Why Would You Give Up Something For Lent?

This is a question I ask myself every year, and if you are among those of us who give something up, the why may be the most important part of your Lenten fast. Do you give something up because your faith community does, and because you always have? Is it a way to jump-start your new diet? Are you trying to quit smoking, overeating or drinking until you blackout? Is there some other habit you want to break and you love the support of a Lent practicing community?? Do you want to undertake some heroic discipline to prove your devotion to God? Do you think if you don’t eat chocolate God loves you more?

The answer to that last question, when we put it so baldly, is an obvious no. God will not love us more if we spend less time on Facebook, don’t eat chocolate or candy, or give up (for the next six weeks) eating green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in house, with a mouse, here or there or anywhere. And yet, sometimes our participation in fasts or religious practices feel like it is just us trying to prove our worth to God.

The prophet Samuel’s words to Saul offer us a corrective, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey is better than sacrifice. Unfortunately, us post-modern pilgrims find neither obedience or sacrifice appealing and sometimes miss the wisdom in the prophet’s words. Sacrifice was a ritual designed to appease a god. When done right, it reminded the person sacrificing of their own brokenness and the way they wound themselves, others, and God. When done poorly, as Saul did in 1 Sam. 15, it was a way to honor God without submitting to God’s desire for our lives. We don’t sacrifice rams, but our Lenten fast can be a similar religious pretending. We may fast before God when our heart is somewhere else. 

movie-poster-joy-luck-clubBut obedience is a hard thing for us too. We tend to think of obedience in legalistic terms. A slavish following of rules and a harsh authority structure.  One of my favorite movies is the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club (1993). There is one scene where Suyuan, an immigrant from China, and little girl June clash over her not wanting to take piano lessons, and Suyuan shouts, “Only two kinds of daughter. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter lives in this house. Obedient kind!” As a father of girls, I quote this to my daughters all the time. And they both ignore me every single time I say it.

The word obey in Hebrew was shema. It means hearing, listening, attending to. The obedient life is the listening life. It is a lifestyle mindful of God’s presence in our lives. To obey is to pay attention to God and God’s desires for us. This is the first and best reason to give up something for Lent: to train our ears and hearts to hear God and listen to him in all of life. If we give something up, it is because we recognize it as a thing that numbs our sense of the Divine. We eschew distraction in order to be more mindful and to listen well.

The second reason we fast in Lent, is because we believe spiritual transformation is possible. It is why I do it. I recognize I am not who I want to be, and I am not who I pretend to be most of the time. I earnestly wish I was more compassionate, braver, more prayerful, and less petty, shallow, and wounded. I believe in spiritual transformation, that as we give our heart to God, he makes us new. I give something up, I fast, I cast off distractions because I hope it will change me.

But our spiritual transformation is not just about personal change. It is about welcoming the Kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, cities, our nation. One of the reasons we don’t see a greater change in our lives is because of our participation in systems and structures which mitigate against God’s coming kingdom.

For example, we all agree racism is pretty awful. People should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But we do not live in a post-race society. Our culture still bears the mark of centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, historic redlining and discriminatory policies, mass incarceration of African American males (when white American’s guilty of similar crimes get lighter or no sentence), violence against the Black community, etc.  As a white privileged person, I am part of a system that has benefited me, even in ways I’m not particularly aware, and hurt other people. Our belief in spiritual transformation challenges these systemic realities. It can’t be only about private devotion. Spiritual transformation means welcoming the system overhaul of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible passage that best informs every Lenten fast (or any other kind of fast) is Isaiah 58.  Isaiah  58:6-9 reads:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

When we make fasting and Lent about ourselves and solely about our relationship with God, we are doing it wrong. Yes, it is good to break some bad personal habits, but how can our Lenten Fast participate in God’s justice? Are the oppressed set free because we gave up Scotch (but not other single malts)?

1024px-fast_dayI try to think about Justice with my Lenten fast. For several years, I have given up, to various degrees, eating meat during Lent. But as I’ve done this, I have also tried to faithfully cross-examine my economic participation in America’s industrial food complex. Issues come up like our cruelty to animals, economic oppression of rural farmers, exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, environmental stewardship, etc. Taking a step back from my consumption of certain things has given me space to examine my lifestyle and choices. I am not vegan (except seasonly, during Lent), but because of trying to practice Lent conscientiously, I have changed some of my buying practices the rest of the time too.

If you give up chocolate, God doesn’t love you more. But when we recognize that the harvesting of cocoa beans in West Africa exploits child labor and slaves and that our conspicuous consumption (not to mention the demand for cheap chocolate) contributes to untold suffering, we begin to make changes. Our fast unties the yoke of injustice.

So give something up for Lent. Use your fast as a way to cast off patterns of life that distract you. Attend to God’s presence in your life. Believe that spiritual transformation is possible and look for ways to participate in God’s justice.


Two Recent Poems

These two poems are reflections on recent news and the paltry response to sexual violence in the church. If this topic is an open wound and a trigger, please skip reading this. As a follower of Jesus and a man, I want to have a compassionate response toward the #metoo movement and the stories women are telling. Too often, Christian men have failed to really listen and we have also failed to call victimizers to account. 

You see God, but do You hear?

El Roi—the God who sees.
Well, God,
we all see too much.
Open your ears
and hear the
cries of the broken,
scattered mass
crying ‘me too.’
We don’t want,
the mercy
which papers over
the sins of victimizers
demanding we forgive
the things that
never owned.

Hear us.
Hear us.
Times up,

Spring, 1998

 [warning: graphic content, press the link above to read Jules Woodson’s story]

That was Savage there,
at the end of
the dirt road,
taking by force
what was yours alone
to give and then,
quaking with chagrin
pleading with you
to pledge
to him your

Later that savage
told a flock of
horny teens:
True Love Waits—
Take the long view!
your future wife
is a Jewel that 
ought to be

Did you feel treasured, Jules?
When he unzipped his pants
and demanded of you: Suck it?
Or when he had you
unbutton your blouse
and jumped from
the driver seat,
aware in
that moment
of the damage
this would do
to (no, not you)
his career?

You were crying in
the church office,
the senior pastor,
conspicuously absent.
He saw your tears,
but Larry,
Cotton in his ears,
wouldn’t hear.
“So you are saying you participated?”
“We’ll handle it.”

Twenty years later,
The rich man fatted
with lamb,
No prophet Nathan
came to stand
before the man
and demand
For what
he took.

But you stood—
for you
(but not just you),
for the others,
so no more
Cotton men
to hear.

Jump for Joy

I was briefly a mascot of a Christian rock band called Frolic like a Heifer. They would sheepishly admit that they got their name from Jeremiah 50:11, which described the judgment on Babylon (in that context, frolicking like a heifer was not a good thing). At a couple of their concerts, while the band played, I came out in a cow costume and danced around. One time,  I almost died an ironic death.

It was at the Baptist Student Union near the University of Hawaii campus. The concert was part of a year-end party. In the middle of my dancing shenanigans, I grabbed myself a burger so I could eat it while dancing around in a cow costume. I thought it was funny, a cow eating a burger. But in the middle of some killer dance moves, I almost choked. The burger lodged in my throat. I gasped for air.

SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t die that day.

The burger dislodged and I was saved from an embarrassing end. I would not get awarded a Darwin Award for choking on a burger while dressed as a cow. Everything was okay and we all had a great time, frolicking like a heifer.

In the Bible, joy and warnings of judgment are often intertwined. Consider another dancing cow passage:

Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:1-6).

The great and fearsome Day of the Lord will come. The wicked will burn like stubble in a fire and will be trampled underfoot.  The ominous threat of judgment chars the air. But not for all. The sun of righteousness will rise, healing in its rays, and cows will dance. Elijah, a voice crying in the wilderness, will turn the hearts of children to their parents and parents’ hearts to their children, averting the land’s total destruction.

We don’t much like talking about judgment (it’s so judgy!), but Advent reminds us of both joy and judgment. Without judgment, there is no justice and the arc of the moral universe bends toward chaos. Without the promise of joy—healing, wholeness and repaired relationships—we are without hope. Judgment calls us to set right whatever is wrong in our lives. The promise of joy makes us want to.

The thing is, we are all complicit in so much. Human flourishing and our standard of living in the modern West, have contributed to human suffering, injustice and environmental destruction. Where were your shoes made? Who made them? Or the tablet you are reading this on? For the most part, we don’t know, and when we do know, we try not to think about it.  Each of us is a dancing cow, choking on a burger. We are happy and oblivious to our own destruction.

The promise of joy in the passage above is that when the dreadful day of the Lord comes, the Elijah will come and prepare the way, leading us to repair our broken relationships—children and parents, parents and children. With relational wholeness, on the Day of the Lord, we will frolick like well-fed calves. We will jump for joy.


All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

Why don’t we practice peace?

Is that we don’t regard the biblical vision of Shalom as a practical alternative to the violence all around us? Is it all just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Walter Wink observed, “Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism” (Jesus & Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003, p.9).

And he’s right, isn’t he? Turn the other cheek seems like an awful way to stand up to a bully (if you like your face). Love your enemy sounds sooo naive. Pray for those who persecute you. Just what we need in the world: more thoughts and prayers!  If only Jesus had more American pragmatism about him. Didn’t he know that the best way to keep the peace is through a show of strength? Take up your cross? Nope. “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.”

But it isn’t just that we think the peace of Jesus as impractical idealism. We also lack the spiritual and moral imaginations to live at peace. Our Western mindsets cause us to think of our spiritual lives in individualistic terms. We talk about personal disciplines (e.g. daily Bible reading, prayer, quiet times, meditation). Our evangelical emphasis on personal conversion emphasizes our personal responsibility in the Christian life.  And yet to practice peace is to enter deeper in relationship. God’s shalom is always communal. It ripples out from Father, Spirit, Son—the perichoretic peace within the Godhead—into our hearts, our neighborhoods, our nations and all creation.

When we think about practicing peace we need to reimagine communal contexts for our actions. The individual who turns the other cheek may incur the violence of a bully or enable abuse to continue. But non-violent direct action becomes powerful when done in the community, before a watching world.

The Civil Rights era has become part of our cultural memory. Nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham awakened national outrage at the injustices faced by the Black Community. America saw BullConner, the KKK, White citizen councils, firehoses and dogs, young people jailed and beaten and finally decided that enough was enough (and yes, there is still so much work to be done!). The power of turning the other cheek is that shames the oppressor into repentance (Wink, 27). Turning the other cheek is all about social change.

When an individual person loves their enemy, it does something. At least one person has learned to rehumanize the opposition—to not see their enemy, whether nations or those across the political aisle, as evil incarnate. But the real power of enemy love is found when churches and communities commit together to a vision of humanity that leaves space for the redemption of the other. Wink writes:

It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny [w]hat they have of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. (58-59).

Can you imagine what it would look like if the church in North America were committed to this sort of vision of shalom? If we refused to demonize or write off anyone? What if we regarded Democrats, Republicans, the LGBT community, Westboro Baptist Church, Pro-Choice advocates, evangelicals, Muslims, terrorists, refugees, undocumented immigrants as all worthy of redemption?

The Advent vision of shalom is that one day wolf and lamb will lie down together (Isa. 11:6). The oppressed and the oppressor will be at peace; they will no longer be prey and predator. Do we dare hope for this? How can we become a people committed to seeing the humanity of oppressors, enemies, and adversaries?

Pray for those persecuted! But please, do it in public! Our world won’t be transformed when our cries against injustice are only done in private devotion.

The autumn of 2017 erupted with cries online of #metoo and brave women and men sharing stories of systemic abuse from Hollywood producers, actors, politicians, and executives. Time magazine named their person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” When darkness is brought to light, systemic change becomes possible.

Praying for the persecuted names injustice. It points it out. When we pray in public for the victims of religious violence around the globe, or victims of sexual violence, when we dare to acknowledge before God and the world the ways our unjust systems privilege one person’s race or economic status and do violence toward another, we both bear witness to our lack of shalom and commit to no longer being complicit in injustice. We can’t pray publicly about the persecuted, downtrodden and oppressed and remain the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.

Jesus’s call to nonviolence comes with a promise:

But  I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  -Matthew 5:44-45

It is as we love our enemies we become the household of God!

John Lennon’s sang: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. I dare to hope for God’s shalom. But if peace is ever to have a chance we can’t embody it alone. May we become the “we” that gives peace a chance.

Healing Hatred in Rwanda: a book review

When John Steward arrived in Rwanda in 1997, three years after the genocide, he was greeted by Rwandans who told him in a friendly, but direct manner, “Welcome to Rwanda. You have a difficult job— and please don’t ask me to forgive anybody” (11). He was there to coordinate reconciliation and peacebuilding work. He began searching for models that emphasized ‘the process of healing, the journey of forgiveness and the possibility of reconciliation (13). He also wanted to sensitive to the African culture and context. Building on the work of Rwandan psychologist, Simon Gasibirege, they began holding Personal Development Workshops (PDW) which helped Tutsis, and Hutus work through the pain of genocide and racial tensions.

9781783688838From Genocide to Generosity tells the stories of those impacted by Steward’s work in Rwanda, testimonies of those who faced grief, rage, and deep wounds, and took steps towards reconciliation and healing. In his prologue, John Steward shares how he was prepared for his Rwandan work when eighteen months prior to his trip to Rwanda when his wife told him he needed to work on his attitude. He began attending a workshop called, “Men Exploring Non-Violent Solutions”—an anger-management course. Through doing his own inner work and observing the emotional healing of other participants (many of whom were court ordered attendees), he built a foundation for his Rwandan work.

My own understanding of the Rwandan Genocide has been mediated through films like Hotel Rwanda (2004), Beyond the Gate (2005), and books like Roméo Antonius Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil (2003) and Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season (2003). Of these, only Hatzfeld’s book does the best job describing the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, and from the perspective of convicted perpetrators of violence. Steward casts a wider net, sharing about the healing journey of both the victims and victimizers.

This book is part of the Langham Global Library (a ministry of the Langham Partnership) and was a 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year: Gold Award Winner in the category of Grief/Grieving. It is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, as you hear stories of how people have picked up the fragments of their life after a profound tragedy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book through the SpeakEasy Blog Review Program in exchange for my honest review

Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland.  I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town.  I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but  my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape.  Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.  Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important.  I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

U is for Upending (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” -Matthew 21:12-13

Until Jesus entered the temple courts he was hailed as Israel’s Messianic hope—the Anointed One who would return to save people from their oppression.  His first act after to riding into town, shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears, was to fashion a makeshift whip, overturn the tables of money changers in the temple courts.

The Passion Conference and Maranatha weren’t the first to turn worship into big business. In the 1st century, worshippers came to the temple and sacrificed animals to God. The offering of the poor was a dove. Doves were available to them if they would just pay a fee plus a surplus tax. Money changers exchanged the coins of diaspora Jews for the temple coin, the Tyrian shekel (a coin without a graven image on it). This exchange was not in their favor.

Temple economics were the antithesis of care for the poor, widowed, orphaned and foreigners (Zechariah 7:10). It was a system of exploitation and it made a mockery out of the worship of God that was supposed to be happening there. A den of robbers, not a house of prayer.

Overturning the tables (or destruction of property during a protest) did not and does not bring about immediate change. However, this wasn’t just a one-time thing. Jesus entire ministry involved upending our expectations and socio-political systems. In The Upside-Down Kingdom (Herald Press, Updated Edition, 2011), Donald Kraybill writes, “From beginning to end, from start to finish, the thread of inversion and irony weaves its ways through the gospel”(211).  He began his public ministry reading these words from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1,2).

All throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged systems of oppression, spiritual elitism, gender roles, structures, and Empire. By the necessity, the Kingdom of God upends all other contenders to the throne and welcomes a new way of life where the poor, the prisoners, the blind and lame find love and welcome.  Yet it was Jesus’ symbolic act, upending of tables in the temple courts, which very well be the act which got him killed.

If you follow the story through, you know the upending was not done. Jesus would take a cross, the symbol of Roman dominance over any would-be revolutionary, and turned it into a symbol of how far God would go to welcome us home. The first witnesses to his resurrection (women) defied cultural expectations. And Jesus’ surprising upending still happens whenever people choose to live by the values of upside-down kingdom instead of the American dream.

A decade ago, a craze hit the Christian world—rubber bracelets stamped with the letters “WWJD?” There was other Kitsch as well: t-shirts, necklaces, hats, temporary tattoos, pencils, travel mugs, etc. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and were drawn from the ninteenth century novel by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps. The idea behind the slogan (and the novel) was that as we go about our daily life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves, we ask “what would Jesus do right now if he were in our shoes?” My sarcastic reply whenever I saw WWJD bling on the wrist of a friend was, “Jesus wouldn’t buy that.” And it’s true because he already would know what he’d do.

We live in a world where the rich profit off the poor, “a livable wage” is fodder for political debate, bombing another country is framed as humanitarian relief, and refugees and immigrants are regarded with suspicion, minorities still suffer discrimination. I think it is  now time for us to stand with Jesus in the temple courts, fashion our makeshift whips and ask, “What Would Jesus Upend?”