pastors and priests.

this was the first thing i read this morning, knowing i would be speaking on this topic tonight.

how do you possibly speak about God’s love in light of this news?

i want to try to speak to that point tonight by putting a finger on three characteristics of God’s love: God’s pursuing love, God’s freeing love, and God’s costly love.

but before I get into those, let’s pause and pray.

gracious God, i thank you for this time and this space where you bring us together each wednesday, away from the busyness of our day and week, so that we might meet with you and with one another and maybe even with ourself for the first time.

 

Lord, I recognize the incredibly fragile nature of speaking on your love in a world that is so full of deep suffering, pain, and anger. and yet, your word is clear that you are not simply a loving God, but that you are Love—even when we struggle to see it.

 

i ask that you would work through these, my words to reveal how your love has been at work in the world, and is still at work in the world, even now. it is with hope in your Son that we pray, amen.

God’s pursuing love

you may have noticed in tonight’s scripture readings that we’re jumping all over the bible. the first reading was from a prophet in ancient israel, found in the old testament book hosea. the second passage was a powerful story from Jesus’ life, found in john’s Gospel. and the third and last passage was from a letter to the early church in a city called ephesus, reflecting on Jesus’ life.

and my hope for tonight is to show how God’s love is a thread running throughout the entire biblical narrative, connecting the old and new testaments.

so to start, as quickly as possible i want to speak on how ancient israel understood God’s love. and in order to do so, i need to speak on a few key ideas: creation, fall, and covenant.

according to ancient israel’s traditionall those stories that would have been passed down from generation to generationGod created humanity to live in a right, loving relationship with God and all of creation. but humanity used its freedom to turn away from that relationship, and that led to all of the broken, challenging life that humanity has known ever since.

israel understood its distance from God as the source of its deepest longings, pains, and struggles. this broken relationship with God feels like endless struggle, rather than ease of life. it feels like craving something that nothing will ever satisfy. it feels like loneliness.

a writer i’ve shared with you here before by the name of david foster wallace, who was not a christian but who was deeply in touch with the human condition, described our struggle this way:

“We’re all lonely for something we don’t we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”

 

this is a contemporary, north american, well educated white man explaining our modern experience, but it fits with how israel explained their struggles, too. this is what it feels like to live at a distance from our Creator, they’d say. that’s our condition. that’s the creation and fall story, and it accounts for pretty much everything that’s happened since.

not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but pretty much the rest of the old testament books tell the story of God trying to repair this relationship with humanity. God does that by pursuing a particular people, called israel, and entering into a relationship with them, a relationship that had stipulations attached to it.

God’s relationship with israel was called a covenantal relationship because God had certain expectations of what it looks like for israel to be in right relationship with their Creator. God committing Godself to israel placed certain obligations on israel.

and the truth is, this is how committed relationships work, or else they break down.

most of you know that i’m in a committed relationship with jen, my wife of 10 years, and you would not be surprised if i tell you that this relationship places certain obligations on me. my being in a married relationship with my wife means i don’t get to be intimate with anyone i want. because she has committed to being physically intimate with me, and only me, and she rightly expects the same from me in return.

the same is true when it comes to God’s commitment to israel. when God said, I’m going to love you uniquely, God asked israel to do the same in return.

no longer will you look to other nations’ kings for security, or other nations’ gods to fulfill that loneliness, that void that you feel, God told israel. only I can do that.

so when God and israel have a d.t.r. moment, God gave israel certain rules for their relationship. and here’s the interesting thing about those rules: God told israel that if they lived into those relationship commitments well, things would go well for them. their entire life would be restored, they would flourish.

they called this restoration shalom. you’ve probably heard the word shalom, often translated as “peace.” but it’s more than that. the word shalom paints a portrait of complete restoration. its peace in the fullest, most holistic sense.

and, interestingly, israel is told that God would use their relationship not just to restore this particular people, but to reconcile all of creation to Godself again.

but if you’ve read any of the old testament, you will likely know that basically most of the stories are of israel failing to live into this relationship well. they’re constantly distracted by other desires, other relationships. constantly turning away from the God who reached out to them in love, and turning instead to foreign political rulers in their fears and insecurities, or turning to other foreign gods.

and time and time again, what we read is the story of God: getting angry at israel’s infidelity, and then getting jealous. which is just as it should be, by the way. anger and jealousy is the normal response for infidelity, in any committed relationship.

if i was unfaithful to my wife, if i turned to someone other than her for my most intimate needs and fulfillment, she would rightly be angry and jealous. if she wasn’t, that would reveal that something was wrong with our relationship. you would have reason to question not only my love for herbut whether she really loved me, too.

the same is true for God’s relationship with israel. God genuinely loved this people, genuinely wants to be reconciled to all of God’s creation, which explains the anger and jealousy we find throughout the old testament.

but then something interesting happens…

after God’s anger and jealousy subsides, God returns to israel, and recommits to their relationship. what we find in the old testament is a God who pursues His unfaithful lover with reckless abandon, over and over again.

it’s as though God cannot help Himself.

which brings us to the passage read for us from hosea. after israel has once again turned away from God for other lovers, the prophet hosea gives us a picture of God turning back to his unfaithful lover.

after washing and cleansing israel from her relationship with these other lovers, hosea gives his people a picture of God and israel returning to the honeymoon stage of their relationship, and his bride singing to God as she used to.

and then I’ll marry you for good—forever,” God tells israel. “I’ll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go.”

God’s love, as we see it in the old testament, is that of a God who pursues His unfaithful bride over and over and over again, with reckless abandon.

this is also an image that appears throughout the new testament—think of the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and leaves the 99 behind to go after that one.

and this God who pursues His creation in love is a story that shows up in so many people’s lives.

last week i shared a song from a favorite singer of mine, andrew belle. i mentioned the fact that he became a christian after he already had success in his music and the affect that had on his work, especially lyrically.

he said this in a recent interview:

“i can’t really pinpoint when i became a christian, but all i know is that in 2010 i had one of those existential crises. life blowing up times… stuff was going badly. i just realized that i was living on a trajectory of life… and i didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore.”

 

“really for the first time, i actually felt like I realized, ‘wow, i’m really a despicable person at the core of me. there’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.”

the track i played for you last week comes from his album, “black bear.” the title refers to belle’s experience of being pursued by God.

“flannery o’conner describe Jesus as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. in my head, I pictured a ragged bear—a black bear—just kind of disheveled and not attractive.”

 

“[black bear] is the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.”

many others have described their own conversions similarly, as being pursued by God, including c. s. lewis. as a 30-something oxford university lecturer and ardent atheist, lewis refers to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of england,” wanting to be left alone, who was pursued by God, and who finally gave in.

so many others describe their own experience with God in this same way. God’s love is not one we must find; it is a love that pursues and finds us.

which brings us to the new testament and our second point.

God’s freeing love

when God’s love finds us, it doesn’t leave us as we are. God’s love affects us.

over and over again in Scripture, God’s relationship with humanity is that of a freeing love. in the new testament, God shows up in the flesh and bone Person of Jesus, constantly freeing people…

…from the guilt and shame and the voices that tell them they cannot go out in public.

…from skin diseases that put them at a distance from others.

…from being a slave to the law, rather than understanding the law as a gift and means to peace, restoration, and life in a full sense.

…from self destructive behavior, and from so many other chains.

and the scene that was read for us from john’s gospel is an instance of God’s freeing love, but not how we initially expect.

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woman caught in adultery, by sebastiano conca (1741).

to get a good picture of what’s going on here, listen closely to this story. picture it. we’re told that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” caught “red handed,” we might say. which means she’s not likely well dressed or covered up.

and then she’s brought to where Jesus is teaching in the temple by religious leaders. she is completely shamed, with no opportunity to hide herself or take shelter from these men.

and she’s brought to Jesus, we’re told, in order to tempt Jesus.

“moses, in the law, gives orders to stone such persons,” they say to Jesus. “What do you say?”

their question isn’t actually about this woman; this is about Jesus.

what’s he going to do? they wonder. how will he respond?

this woman is used as an instrument for Jesus’ capture. surely Jesus sees that. but this woman, most likely, doesn’t realize it.

she only sees her shame, guilt, and her fear for her life. because she knows that these men, if they choose, have precedent to pick up stones and heave them at her until her life is taken from her.

with her heart racing, her mind racing, her fear through the roof, she, too, is wondering: what’s he going to say? what’s he going to do?

and then, in a turn of events that no one sees coming, Jesus bends down and uses His finger to write in the dirt. and we’re told not what He writes, but that when He straightens up, He asks whoever is present and who is without sin to go ahead and throw the first stone. and then he bends down again and keeps writing.

and all of the men there, with their stones in hand, begin to turn and walk away, starting with the oldest.

“woman, where are they?” Jesus asks when he stands. “is there no one here left to condemn you?”

“no one,” she says. and you can just imagine her relief.

this woman had pictured herself as the target of so many heavy stones heaved until she could no longer stand. but now, now she’s free.

and notice: Jesus doesn’t tell her to enjoy her freedom by doing whatever makes her happy so long as it doesn’t intrude on someone else’s happiness—which is largely what we’re told today, right?

instead, Jesus says: “neither do I [condemn you]. go on your way. but from now on, don’t sin.”

which is to say, don’t keep living into those ways of life that threatened to take your life.

Jesus looks at this woman and says, in so many words:

“I know you. I know all about you…

 

I know you don’t like what you do, don’t like the fear and hiding that come from it—even though you keep doing it, even at risk of your own life.

 

don’t keep doing that.

 

know that I love you more than you dislike what you do. you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”

and what i hope you see is that this woman is israel in all of the old testament stories of an unfaithful lover. we are this woman. i am this woman.

in search of love and fulfillment, but looking in all the wrong places. turning away from my true love to lesser loves. condemned by so many voices telling me i don’t deserve to be loved.

and Jesus’ says, accept the gift of true life and love I’ve come to give you.

Jesus’ love doesn’t let us remain as we are. He frees us to live life in the fullest sense. He changes us, from the inside out, and then sends us out to share that life with others.

but here’s the brilliance of what Jesus does here. He doesn’t just set this woman free from her accusers. do you see that? He also frees her accusers. from their self righteousness. and from the torment of stoning this woman to death, an act that would have likely stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Jesus frees not just the accused, but the accusers, too. God’s love means freedom for all.

Costly love

God’s love is not just a love that pursues and frees humanity, it is also costly love. and it’s costly because it’s always costly to be in relationship with others.

the russian novelist fyodor dostoyevsky put it this way:

“to love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”

similarly, the author susan sonntag writes:

“it hurts to love. it’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

it hurts to love, to be in intimate relationship with others, because doing so requires vulnerability. and once you’re vulnerable, it’s only a matter of time until you’re hurt.

it’s true for humans in relationship, and once God entered into human relationships, it was true for God, too.

God’s love is costly because it required God’s vulnerability with us.

the german theologian dietrich bonhoeffer said that once God became human, either humanity had to die to itself, or God had to die. and of course we didn’t want to die, so God had to.

there’s a film from the early 1990s called the fisher king that’s set in modern day manhattan. in it, robin williams plays a mysterious, homeless, holy fool figure by the name of perry. it is unclear whether perry is brilliant or crazy.

in one scene, perry is walking with a woman named lydia after their dinner date. walking side-by-side down a quiet sidewalk, lydia insists that he doesn’t have to bother with all the compliments.

“it’s old fashioned,” she tells him. “given what we’re about to do.”

innocently, perry asks what they’re about to do.

lydia explains that they’ll both likely go up to her apartment for coffee, when perry interrupts her to mention that he doesn’t drink coffee. lost in her own thoughts, lydia doesn’t seem to hear him. she goes on to say that, once in her apartment, they’ll talk and get comfortable, have a drink, and then he will most likely sleep over.

and when they wake up the next morning, she insists that he will be distant. he won’t be able to stay for breakfast, except maybe coffee (he points out again that he doesn’t drink coffee, but she doesn’t hear it). then they’ll exchange numbers and he’ll leave and never call.

with a sigh, lydia explains that she will go to work and that, for the first hour or so, she will feel great. but then, she tells him, ever so slowly she will turn into a piece of dirt.

and when she has finished saying all of this, she pauses. reflecting on this scene that she’s just painted, lydia is silent. when she finally speaks up, lydia thanks perry for the great night and she runs off down the sidewalk.

perry is left standing by himself on the sidewalk wondering what has just happened. a second later, he chases after her.

and when he finally reaches her, lydia picks up right where she left off: going on about needing to end things before they go any further, until he finally has to interrupt her.

“please, would you just shut up for a minute?!”

“no, please stop… i’m not coming up to your apartment. that was never my intention… i don’t want just one night. i’m in love with you.”

lydia stares at perry like he’s lost it. unfazed, he continues.

“and not just from tonight. i’ve known you for a long time. i know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again.

 

i walk with you to lunch and i know if it’s a good day, if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstore. i know what you order, and i know that on wednesdays you go to that dim sum parlor and i know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work.

 

and i know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and i know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…

 

i love you… …i love you… and i think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and i would be knocked out several times if i could just have that first kiss.

 

and i won’t, i won’t be distant. i’ll come back in the morning and i’ll call ya if you let me… but i still don’t drink coffee.”

“you’re real,” lydia asks, “aren’t you?”

Jesus’ love is like this holy fool’s love, who knows this woman in all of her odd idiosyncrasies, in all of her self doubt and shame, and who says he would be knocked out several times just to show her his love.

i mentioned before that those who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus weren’t really there to condemn the woman; they were there to condemn Jesus.

the stones they brought were really for Jesus, and the thing about those who throw stones is that it’s only a matter of time before they return. in the end, they came with more powerful stones: the force of Rome and the threat of crucifixion, if Jesus didn’t back down.

and of course He didn’t back down. nor did He overpower them.

He continued to pursue us in love and the Father in obedience, and it cost Jesus His life.

“I would be knocked out several times to show you my love…”

but, surprisingly, from the darkest of days following Jesus’ death, christians came to find that His death wasn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.

to their amazement, the earliest disciples found that the Father honored Jesus’ love and obedience by bringing Him back to life—and the promise they received from Jesus was that they and we, too, might find life in His life.

Jesus’ love is a costly love, but it means life from death. and not just after we die, but life from the kind of life that’s more properly described as death.

so that brings us back to where we started: how can we speak of God’s love in the midst of so much senseless suffering?

God’s love means that we in no way minimize or try to explain away the suffering in our world, the suffering in our life.

God doesn’t ignore our suffering, nor does God seem primarily concerned with explaining it. instead, God enters into our suffering, shares it, and redeems it—all of it, somehow.

to quote dostoyevsky again:

“i believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for…in the world’s finale, [that] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

for christians, we believe the suffering in this world is not the result of evil in an abstract sense, out there, but that it is inside of us, right here.

and in love, God pursues us and frees us from that evil and from certain death—death we feel, and from which we think there is no way out. and God does so at great cost to Himself.

and then, when we are freed from death to life, God calls us to go out and live in this new way of life so that others, too, might catch this life, like a good infection.

focus-christmas-caroling-dec-2016

“be kind to on another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” paul writes to the early church in the city of ephesus, read for us earlier.

“be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

rather than destroy the darkness inside us—the darkness that threatens to destroy us from the inside out, like cancer—Jesus touches and heals this darkness. and then He calls us to go out and be a light in the dark that remains, so that one day there will be no more dark, only the full light of His life, radiating throughout all of God’s creation.

our scandalous hope: reflections on the 2016 election

the following are the impromptu reflections i offered to the students of focus (fellowship of college and university students, the university ministry of first presbyterian church of berkeley) the day after the election results were announced.

something happened this morning that has never happened to me since moving to the bay area just over a year ago. on my way out the door, i turned to jen and said, “i wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”

it’s not that i don’t want to be here with you—worshipping and praying with you all is exactly what i wanted and needed. but the responsibility of speaking into this moment was not something i felt i had the energy nor the expertise for. to be honest, i didn’t feel i had anything edifying to offer.

i broke down crying several times today: at home, at the gym, in my office. and yet, i recognize that speaking to you all, when things are tough as well as when things are great, is my job.

so i spent much of the day in prayer and reading. what I have to say to you is, in large part, what i need to hear myself.

also, i feel like i should tell you that i had another message i was planning on giving tonight, but i felt like it would be inappropriate. this reflection will be unusually brief and less polished than normal. i apologize. but i hope it’s helpful.

lastly, i want to be honest about the political and theological diversity in the room. one reason i love this group so much is that we’re not all alike! this is the church—you all are the church—not an affinity group. so i don’t want to assume that we all voted alike.

this is not a political party talk; this is a call to reflect on and remind us what it means to be christian at a time like this.

Kingdom of God ≠ kingdom of the state

Jesus’ triumphal entry (mark 11:1–11) is a familiar scene for most of us. Jesus enters jerusalem during the passover celebration, riding on a colt. when he did, he was celebrated by those present, like a celebrity, or a popular political candidate. this is a great start to the week! unfortunately, His week ends with the same crowds shouting for his execution.

why was Jesus crucified after being so warmly welcomed? because He threatened to disrupt their religious and political way of life. if Jesus came to offer the kind of kingdom that fit with the state’s values, he wouldn’t have been killed. but the Kingdom Jesus came to preach was an entirely different Kingdom.

rather than entering in a powerful way, say on a tank or on a private jet with the word JESUS emblazoned on the side in bold letters, Jesus enters riding on a lowly donkey.

i hope you see the humor here. i hope you see the disruption. this was a humiliating entrance! but He did it to show that God’s Kingdom is not what the people were expecting. not what we were expecting.

Jesus’s triumphal entry denounces triumphalism. Jesus’ Lordship rejects our approach to kingship. the Lordship of Christ is not one who rules by domination and might, nor by forceful imposition. Jesus rules as a servant.

to say, “Jesus is Lord,” is to give up the temptation to be in control, because that’s part of caesar’s kingdom, not God’s. Jesus’s Kingdom doesn’t fit the kingdom of rome, which cost Him his life.

christianity didn’t begin with a healthy relationship with its political authority, but under a political (and religious) authority that executed its Lord as an enemy of the state. Christianity began with no false assumptions that the state was there for the benefit of the early church, or God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

there were no false assumptions among early Christians that those in power were responsible for bringing about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom was, instead, happening because of God’s work in the disciples’ life together, through their life in the world, enacting an entirely new reality.

one of our problems today is that we fall in love with the idea of electing the right leader(s). we have been tempted to think that, particularly when our political authority approaches certain characteristics of God’s Kingdom—maybe when candidates talk about providing shelter for the stranger in our land—we get excited, and put what should be our expectations of God’s Kingdom on the state. when that falls through, we are deeply disappointed.

but the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. the Kingdom of God is not coming into fruition by of our vote, but because of God’s continued work in the world, in history, in our story.

the theologian stanley hauewas preached on election day at duke divinity school, offering this reminder:

We are told on Election Day, this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels and all the people asked [not for Jesus] but Barrabas. Jesus was not trying to create a democratic coalition…We did not elect Jesus to be President. We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. We did not elect him messiah or savior.

Thank God, God’s work does not depend on our election.

if God’s Kingdom ≠ the kingdom of the state, is our life together giving others a taste of the reality of God’s in-breaking Kingdom—regardless of who’s in office?

is our life together posing a threat to the Enemy’s ways of lies and destruction upon so many lives here in Berkeley?

if not, it matters little who’s in office, for our allegiance to Jesus is in question, the One whose true, ultimate authority is not based on any election.

our Savior is not a candidate, nor is our Enemy

on that point, as Christians we do not believe any elected official is our capital “s” Savior. we most certainly ought to do our due diligence, learning all of the candidates, and cast our vote for the candidate we believe best embodies and envisions a nation that shares as many Kingdom characteristics as possible. but we never imagine any candidate will be perfectly aligned with the reality that God promises.

i don’t remember much from high school math, but one concept i remember is the asymptote. like an asymptote, a curve that approaches a line to infinite, without ever touching that line, even the best political individual approaches, but never totally aligns with the Kingdom of God.

we celebrate when elected official’s vision and values approach God’s Kingdom values, but we don’t assume God’s Kingdom will come from political authorities enacting it. this prevents us from despairing when a certain official is not elected–or another is.

things are at their worst in the history of Christianity and the State when religious leaders are too in love with their State leaders. dangerous things happen when we lose sight of who God is and what God is about, in placing our focus and hope on a particular political leader.

our capital “s” Savior is not found in any particular political party or person, nor is our capital “e” Enemy. our greatest Enemy is not located in any political party or even elected official, but in the one Scripture calls Enemy, Satan, the Thief.

in a democracy we ought to do our best to avoid electing anyone who’s values look more like the Enemy’s ways than the Kingdom of God. what are these ways?

“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” (john 10:10).

an elected official whose vision means theft, destruction, and death do not match the vision our Savior came to bring to earth, and who called us to embody in our life together.

but we don’t lose hope when elected officials do not look like God’s Kingdom values. this is a very scary, and provocative reminder, i know, but God may still work through them to accomplish God’s purposes. the old testament book of Isaiah reminds us that God uses a political enemy to help His people. it is scandalous, i know. and the God’s people struggled to believe it then.

i am not saying that this is what we find happening today.

but we must remember that the Living God exceeds our imagination and expectations. God will work through God’s people and otherwise, a people that does not align perfectly with civil authorities.

also: Christians bear the difficult reminder that our real problem is never ultimately with anyone else. ultimately, the real problem is inside of us. and that manifests itself in ways that are difficult to face, including an election result.

but we are the ones that need Christ’s reconciliation and redemption. it is for me that Christ came. i need saving, often even from myself.

hope in the darkest of darkness

we started the evening by reading the scene from Jesus’ entrance into jerusalem from mark’s Gospel. what we didn’t read is the ending, though I did refer to it, and though we’re likely all familiar with it.

after lifting up Jesus as their long-awaited hope for the throne, at the end of the same week, the same crowd insists on Jesus’ death. they got their way. He was executed publicly, following an unfair trial, as an enemy of the state.

that’s how the week ends for Jesus and His followers.

and what you must see, friends, what you have to realize, is that this was the darkest moment imaginable. all of their hopes and dreams, not just for the next four years, but for the next millennia, were now shattered.

the One who they were banking on to finally set things right with their oppressive government; the One who would finally end hunger for so many working poor, starving children; the One who would finally lead not with arrogance and power and force, but with humility and love; all hope of that was now lost.

His body is now lying in a tomb somewhere, and they’re hiding in fear and disappointment. what we have to imagine is that, at this point, they cannot see, let alone imagine, what hope would even look like. hope cannot now fit into the disciples’ imagination. and for some of you, that’s exactly how you feel now.

so what, then?

in the dark days, we mourn, we lament. some Christians act as though morning and lament is not proper for us. but that’s a dangerous lie. Christ Himself wept in the face of death—even as He knew He was going to bring the same man back to life!

why? because He knew this is not the way things are supposed to be. the proper response to the way of the Thief—death, destruction, lies, power over others, oppression—is grief.

as Christians, we grieve with the best of them. but we do not grieve without hope (1 thessalonians 4:13)!

as Christians, we know that the dark and our tears will not last for all time, but only for a while. because death and despair is not the last word, but only the second to the last word.

hope is the last word.

two ways to mourn

after Jesus’ death, we see two different ways of disciples mourning.

following Jesus’ execution and the loss of all they had placed their hope in, the traditional disciples lock themselves in a room, afraid for their own life.

but there is another group of disciples; we’ll call them the alternative disciples: joseph of arimathea and nicodemus. unlike the other disciples, they move toward Jesus’ body, in love and great courage, preparing his body for the grave, wrapping it carefully with fine linens and expensive spices (john 19:40).

the first disciples mourned without hope, frozen in fear. the second disciples mourned with active love.

but there were other alternative disciples: the women who followed Jesus were also there at the tomb (rather than hiding in fear). and they were the first to see the Hope of God in Christ, resurrected!

but it was a hope that the traditional disciples could not have imagined, they could not yet see, given how dark the days were. they could not yet imagine what God was up to. the darkness was blinding.

scandalous hope

in the midst of that darkness, we must never forget the scandalous nature of Christian hope: that God took the State’s greatest symbol of power, control, and fear in that time—the crucifix—and God turned it into our source of greatest hope.

don’t lose hope, friends. don’t lose hope. don’t lose hope.

a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

remembering broken bodies: a reflection on the Lord’s supper

“the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 corinthians 11:23b-24, esv)

 

 

“on the night He was betrayed.” that is, on the very night on which Jesus’ broken body was foremost on His mind. on the night when those closest to Him looked straight into His face and pretended they didn’t even know Him. on that night, Jesus took a loaf of bread in His hands, broke it, and said, eat up. it’s mine. it’s for you.

“and when he had given thanks,” scripture says. which is to say that even on the darkest night of His earthly life, when the promise of Easter was so distant it was not yet even a glimmer on the horizon, Jesus somehow found it in Himself, somehow found the words in His throat, to give thanks. on a night when, of all things to give, to speak, gratitude should’ve been the farthest thing from His lips. from His mind. on that night, He gave thanks. He remembered, even in the darkest darkness, that there is still something to give thanks for, Someone to give thanks to.

and “do this in remembrance of me,” He says. do this. that is, gather together. share a meal. a meal, of all things. a simple loaf of bread. something to drink. come around a table. together. share.

“do this in remembrance of me,” He says. in remembrance of Me. you’ll have plenty of your own broken bodies to remember, God knows. Jesus tells us to remember His. and in so doing, to take heart that His broken body means that we do not need to make any more broken bodies ourselves. to remember, in the end, that this broken body means our own broken bodies made whole.

and when you gather together, Jesus says, the lovely and the unlovely. the rich and the poor. the in and the out. the light and the dark skin. do it knowing that you are doing it, in some mysterious way, in Him. do it knowing that, somehow, His broken body makes our unity possible. that our meeting together in peace is only possible in the One in whose name alone there is Peace.

“peace I leave with you,” Jesus says, according to john’s gospel, as He was saying His goodbyes. “My peace I give to you. not as the world gives do I give to you.”

apparently He thought the word peace needed clarification.

this kind of Peace. not that kind.

not the kind of peace that comes in armored trucks. with guns and barking dogs, teeth bared. not the kind of peace that says, in a voice that comes from behind a face shield, ‘this is for your own safety.’

not the kind of peace that means you surrendering your will to mine.

not the kind of peace that’s an idea, the way to which is anyone’s best guess, but the kind of Peace that is embodied. the Peace that comes in a baby’s soft, penetrable skin and leaves with scars in its hands.

the kind of Peace that will one day wipe away every tear. will set every broken bone. on that day when there will be no more mourning. no more pain. the kind of Peace that remembers our broken bodies, even when we do our best to forget or ignore or explain them away.

come, Lord Jesus, come. and may You have mercy on us all.

but who do you say that I am? a devotional

i was recently asked to lead the staff of westside: a Jesus church, in portland, in a time of devotion. here are the reflections i gave on matthew 16:13-17, the story of peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.

who do others say that I am?

Jesus begins this episode by asking His disciples who other people are saying the “Son of Man” is. and if you’re familiar with matthew’s gospel, you know Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself.

and so what we find here is Jesus asking what the crowds are saying about Him. “what’s the watercooler conversation about me been like,” Jesus is asking.

what all of the disciples’ responses have in common is that people are saying that Jesus is one of the prophets. perhaps, even, one of the greatest prophets.

and the interesting thing to notice here is that Jesus seems wholly uninterested in their response. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, as far as we can tell.

which begs several questions: why does Jesus even ask in the first place? does He not know what others are saying? is He going through some sort of existential crisis and is in search of validation?

and why doesn’t he acknowledge their response? if He disagrees, why doesn’t He say so?

instead of acknowledging their response as we might expect, Jesus asks another question.

but who do you say that I am?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks.

and the thing i wish scripture told us is how much time passed from Jesus’ question and peter’s response.

you can just imagine the disciples–sensing the weight of this question, and not wanting to get it wrong–doing all they can to avoid eye contact with Jesus. staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. whistling to themselves.

of course, it’s peter who finally breaks the silence.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” peter says.

and unlike before, Jesus not only acknowledges peter’s response, He praises it.

“blessed are you!” Jesus says, which is about as close as we get to Jesus giving an a-plus on one of His pop quizzes.

but He doesn’t stop there, which is the really interesting part.

in the same breath that He uses to praise this response, Jesus tells peter that he could not have answered this question rightly were it not for the Father giving peter the words.

“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

isn’t that odd? why would Jesus ask the disciples a question that He knew they could not answer rightly without God’s help?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples. and this is, i would argue, one of the most important questions in the entire bible. which brings me to my third and final point for reflection.

not a one-off question

the more i think about this story, the more confident i am that this is not a one-off question that Jesus asks and then leaves alone. nor is it simply a question posed to peter.

instead, i think this is a question that scripture, as the living and active word of God, and Jesus, as the living, resurrected Lord, continues to ask each one of us anew each day. moment by moment, even.

this is a question that we can never get away from, never get ahead of.

it is a question we must answer in the seemingly mundane realities of life, as well as the incredible highs and the tragically low points of life.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, in your buying habits. in the television shows you watch. in your internet use.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you finally get that job offer that you’ve been waiting on for what has seemed like an eternity.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, while everyone you know is welcoming a new child into their family, and all your efforts have been met with nothing but closed door after closed door. or when the lab results come back, and it’s cancer.

who do you say Jesus is then? In those moments?

the full, painful reality of the world

i was listening to the radio the other day when i heard what was easily one of the grisliest, most tragic stories i’ve ever heard.

apparently someone opened up a locker in a public transit station in canada recently after noticing a terrible smell. to their horror, they found several newborn baby bodies stuffed into the locker.

the worst part is that these bodies had been there so long that the police couldn’t actually tell how many were there. maybe three, maybe four. they couldn’t make out where one baby’s body ended and the next began.

friends, who in the world do you say Jesus is when you hear those sorts of stories? because whoever we say Jesus is, however we respond to this relentless question, our answer must be able to hold the full, painful reality of the world in which we live.

listen to your life

frederick buechner is a presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist whose work i have clung to after being introduced to it a couple years back. he’s incredibly thoughtful, beautifully written, and exceptionally honest about the painful realities of the brokenness of this world.

and one of the repeated themes in buechner’s writing is that of our need to pay attention.

“pay attention,” buechner writes. “pay attention to your life.” to the monotonous, mundane bits just as much as the exciting or even tragic parts.

because if you listen really closely, buechner insists, you will see that your life itself is telling a story.

and that story, i believe, is the only answer we can offer to this question that Jesus asks each and every one of us over and over again: “but who do you say that I am?”