What’s With the Shirt?

For those of you who might be interested I wanted to provide a relatively brief sketch of the genesis of the slogan, the business name and goals (as of 2/26/2021).

The genesis of the slogan developed over the past fifteen years or so as I became more acutely aware of the glaring blind spot that characterized so much of American Christianity whether it be Evangelical, Mainline Protestant or Catholic. Too many American Christians seem to be unaware of how much their Christian faith is influenced by being an American citizen. I could expand on this with many examples but one will suffice for illustration’s sake. Every American patriotic holiday, primarily Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were celebrated in the churches I was raised in and attended until we started attending our current church, East End Fellowship in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond VA in the fall of 2016. A pretty customary Sunday growing up included singing the Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, Battle Hymn of the Republic or America the Beautiful. As I aged the presentations began to include emotional videos, customarily linking the sacrifice of American soldiers to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I began to question how could a faith in Jesus that recognizes no boundaries and worships Jesus honor American patriotic holidays that glorify America. How would non-Americans process sitting in this worship service especially if their country of origin was the victim of American military power? So all my questioning regarding the intertwining of American Christianity and American civil religion was the genesis for my t-shirt slogan: I pledge allegiance to kingdom not county.

The business slogan is pretty basic. Being a Melin, a dominant trait in our family humor is a play on words. Also since much of my theological education, formally and self-directed has been immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures I could not help but think of the Hebrew word pair found throughout: justice and righteousness. Here again I will resist the temptation to venture into a detailed discussion of these two words. Suffice it to say these two words form much of the heart of how Israel understood the essential character and actions of God. Since Israel’s existence was supposed to exalt the reputation of their God, Yahweh, the collective life of the nation was supposed to be characterized by a social structure based on justice and righteousness. I had been thinking for years about getting my slogan onto a t-shirt so why not call my business JusTees and Righteousness. It communicates how I desire to use all the profits the business generates and well as communicate the limited scope I desire for the business: Just Tees, not coffee mugs, key chains, caps etc., Just Tees!

The goal of my business is to funnel all profits to people in organizations here in the east end of Richmond and elsewhere who are living out the complete good news of Jesus’ kingdom message: forgiveness from sin and lives formed by the pursuit of justice and righteousness. As of today I have identified two organizations in the east end of Richmond that I have close personal connections with as well as one in Kibera, Kenya. All profits the shirts generate will be split between these three. So if you love the message of the shirt and are willing to purchase this is where the profits go. The other goal of the business was to make sure my supplier for the t-shirts reflected these values as well. The t-shirt supplier is a fair trade shirt company that has all their shirts made by women trapped in the sex trade in India.


I Pledge Allegiance

As Americans celebrate Independence Day this weekend several thoughts go through my mind as they have every July Fourth for many years. There are several reasons why I do not wholeheartedly embrace American patriotic holidays anymore. As much as I am grateful for the freedoms I have as an American citizen that are not available in every country, at the same time I recognize that my primary status and allegiance belongs to the kingdom of God. Jesus makes several ideas clear during his time on earth. One is that allegiance to him and his kingdom will bring you into conflict with competing allegiances. In spite of the NT’s clear teaching about being good citizens there is also a recognition that at certain points of tension we must choose to obey God rather than the government. Good citizens who demonstrate that their allegiance is not to the political power over them will always be held in suspicion. One fascinating aspect of American history is the common story of wave after wave of immigrants who in an effort to be accepted, fought and otherwise supported America’s wars to prove their allegiance. This was also true especially for those Catholic European immigrants who were held suspect because it was believed their first loyalty would be to the Catholic Church or the Pope. As a result, many Catholics became what I label “uber-patriotic” to prove this was not the case; they were Americans first and Catholics second. There is also the tragic history of African-Americans fighting America’s wars, hoping that it would grant them equal status and protection in this country. They discovered in the aftermath of war after war that they would remain oppressed in American society. Those few Americans who refused to fight and/or join the military for religious reasons learned the price of not having their primary allegiance to America.


Not only must citizenship in the kingdom of God supercede any other allegiance, it also teaches us  that living out the righteousness of God’s kingdom will reveal how America’s, or any other nation’s values, are often at odds with Jesus’ teaching. Some appear to be more passionate about defending their rights guaranteed by the Constitution than considering how Jesus’ teaching champions higher values. For instance, American law supports a citizen’s right to defend their personal property employing gun violence, or at least the threat of gun violence, with “stand your ground” or “make my day” laws. The belief that personal property is worth defending at the cost of someone’s life is clearly against Jesus’ teaching. The myth that America was founded as a Christian nation also can blind us to American values that run counter to the kingdom of God. I was taught this myth at the small fundamentalist Bible college I attended. This is not to deny the presence of Christians among the Founding Fathers, but the idea that America, or any other country could be Christian is to fail to recognize the impossibility of such an idea. A Christian nation would need to turn its collective cheek; it would need to love its enemies. America is an extremely powerful country both economically and militarily. The values that build such a country are contrary to the values, the righteousness and justice that are the foundation of the kingdom of God. Another danger in believing that America is in some sense a Christian nation sees our collective prosperity as God’s blessing on our nation. Unfortunately, much of our American prosperity has come at a terrible human cost to others both within and without our borders. Because our economy is our god, both consumers and producers are willing to go to almost any lengths to insure that we continue to have access to the cheapest possible products. Profit, not justice is the higher value. Affordability, not righteousness is the higher value. Personal and national security in the interest of protecting what is our’s is valued over compassion. To thank God for blessing America is to take his name in vain. Yet another aspect of conflating God and country is symbolized by the American flags that have been planted in most American places of worship. For years at the church we attended in Minnesota I cringed every Sunday that was around an American holiday such as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. Often these included some sort of patriotic video that attempted to equate soldiers’ sacrifice and our freedom with Jesus’ sacrifice. Often this included singing a patriotic song like the Battle Hymn of the Republic or God Bless America. These practices blind us to the reality that while we may live in America,  the Church is actually comprised of all nations, all peoples, all ethnicities. Imagine believers from other countries who have suffered because of our wars, our politics and our economic practices, worshipping in such a service? Our patriotism can blind us the reality that we do not view others primarily as undocumented or refugees, but as fellow bearers of God’s image. If you claim citizenship in God’s kingdom your ties to your fellow human are stronger than your ties to America. Jesus demands justice and righteousness, compassion and mercy for the oppressed and marginalized no matter their country of origin.


Finally, it appears to me that most of us are in love with the ideals that America claims: all are created equal, liberty and justice for all. Certainly one of the gifts of democracy is that we can individually and collectively raise our voices to hold our government accountable to such language. But this language is just an ideal; it does not reflect the reality of what America is or ever has been. We must not forget the racism that was woven into the fabric of our nation from the beginning. As one of my friends says, “racism is an American as apple pie; it was baked in from the beginning.” I have no issue with using democracy to my/our advantage, but I am not blind to the reality of what Scripture teaches about principalities and powers. The Apostle Paul was not loyal to the Roman Empire, but he had no problem using his Roman citizenship to his advantage when he could. I feel the same way about America. I can be grateful for the privileges I have as an American, but not love or be loyal to America.


I have heard on occasion some variation of, “If you hate America,” or “if America is so bad why don’t you move somewhere else.” Another is, “if America is so bad why do so many people want to come here?” Such statements miss the point. It is not about comparing America to countries that are better or worse; it is simply to recognize that America does not get to claim my allegiance or love. It is simply another Empire in the long line of powerful empires. They come and go under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty, but they are temporal. So on this Independence Day I renew my pledge of allegiance to the kingdom of God, not my country.


Increasing our Faith Vocabulary

Frustration, anger, emotional pain, disappointment, doubt, disillusionment, and even rage are not emotions displayed nor words spoken or sung in many, if not most churches of almost every type in America. Listen to popular contemporary Christian music stations and you will hear a steady diet of what they tend to advertise as positive, uplifting music. Positivity has largely replaced the language of faith; Christians do not want to hear “negativity.” Even in the most tragic times of natural disasters or cultural upheaval you will most likely hear Christian cliches when you enter the doors of a church building: “God is still on the throne;” “God is good all the time;” “all things work together for good;” or even “God has reasons for doing things we cannot understand.” While these statements contain truth, as an initial response to incredible suffering or injustice they ring hollow. In stark contrast the pages of Scripture contain a thick thread of “negative” speech that would sound strange to hear in most American Christian churches or on Christian radio. In most cases you have to go “out on the street” to hear brutally honest painful and angry words expressed in music or the spoken word if you want to hear how people truly feel about life. I tend to be a melancholy person; so much of the music I listen to tends to be on the “heavy” side, songs that honestly deal with the frustrations and pains of life. It is not feel-good music, but it is unfiltered honesty. 


Is there a place for brutally honest speech in the Church? I believe we must create room for this category of speech that expresses hurt, anger, and may even be profane at times. It is the language of this “thick thread” of non-traditional speech or prayer to God found throughout Scripture that provides the proof that such language is not the antithesis of faith, but is in fact an integral part of a faithful person’s speech. This book will explore the “thick thread” of this language in Scripture and also encourage those who feel that their words of anger, doubt, frustration and pain must not be included, or are not welcome in the collective worship of God’s people. I will argue to the contrary that this language is a needed corrective to the positive, happy faith that we publicly present every time we gather to worship. Too many of us feel that these feelings must be kept private or shared with only a few.


For example, I am writing this in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. My wife and I live in Richmond VA but we were in Minneapolis moving our daughter into a new apartment when George Floyd was murdered. We saw up close the evidence of the anger and rage of people of color who feel unheard and believe their lives don’t matter. When we returned to Richmond the protests were happening back home as well. Many of my white friends on social media tended to focus on the violence of the protests rather than the spark that set the protests off. As a generalization we tend to back away from expressions of anger and rage, especially if they are made by Christians of color. However, I was encouraged to see all the social media expressions of anger and rage by many of my friends in our local fellowship who are people of color. When it comes to the Church we white Christians prefer polite, nice speech. It’s time to bring the anger and rage into the Church, both in terms of seeking repentance as well as honest lament to God. Racism and the response of anger or rage is simply one aspect of human life that brings to the surface the need for this “thick thread” of Scripture to be voiced in our collective worship. In this book I will survey many passages that give voice to this kind of brutally honest speech from people of faith.


Listening to Prophetic Voices

I am in the midst of working on a book project in which I am exploring what I am calling a “thick thread” in Scripture that gives voice to emotions and thoughts that are often not considered expressions of faith or the expressions of a righteous person. These are the words of frustration, pain, doubt, protest, anger and even rage. These are not only human voices, but noticeably in the prophetic books, the Lord speaks with angry and even profane speech in addressing the idolatry and injustice pervasive in Israel’s culture. If you find it hard to believe the Lord would use his prophet to speak an extremely profane message read Ezekiel 23. The purpose of such language is the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face, an extreme measure designed to capture the attention of a complacent and self-righteous people. Or perhaps read Matthew 23 and hear how Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. Better yet read Paul’s angry response to those who were attempting to require Gentiles be circumcised (Gal. 5:12).

We happened to be in Minneapolis, moving our youngest daughter into a new apartment when George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. Coming so soon after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the U.S. saw scenes of angry protesters taking to the streets and demanding justice in Minneapolis. These protests quickly spread across not only the U.S., but across the globe. We returned to Richmond and angry protests were occurring here as well. In the past two weeks the statues that glorify Confederate “heroes” have been artistically reworked and the statue of Jefferson Davis has actually been torn down by angry protesters. The racial tension that simmers just below the surface of American culture occasionally boils over and angry people of color and others take to the streets in protest. As James Baldwin famously observed decades ago, “To be a Negro in this country and relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” However, will all these current protests actually provoke any real change this time or will it be like all the other prior occurrences where promises are made for reform in our policing and more broadly in our justice system but there is not the political will for any meaningful dismantling of our racially prejudiced criminal and justice system?

I return to the theme of prophetic anger and the repentance the Lord required of his people. I am not referring to America, even though the drive for meaningful systemic change is something I desire. However, I am more concerned that this time of ongoing angry demonstrations result in sincere repentance among White Christianity. The Church is the people of God that continues on from Israel, not America. Do all these visceral expressions of anger and rage make you nervous or uncomfortable? I believe all this anger can serve a prophetic role if we will only hear the word of the Lord. It can jar us out of our complacency, out of our desire for things to return to normal both in our news and social media feed. You may be getting fatigued with the almost constant exposure to the anger on the streets and in various forms of mass media; rest assured, the vast majority of people of color do not share that opinion.

I am extremely privileged to be in relationships with many African-American brothers and sisters. Many are in my church here in Richmond but several others are part of my cohort at Northern Seminary in Chicago. I see all their angry, hurtful and pain filled posts on social media. If you are not blessed to be in relationships with angry and hurting people of color, as strange as this sounds, I would implore you to actively look for ways to expose yourself to their anger. Don’t be offended by anger. Don’t get defensive about charges of White privilege. Don’t get sidetracked by questions like, “well maybe but what about . . .?” Experientially we can never enter into the frustration of being a person of color but as best you can attempt to get close enough to feel the anger and pain they live with. Let the prophetic words, no matter how profane and offensive they are, accomplish their holy purpose. For instance, watch Dave Chappelle, 8:46. Will this finally be the time in our history when White Christianity repents of its complicity as well as it active role in oppressing people of color? Will we finally uproot and throw down the idol of White supremacy that has been and continues to be an integral part of American Christianity? Will this finally be time we move beyond words of repentance to acts of reconciliation.

“Minnesota Nice” and Anger

I internally debated whether to bother putting my thoughts in writing or not. Why add to the mountain of blog posts that are filling my own social media feed in the last week or so? Ultimately I decided I needed to write for my own benefit even if few others read it, and/or agree with it. What follows is not necessarily polished prose but I just need to vent. I also don’t want to come off as self-righteous or “holier-than-thou.” What I am angry about is the kind of Christianity that I was content to live with until about 20 years ago. I have no desire to condemn anyone who still holds to ideas I used to, specifically ideas related to race, yet at the same time I cannot simply be a nice guy about this issue. I’m certainly angry about our American white power culture that still treats black lives as less than, but I am more angry at the American Church for its long standing complicity in the evil of racism.

I suppose a relatively brief intro would be helpful. For most of my adult life I have been a “nice guy.” Most people like me. I don’t like conflict and I tend to be a peacemaker, helping others to appreciate other views and understand why people think the way they do. I rarely speak in anger and attempt to control my tongue. In fact I’m not sure if anyone other than my wife and kids have ever seen me angry, and even then in a pretty controlled way. However, I have to admit it I am angry, frustrated, and truth be told it has been brewing in me for many years. My anger is primarily focused on White Christianity, specifically the Evangelical Church that I grew up in and am still on the fringes of. (“Oh boy, here we go, another angry ex-evangelical!) Although there are African-Americans in Evangelicalism, it is still a white movement.

Evangelicalism along with the rest of White Christianity is racist, not racist in the White Supremacy type of racism. But the very nature of growing up in America determined that I breathed in racist air and drank racist water. Racist ideas are not about despising black people but about holding racially prejudiced ideas and exhibiting racially prejudiced acts or speech. You/I can have black friends and still think, act and speak in racially prejudiced ways. Why did I grow up thinking jokes with black stereotypes were funny? Why did I grow up and even though I can’t tell you where I learned it, the most memorable things about Martin Luther King Jr. were that he was probably a Communist and an adulterer? Why did I think blacks, especially men, tended to be lazy or dangerous? Why did I think “urban problems” were simply the result of black people making poor choices? As I was in seminary, why did we not read black theologians and why did we regard them with such suspicion? Why were white Christian athletes held up as Christian role models but black athletes not so much? How did I learn that although black preachers may be entertaining orators, they did not use proper exegesis and they played fast and loose with the biblical text? Who taught me that hip-hop or rap was not real music and all it did was glorify misogyny, drugs and alcohol? Why did I think that black men from the “hood” were most likely “thugs?” I could ramble on with more but you get the idea.  I absorbed these ideas from living not just in a racist culture but a racist Christianity.

So what sparked change in me? It started as a seed idea when I was attending Dallas Seminary in the late 80’s, early 90’s. A black seminary student was responding to several white seminarians who were dissecting the “urban issues” in Dallas and using all the critiques and proposing all the solutions that I was very familiar with. He told them, and I’m paraphrasing, “shut up because you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Over the next several years, because I’m a reader I started to devour books on black history, particularly the Civil Rights era. I began to more fully understand the weight of injustice the black community has endured in its long tortured history in colonial England and America. Even though I had read that evangelical white Christianity would not get involved in the civil rights movement it made sense to me because I was raised to believe justice was not part of the gospel and we needed to focus on converting people so they would go to heaven when they died. We were complicit because of our silence but I would have argued otherwise at the time. However in 2003 I was prepping to teach a class on the prophetic books when it dawned on me for the first time that the hope of the kingdom promised in the prophets and Jesus’ message of the kingdom were one and the same. The message of the kingdom from an OT perspective is that when God restores Israel, he forgives their sin but he also brings a kingdom of justice and righteousness. Restored Israel was to image God as they pursued a culture of justice and righteousness. Reading the gospels, Jesus preaches that his message or good news of the kingdom means repent, your sins will be forgiven, and you begin living as though the kingdom has arrived, pursuing justice and righteousness. I was over forty years old and how had I never heard a sermon about pursuing justice in all my years in church? Bruce Springsteen, in his speech before Bob Dylan was put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said listening to Bob Dylan’s music made him feel irresponsibly innocent. That is similar to how I felt. How could I have ignored the injustice in front of me and been satisfied with the conservative White Evangelical (racist) answers for why black folks were so much worse off than most white folk? Why didn’t the Church care about justice, especially justice for black people?

Ongoing/continual change: I began to read more and more on the issue of Jesus preaching the kingdom of God, more and more on history of America that I had never learned in school.  Specifically I read more and more about not only the Church’s complicity in racism but that in fact racism was “invented” not just by white people but by white Christianity, beginning with the Catholic Church, to justify slavery of Africans and later by English/American Christians to justify genocide of the native peoples in the colonies or at best pushing them out of their native lands further west. After all European Americans needed their living space! However all this learning was still theoretical; I lived in white suburbia and attended a white suburban church. I began to have a desire to live in more diversity and get personally involved.

That desire became a reality when we moved to the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond VA in 2016. We had moved to Richmond in the fall of 2014 so Linda could help take care of her parents. We specifically chose Church Hill because, although gentrification is occurring, it is still a racially and economic diverse neighborhood. We attend a church that at least to some extent reflects the neighborhood we live in. We have discovered that although there are joys of being in this community there is plenty of pain and anger as well. All my book learning was being reinforced and expanded by my experiential learning. Besides my book author mentors, I have been privileged to establish relationships with wonderful black members of our faith community. However, this is not some utopia of diversity; there are tensions that exist that we must wrestle with. However the pain, suffering and anger of the black brothers and sisters of our congregation compels me to add my voice in some way to their pain, pain that I can at best only imagine, and will never experience because of my white skin. So why am I so angry?

Here is a partial list of the “grievances” that come most quickly to mind. Please read these, not as condemnation but as a plea to become involved in some way, to not stay silent, to educate yourself about your white privilege and the evil of racism that was established in our nation’s founding documents and continues to plague our systems of justice.

  1.  White Christianity tends to have a short attention span, even for those who feel they are concerned for justice. We may get energized to jump on a hashtag campaign but where are we one, two, three years later? For instance it is hard to believe that it has already been almost six years since Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, MO. It has already been almost three years since the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and Heather Heyer was slain. Members of my fellowship, part of a singing group, were in Charlottesville the evening of the night march and the church they were singing at was surrounded by the angry white marchers. In the aftermath of that weekend, Richmond pastors and religious leaders, hundreds of them, signed a document declaring they were committed to change and to speak out about racism. Three years later, how many of those primarily white suburban churches and para-church organizations whose leaders signed that document have continued to follow through on that pledge? It is easy to lose one’s attention when the issues of racism that briefly capture our attention don’t truly impact our lives or the communities in which we live. Most people still attend homogenous churches, even if they have a sprinkling of diversity they would still be recognized as white evangelical churches. If you are upset about what happened to George Floyd, don’t let this be another one of those short bursts of righteous indignation that eventually flames out. Black people don’t have the privilege of a short attention span; find some way to get in their shoes and stay committed.
  2. Even more angering to me are those of us who continue to remain silent. This feels like a time similar to the Civil Rights era when with very few exceptions, White Christianity, and in particular, White Evangelicalism was silent. Silence is complicity; complicity is sin. Read the OT prophets and how they castigated both Israel and Judah for their oppressive and unjust society. The prophets certainly targeted the wealthy, but all Israelites who simply put up with the way things were was guilty as well. Many of us detest conflict (I’m looking at myself in the mirror) but we need to start calling out racist or ignorant comments from people we know, including our online “community.” We can debate the value of having serious discussion online but I am going to make my stance on racial justice clear.
  3. It angers me when Christians counteract #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter or #bluelivesmatter. It angers me when Christians attack Colin Kapernick and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem and totally discounted what it was in our American culture and legal/justice system that they were protesting.
  4. Finally, it angers me when white Christians say they desire racial reconciliation but are offended when their racist attitudes, comments, or behaviors are pointed out. If white Christians truly desire racial reconciliation they must be able to endure hard, painful, and perhaps even angry conversations with black people. For instance, and this blows my mind, some white Christians claim to be horrified at the murder of George Floyd by police officers but are more horrified by the angry uprisings that are occurring across the U.S. We are more than 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act and black people still recognize they don’t have equal protection under the law. Several of the black theologians I have read admit that White Christianity tends to have a soft view of reconciliation. They want diverse prayer services where everybody holds hands and white Christians repent and ask for forgiveness but they are unwilling to do the hard work of reconciliation. When confronted with black anger over racism, their racism; they exit. My pastor who is African-American and has spent his whole life in Church Hill told me that most pastors of black churches are not interested in conversations about reconciliation anymore because white churches don’t really want true reconciliation. Repentance and reconciliation require more than words.

So, there is my rant–If you have taken the time to read this and would like to begin or further educate yourself there are many books and several videos I could recommend.  Here is a link to a pastor’s message after the killing of George Floyd. Dr. Otis Moss is the pastor of a church on the southside of Chicago. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_dNzYifsow).

Doctors Without Borders

I have had this idea for some time but it seemed especially appropriate after yesterday.  I love the organization Doctors Without Borders.  Here are some excerpts from their Charter.

MSF provides assistance to populations in distress, to victims of natural or man-made disasters, and to victims of armed conflict. They do so irrespective of race, religion, creed, or political convictions.

Members undertake to respect their professional code of ethics and maintain complete independence from all political, economic, or religious powers.

Clearly people who choose to volunteer with this organization agree that the first lens through which they look at people is that of medical compassion regardless of who that person is.

Whether you realize it or not if you claim to follow Jesus you are part of an organization that perhaps we could call Christians Without Borders.  Our first (only) allegiance is to Jesus and what he called the Kingdom of God.  Jesus makes it clear that the first lens people who follow him must look through as they view the world is that of love for neighbor.  Neighbor is a category that doesn’t view people as undocumented immigrant or refugee.

Jesus was not a political activist nor does it seem to me that is the role of the Church.  However by following Jesus’ teaching, Christians and the Church will be subversive by default.  His teachings intersect with political issues but not in a partisan way as if a political party can claim Jesus.  By acting out and speaking out with the love of neighbor that Jesus made the centerpiece of his “political platform” (Sermon on the Mount) we will address political issues in deed and word.  Perhaps the best current day example of a person in influence who attempts to consistently act and speak this way is Pope Francis.

Politicians and government will continue to do what they do, usually from a different set of priorities than the Bible presents, but the Church and Christians need to act and live out a different value system.  The first lens through which we view the world and form our priorities is not as an American who recognizes borders but as a follower of Jesus who sees no borders…Christians Without Borders.



A Palm Sunday Meditation

In spending time meditating this past week on the story of what we commonly call the Triumphal Entry and the four varying accounts in the Gospels, I was struck by the significance of what this event communicated to the various characters in the story (By the way, no Gospel includes any mention of palm branch waving.  John is the only one to specifically mention palm branches.).  The wealthy and/or religious leaders, the crowds, the disciples and Jesus all have a different understanding of the significance of this event.  All four understand that what is transpiring is highly significant.

Each Gospel (Matthew and Mark are about the same) describes the scene a bit differently but all agree that the scene is one of heightened anticipation.  The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe a large crowd following Jesus up from Jericho where he has just healed a blind man and John pictures an excited crowd in the aftermath of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It is approaching Passover week, the week which commemorates God delivering them from Egyptian bondage, their July 4th.  For several years now Jesus has been sending seemingly mixed messages.  Is he Messiah or is he not?  If he is finally going to act, what better time to do it?  Jerusalem is swelled to overflowing with Jewish pilgrims.  The timing could not be better.

With these events and expectations in the background Jesus creates a highly symbolic prophetic and public statement.  He mounts a young donkey and begins riding down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, up into Jerusalem to the Temple Mount.  The crowds/disciples understand the significance and realize this is the act of a king entering his city and they begin to shout: Hosanna! (The Lord saves!)  Blessed is he, the Son of David, the king, who comes in the name of the Lord! (The Gospels vary some on the exact wording but the significance is the same).  They throw garments and branches onto the path (the red carpet treatment) and joyously accompany Jesus to the Temple.  So was this really a Triumphal Entry?  What was the opinion of the narrative’s participants?

The religious leaders are a combination of the wealthy and powerful elite centered primarily in Jerusalem.  The wealthy among the religious leaders have settled into a comfortable relationship with Rome and life is good for them. They are afraid that Jesus means the end to their power and wealth.  They are on edge because they fear that this is in fact a Triumphal Entry; Jesus is going to incite rebellion and no doubt the occupying Roman power will move quickly to suppress it.  They no doubt envision losing control of the Temple, the political/religious heart of the Jews, and who knows what the fallout will be?  They fear the comfortable positions of power and privilege they have enjoyed are in peril.  The ironic truth is that they are right to fear Jesus, just not in the ways they imagined.  The other aspect of their fear is that even though Jesus comes with no army as such, this vast crowd in Jerusalem for Passover, celebrating deliverance from a cruel oppressor, could easily be incited to mob action and their anger could turn not just on the Roman garrison but also the religious elite (i.e. compromisers with Rome).

The crowds in the story function as crowds often do.  They are easily inspired and these crowds long to be free from the oppression of Rome.  It is clear that the crowd understands this to be a Triumphal Entry.  Throughout Jesus’ time with them they have viewed him primarily through a messianic lens, but this lens was a cultural one which is why they were often confused and/or offended by his teaching. John 2:23-25 makes an interesting observation about the crowds and their reaction to Jesus’ miracles:  They believed in him but Jesus did not believe the crowds because he knew what was in their hearts (my paraphrase).  In other words the crowd is a fickle group, believing but we’re never really sure if they truly believe.  They may believe but is it belief in a messiah of their own understanding?  The crowd is easily excited but they are also easily disappointed and angered.  We wonder how many in this same crowd were caught up in the anger of those shouting “crucify” just a week later?

The disciples (this includes more than just the 12 although they are the focus) are part of the crowd but also distinct from it.  Each Gospel to varying degrees pictures the disciples as confused but following.  They, like the crowds assume “Messiah” comes with a certain agenda.  This agenda may have various components but high on the list was defeat of Israel’s enemy and freedom at last. They try to make sense of Jesus teaching but much of it does not fit into their existing categories.  For instance:  “How will the meek ever inherit the earth, how can love ever overcome evil?  That may sound nice but we don’t see how all this will help dealing with the reality of Roman oppression.”  Again, confused but following.  During the preceding months Jesus has been telling them he is going to Jerusalem to die so they have been made aware that this trip is fraught with danger. We get the sense the disciples have been hearing Jesus but not willing to accept this reality.  On this day they are probably still hopeful that Jesus will finally “act.”  So, was this a Triumphal Entry as far as the disciples were concerned?  Yes and No, John’s Gospel tell us that all the events of this day left the disciples confused:  At first his disciples did not understand all this but only after the resurrection did these things make sense (John 12:16).  But for now, confused but following.

By Jesus’ actions it is clear that he knows exactly what he is doing.  Yes, he is making a kingly entrance…just not in the way envisioned by the religious leaders and the crowds.  With the benefit of hindsight we realize that for those with the eyes to see Jesus was acting with deliberate prophetic irony.  His entrance was humble and on a donkey, in direct contrast to the usual arrogant conqueror riding into a city astride his magnificent stallion.  He is coming to his city, his Temple, not as a conqueror but as a reluctant judge.  He laments over the city that would not receive him and anticipates her doom (Luke 19:41-44, destroyed by Rome within about 30 years).  He acts out a symbolic prophetic act of condemnation on the Temple when he throws out the moneychangers.  Yet in some sense Jesus is entering as a king prepared to do battle with his enemies.  Except that the enemies were not Rome or the religious elite; the enemies were sin and death and the only way to defeat those enemies was to be a sacrifice.  The only way to bring about the future the crowds and his disciples desired was to do battle with the true enemy.  So was this a Triumphal Entry for Jesus?  Yes, but in a way no one could comprehend.  Jesus will be King but on his terms.

In reading this biblical narrative it is helpful to ask not which of these groups surrounding Jesus do I specifically identify with but rather how do I see myself at times in all these groups? These groups are not designed to give us neat categories for labeling because truth be told there is an element of each in all of us.  I identify with the wealthy religious leaders who are concerned about their power, their wealth, their status.  Jesus says those are all a hindrance to me following.  I can identify with the crowd because I understand how easy it is to flow along with the crowd, my American culture.  I understand how easy it is for the Jesus I follow to inadvertently become a Jesus I have created out of my own desire of what I wish him to be. I identify with the disciples because I understand the confused but following nature of discipleship.  Because following Jesus is more than a once and done decision; it is more than a salvation experience, more than a baptism, more than a confirmation, it is a series of ongoing decisions to follow the way of Jesus; live the way he lived and taught, a life that is paradoxically self-denying but life-giving.  As one writer commented:  we want the Jesus who saves us from sin but not so much the one who tells us how to live.  To some extent all three groups in this narrative saw Jesus’ Triumphal Entry through the wrong lenses; this Palm Sunday ask for the eyes to see this Triumphal Entry through the right lenses.




A New Testament Lament

I would think, or at least hope that in the past few weeks American pulpits have been filled with preachers lamenting the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, the rash of terrorist attacks across the globe, and the growing anti-Islam rhetoric and accompanying acts of hatred.  Lament passages are scattered throughout the Scriptures, the most well-known being found in the Psalter.

If I had a pulpit I would choose a passage that has been running through my mind on a regular basis.  That passage is Paul’s lament in Romans 8:18-27.  Perhaps the least known part of Romans 8 compared to the often quoted 8:28 and the famous “more than conquerors” conclusion to the chapter which serves as a fitting conclusion to the lament that precedes it.  Lament Psalms normally end in praise.

Romans 8:18-27 is the “groaning” section.  The immediate context makes the bold claim that our present suffering does not compare to the glory to be revealed in us.  However, in the present creation groans awaiting redemption.  We also groan awaiting our redemption, the hope to which the faithful cling.  Finally, the Spirit also groans on our behalf when life reduces us to nothing but agonizing, frustrating, hurt-filled, speechlessness.

These past few weeks I have struggled with anger, frustration, and feelings of extreme discouragement when I see what is happening in our world and in my “backyard.”  It has reminded me that all the groaning in Romans 8 is really nothing more than a longing for the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, a longing for the world to be redeemed, to be made right and God’s true justice to rule.

However until that time creation, we, and the Spirit must groan.


Christian or Political?

I have thought many times about the question of my political priorities, particularly as I read the Gospels and the Prophets.  With the horrible series of bombings in and around Paris the question seems inescapable to me.  How would I know if my responses to such evil reflects the values demanded of the people of God, the Church, or if they reflect my politics or citizenship?  For me, the two responses I have seen too much of bring the contrast into focus.

Response #1   Bomb ISIS:  It is no great secret that with all bombing innocent civilians will die.  “Civilized” countries admit this is unfortunate but it is a cost we are willing to pay.  The recent bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan is a recent example.  The US Christian’s cry for justice rings hollow when it includes the cry for bombing ISIS controlled cities.  Jesus demands that we love our enemies and pray for them.  How do we twist that into support for war?  Paul reminds the Church that our fight is not against flesh and blood but every poll of Evangelicals affirms that in fact the Church does not share that view.  When did the Apostles’ view that we obey God not man (the State) go by the wayside?  Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine.

Response #2  Close our borders to war refugees:  It is a bitter but expected irony that the political response to both issues devalues the lives of those outside our borders with the stated purpose of protecting those inside the borders.  But why should Christians be surprised?  Every objection, however reasonable it sounds, is based on politics and fear, not the clear teachings of Jesus. Do I really need to cite the litany of verses in Scripture that demand love for the refugee and oppressed?

I would hope that in our American churches we are reminding those who claim to follow Jesus that with this claim comes the demands of Jesus and the teachings of his Apostles.  I would hope that time is taken to lovingly chastise those who claim to follow, but their views and passions reflect more on their American citizenship and their fears than their membership in the Kingdom of God.

Followers of Jesus are not supposed to care about political borders.  Within the international Body of Christ that we call the Church we are all brothers and sisters.  For those who make no claim to follow Jesus, they are our neighbors, regardless of whatever political borders separate us.  We recognize they exist but they do not control how we love, and love is demanded.  What our politicians decide is in many ways outside our control but the Church has a Leader who demands our allegiance and he demands that we do the hard work of love because that is the path that leads to life.

Which part will the American church play in the parable of the Good Samaritan?  Let the politicians play their political games but please let the Church be the Church!

A Meditation on Reaching and Overreaching


Often when I exercise I end up meditating on some idea. Some days it has nothing to do with the music I am listening to but often a line or two from a song will take me down a path. Today was one of those days. I decided to listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys album and lyrics from three songs took me down the path of meditating on the idea of reaching. Here are the lyrics:

You Are a Tourist
Cause when you find yourself the villain
In the story you have written
It’s plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions
Are in need of redemption

Unobstructed Views
No unobstructed view, no perfect truth

St. Peter’s Cathedral
At St. Peter’s cathedral, there is stained glass
There is a steeple that is reaching
Up towards the heavens
Such ambition never failing to amaze me

Here is the main idea of my meditation: We were created as “reachers” but we struggle with “overreaching.”

Two trains of thought:

1. From Genesis is the idea that we were created to rule the world and to interact with our fellow creatures with the same care that the Creator has for it (in this way we image God) but humanity has shown the tendency to usurp God and rule as they see fit. In other words, we become God.
2. From Ecclesiastes 3:11 is the paradox that we possess an innate creaturely desire to understand (God, life, etc.) but the reality is that we never can in any ultimate sense.

In Genesis 1-3 there is the well-known ancient story of the man and woman who were created for a specific purpose. Not to bore you with OT theology but Genesis 1 and 2 are two origin tales that the Israelites used to communicate that they understood God’s design for them to be kings and priests. In other words the man and the woman were to rule the earth as God would have and they were to mediate God’s presence in the world. They were created to be God’s images in the world. Of course Genesis 3 is the tragic story of mankind choosing to usurp God’s authority and become gods themselves. Mankind was created to reach but chose the path of overreaching instead. There is an interesting statement that comes at the conclusion of the story: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See man has become like one of us (a fascinating rabbit trail I will resist), knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’…he drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (NRSV). Jump ahead to Genesis 11 and you have the story written to explain why mankind does not all speak the same language. Most are familiar that the story forms the natural conclusion to Genesis 3; mankind unites and in their hubris determine to build a tower into the heavens, the dwelling place of the gods. In this way mankind shows its determination to usurp God. This statement often gets lost in the telling of the story: “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’” (NRSV). God recognizes that mankind has twisted his creaturely intent and is (hell) bent on going his own way and in fact they will be unstoppable. I think God nailed his prediction on mankind’s ability to overreach.

The implications are probably obvious. From the earliest history of mankind most likely every advance in our understanding of the world has quickly had a military application, from discovering that slinging a rock could kill another person to nuclear weapons. What about genetic engineering? What about our exploitation of the world’s resources? I could literally go on for pages exploring all the ways in which over the course of human history mankind has overreached rather than simply reached. Man’s God given desire to know has often morphed into man’s desire to “play” God, replace God.

The second train of thought (this was prompted by something a couple friends of mine are writing about) runs more along the tracks of a distinctly Christian application. Our God-given drive to reach in terms of our desire to understand God and his ways often morphs into overreaching as well. Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 says, “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (NIV). The sage who composed Ecclesiastes expresses his frustration at his desire to connect the dots but his inability to do so. In a different context Paul writes to the believer in Ephesus, “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (NRSV). The answer to not being able to understand is not to stop attempting but keep on frustrating yourself in the attempt.

So in this attempt to understand God how do we know when we are reaching and when we are overreaching? What can we confidently say about God, about his revelation, and when do we admit we have overreached? There is certainly not an easy answer and certainly not a conclusive answer. Obviously Christian history is littered with the evidence that we have a proclivity to overreach. The Inquisition of the Catholic Church is a prime example. For Americans, look no further than the splintering of Protestant Christianity into hundreds of denominations and “non-denominations.” Each one formed because they overreached

Most of you are probably familiar with the phrase “putting God in a box.” The reality is the vast majority of our “God boxes” are constructed with materials from the “Bible boxes” we have created. I don’t know how many times I have heard, “the Bible clearly teaches” or when speaking of another tradition, “I don’t know how they get that from that passage.” There is unfortunately too little knowledge of even the basics of the history of interpretation or the multitude of factors that influence interpretation—for instance genre and the reader’s own perspective just to name two.

Here are just a few of the God boxes or Bible boxes I have experienced.

Evolution cannot be true.
Women cannot be “The” pastor or a priest.
Certain Spirit gifts stopped with the Apostles.
Works have nothing to do with salvation.
God wants us to be successful.
Genesis 1-11 must be history.
The Gospel is reduced to Jesus dying so you can go to heaven when you die.
There are no errors in the Bible because God made sure that each writer said exactly what God wanted expressed, right down to the very word selection.

I have no formula for when you know you or someone else is overreaching as opposed to reaching. Don’t you wish it were easier? I remember Rob Bell saying when speaking of the Bible: Is this the best God could do?

My conclusion will be as unsatisfying to you as it is to me but I’ll conclude with a few general indications you may be overreaching.

1. You treat the Bible as a guide-book or a how-to-book.
2. You treat the Bible as being full of promises to you.
3. You believe all your church’s traditions (sorry but I don’t have time for a list but it would be lengthy) and or doctrines are clearly taught in the Bible. Other tradition or denominations are not following the clear teachings of the Bible.
4. You believe, if you’re honest, that your understanding of the Bible means you vote Republican or Democrat.
5. You believe on some level that America is God’s nation. You believe that being patriotic is part of being a good Christian.

I can’t develop this idea but I am not saying that overreaching is the same thing as being confident in what you believe. Overreaching is evidenced by the rigidity of belief that says, “I am right and you are wrong and there is no need to discuss” or “because I don’t agree with you, you are not welcome here.” So we are back where we started. All of this is God’s fault! (insert smiley face here!). God has created us with us desire to reach but we have an amazing ability to overreach.

Postscript: If you’re wondering why I didn’t reference the Death Cab for Cutie songs it’s because they’re art and you don’t explain art! The first song lyrics may not be an obvious connection but the second and third are pretty apparent.

Also the two friends of mine whom I mention are Larry Tindall and Julia Tindall Bloom. They along with another friend are working at publishing their book, Frankenchurch. It will hopefully be available soon in ebook format.