Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Following Jesus in the Worst of Times

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives. 

Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question: 

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown?
Will you let my Name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]

We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.

When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”

Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”

I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first. 

The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.

Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke, 

I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, 
but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]

True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]

When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.

However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back? When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?

St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you. 

Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]

In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all. 

In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]


[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).

[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).

[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.

[iv] The phrase is from Simone Weil.

[v] Michael Luttig, testimony before the January 6 Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, June 16, 2022.

[vi] I believe I got this quote from an Orthodox theologian, but I can no longer trace the source. 

This post is adapted from a homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2022.

Living by the Sword: Putin and the Perils of Messianic Politics

Vladimir Putin and the icon of the Savior “not made by hands,” (Attibution: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)

“The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the mistrust peering from all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. Who knows if we shall see each other in another year? What are we waiting for? Peace must be dared. Peace is the great venture.”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (August 1934)

At a pro-war rally in Moscow last month, Vladimir Putin praised his troops for their embodiment of Christian love. “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to mind,” he said. “‘There is no greater love than if someone gives up his soul for his friends.’ The heart of the message is that this is a universal value for all the people and all the confessions of Russia …. Shoulder to shoulder they are helping and supporting each other and when it’s necessary they cover as if it was their own brother, they cover each other from the bullets. We haven’t had such unity in a long time.”[i]

The crowd loved the speech. “Forward Russia!” they chanted. Jesus! Love! Unity! Was this a political rally, or a religious revival? Some of each, I would think. For a thousand years of Russian history, politics and religion have been closely entwined. In 988, after the Christian conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus’—the original Russian state—his subjects waded into the Dnieper River to be baptized en masse.

The fact that this birth narrative of Slavic Orthodoxy took place in Kyiv helps explain the lingering Russian attachment to the Ukrainian capital. It’s their Jerusalem. Even though the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted independence from its Russian counterpart in 2018, one third of the Orthodox churches still loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate are situated in the Ukraine, and Putin has argued that his army is coming to their defense. 

The mythology of Holy Rus’, a divinely ordered “kingdom” of Slavic believers—a “Third Rome” inheriting the world-transforming mission of its failed predecessors in Europe and Constantinople—became a staple of Russian identity. In contrast to the perceived decadence, individualism, and secularism of the West, Holy Rus’ was thought to preserve communal spiritual values for the sake of all humankind. In a famous speech given in 1880, Dostoevsky said:

“[T]o be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to show the end of European yearning in our Russian soul, omni-human and all-uniting, to include within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren, and at last, it may be, to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!”[ii]

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, such Third Rome mythology seemed alive and well when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the protests of the “godless West, hostile to the Russians because we [remain] Christian traditionalists.”[iii] Many observers think the invasion of Ukraine is fueled by the same mythology. If so, Putin’s nostalgia for the old Russian Empire would be more than the product of personal and political ambition. It would amount, in that case, to a crusade to recover the lost lands of Holy Rus’ and restore the Third Rome to its proper glory. To let Ukraine drift away into western decadence would betray the myth.

Historian Anna Geifman dismisses any speculation about Putin’s mental stability:

“He’s not crazy — he’s messianic,” she says. “What Putin says is logical, and consistent with his entire policy since 2008 … To sustain his legitimacy, the regime chose to delineate a more national-patriotic and anti-Western direction, grounding its appeal on a strong conservative, Orthodox [Christian] foundation …  He may not use that term [the Third Rome], but he talks about the corruption of the West, with its ‘everything goes’ lifestyle that no longer differentiates between good and evil … Disregarding historical evidence to the contrary, Putin views Ukraine as part of the Russian family. Their independence is a slap in the face to his ideology.”[iv]

Vladimir Putin observers an Orthodox Epiphany ritual imitating the baptismal immersion of Christ.(Attribution: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo)

Putin is coy about his personal beliefs, though he wears a cross around his neck and makes a public display of his Orthodox rituals. Is his employment of Holy Rus’ rhetoric just a cynical ploy to move the masses, or is he a religious crusader at heart? And which would be worse? Either way, the resulting atrocities have been horrifically evil. The Russian messiah is a war criminal.

Empty strollers in Lviv represent the children killed in the war’s first 3 weeks.

The unholy matrimony of religion and violence is always toxic, poisoning both church and world. We have seen too much of that right here in the United States. Many of the violent seditionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, thought they were enacting God’s will. They blew shofars to make “the walls of corruption crumble.” They waved Jesus banners and Bibles, dragged large crosses into the fray, erected a gallows for their enemies. Their madness was driven by a core belief: “God, guns, and guts made America.”[v]

MAGA Jesus at the January 6 insurrection.

It wasn’t just the confused angers of the mob at work. The madness was deployed by the highest levels of government. As Capitol police were being beaten and killed and politicians were running for their lives, the President’s Chief of Staff sent an email from the White House to the sedition-enabling wife of a Supreme Court justice: 

“This is a fight of good and evil … Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues …”[vi]

For the seditionists, and a majority of white Evangelicals overall, Trump was a messianic figure, seeming to offer deliverance and rebirth to a desperate and despised people. “Donald Trump is in the Bible,” a rioter told a journalist. “Get yourself ready.”[vii]

The moral and theological collapse of right-wing Christianity in America echoes the capitulation of the Protestant German Church to the Third Reich. In the 1930s, most German clergy and theologians joined the Nazi party. Some were just playing it safe, but others were swept up in the nationalistic fervor. It became customary to conclude the baptismal rite by praying “that this child may grow up to be like Adolf Hitler.” And the head of the government Ministry of Church Affairs declared in 1935 that the Führer was “the bearer of a new revelation … Germany’s Jesus Christ.”[viii]

In the face of such absurd and blasphemous perversions of Christianity as we have seen in Russia, Germany, and the United States, what are God’s friends to do? Some would have us abandon religion altogether. Recent American studies have shown that many of the “nones” cite bad politics as their primary reason for rejecting Christianity, while many churches are themselves retreating from public life to avoid the contaminating risks of political action.[ix]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who came of age during the rise of the Nazis. During a fellowship year at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he absorbed Professor Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. If you avoid history’s messy struggles to preserve your purity, Niebuhr warned, the vacuum you leave will be filled by the demonic. 

Attending an activist black church in Harlem also had an enormous impact on young Bonhoeffer. As his superb biographer Charles Marsh has written, “No longer would he speak of grace as a transcendent idea but as a divine verdict requiring obedience and action. The American social theology … had remade him into a theologian of the concrete.”[x] When, a decade later, he joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, “he would abandon any hope of innocence, incurring the guilt of responsible action. Of the two evils, it was the one he could abide.”[xi] The failed plot would cost him his life. He died in a concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated by the Allies. His body was never found. 

Bonhoeffer had assented to a selective use of violence in order to interrupt mass murder. The unspeakable suffering of the many outweighed his own need for innocence. But he did not do it lightly, and the political captivity of the German Church made him keenly aware of how religion’s engagement with culture can easily go off the rails. He thought deeply about the ambiguities involved in repairing a broken world, but he knew that we cannot just think our way out of the human condition. We need something more, something divine. And words he wrote during the dark days of World War II still point the way:

“Who stands firm amidst the tumult and cataclysms? … The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion … The failure of ‘the reasonable ones’—those who think, with the best of intentions and in their naïve misreading of reality, that with a bit of reason they can patch up a structure that has come out of joint—is apparent. With their ability to see impaired, they want to do justice on every side, only to be crushed by the colliding forces without having accomplished anything at all. Disappointed that the world is so unreasonable, they see themselves condemned to unproductiveness; they withdraw in resignation or helplessly fall victim to the stronger … Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not their reason, their principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and relationship to God alone, they are called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.”[xii]


[i] https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/2022/03/18/putin-rallies-stadium-crowds-and-lauds-troops-fighting-in-ukraine/ The quotation is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, just after he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Putin used the Russian word for soul (душу (dushu) instead of the biblical “life.”

[ii] Dostoevsky’s speech, given in honor of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20050207093332/http://www.dwightwebber.com/pushkinspeech.html

[iii] Quoted in Binyamin Rose, “Russia’s Deep-Seated Messianic Complex,” Mishpacha: Jewish Family Weekly (Mar. 15, 2022) https://mishpacha.com/russias-deep-seated-messianic-complex/

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Emma Green, “A Christian Insurrection” (The Atlantic, Jan. 8, 2021).

[vi] David French, “The Worst Ginni Thomas Text Wasn’t from Ginni Thomas (The Atlantic, March 25, 2022).

[vii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Mass Delusion in America” (The Atlantic, Jan. 6, 2021).

[viii] Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 283, 271.

[ix] Ruth Braunstein, “The Backlash against rightwing evangelicals is reshaping American politics and faith” (The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2022).

[x] Marsh, 135.

[xi] Ibid., 346.

[xii] Ibid., 341.

When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

 Related posts

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding