Real Ministry, Real Friendship

Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer patience and faith that nurturing relationships requires. Tasks can be completed, and career success can be measured, but how do you take stock of friendship? Community, friendship, family – none of these provide the thrill of objective success. There is no victorious endpoint; just the opportunity for more struggle, growth and learning. When we fill our lives with tasks, we can maintain the illusion of control. Once we enter the realm of genuine relationship, however, it’s impossible to hide the fact that we’re not in charge. Our lives depend on the choices of others.

I’ve been discovering the terrible joy of this reality in my own life lately. As tough as it is to give up my grandiose visions and dreams of measurable success, the call to be in relationship keeps growing stronger. I’m invited to reach out to my neighbors, my literal neighbors, the people who live in my geographical area. I am given the exquisite challenge of opening my life to the people all around me who are in need of love and support.

I’m learning that I’m in need of these things, too. The deeper I move into relationship, the more I realize how desperately I need others, too. Friendship, in the truest sense, is not about me reaching down to help others with their problems. It is more like one blind man calling out to another, hoping that together we can find the way. Steeped in a sense of my own need and brokenness, I am discovering a model of ministry that leads from a point of desperation.

When I am truly in touch with my own need, I can no longer pick and choose the people I’d like to be in relationship with. Instead, they pick me, through their hunger for deeper meaning, and their willingness to share life with me, no strings attached. The more I get in touch with the reality of my own condition, the less I stop judging other people’s worthiness. I need friends, companions in this journey of discipleship. I’ll walk alongside anyone who seeks to be faithful to Christ in community.

I won’t sugarcoat it: It’s disorienting and humiliating to no longer feel in control of my own life. Yet, to my great joy and surprise, I’m finding that this way of transparent brokenness and unabashed vulnerability is a whole lot more fulfilling than my old ways of operating. At the end of the day, relationship is worth a whole lot more than achievement, and friendship is better than fame. Discovering brothers and sisters who will walk the sometimes lonely path of discipleship with me is the greatest gift of all.

Christian? Better Pick Up That Cross

When I first became a Christian, I’m pretty sure I didn’t sign up for being nailed to a cross. Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus says we can look forward to when we become his follower. The more time I spend with him, the more convinced I become that the path that he guides me on leads to disgrace and death in the eyes of the world.

It’s not surprising that we Christians tend to downplay this reality. If you’re looking to recruit people to attend your churches, buy your books, and listen to your sermons, a message of sacrifice and death-to-self is probably not going to be the most effective way to gather a crowd. The cross is many things, but it’s certainly no marketing tool.

Even in an increasingly skeptical society like ours, it’s still a lot easier to talk about the resurrection than the crucifixion. Non-Christians may not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but a lot of folks are still drawn to the metaphor. We all want to be transformed. Everybody wants to rise from the dead and live in glory. Abundant life is not a hard sell.

It’s another matter entirely, however, when we face the real cost of this overflowing life that Jesus promises us. There is beauty and power in the resurrection of Jesus, but we cannot lay hold of this new life without taking part in his death. As tantalizing as the resurrection life sounds, I haven’t met many people who are eager to be nailed to the cross. I’m definitely not.

It’s tempting to skip the cross altogether, to go straight from Gethsemane to the empty tomb. A lot of Christians only talk about Jesus’ teaching and his resurrection, skipping over Golgotha altogether. Other times, we take an entirely different tack, elevating Jesus’ death on the cross to such a high theological level that it becomes almost irrelevant to mere mortals such as ourselves. We breathe a sigh of relief and thank God that it is finished. Jesus died on the cross so that we don’t have to.

Yet, when we avoid the cross – whether by spiritualizing Jesus’ painful death, or bypassing it altogether – we are ultimately unfaithful to the heart of the gospel. Fleeing the cross, we abandon the very path that Jesus has given us to walk. It is only when we embrace the crucifixion – not simply as a past event, but as an ongoing reality that we are called to experience as followers of Jesus – that we truly become his disciples.

What does this look like for you? What are those areas of your life that Jesus is calling you to yield to the cross? Are you ready to lose your life in ways that you can’t even imagine now, in order to enter the reality of abundant life that comes through and beyond the cross?

Wake Up, America – Racism is Real

For almost two weeks, the eyes of the world have been focused on the daylight execution of a black teen by a white police officer, the outrage of the African-American community, and the heavy-handed, militarized response of the local police force. With each day that passes, it becomes clearer that the mess in Ferguson speaks directly to the continuing struggle that all of us face – as individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole – as we seek to address the wounds of generational injustice, violence, and race/class hatred.

I have hesitated to write about Ferguson, for several reasons. First of all, I’m a white guy, and the last thing this conversation needs is another white person lecturing about the oppression of black people. No matter how well-intended, white discourse on the reality of racism is fraught with difficulties. Simply put, I will never know what it is like to be black in America.

Another reason I shy away from writing about Ferguson is that it is controversial. Believe it or not, I find it uncomfortable to wade into matters of public debate – particularly those that have taken on a political tone, as this current crisis has. No one in their right mind wants to invite the kind of hate-mail that is inevitably generated by discussions of hot button issues like racism and structural injustice in the United States.

Finally, I have hesitated to write about events in Ferguson, Missouri because to do so would force me to be vulnerable. For me to write authentically about the scourge of racism, I must wrestle with the many ways in which I participate in racism – both structural and personal. To talk about racial inequality demands that I face my own complicity in systems of oppression that go back centuries, but which still have us in their grip today.

This is scary stuff. While most Americans have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that our country once had a problem with racism, it is challenging to confess that we still find ourselves captive to the spirit of race-based oppression. We remember proudly how our country lopped off the branches of chattel slavery in the 1860s, and we glory in the civil rights movement, which cut down the trunk of Jim Crow a century later. But it is harder to recognize that beneath that monumental stump there is a profound root structure of injustice that coils tightly around us as a society. No number of memorials to Martin Luther King built atop that stump will remove the roots that choke our nation’s soul.

The crisis in Ferguson presents white Americans like me with an opportunity to wake up to the reality of ongoing, structural racism in our country. Slavery is formally abolished, and Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land, but the spirit of both are alive and well in our cities: In police forces that target our black neighbors and occupy their streets with counterinsurgency-style tactics; in our cities that are sharply segregated by race and class; in a prison system that disproportionately jails black men; and in all the subtle ways that I as a white person am taught to fear and look down on blackness.

Seeing is always the hardest part. This is why the first of the 12 Steps is admitting we have a problem. The first phase of Jesus’ ministry is to call us to repentance. The first step of the Quaker spiritual path is to stand still in the light, allowing it to show us our darkness. If we are willing to acknowledge the challenge that we face, the Holy Spirit will give us power to change, digging up the roots of evil and planting seeds of righteousness.

Are we ready to see yet? As white people, can we resist the temptation to blame black Americans for the conditions of their oppression? Will we choose to avoid the pitfall of framing this crisis as a question of (other people’s) personal responsibility, rather than being primarily structural – a system that we each bear some personal responsibility to deconstruct?

As a Christian, am I willing to acknowledge that Jesus was executed in public after being accused of insurrection against the state? Am I ready to acknowledge the echoes of the cross in the way that modern-day authorities brutalize my brothers and sisters in Ferguson? Am I willing to bear that cross, in some small way, even if it simply means taking an honest look in the mirror and repenting of the seeds of racism that are present in my own life?