About ryan

A former PR / Marketing professional, I left the Northwest to study Theology at Oxford and Duke. I'm now serving as the Minister for University Engagement at First Pres Berkeley.

good christian? bad christian?

who is shaping our image of a “good” christian, i wondered when two university students  told me they feel like a “bad” christian from our seats in berkeley last spring. who’s telling us what it looks like to be a “bad” christian? are either valid?

i’m exploring this question with our community in berkeley this fall. the following are my concluding words to a 12-week series: “good christian? bad christian?”

• • •

knowing that we’d be wrapping up this series tonight, i’ve been thinking a lot about the conversations that got us here. i’ve been thinking about how two of you told mjee, during the same week last spring, that you feel like a “bad” christian because of something you had done.

and i’ve been wondering, what’s underlying this feeling of being a “bad” christian? what got us here?

if i had to wager a guess, i’d bet what’s underlying this series is a deep sense of inadequacy—not just by two of you, but by so many of us, who struggle with feeling like, “i’m not good enough…”

many of us feel that way, not just in our faith, but in school, in work, maybe even in our relationships.

a lot of us struggle with inadequacy, especially in our faith life. there is a pervasive feeling that there’s a right way of following Christ, and we’re doing it wrong.

i feel like a good christian when… like a bad christian when…

we talked about a lot of different ways in which we feel like we’re falling short as christians over the past 12 weeks.

i feel like a bad christian when i don’t go to church, some of you told me. i feel like a bad christian when i don’t read the Bible, others said.

or, i feel like a good christian when i pray (regularly, honestly), you said, or when you show love (rather than just saying loving things).

i feel like a bad christian when my life is a mess, one of you shared, and others seem to have it together.

i feel like a bad christian when… i struggle with anxiety. i doubt. when i have sex. when i use pornography.

i feel like a bad christian because of my scientific beliefs, we heard someone share. because of my non-traditional beliefs, one of you told me. i feel like a bad christian because of my relationship with alcohol, two of you shared.

and i think we could have kept going.

but if the underlying motivation for this series is a deep sense of inadequacy, i want to be crystal clear about the takeaway i hope we leave with: Christ is nearest to those who are most aware of their inadequacy.

over and over again, the ones who see Jesus rightly throughout the gospels are those who are most aware of their own need. not just those who are most in need, but those who are most aware of their need.

a story: two men go to pray in the temple

one of my favorite things about Jesus is that He’s a storyteller.

He knows that story is how we understand the world, ourselves, and our role in the world. story is how He invites us to see what He sees fully, that which we only see in part.

and He tells a story at one point in luke’s gospel about two men entering the temple to pray, a story that was read for us tonight.

“[Jesus] spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves,” luke turns to his audience, turns to us, and whispers, before he gets to Jesus’ story (luke 18:9b).

Jesus tell this story to those who believe the myth of self-sufficiency: that we’re just fine on our own, thank you very much. that we don’t need others, and that we certainly don’t need God.

perhaps that sounds familiar.

so there are two men in this story. one, a religious leader. the other, a tax collector.

the first is widely respected, widely trusted. leading others in their religious life is how he pays the bills. others looked to him as a model, especially for their faith life.

the other man, in contrast, was widely disliked, distrusted by his own people. it’s not just that he made his living collecting taxes for the empire. it was rome’s custom to hire jews to collect taxes from their own people.

he was one of them, but he was now living the high life because of his relationship with the empire. more than likely, this man’s own people had some salty words to describe him.

both of these men enter the temple, Jesus tells us, to pray. the stage is set for a great story.

and the religious leader, israel’s model, praying as he did so many times before, prays like this: “God, i thank You that i am not like others—thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector over here” (luke 18:11).

“i fast twice a week,” he continues. “i give a tenth of all my income.”

“i thank you,” israel’s model prayer begins. so far, so good. but then he turns to himself, and he never looks back.

this man thanks God only in word. there is no real room for God in this man’s prayers. in his eyes, he doesn’t need God.

the tax collector, Jesus tells us, stands in the back of the room, in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed.

he stares at the ground, we’re told, doing his best to avoid eye contact.

he’s in the temple, a public place of payer, but he’s hoping not to be seen.

and he begins to beat his chest. which may seem odd, but perhaps we can relate.

my children, when they get frustrated with themselves, will sometimes hit themselves. and we have to stop them.

the other night, i was changing hudson’s diaper when he got frustrated. he began hitting himself in the head. i had to put my hand in between his head and his hand to stop him.

this man in Jesus’s story is deeply frustrated with himself, with his own behavior. he’s taking it out on his own body, and there’s no one to step in.

“God,” he finally begins, when he can find the words. “be merciful to me, a sinner!” (luke 18:13).

that’s all we’re told. that’s his prayer.

the eastern orthodox church has taken this man’s prayer as a model.

“Lord Jesus Christ,” the so-called Jesus prayer begins, “Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

for many Christians, this man is a model for our own prayers. we might even say, part of what it looks like to be a “good” christian—if there is such a thing—is to look like this man.

“this tax man,” Jesus says, explaining the story. not the religious type, but this one who is despised and distrusted.

“he went home made right with God” Jesus tells us. “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (luke 18:14).

those who were most excited about Jesus in the gospels were not those who had it all together. none of us do, of course. not really.

those who saw Jesus rightly were the ones who were painfully aware of the fact that they didn’t have it all together—because others kept reminding them or because they couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror without being reminded of the fact.

and those who saw Jesus rightly are those who realized, after encountering Him, that they no longer had to hide.

another story: God’s kingdom as a banquet feast

Jesus tells another story at one point, in response to someone who raises a glass at a dinner party, and says with a grin, “blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the Kingdom of God.”

to contextualize a bit, it’s like someone sitting down to a dinner party at chez panis, pulling out their iphone x, snapping a selfie, and posting it with “#blessed” as the caption.

and Jesus, overhearing this, tells a story, as if to say, you have no idea…

he tells a story about a wealthy man throwing a great feast, and sending out a fleet of invites. “the party’s getting started,” they read. “it’s all ready. come and join in.”

but what he finds is that all of the beautiful, self-sufficient guests pass.

they all have their excuses, of course. the property business is booming. the livestock need tending. they’ve just exchanged vows.

so the host sends his social secretary out into the streets to bring in anyone who he can find, and who he finds are the only ones left: the one whose bed is on the street, the forgotten, the nameless, those whose value is not so easily calculated.

these are the blessed, Jesus is saying. these ones.

because the great Kingdom feast, Jesus is telling this man as well as us, looks more like a hospital, an AA meeting, or the local food bank than an invite-only “who’s who” dinner party.

when it comes to the God’s kingdom, one’s ability to see their own need is not just good humility, it’s essential.

those most excited about Jesus are those who realize they are invited to bring the whole of their lives—the good and the bad—into this great story that God is telling, and find welcome and new life.

they no longer have to hide.

the ground of unfathomable love

we’ve focused a lot on what we think might describe a “bad” christian this fall. but if there’s one thing that might describe a “good” christian, it’s owning the fact that we’re in need of help.

the psalmist reminds us that God is nearest to those nearest to their own inadequacies.

“if your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there,” eugene peterson translates psalm 34:18 in the message. “if you’re kicked in the gut, He’ll help you catch your breath.”

this is why, without making too hard of a distinction, i think we could say that those who think they’re good people make “bad” christians. but those who live aware of the fact that they’re “bad” people—that they fail to reflect God’s image as they were designed—make “good” christians.

these are the ones who are able to see Jesus rightly.

“God loves human beings,” dietrich bonhoeffer once put it. “God loves the world. not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.”

“this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

but so much of our life is spent pretending we have it all together. in the classroom. in relationships. in the church. we hide those areas where we don’t.

and if we keep living like that in the church, we will never see Jesus as we ought.

“it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus says. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (mark 2:17).

so when you come to me and tell me that you feel like a “bad” christian for doing such and such, my first response is to say, you may be closer to Jesus than you think.

maybe now you can finally see Jesus rightly.

a variety of voices

i’ve invited a variety of voices to join us and share here on wednesday nights this semester—more than usual. because i thought it important that you hear from those who do not look like me, do not sound like me, to acknowledge that these feelings are real, they are shared.

and so that you don’t think that i am somehow standing on the outside of this community, as one who has it all together, looking in at all of you who are struggling, i have to tell you…

i am the one painfully aware of the ways in which my life feels like a mess.

i am the one who is so often struggling with anxiety.

i am the one who wakes up to the news of the day heavy with doubt.

i am the one whose relationship with alcohol is sometimes spotty and whose beliefs are hardly always traditional.

but here’s the thing that i have also found to be true, friends.

when i am finally honest enough with myself to admit to these things…

when i finally find the words to say, “i feel like a failure. i cannot do this on my own.”

it’s only then that i feel, if not always hear, Jesus say, “that’s good. follow Me.”

when we say goodbye | life goes on

i’ve been thinking and talking about and working on a book idea for the past few years, since finishing called: my journey to c. s. lewis’s house and back again.

death and grief and the long process of saying goodbye is, unfortunately, part of our story. and in the wake of so many painful conversations, i’ve been sitting with a question: why are we so bad at talking about something that touches every person, something so central to our christian narrative? and what resources does the christian tradition offer to help us do better?

i plan to share some excerpts here, as a way of saying thanks for following, friends. here’s a sneak peek at when we say goodbye: the final taboo.

• • •

“life goes on,” a man tells me in a matter-of-fact voice from the bart platform early one morning, so early the sun is still in bed, eyes closed. his salt-and-pepper hair is shorn close to his head. his blue fannel is worn out, unbuttoned, over torn blue jeans, with one knee peaking out.

i’m on my way to washington state at the time, to see my grandfather. after a routine check up, my grandfather’s doctor found a lump on his chest and another on his spine.

“cancer, most likely,” she told him, confidently.

after several years of living with parkinson’s disease, my grandfather was a pale reflection of the man i had grown up with. the man who had shown me how to float on my back in the pool (“you can do this as long as you need to,” he’d told me, “until help comes”); the man who would pull metal baskets full of dungeness crabs into his boat from the bay, seawater spilling out the sides while the pointy legs scampered over arched shells; the man who would often work on house projects from sun up to sun down; now stutter-stepping his way around the house, catching himself on walls, or crumbling to his knees with a loud thud.

i hate parkinson’s.

when the doctor said she was sure it was cancer, we all assumed she knew what she was talking about. we questioned whether it was worth putting grandpa’s beleaguered body through radiation treatment.

but when she said “cancer,” grandpa wanted a second opinion. he ordered a scan and the report came back clear. we were all stunned. i booked a last-minute trip home to see his electric grin in person.

that’s when I met the blue flannelled man on the railway platform in the early morning dark.

“where you off to?” he asks me, the only other person on the lonely concrete platform.

“i’m heading to washington, to see family,” i tell him. “you?”

“funeral,” he says. “for my father.”

he tells me about the lump found in his father’s body, and the terminal diagnosis that followed. hospice had been called.

“two months,” he says, looking straight ahead in the dark. “they told us we had two months.”

“then they phoned me, five minutes after i had left him, to tell me he was dead.”

“i’m so sorry,” i say after a pause, giving his words room to breathe.

the eerie timing of our paths crossing, amidst our inverse experiences, leaves me unnerved. the still darkness setting makes the exchange even more dreamlike.

“life goes on,” he says.

the fluorescent lights overhead give his shorn hair a glowy sheen. his haircut, his blue flannel, his torn jeans, and especially his words, everything about this man is matter of fact.

death is matter of fact.

“life goes on,” he says. and i wonder what he means by it.

for whom? i think to myself.

the bart tram pulls up to our feet, right on time. the sliding doors open and we take our seats. sliding south toward oakland, i steal glances at the man. i watch him watching the sun come up.

• • •

there’s a scene in one of my favorite movies where a middle-aged mother and her adult daughter are sitting in a couple chairs in their front yard. the adult daughter has just received word of her 19-year-old son’s unexpected death.

“he’s in God’s hands now,” the boy’s grandmother tells her adult daughter.

with swollen eyes and a disgusted look, the grieving mother asks the question on all of our lips: “he was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?”

i like to think hayley was in God’s hands the whole time. dancing at God’s fingertips at times, perhaps, but never completely out of reach.

where is she now? it’s a question our five-year-old daughter asks from time to time.

is hayley closer to God’s heart now? is she further?

i think she’s home, wherever that is on God’s body map. i think she’s right there in the folds of God’s neck, breathing God smells.

i think she’s at God’s lips, tasting God tastes. i think Hayley’s in God’s bosom, at rest.

54 years later: c. s. lewis today

fifty-four years ago today, people around the world were reeling from the news of an all-too young u.s. president’s assassination. so overwhelming was this tragedy that it overshadowed the news of a beloved english author’s death in his home on the same day.

on a recent friday evening, two friends and i gathered together at first presbyterian church of berkeley to reply to the question: what does c. s. lewis’s writing have to offer us today? you can listen to the audio from the evening’s panel discussion here, or read my response to this question, below.

i wasn’t planning on speaking about war when i first began thinking about tonight’s conversation, but war is the topic that has brought me back to c. s. lewis’s work lately. some of our recent headlines have reminded me of a fear that had been dormant for years.

as a young boy, my phobias involved three things: sharks, whether i was in saltwater or my grandfather’s backyard swimming pool; snakes, which i still consider the most biblical phobia; and nuclear war, of all things for a boy growing up in the 1980s, for reasons i’m still unclear about.

i’ve been reminded of that last phobia by so many recent headlines. on one particularly anxiety-inducing morning, two separate headlines warned me about the impending nuclear threat facing the united states. one of these headlines informed me that up to 90 percent of our nation’s population could be dead in a year, were north korea to strike with a nuclear attack.

i’ve since removed north korea from my phone’s news settings.

but our current political situation has drawn me back to lewis recently, for he was not only personally familiar with serving in war—lewis fought on the side of the british in the first world war, even though he was irish and not required to enlist—he was also writing, teaching, and speaking in the midst of world war two. and it’s in an evensong sermon that he delivered in the earliest days of world war two that i will spend most of tonight’s focus, a message he titled, “learning in wartime.”

learning in wartime

on october 22, 1939, less than two months after great britain and france declared war on germany, c. s. lewis climbed the spiral staircase into the famous pulpit of oxford’s university church, delivering this sermon to anxious students, faculty, and community members alike. though the 57 consecutive nights of bombs falling on london, “the blitz,” wouldn’t take place for another 11 months, lewis had already welcomed the first of many evacuated schoolchildren from london into his oxford home by the time he delivered this message.

lewis’s primary focus in this message is the question of whether or not it is worth pursuing learning amidst war. with talks of the draft sweeping the country, this was a practical question. and not, by the way, only for young men.

men in britain between 18 and 41 were liable to be called up for service. lewis would turn 41 that year—even he was waiting to know if he would be called back into duty.

is it worth studying if we might not even finish? many were asking. to the administration’s great relief, lewis answers with a resounding yes.

from moment to moment

one of the primary reasons is that most of us will never truly finish our work—especially those of us in the academy.

not only will we have to learn to live with the feeling of being a perpetual beginner, most of us will be called to wrap up our work before we’ve finished every project, written every book, presented every paper. that’s simply the way it goes.

the best we can do is steward our gifts for as many days as we’re given.

“happy work is best done by the man who take his long-term plans somewhat lightly,” lewis notes, “and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’” it is, after all “only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.”

life has never been normal

in addition to this question of urgency, lewis addresses another question: does war not make academic work irrelevant? is the work of a scholar not like fiddling while rome burns?

lewis gives two helpful responses here. first, life is never normal. we are mistaken if we compare wartime with “normal” life.

“life has never been normal,” lewis insists. even if we make some periods out to be, that’s an illusion. human life has always been lived “on the precipice.”

“war creates no absolutely new situation,” he says. “[war] simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”

we’ve been fooled if we think there’s such a thing as “normal” life. so much of our work, academic or not, will always face the question of legitimacy—in wartime or in times of “peace.” only those who refuse to wait for “the right time” will accomplish anything in this world.

but there’s another reason lewis insists that the question of legitimacy ought not squelch our work in the face of wartime: this is part of what separates us from other creatures.

unlike insects that only seek the welfare of the hive at times of threat, humans hold metaphysical debates in prison cells, we make jokes on the front lines, and we perform music on sinking ships.

humanity long ago chose this route, lewis points out: “[we] wanted knowledge and beauty now, and [we] would not wait for the suitable moment, which never comes.”

if ever your work is worth doing, and so long as you’re permitted to continue your work in the face of war, then your work is worth doing now—so go right along and continue to do so.

which begs the question: what does war do to our human situation?

war forces us to remember

“what does war do to death,” lewis asks. “it certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.”

nor does war increase the likelihood of a painful death, he argues. in fact, just the opposite may be true.

but what war does do something to death, lewis insists: “it forces us to remember it.”

war has the opportunity to help humanity—if only we’re honest about its limits.

unlike so much of our culture, which encourages us either to pretend our own death will never come, so long as we avoid talking about it. or to use any and all technology available to evade or even escape death. war brings our own mortality into consideration.

this, lewis argues, happens not a moment too soon.

“war makes death real to us,” lewis continues. “and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great christians of the past. they thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. i am inclined to think they were right.”

wartime help from uncle screwtape

about a year after delivering this sermon, lewis wrote the hugely successful work, the screwtape letters: a series of letters written from an elder demon, screwtape, to his young, apprentice and nephew, wormwood, on how best to carry out his task of tempting his human “patient.”

when news of the war in europe breaks out, uncle screwtape warns his young apprentice against getting too excited.

sure, it may be entertaining for the demons, what with the terror and the fear that pervades, but the young wormwood must remember that war may very well only expedite the delivery of his patient into the Enemy’s camp—“the Enemy” here being God.

when patients know they are about to die, screwtape reminds wormwood, they are more likely to take the time and care to prepare for it.

“in wartime, not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever,” screwtape writes. “how much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying” (letter five).

this was lewis writing in 1940, by the way. if you haven’t read the american surgeon and public health researcher atul gawande’s book, being mortal, do. he and lewis would have much to talk about.

no false hope of making it out of life alive

news of war forces us to remember the uncomfortable, but essential, reality that we come from dust, and it is to dust that we will one day return. but christians, of all people, should be those who have already considered their death.

“what is important is not that we should always fear (or hope) about the end but that we should always remember, always take it into account,” lewis wrote in a 1952 essay that asked, if the world were ending today, how should we live? “what modern christians find it harder to remember is that the whole life of humanity in this world is also precarious, temporary, provisional.”

for christians, there is no false hope that we will make it out of this life alive—at least, not on our own.

seeing the eternal in the temporal

in a distinction that initially appears like a bit of fine hairsplitting, lewis notes that it may very well be a human’s duty to die for his country, but it can never be a christian’s duty to live for his country. a familiar scene from the gospels is helpful for this distinction.

matthew, mark, and luke all include the story of Jesus being asked whether it is lawful for jews to pay taxes.

“whose head is on the coin?” Jesus asks those hoping to trap him. “then give to caesar what is caesar’s,” He replies when the emperor’s likeness is pointed out.

christians and non-christians alike live under state authority. but those who recognize Jesus as Lord are called to distinguish between temporal and eternal authorities.

christians may be required to give much to our earthly rulers, but earthly authorities can never claim that which is due only to our eternal Authority. which is why lewis can claim it may be a christian’s duty to die for her country, but it can never be a duty to live for her country.

one’s duty to die for their nation comes only as a result of one’s civic duty to military service. it’s an accidental duty, not a duty of necessity.

one’s duty to live for God, in contrast, is essential for anyone recognizing Jesus as Lord. living into Jesus’s Lordship is to find the kind of life that Jesus has come to offer: abundant, whole, shalom.

“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus tells us. “i have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (john 10:10).

seeing the ultimate within the penultimate

if this life is all there is, then death by war becomes the ultimate threat, our ultimate fear. and this would have been true in lewis’s day just as much as in our own.

but if temporal life is not the last thing, but only the next to the last thing, if it is penultimate, rather than ultimate, then fear of death is penultimate to our relationship with the One whose authority stretches beyond death.

“do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus teaches (matthew 10:28).

political powers who threaten with war, even nuclear war, are a threat to the shalom that God in Christ offers—but they are not a threat in the ultimate sense. their threat, and their authority, is never the final word.

the task of the christian, then, is to distinguish what will last from what is passing away, the ultimate within the penultimate, the eternal within the temporal. which is just what lewis preached from the same pulpit two years later, this time in the heart of world war two.

“there are no ordinary people,” he preached in early june of 1941, in a well-known sermon: “the weight of glory.”

“you have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”

“but it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

God intends eternity for humans. the same is not true for nations, borders, and political powers. christians are called to remember this distinction, and to live like it.

called to remember

amidst threats of nuclear war and sensationalized headlines jostling for more paid clicks from anxious readers, those who name Jesus as Lord are called to remember that Ultimate Authority relativizes all penultimate authority.

“don’t you realize i have power either to free you or to crucify you,” pilate reminds Jesus when He refuses to respond to pilate’s interrogation.

“you would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above,” Jesus finally points out (john 19:10–11a).

the trick to living, learning, and loving in wartime, lewis reminds us, is to see the temporal with an eternal perspective. to recognize one another as beings created for eternity in the Kingdom not of man, but God, where all weapons have been turned into instruments for good, where there is no more darkness, no more tears, where it is, in the end, not the one who boasts loudest who reigns, but the crucified Lamb.

the real trick, whether in times of war or “peace,” and the call for all those who name Jesus as Lord, is to live like it.

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?”


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,


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


“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.