• Thoughts On the National Day of Prayer

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    Thoughts On the National Day of Prayer
    Brian Zahnd

    A few years ago, I was invited to speak on prayer at a Christian school on the National Day of Prayer (an observance established in 1952 during the Cold War Era). As you might have guessed I’m less than enthusiastic about the National Day of Prayer, mainly because of its tendency to turn into the Day of Nationalistic Prayer. I would rather we observe Ascension Day as a global day of prayer. Ironically these two days occasionally coincide, and it’s telling that the American National Day of Prayer easily overshadows observing the Ascension of Christ to reign over all the nations. But despite my ambivalence toward the National Day of Prayer, it was less trouble for me to accept the invitation than to decline. The student assembly was held in the gymnasium, and before I spoke the students were to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. The Pledge of Allegiance came off without a hitch — every student recited it flawlessly, complete with a hand-over-heart liturgical gesture. But the Lord’s Prayer was another story; in fact it was a bit of a fiasco. The students in this private Christian school didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. So a student was pressed into service to read it so he could lead the student body through it line by line in “repeat after me” fashion. It was embarrassing. I turned to the faculty member assigned to host me saying, “It’s not that this Protestant Christian school doesn’t believe in liturgy, you just don’t believe in Christian liturgy; your students know their American liturgy quite well.” It was a harsh assessment on my part, but the faculty member could only sheepishly agree.
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  • Now Is the Time for the Good Wine!

    Now Is the Time for the Good Wine!

    Brian Zahnd

    I know what it’s like to fear that the feast is about to cease because, as in the words of Mary the Mother of Jesus in Cana of Galilee, “They have no wine.”

    This was my experience almost twenty years ago when I first began to feel the falseness prevailing in Americanized Christianity — it was too shallow, too watery, too weak, too partisan, too incurious, too complicit with the materialism and militarism of the age. For me this wasn’t a crisis of faith in a general sense — I was still fascinated with the Jesus who had captured my heart as a teenager — but I knew Jesus deserved something a whole lot better than American pop Christianity. I still believed in Jesus, but it felt like the party was coming to an end.

    But I didn’t walk away, instead I threw myself into seeking something better, and in 2004 Jesus performed a miracle — water turned into wine! I found the rich, substantive, subversive, intoxicating Christianity I was looking for. Today I’ve never been more excited to be a Christian, and I’ve never been happier to serve Jesus and his beloved church. This is the truth and it’s the story I tell in my spiritual memoir Water To Wine.

    The point of this piece though is not to retell that story (as wonderful as it is) but to encourage those of you who feel the falseness prevailing in Americanized Christianity and fear you’ll soon have to walk out on the Christian feast. I have good news for those forlornly looking for the exit from a party that feels like it’s about to grind to a halt: Now is the time for the good wine!

    After Jesus had performed his first miracle in Cana of Galilee the master of the feast told the truth when he said, “You have kept the good wine until now!” That’s what I want to say — now is the time for the good wine!

    I’m well aware that much of the more public expressions of Christianity in North America seem to be backsliding into religious nationalism, narrow fundamentalism, and tawdry consumerism, but that’s not the whole story. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to travel widely and to speak in churches, seminaries, and conferences across North America, and I’m happy to report that Jesus is manifesting his glory by turning water into wine! The good news is you don’t have be done, you just need to find where Jesus is doing his thing and give it a hearty salute — L’Chaim!

    It’s by coming to the end of that which is fading away that we are invited to participate in what the Spirit is doing now. We can call it deconstruction if we like. Indeed sometimes a whole wing of our theological house needs to be demolished so the renovation project can move forward. But I prefer to use the metaphor of a precious icon being lovingly restored so that we can once again behold the beauty of Christ. But my favorite way of talking about this spiritual phenomenon is to say that when the inferior wine has at last run out, don’t walk out, instead let Jesus turn plain tap water into extraordinary carménère!

    This is why I’ve again asked some friends to join me in June for our second Water To Wine Gathering. June 13–15 we will gather at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri to talk about all kinds of things I bet you’re interested in. Of course we’ll have plenty of plenary sessions (and every session will have Q/A), but just look at these workshops!

    Joe Beach — “Wittenberg, We Have a Problem: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”

    Sarah Bessey — “A Path In the Wilderness: Deconstruction Beyond Doubling Down or Burning It Down”

    Cheryl Bridges Johns — “No Other Gods: Discipleship in the Age of Empire”

    Jonathan Martin — “Staying True To Your Roots!”

    Rich Villodas — “Sabbath-Keeping as a Contemplative Practice of Resistance”

    Derek Vreeland — “Atonement and Authentic Discipleship: How the Cross Frees Us To Follow Jesus”

    Brian Zahnd — “A Blight Upon Beauty: How We Should Understand Hell”

    Peri Zahnd — “Why Fixing People Doesn’t Work: Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Care”

    We’ll be talking about the Bible, the Spirit, deconstruction, empire, atonement, hell, Sabbath-keeping, and spiritual direction all in a vibrant, life-giving, water to wine context.

    So take heart my troubled friend, you don’t have to be done with Christianity — Jesus is still turning water to wine!

    Register today for Water To Wine 2019.

    L’Chaim!

    BZ

    (The artwork is The Miracle of Cana of Galilee by Alexandra Desnitskaya.)

  • The Slaughter of the Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas

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    The Slaughter of the Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas
    Brian Zahnd

    As the Gospel of Matthew tells us, Jesus was born in the time of King Herod, and the history books tell us that most of civilization has been lived in the time of kings like Herod — that is, in the time of tyrant kings. I’m talking about the time of Herod, the time of Pharaoh, the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the time of Augustus, the time of Nero, all the way into modern times — the time of Hitler and Mussolini, the time of Franco and Salazar, the time of Pinochet and Putin. It’s tragically true that most people have lived their lives in the time of tyrant kings. But the gospel also announces the glad tidings that with the birth of Jesus heaven has invaded the time of tyrant kings!

    Matthew tells the story of the first gentiles to receive the revelation (epiphany) of Christ the King. This is the beloved Christmas story of the Wise Men. These Oriental magi (or magicians) were most likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia skilled in astronomy, astrology, and dream interpretation who evidently somehow discerned in the stars an astrological sign announcing the birth of a new King of the Jews. The Zoroastrian priests regarded this birth as so auspicious that they embarked upon a dangerous and difficult thousand-mile journey from Persia to Judea in order to perform obeisance before the child and present their famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because the magi were looking for a child king born in Judea, it made sense for them to inquire in the capital city of Jerusalem, but by doing so they unwittingly set in motion terrible events.
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  • Walter Brueggemann’s Foreword to Postcards From Babylon

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    When I finished writing Postcards From Babylon there was only one person I wanted to write the foreword — Walter Brueggemann. So you can imagine how delighted I was that he agreed to write it for me and I would like to share it with you.

    FOREWORD

    As long ago as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther boldly voiced a vigorous either/or for Christian faith in terms of a “Theology of Glory” and a “Theology of the Cross.” By the former Luther referred to an articulation of Gospel faith that smacked of triumphalism that was allied with worldly power that specialized in winning, control, being first, and being best. For Luther, that theology was all tied up with the European imperial of his time. By the contrast of a “Theology of the Cross,” Luther referred to the risky way of Jesus that is marked by humility, obedience, and vulnerability standing in sharp contrast to and in opposition to the hunger for “Glory.” The “way of the cross,” for Luther, is demanding and costly because it contradicts the dominant way of the world.

    Now in a bold and daring articulation, Brian Zahnd has sketched a “Theology of the Cross” for our time and place in the United States of the twenty-first century. He does so in a way that deeply resonates with the primal claims of evangelical theology. He sees that the Gospel is inherently and inescapably countercultural because the God of the Gospel is in particular and passionate solidarity with the “left behind.”

    In this daring articulation, Zahnd pulls no punches. He sees that so much of the American church has been cozily allied with the high claims of U.S. nationalism that readily tilts toward imperialism. The whole package of dominant triumphalist faith adds up to “God and country,” with “country” being the tail that wags the dog of “God.” Most particularly, this triumphalist alliance has a long history of attachment to military ideology, the winning of wars, and the domination of other nations and their resources and markets. In one of his many poetic renderings, Zahnd offers a nearly unbearable riff on the aggression of Achilles in the Iliad and completes the thought of Homer as he enumerates at great length the inventory of wars in which triumphalist Christianity has been eagerly and characteristically implicated. That long alliance with brutalizing power of course has deeply skewed everything in the faith, offering both a caricature of the God of the Gospel and a distorted notion of both discipleship and of citizenship. Before he finishes, Zahnd goes on to see how it is that the Trump administration is a near perfect embodiment of that ideology of “lust, greed, and pride” and how so much of the church has sadly colluded with the Trump administration in a pretend embrace of Gospel faith.
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  • Trying Hard Not To Be Ugly

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    Trying Hard Not To Be Ugly
    Brian Zahnd

    We live in an ugly time. That’s how I see it anyway. Racism is on the rise, xenophobia is in vogue, and mercy walks the plank. Children are imprisoned, journalists are dismembered, and rage is all the rage. It’s an ugly time. So I’m trying hard not to be ugly. But it’s not easy. To be ugly about all the ugliness is easy. Of course when I insert my own ugliness into the fray I don’t call it being ugly, I call it being right. I tell myself that my rage is like the whip-wielding, table-flipping Christ in the temple. But in my more contemplative moments I have to admit that most of the time my rage is more like Peter cutting off an ear than Jesus cleansing the temple. Just because Jesus did something doesn’t mean that I should try to do it. After all, Jesus walked on water too.

    So I want to resist the ugliness, not by being ugly about it, not by raging against it, not by hurling insults at those caught up in mimetic ugliness, but by being something other. What I’m saying is that I want to try to be beautiful. I’m not sure I’m called to imitate Christ in his rage, but I know I’m called to imitate Christ on the cross. It’s the cruciform that is the definitive form of Christian beauty. Crucifixion is ugly unless we imitate Christ and pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the beauty that saves the world.
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  • Waiting for God to Act

    Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem

    Waiting for God to Act
    Brian Zahnd

    Advent is for waiting. As we tell the story of redemption through the church calendar we begin our telling of the sacred story, not with doing, not with celebrating, but with waiting — waiting for God to act.

    Yet most of us — children of a high-tech, high-speed, instantaneous age — are not very good at waiting. It feels too much like doing nothing, and we are the driven ones who take pride in being busy. Waiting is not really our thing.

    Or worse yet, waiting feels too much like lamenting, which is closer to the truth. With the loss of a strong sense of the Christian calendar we have conflated Advent and Christmas into a single “holiday season.” But the truth is that Advent is quite different from Christmas as it carries its strong theme of prophetic lament. The world has gone wrong, justice lies fallen in the streets, and it seems that God is nowhere to be found. That’s when the lamentation of waiting arises in our soul: “O Lord, how long?” From Isaiah to Malachi there is a consistent theme of waiting in lament for God to act. All of the Hebrew prophets, each in their own way, composed their prophetic poems around this recurring theme: The Lord is coming, God is about to act, but for now…we wait.

    And yet the waiting is essential. For it’s in the waiting that our soul grows quiet and contemplative and cultivates a capacity for awareness by which we can discern what God is doing when he does act.
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  • Hell…and How to Get There

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    (This is chapter 6 of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. I want you to have it. Share it freely and widely.)

    Hell…and How to Get There
    Brian Zahnd

    My dad was in the process of his slow dying. Dementia had rendered this intelligent and articulate judge nearly as mute as the sphinx. He had broken his arm in a fall and I was sitting with him in the hospital. Since conversation with my dad was nearly impossible, I had a book with me, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi, theologian, philosopher, and social activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and lent his prominent voice to the civil rights movement. It is remarkable that a Jewish rabbi’s writings have been so influential among Christian ministers, theologians, and lay people around the world. The preeminent Christian Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has often cited Heschel’s influence on his own work. Everything I’ve ever read from Heschel has shown him to be a thoroughly God-saturated soul, a kind and wise sage of the highest order. Rabbi Heschel was so immersed in the Hebrew prophets that he became one — a modern-day Jeremiah marching arm in arm with Dr. King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in brave defiance of entrenched racism. Recalling his participation in the Selma March, Rabbi Heschel said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel’s whole life was a kind of prayer, and I have the highest admiration for this man of God, just like I have the highest admiration for my dad. For some reason my dad was often confused for a well-known rabbi. Maybe because he looked vaguely Jewish but more, I like to think, because of his kind and wise bearing. In many ways L. Glen Zahnd was not unlike Abraham Joshua Heschel.

    So there I was sitting at the bedside of my dying father reading The Prophets. My mind was occupied with thoughts of life and death, God and the prophets, wisdom and kindness, how we ought to live our lives, and how L. Glen Zahnd and Abraham Joshua Heschel were great examples of men who did it right. Shortly before midnight I left my father’s room to go home. The hospital corridors were quiet and the lights were turned low. It was an ambiance that matched my pensive mood. I entered the empty elevator, pushed the button for the ground floor, and watched the doors close. At that moment a thought erupted from some fundamentalist outpost in my brain asking this disturbing question: “Is Abraham Joshua Heschel in hell?” I uttered my reply instantly and out loud with more than a hint of indignation: “What would be the point of that?!”

    For most of my life I had held to a simplistic equation about the afterlife: Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment. But now with death, my dad, and Rabbi Heschel weighing heavy on my mind, my tidy and trite equation began to crack under the strain. Was Rabbi Heschel in hell? After all, he wasn’t a Christian. Of course, there were a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which was that he had barely escaped the horror of the Holocaust inflicted upon European Jewry by Christian hands in Christian lands. But was I to believe, as some theologies suggest, that Rabbi Heschel had escaped Hitler’s ovens in Auschwitz only to be eternally consigned to God’s own ovens in hell? At that moment, just before midnight, in that hospital elevator, a theology claiming that God locked Abraham Joshua Heschel (along with Anne Frank!) in an eternal torture chamber suddenly appeared irredeemably ludicrous as I protested out loud, “What would be the point of that?!” It was the beginning of a serious rethinking of what we Christians mean and do not mean when we talk about the four-letter word hell.
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  • A Formula For Atheism

    Askull

    (This is my foreword for Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fisher.)

    A Formula For Atheism
    Brian Zahnd

    A few years ago the pastor of an evangelical-fundamentalist church with whom I’m acquainted announced on the Sunday after Easter that he had become an atheist. He told his stunned congregation that he had been an atheist for a year and a half and that all attempts to revive his faith had failed. So on the Sunday after Easter he publicly left Christianity and moved on with his life — a life with no more Easters.

    A few days after his bombshell resignation I met with this now erstwhile pastor. As I listened to his story, it quickly became apparent that he had not so much lost his faith in Christianity as he had lost his credulity for fundamentalism. But sadly he had been formed in a tradition where Christianity and fundamentalism were so tightly bound together that he could not make a distinction between them. For this fundamentalist pastor, if the Bible wasn’t literally, historically, and scientifically factual in a biblicist-empiricist sense, then Christianity was a falsity he had to reject. When his fundamentalist house of cards collapsed, it took his Christian faith down with it. In one remarkable leap of faith, a fundamentalist became a newly minted atheist. I did my best to explain to him that he had made the modern mistake of confusing historic Christian faith with early-twentieth-century fundamentalism, but by now the damage was done and it appears his faith has suffered a fatal blow.
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  • God’s Love In Granite

    Mills

    God’s Love In Granite
    Brian Zahnd

    The Bible opens with a creation narrative and the constant refrain is the goodness of it all. In the first chapter of Genesis God declares every day as good. The third day (the day life begins) is declared good twice. On the sixth day of creation we are told, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

    The ancient Hebrew account of the entire goodness of creation stands in stark contrast to the pagan creation stories where the world comes into existence amidst the chaos of a great struggle between good and evil. In the rival myths of the ancient world, evil plays a role in creation. The first great revelation of the Hebrew scriptures is that the universe flows entirely from the goodness of God; evil played no part in God’s good creation.
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