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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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  • “No More of This!” (Why Jesus Armed and Disarmed Peter)

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    “No More of This!” (Why Jesus Armed and Disarmed Peter)
    Brian Zahnd

    It’s soon after midnight. We’re in an ancient olive grove with a full moon shining through the boughs. Jesus is in anguished prayer. Disciples are nearby…sleeping. We hear angry voices. A mob is approaching bearing torches. Now they’re upon us and the torchlight reveals the mob is bearing something else — weapons. A battle is about to begin. Luke tells us what happens next.

    “There came a crowd, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ And when those who were around him saw what was coming, they said, ‘Lord, should we fight? We brought the swords!’ Then one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ Then Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him.” –Luke 22:47–51
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  • If This Is God…

    PaoloNativity

    If This Is God…

    Brian Zahnd

    As we know, there was no room in the inn at Bethlehem, so the peasant couple from Galilee took refuge where they could. And as we know, the girl was “great with child” and her due date was nigh. As it turned out, the baby took his first breath and uttered his first cry in a cave that sheltered livestock. A feeding trough was turned into a crib for the newborn. A stable that had seen the birth of calves, kids, and lambs, now saw the birth of…GOD.

    This is what Christians confess about Christmas.

    We confess that Emmanuel (God with us) joined humanity, not by swooping down from the celestial heavens in a golden chariot, but by being born — born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Like all of us, God was pushed from the womb through contractions, labor, agony, and blood, to enter headfirst into the beautiful and horrible mess that is our world. This is not Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus, this is Jesus born of Mary.
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  • Best Reads of 2017

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    Reader extraordinaire Peri Zahnd shares her favorite books from 2017. -BZ

    BEST READS OF 2017
    By Peri Zahnd

    I can’t imagine a life without books — I was banned from reading for a week this year following eye surgery, which was just long enough to show me how awful it could be. As I’ve looked over the list of what I’ve read this year, there are three standouts in three different genres.
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  • Feel the Falseness (An Appeal To Faith Leaders)

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    Feel the Falseness
    Brian Zahnd

    “The first precondition of being called a spiritual leader is to perceive and feel the falsehood that is prevailing in society, and then to dedicate one’s life to a struggle against that falsehood. If one tolerates the falsehood and resigns oneself to it, one can never become a prophet. If one cannot rise above material life, one cannot even become a citizen in the Kingdom of the Spirit, far less a leader of others.” –Vladimir Solovyov in his eulogy of Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Can you feel it?

    It’s all around you. But can you feel it? The falseness — the falseness that prevails in society. Most are so sedated they never even suspect it. Some sense it, but cannot name it. It takes a prophet to name it. Dostoevsky in his day was well aware of it, which is why he was so much more than a novelist. Dostoevsky wrote his dark, brooding stories because he felt the falseness. What we take for truth, for reality, for the way things are and the way we assume things must be is almost entirely false. The world as it’s arranged is built upon a foundation of falsehood. The prevailing falseness memorialized in marble and robed in glory can appear indisputable, but as Dylan says, “all the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.”

    And now I will appeal to someone more authoritative then Dostoevsky or Dylan.

    Jesus.
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  • Beyond the Wittenberg Door

    Luther95theses

    Beyond the Wittenberg Door
    Brian Zahnd

    Five-hundred years ago on All Hallows Eve (the day before All Saints Day) Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Professor Luther was proposing a theological debate, what he got was a revolution. What Luther unwittingly launched that day in Wittenberg was one of the most momentous movements in church history: The Protestant Reformation. Among the many consequences of the Reformation was that the Western Church separated into Catholic and Protestant churches. One way of describing the Reformation would be, “there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” (Acts 15:39)

    So here we are now, five-hundred years down the road — five-hundred years beyond the Wittenberg Door. And finding ourselves half a millennium beyond the Wittenberg Door, how should we think about the Protestant Reformation? I have a few thoughts.
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  • Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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    Columbus Day?
    Brian Zahnd

    It’s Columbus Day in America. Sort of. While still a Federal holiday, less than half the states observe Columbus day. And in some states and in many cities today is observed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Where Native Americans still have a fairly visible presence Columbus Day can be a bit awkward.

    Growing up in Missouri I knew Columbus Day as the celebration of the “discovery” of America. Which lets slip the obvious fact that the story is being told from a European vantage point. When I arrived in Spain for the first time I hardly “discovered” Spain. Yet from my perspective I was making a new discovery. (I did refrain from claiming to now own Spain.)

    Contrary to what you may have thought, Columbus did not arrive on the shores of an empty wilderness, but on the shores of a world more populous than Europe. Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was larger than any European city. But armed with guns, steel, and germs, and driven by the conquistador’s lust for gold and slaves, the population of the Americas was decimated. Columbus discovered America like that asteroid discovered the dinosaurs.
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