nathanjhill.com

writing, reflecting, and hoping for a transformed world

O God of Resurrections,

We are surprised this morning.

Your goodness catches our breath.

You remind us of the beauty and unpredictability of Creation.

And You call us by name.

We praise You – that nothing stands between us and Your love.

We praise You – for overcoming death.

We praise You – for calling us to be disciples,

to co-create a New Creation with You.

On this Easter day, as we rise to joy and celebration,

guide our worship. Give us words to speak.

Forgive us when we stumble and struggle.

Heal us.

Help us see and know and believe.

And as You call us anew,

send us out to usher in resurrection everywhere we go.

May Your kingdom come, O Risen One.

In the name of the Creator, Son, and Spirit,

Amen!

As part of a new focus on study of scripture as a church, I decided to implement the Narrative Lectionary beginning last fall.

The Narrative Lectionary is a schedule of readings across a year that traverse the Bible more or less narratively. We began in Genesis, continued through major books of the Hebrew Bible, and have spent most of our December and Lent in the Gospel of John. It’s been really cool for our Thursday evening bible study group, because it does allow us to piece together different narratives and themes of scripture that reveal how deeply interlocked and connected these stories are.

For example, we preach on Jacob’s incredible spiritual vision of a ladder with angels going to and fro, and then later we read about Jesus in the Gospel of John speaking about angels descending and ascending in his presence.

When scripture is read in silos, we can miss how deeply Jewish scripture is and what we miss when we disconnect Jesus from his own community. (Of course, this should challenge us to confront our deep rooted anti-semitism in many theological interpretations and church practices.)

I recommend it if you want to shift in a different direction than the regular lectionary, but know there are other options out there like the Women’s Lectionary which look awesome too.

As part of my study and discipline to prep for sermons and discussions, I find the resources at NarrativeLectionary.org really helpful. There is a weekly blog post with commentary from diverse perspectives about the passage. You can also access archives of previous entries. There is a weekly podcast as well with theologians from Luther Seminary. It’s not a long podcast – usually 20 minutes, so it gives a quick entry point and some places to start.

Beyond that as far as resources, I enjoy the New Interpreter’s Commentary – my church has a copy which is a luxury, I know. Additional commentaries like the Global Bible Commentary, the Bible and Disability, Womanist Midrash, Women’s Bible Commentary, Voices from the Margins, and the People’s New Testament commentary also add to the conversation.

But the primary place that I often begin are still the pages of the Washington Post (or local news or whatever) and the voices and experiences of my congregation. They often add perspectives that I would never think of from their own stories and witness and questions. That’s the gift of a series like this.

I'm always looking for tools to help me organize my writing as a pastor, amateur sports journalist, and game designer.

I've used a variety of note apps on Mac and iOS over the years, like Notes, Bear, Evernote, VoodooPad, and more. The key is to have a cross-platform piece of software that synchronizes the notes, allowing me to edit and write wherever I am and whenever inspiration strikes. As a bonus, I prefer functionality to export documents to HTML or as a PDF and stash images and crucial links. Oh, and I love Markdown.

Bear.app has been my go to – it was pretty, pleasant to work with, and functional. However, I did get weary of using hashtags to mark documents for organization, as I kind of prefer a clean output option rather than having to delete the hashtags when emailing them to a colleague or copy-pasting them into an online editor. It's exporting functions were missing a few features too.

Enter Craft, a quickly maturing note/writing/production app that has swept me off my feet. I transitioned from Bear and now use it exclusively, except for some occasional quick notes in the basic Notes.app.

At its core, Craft is a little different. Yes, it can be used to type up documents of all kinds, but formatting is a key feature from the get go. Select an entire paragraph, and you can turn it into a quote, bold it, or whatever with various Markdown options. Sort articles into folders based around themes or projects.

Where Craft really rocks is its output options. Turning a Craft story into a DOC or PDF is simple, but even cooler is to create a private link that makes your sermon or game idea into a simple webpage for viewing. Even cooler than that is to write a rich text note to your congregation, for instance, with images and literally copy paste it into your email app to send out. It's gorgeous.

They’ve just added team options and various collaboration features.

An online version of this app is on the way too.

It’s great.

Here are some examples:

Over the past few years, I've written about soccer, specifically Major League Soccer and my beloved FC Dallas.

I got into FC Dallas while living in Dallas just past the 2010 World Cup. I decided I was going to follow the LA Galaxy back then because they had Landon Donovan, American hero. And yet I stumbled across an FC Dallas game on some sub-station on the cable network. They intrigued me – young players, lots of energy, and promise.

Plus, I could go watch them live. And indeed, I did.

They became my first season ticket experience as a sports fan. I attended my first playoff game. Over time, my knowledge of the game as a whole improved – understanding terminology, tactics, talent levels, and more.

While I don't consider myself a sports journalist on par with many seasoned pros at ESPN and elsewhere, writing about soccer has challenged me. You need a story of substance. Sure, you can just be silly and make up stuff, which I have done from time to time, but listening for stories, conflicts, and challenges can mean the difference between something boring and something interesting.

Stories show up in unlikely places – in a player showing up for a fan's birthday party, in a formation change, in conflict behind the scenes, in the stats from work on the field, in a goal by a clever player.

Writing about soccer has challenged me to pay attention to things I might have missed. I am still learning. I have so much to learn. But it's been fun to write about things other than theology.

Sometimes, a bunch of guys kicking a ball around is theology – it is life.

Matthew 11:25-30

#sermon

  • Yesterday afternoon, I had one of those naps that are just sublime. I was tired. I laid down on the couch, and somehow, I drifted off to sleep. It was maybe 20 minutes long. And it was the kind of nap that I woke up from surprised that I fell asleep.
  • I was grateful for that small gift of God’s presence with me yesterday, even as I am grateful for the big gift of you, University Christian Church, for giving my family and I time away this summer on sabbatical.
  • What is sabbatical? Sabbatical is not simply vacation. It is an opportunity to step away and step back. It is an opportunity to rest and renew. It is a chance to breathe after what has been a long and difficult couple of years. Sabbatical comes from the concept of sabbath – which is core to our Jewish siblings faith and the Torah, to mirror God’s rest on the seventh day of each week as we learn in Genesis 1, to simply be.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor, in the video we just watched, pointed out that sabbath is kind of a little death. We let go of our need to produce. Our need to be busy. We are given the holy gift of creating space in our life, space where we don’t have to necessarily live up to the expectations of our culture and world. And sometimes, that can feel like dying.
  • And I wonder why – maybe it is because sabbath is still so difficult for us to practice in our capitalistic, fast-paced world. For some of us, those who are students, those who are working jobs that are more than full-time, those with a household and family to look after, rest can seem like a luxury we do not have time for. Even for you who are retired, some of you have said you are busier in retirement than when you worked. What is that? What can we learn from Jesus about this gift of rest?
  • As I prayed over our passage this week, as Jesus declares to those gathered with him, the word “rest” is what stuck out to me.
  • In the opening part of this short passage, Jesus describes how God has given divine wisdom to infants. He doesn’t mean literally babies – but the most unlikely of their society – his disciples, the poor, those who hear and respond to Jesus’ invitation. This was a prophetic reversal.. No doubt – a direct incitement of religious leaders who believed you needed to have a long set of credentials to know God and how to follow God. Rather, God was prepared to work in those who didn’t mean their culture’s expectations.
  • There is joy in Jesus’ words. Following Jesus is life-giving. It is not a drudgery. It is not clocking in your time card. It is rest – compared to the world’s oversized drive to quantify our time and our skills into money into our value.
  • Jesus no doubt was contrasting some of the religious burdens placed upon people’s lives by certain religious leaders of his time – making it seem that God’s sabbath was unattainable.
  • But don’t we live with such outsized expectations? We are so busy. We are so burdened. One of our culture’s strong narratives is a focus on our growing economy, on our productivity, on our success. I heard a tech company CEO who claimed to only sleep five hours a day, because they had to work hard and be more productive and do more, more, more. I don’t think those expectations are healthy for any of us.
  • Who deserves rest? Think about the homeless person with their head curled up on a jacket at the steps to the train station, often harassed and told to move somewhere else. Even those stepped over deserve a place to rest – in fact, that was one of the reasons the Day Center was started.
  • Think of the Afghani people – fighting and struggling for years and years, wave and wave of violence. Think of all others in this world who live in fear in the midst of war. I truly believe part of the sabbath call is for a world free of violence for all who suffer.
  • Think of immigrants in this country who are navigating a hostile, convoluted system to gain status or protection for their loved ones.
  • Think about your burdens that you carry with you – for loved ones, for your anxieties and fear, for your frayed relationships.
  • Sabbath and rest challenge our world’s values and busyness. We deserve rest. We need rest. We are created and fashioned by God for that opportunity to simply be. Rest is part of God’s plan for us.
  • What does this look like for us as a church and as disciples?
  • No more apologizing when we are tired. No more feeling guilt when we need to take a nap or time off or turn off the phone. Seriously. If someone asks who gave you permission, say God did.
  • As a congregation, as leaders, as a board, a polity that pauses in the midst of hard questions for silence and space, balancing our urgency to grow and be witnesses to Christ’s love with care for our bodies minds and souls.
  • And as a movement for wholeness, as followers of Jesus, it means sticking up for others when they are not given the rest they deserve. Advocating alongside them.
  • I learned during my sabbatical and continue to learn – that life is to be enjoyed, and we all deserve to enjoy it. I want that for you. More importantly, God wants it for each of us.
  • Today, join me in reflecting that Jesus invited all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him and receive that gift of rest. Join me in a moment of silence – and if you feel comfortable, offer that burden that you are struggling with to Jesus.

I've been on a strange journey – one of grief, lack of self-confidence, internal turmoil, and doubts.

One of the painful losses was my love for singing praise music. I use that term loosely – praise music can be a lot of things for me, from Bob Marley to Bon Iver to actual “christian worship music”.

I just didn't feel the passion to pick up my guitar and try to make something beautiful.

For me, that's unusual. Music has always been a entrance into faith for me. Music is an opening to something larger and spacious, a way to communicate emotions and experiences that defy logic and reason and rest in beauty. I love music of all kinds and learned to be unashamed of that passion. Using my guitar and singing has been a big part of my ministry for many years.

If it wasn't for music, I wouldn't be a pastor.

So for at least two to three years, I let it go. Some of it was stress and just needing to focus on other things in my ministry, but I think too it was a reconfiguration of my life of faith. I needed to confront things, change things, and reassess where I wanted to be.

I just needed to be okay with where I was.

After a long time, I picked up my guitar again.

After a long season, I am leading worship again.

It's fun. I'm easing back into it.

Last Sunday, I led a song in front of a small crowd of returning church members and friends, and... yeah, it was good. It felt beautiful. I could hear their voices encouraging my own. It was okay to be not okay, and it was okay to sing anyway.

So, yeah, I feel like making music again.

John 15:1-8 I decided to come to church this morning in my gardening clothes as we ponder our scripture today. I’ve got some weather resistant pants, a shirt I don’t mind getting dirty, some gloves, and, of course, some handy tools for getting down and dirty in God’s Creation. Truth is, you’ve heard it before, I was not born with a green thumb – I do not have a natural gift at gardening like so many seem. I admire those of you who love gardening. I am almost always concerned that when I mess with my plants, I do far more harm than good. Just a year and a half ago or so during one of our church cleanup days, I was tasked with trimming or pruning the bushes that line the sidewalk in front of our church building’s main entrance. That is all the instructions I was given. So with shears in my hand, I went to work. And like a first time hair stylist, I gave the bushes a classic hack job. When I was done with them, I was kind of embarrassed – it looked like I had killed those bushes I had taken so many branches off, leaving just a few stumps behind. But just this week, I paused to notice in the midst of this amazing spring – how those bushes have bounced back. Not only are they teeming with green and purple blooms, their branches are sticking back out over the sidewalk, bursting forth in color and praise anytime we make our way into our church building. I wish you could see them this morning. Pruning, the act of cutting back portions of plants, surprisingly has the opposite effect than what we think on the surface. While we are snipping off ends and clearing away dead or overgrown branches, we are actually creating the possibility for growth, for fullness, for the plant to bounce back even stronger than before. It’s kind of counter intuitive – and it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I wonder – have you had moments in your life when it seemed like God was pruning you? These might have been times of intense change, transformation, and transition. They might have been moments of loss – the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a beloved person in your life. It might have been a rude awakening of truth, when something you thought was working suddenly falls apart. It might have even be a confrontation with addiction or a habit that you learned you must confront and overcome to move forward in life. We all have these moments – sometimes, we don’t even know they are God at work until we can look back and remember how that thing we thought was blooming was actually killing us. But what is true – what we know and what we may learn someday – pruning is painful. Just like the bush I thought I hacked to death, it doesn’t feel good, especially in the moment. But if we can hold on, if we can endure, something better, as hard as it is to see, may be on the way. Maybe this entire year of pandemic has begun a season of pruning – for our lives as individuals and as families, for our lives as a church, for our lives as community. Could something too be better on the way? — Jesus uses this image of pruning in our passage today to make clear that being a disciple is about transformation. He begins, just like we heard last week in his teaching about being the good shepherds, by proclaiming that he is the True Vine. The image he paints is one of connectedness – Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. As branches, our role is to bear fruit – delicious fruit that reflect Jesus’ commandment that he gives to his disciples later in this Gospel – “love one another as I have loved you”. Love is our fruit – love is the fruit this world full of injustice, violence, inequality, and hurt needs. Bearing fruit is not about success – it’s not about fame – it’s not about having a big bank account – it’s not about being perfect – it’s not even about having a big church with lots of members. Bearing fruit is about exhibiting the radical transforming love of God in this world. God’s role, as Jesus describes, is the vinegrower – the farmer – who cultivates the soil, provides the wind, sun, and water to nourish the vine. And therefore, if we want to grow, as disciples – in fact, the only way to grow is to remain connected to the vine. Can you imagine the audacity of a branch that decides it can detach and bear fruit? Sometimes, we hear about big pop bands who at some point break up – and some of the singers go solo, releasing their own albums. In Jesus’ teaching this morning, there is no going solo. Apart from God, there is simply no possibility to bear fruit – to exhibit the true, deep, radical love of God. And so like any good gardener, God will prune those branches that are not bearing fruit. This word prune is actually used interchangeably with the word “cleanse”. God, as the vineyard grower, will cleanse the vine of those branches who are decaying, who are lacking of life, who are failing to stay rooted and connected and exhibit the love of God. We will be snipped and shaped so we can fulfill our purpose – and if worst comes to worst and we fail to live our purpose, we will be tossed into the fire like kindling. It is a real image – an image real to anyone who has gardened a day in their life – but also real as we think about all in this world who are blessed with life and choose to use it to do anything but bear witness to the love which gave them breath. Being pruned, as Jesus knew quite well, was not a pleasant experience – it could seem frightening. It could seem to ask too much of us – to strip away those parts of ourselves that we are convinced define who we are – like our stature, our education, our salary, our stability. And yet if we go over to the other side of this process, letting God remove the lifeless bits of us, we discover something we may not have ever thought possible – growth, fullness, purpose. Just like the bushes on the walkway to our church building, sometimes, we must let go to bear fruit. Sometimes, to do something good and well, we must do drop other things in our lives. — Friends, in my own life, I can point to this truth in me. I continue to be pruned by God. Over a year ago, I was experiencing days of intense high blood pressure. I was not well. The pandemic was hitting, no doubt adding to my stress, but I was able to get in and see the doctor just before everything got locked down. Luckily, she was blunt and truthful with me – she was the voice of God in my life. She said, “Nathan, you need to make some changes.” I began medication. I began to exercise more. I began trying (most days) to eat better. In a year, I have lost weight, I feel better, and my blood pressure is normal. It has not been easy. I miss eating Five Guys burgers. Heck, I used to go to Five Guys and get the regular Cheeseburger with two big old patties. But as I sat in the doctor’s room, I thought about all the times I have told you, church, to do what your doctor says and to take care of yourself. How can I say I love you when I am not willing to love my body and care for my soul in the same way? How can I witness to God’s power over racism, death, and division in this time if I am not rooted in the oneness of the one who offers another way? My pruning, truth be told, is still in process. I have much yet to do. Maybe you do too. Are you in a season of pruning? Are you aware of something you need to release or let go of? Are you afraid of the pain and change that is going to come? If so, I know and share in that. — Church, in our life, we can point to this truth too. In 1959, on the first Sunday in May, University Christian Church was born, a product of the thoughtful, prayerful pruning of our mother church, Mt Rainier Christian Church. Mt Rainier sent over 100 of its members to help create and birth this “mission church”, a church that was envisioned to be cutting edge, to serve its community, to try something new. 62 years later today, we celebrate fruitful ministry, resulting in baptisms, spiritual growth, laughter, celebration, transformation, service, and the witness of God’s love at our intersection. How painful it was for one church to let itself be pruned and cut back – and yet all in order to bear fruit and expand God’s community. How many other stories are there like that in our church throughout our history? Moments when something seemed to lie fallow for a season and then God used that opening to bring life. — And so church, I think we are in such a season again. In this past year of the pandemic, we have witnessed to God’s love in so many ways – nimbly moving our worship services online to global impact, turning our busy intersection into a sacred ground for support of black lives, transforming Zoom sessions into Bible Study and Bible Bingo hours, using our emails and texts and phone calls to stay safe and yet remain connected through prayer, love, and care. We have launched new ministries that are bearing fruit, like our Blessing Box ministry, like a redesigned kitchen. And yet we have lost too – we have lost some beloved church members, saints who will not be replaced. We have had some members of our community who have gone to look for another place, another community, where they feel called to bear fruit. We have experienced disruption in some of our practices and traditions which we believe will continue to bear fruit. And we have learned the hard lessons that some things that we do are simply not bearing fruit as a church. In this coming mission year, as we take steps to implement our Future Story of where we feel God is calling us to move as a community, we are entering a season of pruning, asking God to remove the dead branches so that once again we might burst into fullness and wholeness, reflecting God’s love in this hurting world. How do we do this? Jesus’ command is to abide in him. Abide sounds passive and active to me – like sit with Jesus, hang out with Jesus, linger with Jesus – but it also sounds like sometimes we have to go find Jesus, whereever he is. We abide through prayer and study of scripture. We abide through active listening to each other. We abide through difficult conversations. We abide by trusting in God. We abide by showing up for our neighbors. We abide by waiting and watching and learning. We abide by letting go and letting God do the painful work of changing who we are. In this coming mission year, beginning in July, I propose then a vision for us as a faith community – to grow inward so that we might grow outward. In short, grow inward to grow outward. Kind of easy to say, right? Our Future Story, which is on our website, describes a vision of our church where we are engaged afresh in our community through mentorship, relationship, through the sharing and cultivating of fruit at this intersection, describes one scene where a young girl swings back so she can swing forward. I think our coming mission year is such a year – where we must begin to cultivate the soul inwards so we can swing forward into God’s vibrant fruit-bearing future for our lives and our community. Say it with me: Grow inward to grow outward. May we abide in Christ, the true vine, who roots us in God’s love and vision of wholeness for our world – so that we might bear the kind of fruit that makes a difference for another 62 years. Thanks be to God.

#sermon from March 21, 2021

Scripture: Matthew 8:18-27

This morning, I want to begin by reading the eight names, including six who were Asian American, lives snatched away in an act of terror and horror.

Xiaojie Tan Delaina Yaun Paul Andre Michels Daoyou Feng Yong Ae Yue Hyun Jung Grant Soon Chung Park Suncha Kim

If you wanted an image for how messed up and broken our world is, I invite you to ponder these eights names – grandmothers, mothers, Army veteran, wives, friends, business owners, and ultimately children of God – taken from us by another white man with a gun. I ask God to hold their families close as they grieve and as they wait for answers – and as we stand with our Asian American siblings who have experienced a rise in violence and rhetoric in these past several weeks.

While I understand the investigation is ongoing and we will learn more in the coming weeks, there is much about what happened that echoes throughout our history as a nation.

In fact, it is reported that the white gunman had something posted to the effect of – “I love God and guns” – on his social media page, a refrain we hear way too often in the country.

I’ve been reading a book by David Abulafia called the Discovery of Mankind which follows the journey of Columbus and other Spanish, Portuguese, and English sailors who came west looking for a trade route to India and stumbled upon lands they were not aware existed. And more importantly, people in those lands.

When these folks like Columbus spread out across the world often in the name of Jesus, they brought crosses and bibles with them to share the good news… and they also brought cannons and guns, weapons of war. If there were people that were willing to trade and receive the good news, things were less violent at least initially. But if those people resisted and tried to protect their communities and resources, the guns became a tool to subdue the people, to steal resources and plunder the earth.

Abulafia quotes Bartolome de la Casas who says that the Spaniards would come to the islands and eat in one day what the indigenous people would eat in a week. They brought a hunger and greed for more.

This cycle has continued to repeat throughout our history – God and guns, hand in hand. It is one of the hallmarks of the white supremacist narratives in which we live, believing that we are justified turning to violence to bring order to the chaos around us. The problem is not us – the problem is always them, always someone else, whether it is those who tempt us, those who disagree with us, those coming across our border. And the way to solve it is subdue the land and the people around us.

How does Jesus break our destructive narrative that has harmed our planet and people like the eight killed this past week and so many others?

How does Jesus offer an alternative to deal with the chaos around us?

Our scripture today begins with Jesus reminding his disciples that following him is an all or nothing proposition.

Two men come up to him – a scribe and one of his disciples. The scribe professes to go with Jesus wherever he will, but Jesus reminds him that the Son of Man has no home. Following Jesus will require a deep stretching and willingness to change ourselves, to risk, to be vulnerable.

The disciple asks for permission to go bury his father, and Jesus does not mince words. He gives him no out. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

One of the commentators I read this week invited us to not spiritualize Jesus’ words, but challenged us to know that following Jesus asks much of us. We may be asked to give up family and friends and cultural comforts and the things we think we know are true by saying yes to the Way. We must place our trust in Jesus and open to a new Way.

And then Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to go “to the other side”, already testing his would-be disciples if they would dare follow to the other side of their worlds, places they may not feel comfortable.

Out on the boat in the middle of the lake, a storm hits, and the boat begins to sink. The disciples panic and they cry out to Jesus just as many of those who were healed cried out to him – “Lord, save us!”

One commentator that I read suggested that the boat is reflective of God’s church – God’s community on earth – anytime we sail into the unknown, anytime we chart ourselves into a Future Story that looks different than our past. Water represents chaos through the Bible, and it’s a common thing to note that the Israelite people were never considered a seafaring people in the Bible. Out there, far from land, chaos hits. Their plans are disrupted. They lose a sense of order. This is not their comfort zone.

But notice something fascinating – Jesus is fast asleep.

While the disciples panic because it seems like their world is falling apart, Jesus knows better.

Jesus knows that storms hit us. Jesus knows that going to the other side means facing our own discomfort, our own fears, our own brokenness. Jesus does not succumb to motion sickness, and yet here we see these disciples get a little motion sickness the first time the waters get choppy.

Jesus wakes and calms the wind with a word. Balance is restored. Even the waters of chaos obey Jesus.

The invitation for us is to place ourselves in the panic stricken hearts of those disciples and to think what they saw and experienced in Jesus that day. When the storms of life hit, are we going to turn to our guns, our desire to fashion order and control, or whatever other idols that we might put our trust in?

Or are we willing to turn to Jesus, to another way, when our waters get choppy?

The church God is calling us to be in this most unusual time in which we live, where we worship together over the internet, where we can broadcast our signals halfway around the world, is a church that is prepared and courageous to leave the life we knew behind and embrace the other side to which God calls.

For too long, friends, evident in all that we saw this week and in recent years, our country chooses the comfort of white supremacy, guns… If we want to be a church that simply makes people comfortable on the boat, then we should never dare push out into the deep. We should seek to make ourselves comfortable, make our worship comfortable, make our statements of faith comfortable.

But if we follow Jesus, we will be called out to the other side.

As Jesus said in Luke 9, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And still there is grace – for we can turn to Jesus. We can turn to Jesus and turn our lives around. We can turn not to guns or other gods – but we can turn to the God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who promises restoration for our lives and for all who have been shattered by years and years of violence and devastation to our planet and to our communities. We can turn to God who in Genesis created this beautiful creation and created all the people in – people of every race and nationality and ethnicity – created beautiful and whole. We can turn to a God who weeps alongside the families and moves in solidarity with our Asian siblings and all others who fear and feel alone. We can turn to a God who challenges to be peacemakers in this world.

To be that kind of church is incredibly hard. As your pastor, I long to lead you in that journey, but I confess I am still dealing with my own greed and my own stubbornness to cling to gods that cannot save me.

Maybe you are too.

Maybe together we can deal with our motion sickness.

Maybe it begins by crying out in lament, “Lord, save us.”

Dr. Soong Chan Rah reminds us that the most appropriate act for the church in times of violence and chaos is lament. We lament – not that we personally hurt those people – we lament that we are part of a system which is out of control, which greedily eats up the abundance God has blessed us with, which claims lives each and everyday, which makes people feel Othered because of the color of their skin.

Our lament has the potential to turn us to Jesus and say, “Lord, save us.”

Save us from racism.

Save us from discrimination.

Save us from our greed.

Save us from trying to control everything.

Save us from poisoning this planet.

In the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, this means putting our trust in a higher power, giving up the myth that we are god and that we can control our lives and its many details. And let me tell you – it is freeing to take that step and let go. Begin to find ways to be and honor our bodies as a part of this planet and not ones sent to subdue it.

What might that look like for you?

Jesus’ invitation is the kind of life where we can sleep through storms – not because we are irresponsible – but because we know storms are part of life. We will endure. We will get through – without guns. For Jesus is with us.

Thanks be to God.

I go through lulls in my reading. As I have gotten older, I've gotten pickier. Sometimes, I know within a chapter or two if something is going to grab my attention and keep me. (Same is true of Netflix series, FYI.) A wide variety of books have challenged me in this way – I am interested in the topic, but if it doesn't grab me, I wander off to something that will. Such is life.

But really, it's been a rich reading season as of late due to excellent book lists for Doctor of Ministry coursework as well as some reading groups.

Here are a few suggestions if you are looking:

David Abulafia's The Discovery of Mankind As part of an intentional reading group around indigenous justice and the Doctrine of Discovery, this book is dense, historical, and fascinating. What the book does well is describe the threads that created this white supremacist reality in which we live, sometimes by accident, sometime with intentionality, and almost always to devastating effect. Abulafia first sets the stage for Christopher Columbus' voyage into the “New World” by exploring the imagination of Europeans and their speculation with the creatures at the edge of their maps and bizarre tales of lands with dog-like humans and other oddities. Then, we dive into the Canary Islands and the encounter with indigenous people there who had never heard about Christ and lived in ways that didn't fit into the neat categories of religious or cultural classification. The book definitely complicates our understanding of Columbus too – he was at times respectful and enamored by the Taino people he engaged with early on but was ultimately constrained by his greed for wealth and fame, his apocalyptic beliefs, his European lens, and his absolute ineptitude and brutality. Fascinating book!

James McBride' The Good Lord Bird I read this in my last formal Doctor of Ministry course, and it was one of those books that was moving, confusing, poetic, and hilarious. I don't know how else to describe it, but it made sense that Ethan Hawke wanted to turn it into a Showtime series. From the vantage point of a black boy affectionately called “Onion”, freed from slavery by a twist of fate, the book offers a somewhat historic and fantastic perspective of John Brown, the legendary abolitionist and his raid on Harper's Ferry. The heroes of history turn out to be far more human and messy in this book, and John Brown teeters between madness, righteousness, and clarity all at once. It's a moving book and definitely very unusual to read. I will be reading it again this summer.

Munther Isaac's From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth I actually got to hear Munther, a Palestinian pastor and theologian, in Bethlehem last year before the pandemic hit. His book was an impulse buy, and it has been so helpful to deeper understand the theological lens of land throughout scripture. It's a well laid out book, thorough in its approach, citing and quoting the many great theologians who have wrestled with some of these questions and themes. Ultimately, it offers a very compelling return to a fuller integration of our care for land as people of faith. Covenant is not just between God and people – covenant is between God, people, and land. Munther closes the book with a personal reflection on what this framework means for Palestine and Israel and the apartheid reality there. So moving.

Douglas Foster's A Life of Alexander Campbell I think you need to be a Stone-Campbell junkie to read this, but it is one of the better Alexander Campbell books I have dug into. Most treatments of Campbell in this tradition are a bit enamored with his brilliance, and let's be clear – he was a smart guy, writing prolifically and debating with vigor. This book traces some of his theological disagreements and issues and paints a fuller picture of his eccentric personality, his contradictions, and the ways he would turn against even his friends in pursuit of his theological vision. What I like is at least some naming of the white supremacist underpinnings that framed a lot of his theology in various ways. I would have liked more of this, but it's a start.

Karen Field's Racecraft This is a tough and brilliant read, unpacking the ways science has gone about reinforcing the construct of race and legitimizing its destructive havoc among communities. Admittedly, I am still working my way through this one, but this is a fantastic read. It's one I have to put down every section or chapter or so to process.

Take these recommendations for what they are, and enjoy!

Cobra Kai - Johnny Lawrence

I have a thing I tell my kids especially as it relates to movies:

If it’s from the 80s, it is objectively good.

Of course, I’m not really serious, because there were a ton of bad movies from the 80s.

And yet, I am serious.

In recent weeks, my family and I have been enjoying Cobra Kai, the throwback Netflix series (originally on Youtube) that imagines life for the characters 30 years after the events of the original Karate Kid movie.

Karate Kid was a beloved childhood movie of mine and many. I remember at least one or two Halloweens dressed up as the Karate Kid, complete with white pajamas and black belt. The movie ages as well as most 80s movies do, even though it sticks deeply to sports movie-isms and reinforces racial stereotypes about Asian Americans. How could Mr. Miyagi, a World War II veteran, still speak with broken English? Do a lot of Asian people secretly know martial arts?

But it also has heart and depth, fleshing out Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita who got an Academy Award nomination for the role, as more than a magical and mysterious Japanese American who can catch flies with his chopsticks and rub his hands together for some kind of healing effect but as a man, like so many people “othered” in this country, who carries a complex story of survival, loss, and wisdom, an embodiment of a nation that could send young men to fight in war while family members died in an internment camp.

During a recent rewatch with my son, Karate Kid resonated with other themes, like class and untreated PTSD.

Behind Mr. Miyagi’s wise old man shtick is one who is grieving the things he has lost, his family a casualty of America’s long obsession with fear of foreigners. He is a man who is capable of defending himself and others, including his country, but refuses to parade his medals around, suggesting he might have mixed feelings about his service or experienced a side of war that left him scarred in deep ways. On a lighter note, maybe there is even some subtle flipping of tables in the way he trades his karate lessons to the young white kid from Jersey in exchange for free labor, remembering all of the odd jobs he did for ungrateful white families over the years who never bothered to pronounce his name right. How many times were his incredible gifts overlooked? How many times was he just seen as the apartment handyman?

Daniel is a poor white kid in a single parent family moving into a new city and coming face to face with wealthy elites who bully him for stepping out of his place. While the movie doesn’t dive into it, there is grief in Daniel’s life, more than moving to a different part of the country but needing someone else to notice the pressures and troubles he is having and offer him some way to navigate it. He needs to be seen and affirmed, not just by the pretty cheerleader, but adults who value him for who he is.

Cobra Kai is run by a white veteran named John Kreese whose tattoos and proudly framed photo wielding an assault rifle reinforce that he is a badass who has tasted war, but as you watch his character unfold and command his students to do anything to win, suggests he has never stopped fighting in the first place. He wants to bring order to the world, and the only way to do that is to strike first and strike hard. Weakness has no place in Kreese’s dojo or way of life.

And then there is Johnny Lawrence, depicted in the movie as nothing more than a pompous white bully. He is aggressive. He strikes first to get what he wants. He found something in Cobra Kai that gives him purpose and identity. He wants to compete. He has discovered something he is good at, and it defines him.

In Cobra Kai, the same stories of grief and broken narratives define the characters. Daniel LaRusso is successful now, but his success seems comical. He’s a car dealer who promises to “chop” the prices and still lives off the legacy of a single famous kick to win the All Valley championship. I mean, seriously dude, move on. He gives out bonsai trees to customers. It’s like he’s still living in the Karate Kid narrative, even talking about the high school crush who didn’t work out.

Johnny Lawrence, the wealthy bully, has his story flipped. Now he’s the handyman who ends up befriending a kid looking for a father figure and needs help defending himself against rich bullies. Johnny is a mess, divorced with a child that he is too ashamed to know. Johnny relaunches Cobra Kai to give purpose to his life but begins to find out times have changed. The message of “no mercy” takes extra resonance in a world of cyber bullying and strict boundaries between the wealthy and the poor, where there often is little mercy for the kids on the bottom of this mess. His All Valley loss back in the day still haunts him but so does a wealthy stepdad who was cruel, a family life lacking in love and support.

In one incredible scene, Johnny recasts the original Karate Kid film with Daniel as the villain of the story, the new kid who butted into his relationships, picked on him, and ultimately ruined his life. Johnny is haunted by his mistakes and his failures throughout the movie, including his long neglected relationship with his son. It’s only by restarting the one thing that gave him purpose that he begins to confront those narratives and figure out who he can be from that point moving forward, even if his trajectory of personal growth is incredibly slow.

Ultimately, Cobra Kai is fun, clever, and silly, like a good 80s movie, but it reinforces the reality that many of us are still living out of the narratives that shaped us when we were young – the narratives of our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. Sometimes, those narratives are good – they are ones of survival and resistance and wholeness. Other times, they are not – they are narratives of dominance and comfort and lies. We have seen these narratives on display in recent weeks as white supremacists violently stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, claiming that they want their country back. We have witnessed narcissism on display when leaders who claim that they can’t lose…. lose anyway.

Somehow, each of us must come to grips with the narratives that shaped us, whether they were good or bad or somewhere in between.

And we must have the courage to claim the stuff that is good and write new narratives, or we’ll find ourselves fighting the same battles, like a sequel to an 80s movie, in 30 years time.

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