• Returning To The Way of St. James

    Returning To the Way of St. James
    Brian Zahnd

    But I would walk five hundred miles
    And I would walk five hundred more
    Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles
    To fall down at your door

    –The Proclaimers

    In the fall of 2016 Peri and I walked 500 miles from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain along the 1,200 year-old Camino Francés pilgrim route. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It may have blistered my feet, but it healed my soul. The truth is, when I set out from St.-Jean on September 14, 2016 (Holy Cross Day) I didn’t know how much healing my soul needed. But as we walked into Santiago forty days later I was aware that I had walked into a deep peace that is still with me today. Though it may sound like a cliché, I can honestly say the Camino changed my life. Peri tells the story from her perspective in her Camino memoir, Every Scene By Heart.

    Last year for our vacation we walked the Camino Portuguése from Porto, Portugal to Santiago — a pilgrimage of 160 miles that took two weeks. It was a Camino tune up, but not the same as the long 500-mile walk. Unfortunately, Peri developed a stress fracture of her tibia on this Camino and ended up on crutches for eight weeks! The Camino does present physical challenges.

    This fall we are returning to the 500-mile Camino Francés. We begin walking on September 12 and will return to St. Joseph in time to celebrate the 38th anniversary of Word of Life Church on November 3. After pastoring Word of Life for nearly four decades we now have an excellent pastoral staff and the congregation will be just fine while Peri and I go for a long walk. But why do I want to go on another big Camino? I have a fairly definite reason.
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  • Trumped

    Brian Zahnd

    Politics trumps everything. That’s an axiom that holds up. Unless you really see the kingdom of God and are willing to rethink everything in the light of Christ, politics trumps everything — including faith and ethics. I learned this the hard way. When I pulled away from lock-step allegiance with the Religious Right because I had seen the kingdom of God and had begun to take Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount seriously, many politically conservative Christians accused me of “going over to the other side.” Committed as they were to a dualistic us vs. them paradigm, they could only interpret my kingdom-conscious approach to politics as traitorous. “If you’re not on our side, you must be on their side!” In their closed dualistic system, even Jesus has to be either a Republican or a Democrat.

    So my honest claim to have no interest in the Left/Right political divide because I only cared about following Jesus fell on deaf ears. They could not see the kingdom alternative I was pointing to — they could only see us vs. them, Republicans vs. Democrats, Elephants vs. Donkeys. They were incredulous about my claim to only be interested in following the Lamb. Yes, I learned the hard way that if the kingdom of Christ is not perceived as a viable alternative society, then competition for conventional political power seems the only option for influencing the world.

    With a low ecclesiology, politics trumps everything. If the local church is viewed as devoid of what we think of as real power, then we inevitably set our sights on Washington D.C. The National Prayer Breakfast is believed to be important, not because of prayer, but because the President and other power brokers are there. And once you’re convinced that God is working through the political machinations of Babylon, and that God is inviolably on the side of your political party…well, you have set yourself up to make enormous compromises. So let me talk about the elephant in the room — Donald J. Trump.
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  • On Love of Nation

    On Love of Nation
    Brian Zahnd

    As followers of Jesus we are not commanded to love our nation. Rather, we are commanded to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as our self. Nation — whether we are referring to the modern nation-state or to its ancient meaning of ethnicity — is not a proper category for a priority of love. To prioritize love of one’s nation-state or one’s ethnicity will almost of necessity put us at odds with the commands we have received from Jesus Christ. We are called to love God supremely and then to love those around us with a co-suffering love — and we are to do this regardless of our neighbor’s citizenship or ethnicity. This is the basis for all Christ-informed ethics, and this is what Jesus sets forth in his parable of the Good Samaritan.

    Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) in response to a question from a Torah scholar trying to wiggle out of loving his neighbor by asking for clarification on who actually constitutes a neighbor. The biblical scholar understood that Jesus had spoken correctly when he had identified love of God and love of neighbor as the heart of Scriptural revelation and the way that leads to life, but the scholar was looking for a loop-hole because there were obviously people he didn’t want to love, and Samaritans would certainly have been on his not-to-be-loved list. Thus his lawyerly question. This is the backdrop for the parable.
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  • We Must Not Celebrate Martial Spectacle

    We Must Not Celebrate Martial Spectacle
    Brian Zahnd

    Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    But we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
    –Psalm 20:7

    Twenty-some years ago Peri and I attended a military airshow at Rosecrans Airport here in St. Joseph, Missouri. There were military aircraft from yesteryear evoking nostalgia; the Blue Angels put on a flight demonstration that was nothing short of spectacular; and the grand finale was the flyover of a B-2 stealth bomber that was absolutely awe-inspiring. (At a cost of about two billion dollars per bomber it should inspire awe!) The power of the military aircraft and the precision flying of the pilots engendered a patriotism that was exhilarating.

    At the end of the airshow the crowd was allowed to wander among the bombers and fighter jets, take pictures, and meet the pilots. While standing under the wings of one of the immense bombers, an unanticipated thought rose in my mind: “These are flying death machines, and their sole purpose is to rain down death from heaven.” That objective acknowledgment was followed with this troubling question: “As a Christian should I celebrate these machines?” This was years before I concluded that waging war is incompatible with following Jesus, but a seed had been sown, and I would have to wrestle with the question of whether or not a Christian should venerate the tools of total war.
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  • The Sycamore’s Prayers

    The Sycamore’s Prayers
    Blind Man at the Gate
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  • In Praise of Ordinary Church

    In Praise of Ordinary Church
    Brian Zahnd

    Sometime in late modernity Christians who had deeply, though mostly unwittingly, imbibed the heady cocktails served by the high priests of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, et al.) conjured the drunken idea that Jesus had given a writ of divorce to the church. In an age of suspicion committed to the critique of tradition how could it be otherwise? Surely the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth could have nothing to do with the tired institution that is dismissively referred to as “organized religion”? This secular assault upon the church found a surprising resonance among many Christians — especially pietists, revivalists, and rugged American individualists. Thus was born the modern idea of Jesus as personal savior (which really means private savior), leaving the church as little more than an optional common interest club for the more socially inclined. Jesus was essential, but the church was optional, or perhaps irrelevant, or even a hindrance to Christian faith.

    Today this kind of thinking is in full bloom. But what should we make of it? Or perhaps a better question is, what would the first followers of Jesus make of this development? I have no doubt at all that they would scratch their heads at this strange new private religion with its stunning capacity to misunderstand Jesus and his message.
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  • Memorial Day

    Memorial Day
    by Brian Zahnd

    I have vivid memories of Memorial Day growing up in Savannah, Missouri. The last Monday in May marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. As such it is a fond memory. And on Memorial Day I always went with my dad to a ceremony held in the northeast corner of the town cemetery. This is where the war dead are buried. Each uniform grave was decorated with a small American flag. As a child in the 1960s, the freshest graves contained the bodies of young men who had returned from Vietnam in flag-draped coffins. Old men were there wearing faded and ill-fitting uniforms from the wars of yesteryear. There would be a speaker (some years it was my dad), a prayer offered by one of the town’s clergy, the National Anthem played by the high school band, a twenty-one gun salute from the old men in their faded uniforms, and taps played by a trumpeter in the distance. The occasion was somber and patriotic. And the theme of the prayers and speeches was always the same — it was the language of sacrifice.
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  • Thoughts On the National Day of Prayer

    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.



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