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The Benedict Option

Here’s the paradox of the Benedict Option: if the church is going to be the blessing for the world that God means for it to be, then it is going to have to spend more time away from the world deepening its commitment to God, to scripture, to tradition, and to each other. We cannot give to the world what we do not have. We should engage with the world, but not at the expense of our fidelity and our sense of ourselves as a people set apart. We must somehow walk a path between the Christian fundamentalists who reject everything about the world and the accomodationists who love the world so much that they rationalize idol-worship for the sake of preserving their privileges. “Engaging the culture” must never become an excuse to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar. Winsomeness must never be a veil concealing our cowardice from ourselves.

There must have been something about the daily lives of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylon that trained them spiritually so that when they were put to the ultimate test, they passed. It must be that way with us, too. We are failing at this today, and failing badly. The numbers I cited earlier tell a tale of Christian infidelity. If we don’t change our way of living, we will not survive as the church. We will be assimilated. There is no middle way…

If we are going to stay true to our faith, we are going to have to listen to voices from outside the here and now – authoritative voices from the Christian past, especially the premodern era. How else are we going to be able to tell the difference between those who speak comforting lies that we want to hear and those who, like Jeremiah, preach the prophetic word of God? We must beware of religious leaders who are content to be chaplains to the contemporary cultural order. That way is death.

– Rod Dreher, Signs of the Times, Plough Quarterly, Issue 13



Proclaiming God’s Obnoxious Holiness


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

– Isaiah 6:1-5

I love feeling close to God. Maybe you know it, that cozy feeling of intimacy, when in prayer or worship you feel so happy and at peace that it’s like God is giving you a big hug. I believe that this intimacy with God, this sense of being fully known and fully loved, and of knowing God in a deep and deeply personal way, is a key part of God’s plan in Jesus. Through Jesus, God reveals his nature so clearly.  Both by reading  about his ministry and sacrifice on the cross in the Bible and by listening to the promptings of his Spirit in our hearts, we come to know Jesus and, by knowing Jesus, we get a clear understanding of who God is and the depth of his love for us. On top of that, Jesus shows us how to relate to God as a caring and tender father. Isn’t that awesome? This invitation to closeness with God is one of the best parts of being a Christian.

Unfortunately, intimacy with God can obscure one of his defining features: holiness.

To be holy means to be set apart as sacred. When we say that God is holy, it means that he is so elevated and pure that his nature is actually alien to every created thing – including us. Not only do we not have a right to approach God as an intimate, but there is a real sense in which we are not, in our human nature, able to approach him at all. God’s holiness is emphasized throughout the Bible. Moses is told to remove his shoes before the burning bush because even the dirt surrounding God’s presence is holy ground. The prophet Isaiah cries out in fear after being given a vision of the Lord because when a man – a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips –  looks on the face of God, he should surely die. In fact, a key reason that Jesus was crucified is that the Jewish religious authorities of his day viewed him as a brazen blasphemer. Not only did Jesus have the nerve to violate the sacred rest of the Sabbath by healing the sick, but he also had the gall to call himself God’s own son! What mortal man can claim that kind of relationship to the Living God, the Holy One? Daring to utter such heresy could only lead to one punishment: death.

When we insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, the humans and their appetites are “naturally” good, that we are capable of doing what is best for ourselves without God’s help, we diminish God’s holiness by implying that we are just as righteous and pure as he is. For those who dismiss disciplines like fasting, chastity and secrecy as relics of an oppressive and unenlightened age, insisting on God’s holiness may seem obnoxious, even offensive. However, it is only by recognizing God’s purity and power as Lord of Creation, only by grasping his absolute faithfulness and goodness and justice, only by grasping our own weakness, egotism and inconsistency, that we can understand the absolute revolution that Jesus Christ represents. 

As men and women, we overeat. We lose our temper. We curse at drivers on the freeway. We put our own lusts and selfish desires above obedience to God or service to others. Even babies, innocent in so many ways, take what they want and hit, bite and scratch to keep what they have. Acknowledging God’s holiness means acknowledging that we aren’t, in ourselves, good enough for him or good – period. It means recognizing that there is a life beyond our dust and dirt that we, in our humanity, cannot attain. What, after all, do we – people of unclean lips – have in common with the purity and perfection of our Creator?

Nothing but Jesus. In him, humanity and divinity meet in an intimate embrace. He is the Word in whose being we have our foundation and he is the Light who enlightens every single person on the earth – even you and me, with all our flaws. He invites us into God’s holiness by planting deep in us the Holy Spirit, which takes us beyond the fully human into the power and presence of God. Out of that Holy Spirit – a Spirit fully accessible to each of us, but whose essence is that of a holy God rather than an earthly man – flows the supernatural gifts of prophecy, of healing, of effective prayer, of discernment.

Each of us, even those who totally reject God, has a shadowy version of many of God’s traits: our measure of strength shows us God’s awesome power, our desire for fairness suggests God’s perfect justice, our impulse to tenderness hints at God’s tremendous love. However, holiness is God’s alone. He calls us to share in his holiness, but we can only be holy in proportion to our obedience to God and our trust in him. As we yield our will to his, we will become more careful with our words and thoughts, more aware of our dress and manner, more conscious of how we eat and drink, turning all elements of life to God’s glory. That is, we will become more and more distinct from a world that rejects the very idea the sacred and set apart. Paradoxically, the holier we become, the more we respect God’s holiness – and the more we can experience the precious intimacy of his love.

Jesus himself insists that we can approach God with “Dad” (Abba) on our lips: we can boldly ask him for what we need and know that he will provide. But let us never use the closeness we have with our Father as an excuse to deny God the reverence and obedience that he is due. Let us instead proclaim, like the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”


The Power of God is Living Love

The experience of God means strength for action. Love is always expressed in living deeds; to experience God is to experience his power as living love. Liberation from all unjust, loveless, and self-willed activity releases an abundance of powers that overflow in fruitful works of love. We experience the love of God inwardly, but it manifests itself outwardly. The more our faith increases in knowledge, experience, and strength, the more we will be compelled to do the works of love (Eph. 4:13). To experience God is to be overpowered by love.

Today, the aftereffects of the Great War and the current state of society call for the kind of dedication that lives only in Christ – in the heart of the powerful God of Jesus Christ. Only a heart filled with the superior power of God’s love will be able to confront the pain and suffering around it. Only in the strength of an omnipotent God will we be able to carry the burden of historical responsibility laid on us, a burden beyond all human strength. The reign of God and the gospel of Christ will penetrate our devastated world only through love, which is paramount over every other power or force.

In the midst of the increasing violence, injustice, cruelty, and cold-heartedness of our time, love must be revealed: a love that towers above all earth’s mountains, that shines more purely and brightly than all the stars in the sky, that is mightier than all earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, that is greater than all world powers and rulers, that works more powerfully in history than all catastrophes, wars, and revolutions, that is more alive than all life and natural forces in creation. Above everything in nature and within all history, love shows itself to be the ultimate power of the Almighty, the ultimate greatness of his heart, the ultimate revelation of his spirit.

– Eberhard Arnold, Inwardness in a Distracted Age.

This text is based on Arnold’s Innerland: A Guide into the Heart of the Gospel, which is available as a free download through Plough Quarterly.

How to Talk about God

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.

– Psalm 105:1-3

Talking about God is not about converting people.

I feel like I need to say that because, in my middle-class, well-educated, mostly secular world, there is a hesitancy to talk about God and our experience of God, even among people of faith and even, astonishingly, within some faith communities. Within my own (generally liberal) Quaker context, I think this stems from a recognition that our experiences of God differ and the more we discuss our experiences, the more those differences will be evident. Perhaps we do not wish to offend. Perhaps we do not wish to be vulnerable. Perhaps we do not have appealing, nonjudgmental models for how to talk about God.  Perhaps we struggle with the connotations of the word “evangelism.” Whatever the reason, many of us struggle with how to talk about God.

So again, talking about God is not about converting people. True conversion is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit, not human techniques and tactics. We have no responsibility for the state of anyone else’s soul. What we do have is the responsibility to testify to the love and goodness of God using our words, along with our actions. We also have the privilege of getting to know the faith stories of the people in our lives. But how can we do that without being weirdos or alienating those we care about?

Stop Avoiding the Topic
I used to lament the fact that I had no opportunity to talk about God with friends, family and co-workers until I realized that I was – intentionally or unintentionally – avoiding talking about God when the opportunity arose. There are so many opportunities to start discussions about the things of the spirit!

Follow up questions can help you go deeper when:

  • Someone mentions going to church services: “Where do you go to church? What do you like about it? How does it bring you into closer relationship with God?”
  • Someone of a different faith mentions preparing the house for Passover or hosting an iftar during Ramadan: “How does your faith play out in community? Are there unexpected blessings or challenges to practicing your faith in our workplace?”
  • Someone mentions that they formerly practiced a certain religion: “If you don’t mind my asking, what was it that led you to stop being involved with that community?”
  • Someone mentions having attended a religious school: “Are you a member of that tradition? What was it like to go to that school? Were there things about going to a denominational school that you particularly liked or found uncomfortable?”
  • Someone mentions a personal struggle or tragedy: “I’m so sorry to hear that you are going through that – is there something I can pray for you about? Would you like me to pray with you now as well?”

Keeping your ears, heart and mind open to the person in front of you will quickly lead all kinds of opportunities for God-centered conversation to present themselves.

I have only once had a person not eagerly jump into a conversation started like this, and that was probably because I had literally just met him and we were in a corporate training event sitting half a table away from each other in a room full of people. It certainly wasn’t great timing on my part! In general, though, I have found that people are very open to discussing spiritual matters with someone who genuinely wants to hear about them and their experiences. If that describes you, don’t hesitate to invite people into a deeper conversation. If that does not describe you, please don’t strike up a conversation about God just because you feel you should. People are very good at distinguishing between someone who wants to build an authentic relationship and someone who views them as a project. If you don’t care, don’t bother.

Get to Know Your Own Story
As you invite others to share their faith journeys, eventually you will be asked about your own. This is a great opportunity to testify to the impact that God has had on your life and how in him you have found meaning and freedom and whatever other blessings he has given you. But you can’t share your own story if you don’t know it. Take time to reflect on the blessings God has given you, on how you have changed since becoming a disciple of Christ, on how you have been knit together with other believers in Christian community, on how you have seen the Kingdom of God come into being around you. Think about the Bible verses or spiritual works that have touched your spirit and the fruit that they have borne in your life. “Gospel” means “good news.” If you don’t have good news to share about God, you need a heavenly perspective, stat! It’s an emergency! We can’t invite others into the fullness and richness of new life in Christ if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. Let’s make a habit of reflecting on the ways God has blessed us and testifying to God’s goodness. It makes it much easier to declare God’s goodness to others when the occasion arises.

Get to Know the Bible
Certain themes and stories from scripture will resonate with you more strongly than others, and it is normal for you to have a “native language” for talking with and about God. Maybe for you, God is primarily a shepherd or  deliverer or judge of the wicked or healer. It will probably be easiest for you to minister to people who see God similarly. However, as you get more familiar with the Bible, especially with the Psalms, you may find new ways of thinking about and talking about God, which will equip you to speak with greater understanding and love to folks with different perspectives and in different situations.

Through it all, do pray for God to fill your heart with a love for him that is visible to others and a love for others that makes you eager to invite them into a new relationship with him. Love has to permeate your faith conversations or you may find yourself pushing people away from God instead of inviting them closer to him. And please be gentle with yourself. It can take a long time to overcome the inhibition that keeps our faith not just private, but almost hidden. While I am so much better than I used to be, I still really struggle to take advantage of the many opportunities for eternal conversations in daily life.

Do you have any thoughts on why talking about God is such a challenge? Do you have any tips for how we can get better at sharing our faith with others and inviting others to share their faith – or doubt – with us? Share in the comments!


A Church Called to Disruption

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

What I Confess When I Confess Christ

Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

– 1 Corinthians 17-25

This past fall, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship gathered in Silver Spring, Maryland, around the theme of “confessing Christ in a chaotic world.” Inspired in part by the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in World War II-era Germany, this theme seemed particularly relevant to us as Western Christians in a culture whose technological sophistication has far outpaced its moral awareness. While there are always challenges when broken people come together in vulnerability and seeking, we were powerfully blessed by times of confession, repentance, encouragement, inspiration, healing, teaching and laughter.

I expected that the gathering would be a time of beautiful fellowship, an opportunity to start new relationships, a capstone, a brilliant finish to months of planning and prayer and focus, and it was all of those things. But for me, it was also a new start, a re-dedication of my mind and spirit to the work of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship and to the ministry that God has laid upon me. I have been reflecting on this new beginning recently, on what it means to be part of a Christ-confessing church.

I am still working through my personal confession, but here are some truths that, with God’s grace, I hope to reflect in my life with increasing faithfulness.

I confess that Christ is Lord. People have many identities – vocational, ethnic, political and more. I confess that each of these identities is subordinate to my identity as a follower of Christ. I seek to emulate Christ in earnestly seeking God’s will and in not shrinking away from that will when it involves suffering. This may mean doing things that are professionally limiting, like observing a Sunday Sabbath, or that are unpopular in the context of my lefty “tribe,” like insisting on the fundamental corruption of abortion-on-demand ideology. This is uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, but as a follower of Christ, I can do no less.

I confess that there is no salvation apart from the cross. The atonement is a multi-faceted jewel, and I would not dream of denigrating any scripturally supported view of Jesus’ saving work. I find some theories of the atonement more attractive than others – I am particularly partial to Christus Victor, celebrating Christ’s ultimate triumph over sin and death, as anyone who knows of my obsession with the hymn “Victory in Jesus” can attest – but at the end of the day how Jesus reconciles us to God through his life, death and resurrection is a mystery and one that I embrace. What is not a mystery, however, is Jesus’  insistence that anyone who would gain life in him must learn to die daily to the flesh. There is no way to attain the glory of Christ’s crown without the suffering of Christ’s cross.

I confess that God’s grace is infinite. I have a bad habit of trying to weigh sin. Is gossip as bad as theft? Is rape worse than child abuse? Is pride as evil as murder? I never get anywhere with these musings. In fact, trying to create a hierarchy of sin is, at least for me, both an utter waste of time and a dangerous hobby, as it tends to lead to self-righteously looking down on others whose sins are “worse” than mine. The truth is that my fallen human nature – the “old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts” –  has much more in common with the wickedness of a serial killer than with the goodness of God. God’s righteousness and holiness are utterly foreign to that old self. But while I was chained in sin’s prison, God sent Jesus to break me out and he wants to do the same for every last person on this earth. Whatever you have done, whomever you have hurt, however you have failed, whatever depths you have sunk to, God has extended you a pardon, an invitation to his table, and a place as a treasured daughter or son in his house. Isn’t that good news?

I confess that right relationship with God is possible. Not only can God’s grace rescue even the most enthusiastic wrongdoer, but when we truly commit to follow Christ, we receive a new nature. We begin to desire God’s will and gain the mind of Christ. For some people, this happens instantaneously; for others, it is a gradual process. For all who follow Christ as Lord, the restoration of our relationship with God is marked by a life of yieldedness to God’s will, sometimes known as “perfection.” A restored relationship with God doesn’t mean that goodness and godliness cannot grow further, but it is a qualitative change in relationship that is both felt inwardly and seen outwardly.

I confess that the Spirit of Christ knits all believers together. I don’t know how, but the Bible promises that believers will be bound together as one body, a reality that I have experienced. This means that we behave unnaturally, worse than fools, when we ignore the struggles of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether those in pain are unemployed White men in Appalachia, under-resourced Black children in the Rust Belt, disabled adults in our neighborhoods or any other precious children of God, I confess the truth of scripture: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Following Christ means actively seeking ways to honor and cherish those who are weaker in worldly advantages, weaker in stature, weaker in faith. Sometimes that means going along with someone else’s desires when I know in my heart that my way is better. This is extremely difficult, and it often feels terrible, but if dying to the flesh were fun, it would have a more appealing name than, you know, dying to the flesh. Any gospel that is not good news for the least among us is no gospel at all.

I confess that discipling others is a core work of every follower of Jesus. We must help others to grow in Christ if we would call ourselves his followers. Making new disciples is one of the very few explicit commands that Jesus gave his own disciples, and that means coaching, supporting and encouraging people to know – and obey – Jesus, even as we put our efforts into growing in faith and obedience ourselves.  Of course, we are not to ignore material needs and we are not to turn a blind eye to those who do not share our faith: Jesus did not give theological tests to the lepers before he cleansed them or the crowds before he fed them. But discipling others is hard and the very concepts of evangelism and discipleship may even be offensive to some, as evangelism could be seen as disrespectful to those of other faiths or no faith and discipling others may seem too authoritarian and hierarchical. Nevertheless, I see no evidence in the Bible or the history of the Church that these activities are optional. So what does discipling others look like? Sometimes it means shepherding new believers, unbelievers and almost-believers as a loving friend, active mentor and listening presence. Sometimes it means spiritual friendships with those at a similar point in their faith journey, joining together with others for mutual support, fellowship and accountability. Sometimes it means continuing to pray for and exhort those you may see as spiritual giants (trust me, they need it too). Wherever you are in your faith or your doubt, your peace or your struggle, your belief or your unbelief, there is someone in your life who you can invite into a deeper love relationship with Jesus, someone you can encourage to grow and stretch and be molded into the instrument of peace that God would have each of us become.

What is your confession? What witness is God calling you to, calling us to, in this time and place?

Sacred Simplicity 

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.  Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

– Philippians 3:18-20

The desire for more is one of the fundamental principles of culture in Babylon. There is always something more to buy or some new experience to enjoy. Magazines, films, television programs and websites show us the lifestyles of the rich and famous, while advertisements whisper, “You deserve it,” and, “You’re worth it, too.” Our economy is based on growth, and – even if we know better intellectually – we expect that our standard of living will steadily improve. If our wages don’t allow us to purchase everything on the ever-growing list of necessities or to hold onto our standard of living, the kind souls over at Visa or MasterCard or the payday loan shop are happy to lend us some money to make it over the hump – for a fee, of course.

And, to be honest, we are not wrong for wanting more. Our productivity has risen. Corporate profits have risen. So why have real wages been flat or falling for decades? Because the money we work for, the bounty we have labored to produce, goes to the executives and the investors, not to the workers. Even if we are among the fortunate ones whose jobs haven’t been destroyed by outsourcing or automation, we still may face a yawning gap between the life we have and the life our hard work should, in a fair system, provide.

It is right to be angry about that and to work to change it, but it is wrong to think that having more will lead to fulfillment or that holiness and obedience to God can be set aside until we have “made it” financially. They cannot.

In the early church, poverty was the norm, not the exception. Believers shared what they had with one another and with non-believers even though most of them had barely enough to survive. They weren’t at risk of having wi-fi cut off; they were at risk of starvation. In that atmosphere of near-deprivation, affluent brothers and sisters subsidized poor ones and those traveling in ministry. Everyone was expected to share what they could. If there wasn’t enough to go around, everyone went without until there was. They didn’t say, “I’ll give once I’m on my feet” or “I’ll contribute once my debts are all paid” or “I’ll share what I have left over after me and mine are taken care of.” Early believers gave out of their substance, not out of their abundance. So why is it so hard for us – and I’m speaking of myself first and foremost – to give even out of our excess?

Could it be that we have such an inflated idea of what is essential that we don’t even understand that so many of us have more than enough? Tasty pastries and cereals for breakfast aren’t essential, not when bread and oatmeal are so inexpensive and nourishing. Meat doesn’t need to be eaten daily, especially when eggs and yogurt are so healthful and available. New books and recreation materials for ourselves and our children are a treat, not a necessity, especially with more libraries making a wide range of e-books available and resources on recycling and upcycling becoming more and more common. A quality sewing machine, like my trusty Janome, can be purchased for under $200 and save thousands of dollars in the long run. Clothing can be purchased a few times a year – even less often for adults – and is often available secondhand. Bottled water should almost never be purchased. There are so many ways to save money and resources nearly painlessly. These and similar techniques probably won’t make you rich, but they will free up resources to be used for the good of others and the building up of the Church. I believe that God desires each of us, no matter our financial condition, to participate in that sacred work.

We need to think critically and creatively about how to minimize and avoid debt, how to support our friends and family financially through networking and conscious consumption, redeem and support those trying to escape poverty and need, and – most of all – how to seek fulfillment in Christ rather than in material things. I would love to do some of that thinking together. If you have tips for life hacks or topics you’d like me to explore in this vein, please share in the comments.