Round 2–I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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My brain is trying all the things.

“I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” “I can still listen to what I want to listen to.” “I know you are, but what am I?” BUT IT’S NOT WORKING!!!

I hate democracy. I’m all for rule by the superior classes, and OF COURSE I get to decide who is in the ruling oligarchy. AND IT WON’T INCLUDE BETHANY BYLSMA!!

So I guess you can vote. Whatever. Do it before Friday at 5 pm PST.

#9 Sleeping at Last vs. #16 Johnny Cash

 

#5 Branches vs. #13 John Gorka

 

#3 Echosmith vs. #6 Five Strings

 

#2 The Opiate Mass vs. #10 Slavic Chorale

Mystery

(Message given December 9, 2018 at Newberg Emerging Friends Church)

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The mystery of Christmas.

It’s something we hear a lot about at this time of year, held out there for us as part of the magic we might be missing in the bustle. Embrace the mystery!

What exactly do “they” mean when “they” say that? Probably not the “Twelve Slays of Christmas…”

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…or “Murder for Christmas”.

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Nope, I’m guessing the magical “mystery” of Christmas is probably summed up best like this:

Now, far be it from me to argue with “them” or especially with Amy “She-Who-Is-Christmas” Grant, but…

Look, speaking as the self-proclaimed expert on Christmas nostalgia, I gotta say: what’s with the big focus on mystery at Christmas? What I love about Christmas is the traditions, the patterns, the nostalgia, the doing it all the same way! There are no SURPRISES. 

That’s why I can listen to the Ray Conniff Singers at Christmas time, because it reminds me of Christmases I knew growing up. That’s why I inflict Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on my family every year, because they are FAMILIAR! Not because they are a mystery.

And if we think about the story itself: I mean, come on, where is there mystery? We know the plot by this point, am I right? My non-faith friends at work know the plot. Why the word mystery at Christmas? It’s not about surprises, it’s about the tried and true, the known and familiar…right?

What if I told you…and lean close, that’s the cue that I’m putting on my movie trailer announcer voice and am about to say something super obvious

What if I told you…you can have your known and familiar and nostalgic Christmas AND you can embrace the mystery? What if I told you…mystery, in the biblical sense, in the wonderful sense…isn’t really about SURPRISE at all! (At least not at this point in history.)

Mystery IS a wonderful word to noodle around in our minds at Christmas, to help us delve into a meaningful experience which goes even beyond my love for nostalgia. I love that I was assigned this word as something to explore tonight, because Christmas mystery is both something revealed in the past, and something that invites us infinitely into the future.

But first…we need to untangle ourselves a bit from some of the layers of the word “mystery”.

I grew up with one of the great mystery solvers in history very much in the forefront of my mind.

mystery machine

Scooby Doo! The Mystery Machine! Every single episode, “those meddling kids” followed the clues and solved the mystery. I was taught that’s what mysteries are–mysteries are things to be solved. Figured out. Sleuthed.

It’s strong in our British and American literature. Those great mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to name two, who created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey…they have woven their way into our national consciousness. 

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Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who keeps appearing in adaptation after adaptation.

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In all of these, we learn that in the face of a mystery, you look for information. It’s cerebral, an intellectual exercise. It’s deduction. If you find enough of the pieces, you can put it all together in a satisfying answer that brings closure for everyone. 

I think a lot of us have that idea in mind as we hear “mystery” today in our world. 

But biblically, the Greek word “musterion” is quite a bit different. We get our English word mystery directly from the Greek “musterion”, not as a translation, but simply by transliterating the letters. We took the word, but we’ve changed the meaning.

In the bible, “musterion” is a secret…a Divine secret. It is a secret that cannot be figured out or deduced or known by human beings. It’s a Divine secret that must be revealed by God, because it is so far out of realm of conception, so far out of the bounds of how the world functions. It’s beyond deduction.

The great thing is, God LOVES being a revealer of mysteries! Mystery in this sense is like the glee felt when hosting a party, where you’ve given thought and time and attention to every detail, and have some special element that each guest will love. You can’t WAIT to get to the day and reveal the mystery of all that you’ve prepared to honor and celebrate each person at the party!

Biblical mystery, Divine mystery, Christmas mystery is just this: God having a plan to show love and care in a way that no one could possibly have guessed; and the joy of revealing the ever-deepening layers of this well-prepared secret!

You see this through the references to mystery in the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” God’s had this planned for our good for a long time!

What is the mystery? Well, it’s several things, actually. God has a lot of good things planned for us! But first and foremost, Colossians 2:2 lays it out: “…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ…”

The most profound mystery, the most powerful and essential Divine secret revealed for our love and care, is Jesus himself…God laying aside power and majesty, identifying with humanity, in the most humble way. Jesus taking on brown, marginalized flesh. God forever joining God’s self to humanity and to this infuriatingly unjust and oppressive world.

As confusing as I pretended it was for me at the start of this message, this is exactly why it is right for Christmas to be associated with mystery. 

So the Incarnation is the central mystery, the essential secret revealed to the world for our redemption.

But as I said, like a deliciously inventive and creative author, God has more secrets and plot twists to delightfully reveal. Just when the Jewish people started to get their head around the incarnation, here came another mystery, in Ephesians 3:6: “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

That’s one they couldn’t deduce! That’s one they fought and wrestled with for awhile, and it needed a lot of Spirit work and revelation for everybody to grasp and accept it. Jesus becoming a Jewish baby didn’t make them exclusive winners. The Incarnation is humanity’s mystery to share-it’s for everyone!

And then another delicious plot twist, as the mystery deepens even more, as a more complete plan was revealed. Ephesians 1:8b-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.”

What is this mystery? “To bring unity to ALL things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Not just the people group Jesus was born into.

Not just the Gentiles, not just all humanity. But EVERYTHING. Jesus becoming human is transforming and bringing unity to EVERYTHING. All things in heaven and on earth. All of creation. All of the spiritual realm. All the powers that seem at war with each other, destructive to humanity and creation, EVERYTHING is going to be brought into proper alignment and unity by Jesus. 

This is the far reaching power of this mystery which God has revealed! This is the glory of God’s plan from before creation. 

This is our bright and shining hope in a dim and dark existence; a divine secret and a cosmic hope that keeps finding new layers of depth as time passes on.

From the cosmic stretch which includes everything in the universe, all the way to the intimate personal connection with us…this mystery knows no bounds.

Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Christ in you! Not only joining in solidarity with marginalized people long ago. Not only spreading beyond Israel to all of humanity. Not only coming against cosmic spiritual darkness and bringing all of creation and heaven and humanity into unity with Jesus.

Christ in you. Christ with you. Christ living, breathing, surrounding, healing, empowering, encouraging, convicting, forgiving, and leading…in you!

Some would say the ultimate mystery of God is the union we can experience with God’s very self, all made possible by Jesus. 

Do you see? 

Do you see how mystery is the past, what God has already done, the amazing truth revealed in Christ’s birth? And do you also see how it is future, infinite, ever-expanding…drawing us deeper, calling us to a union with God in which we cannot help but be surprised and beautifully moved to new and never-before-seen places?

Richard Rohr says it powerfully in The Divine Dance: 

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand–it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”

It took me several weeks after they asked me to speak on mystery tonight to realize this topic had a big connection to my own spiritual life over the last 6 or 7 months.

I’ve been reading Christian mystics; specifically, medieval women Christian mystics. 

David Benner writes,

“…Mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.”

Mystics show us a pathway outside of our rational, deductive spirituality and help us embrace mystery and union from a different place. And like an onion, layers upon layers unfold before us in our exploration. Always, always, the mystics are describing an inexorable movement toward intimate union with God.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, from the 1200’s, captures this:

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Love leads us into mystery, binding us layer by layer, piece by piece with the Creator of the Universe. It is rooted, so essentially and eternally rooted, in the work of God through Christ, bound with the manger-born one who taught and healed and bled, out of love for us.

Listen to Hildegard of Bingen, 100 years earlier in the 1100’s:

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Reading, praying, meditating, dwelling in the words and the worlds of these women has helped me truly embrace the Mystery.

It’s deepening my connection to the past reality of Jesus who lived and breathed and walked our world. It’s returned a sense of awe, a sense of wonder…a profound awareness of the great ‘otherness’ of God, but this is the kind of awareness that produces longing. This journey has opened up a new future, caused a desire in me to “endlessly understand”, as Rohr describes it.

Side benefits have appeared along the way. Reading back almost a millennium, the cultural barriers and blinders sometimes so obviously appear. Even for Hildegard, an accomplished theologian who wrote popes and kings, who toured Germany twice on preaching tours as a woman in the middle ages…even for Hildegard, who critiques abuses of the power systems in the church and the state…it’s so easy, from a thousand years distance, to see that even some of those critiques themselves are bound by the time and culture in which she lived.

But then there are these moments…these holy moments when words seem to literally have dripped from the heavens through her pen, and almost a thousand years later they can soar off the page and explode with power into my soul. 

In these words and moments I see the God I know today; I glimpse the Divine One, beyond time, beyond culture. And there are even times where the power of the words gives me glimpses of yet-unknown facets of our Creator, creating a yearning in me to experience and live in a yet deeper union with God.

Friends, the proverbial “they” are right!

Mystery beckons us this Christmas and always. The mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of union with God lies open before us. May we receive it. May we pursue it. May we be transformed by it.

May we, with humility, acknowledge our own barriers of culture and time which interfere with our judgments of right and wrong, just and unjust. May we acknowledge we may not have it all nailed down. May we let the Divine lift off the page, into our minds and hearts, and may we walk into the ever-deepening unknown intimacy, with Jesus as our guide. 

I’ll close with the words of Catherine of Siena, from the 1300’s, letting her words lead us into a time of open worship:

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Bracket Released–I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Some people (cough cough Bethany Bylsma) don’t seem to appreciate the choice of this particular song. But I am enjoying dwelling with this through several versions, melodies, and artists.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” in 1863. His second wife had passed away, his son had joined the Union Army against his wishes; peace was far from his experience.

For me, this song’s power (and therefore the essential piece that must be captured) comes in the embrace of opening one’s eyes to the lack of peace in our world, followed by a transition to Christian hope. It’s not an easy transition to live, or to interpret musically. Smoothing over the pain, or moving to easy hope, are not ultimately satisfying options for me.

And in despair I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth, I said

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, goodwill to men.

So here we go with 16 diverse versions of this poetic Christmas Carol. Give a listen, share it around, and get your votes in by Wednesday at 5 pm PST.

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#1 The Civil Wars   This exquisite version was submitted by both Bethany Lee and Kelsey Hampton. For what I am looking for (as listed above), this nails it. The intricate, subtle harmonic changes in the heart of the song, combined with their passionate, expressive vocals make it an easy top seed.

#16 Johnny Cash     Bethany Bylsma nominated this one. Cash is expressive at other times, but this one doesn’t seem to move with the song at all.

 

#8 Casting Crowns     Jennifer Hanziel nominated this version. Alternate melodies abound on this carol, and this is one of the alternates.

#9 Sleeping at Last      One of several Bethany Bylsma nominations, though she claims she doesn’t like the choice of this song…

 

#5 Branches     I remember discovering this group on the very first Advent Caroling Madness. This version is nominated by Jennifer Perez. I had a difficult time seeding this one; at one point as low as 9, at another point as high as 3.

#12 The Carpenters    Krissi Carson nominated this one, sharing that the Carpenters Christmas Album was a wonderful part of her growing up experience.

 

#4 Westminster Concert Bell Choir    I mean, come on: what’s the title of the song? A bell choir has to get a good seed. But on my second listen through, I really was impressed with what the arrangement does with the despair and with the hope. It’s a good one.

#13 John Gorka     This is, I believe, the first nomination from Jared Jones. I’m glad he sent it in-I was completely unfamiliar with this artist.

 

#6 Five Strings        This, too, is an alternate tune, and it is quite intriguing. I found the tune and arrangement to evoke more of the hopeful side of this tune. Thanks to Dawn Reed for submitting!

#11 Found Wandering    Robin Mohr nominated this local Philadelphia group. This is another I had difficulty seeding, and it fell to 11 primarily because of matchups.

 

#3 Echosmith         I would be intrigued to hear this group arrange this today. The recording is from 2013, and they look quite young in the video…and there are some really nice pieces in this. I think with the maturity that I’m sure they have gained, it might be even better now. Thanks to Robin Mohr for this submission as well.

#14 Suzy Boggus & Chet Atkins       Ronis Chapman is another new participant, with her first submission: thank you!

 

#7 Eclectic Christmas      I may get in trouble for not giving my friends and son-in-law a #1 seed…but it primarily has to do with the fact that I appear to be the only person on the planet who does not like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. But this is a creative mash up by talented people. Submitted by Nate and Amy Macy.

#10 Slavic Chorale      David Sherwood offers us this well done choir piece, using the same tune as the Casting Crowns version. It dropped to #10 because I originally was going to pit the versions against each other in the first round, but then that didn’t seem fair.

 

#2 The Opiate Mass          This is haunting, shading toward the despair side all the way through. But, the context makes that understandable and also lends it such power. Martha Wood submitted this, and let us know that this was performed on the day of the shooting at Newtown Elementary.

#15 Sarah McLachlan        We haven’t had much yelling this year (well, other than Wolves at the Gate), but this seed may do it. Robin Mohr and Bethany Bylsma nominated perennial entrant Sarah McLachlan, who infects me with as much passion as my dental floss.

 

There you are! Fire up your speakers and headphones, and make your votes! You have until Wednesday at 5 pm PST.

Finals-Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

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What a fascinating matchup for the finals! The intensity and angst of Wolves at the Gate, vs. the instrumental serenity of my friend Wendy Goodwin (and Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning).

Make your votes in the final battle by Sunday at 7 pm PST. I’m working on the new bracket for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, and hope to get it out sometime tomorrow.

#1 Wolves at the Gate vs. #11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin

Round 3–Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

We’re down to four. You’ve heard them all, so vote quickly! Polls close at 8 pm PST on Saturday.

#1 Wolves at the Gate vs. #4 Lexington Road

 

#2 Seacoast Worship vs. #11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin

Round 2–Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

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The moral of the story is, despite all your yelling over the years, I’m actually decent at seating. The 9, 10, and 11 seeds got the upsets (and the 12 seed almost did), but other than that it held to form.

Here are your new matchups for round 2. Get your votes in by Friday at 5 pm PST, and then get ready to vote in 24 hour blocks to get to the winner. Also, I need your submissions for the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Friday at 5 pm PST as well.

#1 Wolves at the Gate

#9 Reawaken

 

#4 Lexington Road

#5 Robbie Seay Band

 

#3 Page CXVI

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin

 

#2 Seacoast Worship

#10 Marcy Priest

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus-Bracket Released

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special introduction to this year’s Advent Caroling Madness! Thank you, Jon Curtis Gemeroy!

Advent is beginning, and the season of Advent was created to help us tap into the longing we have for things to be made right and just in the world. This song is a great example of that.

I figure I might as well start with the yelling about my terrible seeding right off the bat. BUT! Let me explain. The line that captures this song for me is: “From our fears and sins release us”. Out of everything I listened to, I think Wolves at the Gate captures that angst and longing the best! So there you go. Commence your “ALL CAPS” yelling at me.

Voting is now open, with a deadline of Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 5 pm PST.

#1 Wolves at the Gate   Jon Curtis Gemeroy nominated this version-it’s not my usual style of music, and certainly not one I associate with Christmas. But as I said above, it captures the angst and longing of this song.

#16 AdoreVictoria   I added this song and the #10 and #15 seed as well, since I only received 13 nominations.

#8 Fernando Ortega   Jennifer Perez and Erin Knoch both nominated Fernando Ortega’s version of this song.

#9 Reawaken     This version was nominated by Margaret Fraser, I think the first time she has participated in Advent Caroling Madness. Thank you!

#5 Robbie Seay Band   Grateful as always for the new music Bethany Bylsma always brings my way through this. And waiting for her yelling when she listens to what I seeded #1.

#12 King’s Kaleidoscope   Jennifer Perez also nominated this unique version, which I enjoyed.

#4 Lexington Road   I really like this one…and maybe should have seeded it even higher. Thanks to Erin Wilson for the nomination!

#13 Voice Male    David Sherwood gave this excellent a cappella version.

#6 Sandra McCracken & Derek Webb    This is another suggestion from Bethany Bylsma. Derek used to be in Caedmon’s Call, and these two were married at the time.

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin    Jay Thatch submitted this version, and I know one of the artists personally!

#3 Page CXVI   This one also captures the sense of longing. I made Bethany Bylsma face off against herself in this matchup.

#14 Steve Green   Bethany suggested this version, as Steve Green is her “parents’ version of Amy Grant”.

#7 Chris Tomlin   Leah Tenkate nominated this version-a simple, one voice a cappella version for most of it.

#10 Marcy Priest   I found this one to fill a whole in the bracket. I like how it also is a bit angsty in parts.

#2 Seacoast Worship    Beautiful harmonies, well-expressed longing. Love this one from Bethany Bylsma.

#15 Shane and Shane    My Youtube searching brought this one to fill out the bracket.

There you go! Listen to them all, make your votes by Wednesday at 5 pm PST, and then we will launch round 2.

Time for Advent Caroling Madness, 2018!

We are getting close to the Christmas season, and as I already warned my family, I am ALL IN this year. So we are doing things a little differently this year, opening song nomination for all the songs NOW.

The original brainstorm was 5 years ago. It works like this: I choose a Christmas song, and you send me your favorite versions of that song (please try to find it on YouTube, so I can link it so all can listen). Then I set up a bracket like March Madness, and we all vote. Winners advance, and we vote again. Rinse and repeat until we get down to one best version of each song. You can post versions (with links) as comments here, or on my Facebook page, or send by email.

This year, we will be doing three songs. First, a true Advent song, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”. Someone suggested it last year, I’m sorry I don’t remember who.

Second, we will find the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, suggested by Sienna Lundeen.

And finally, we will wrap it up with “O Holy Night.”

Here’s what we’ve done in past years:

2013:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel                         The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

Angels We Have Heard on High                    Pentatonix

Joy to the World                                                Aretha Franklin

Original Christmas Song                                 Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant

2014:

Silent Night                                                        Simon & Garfunkel

2015:

Coventry Carol                                                  Assyrian Singers

O Come All Ye Faithful                                     Tasha Cobbs

2016:

Good King Wenceslas                                       Colbert, Patinkin, Stipe

What Child Is This?                                           Andrea Bocelli & Mary J. Blige

Amy Grant Christmas Cheerfest!                   Breath of Heaven

2017:

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear Ella Fitzgerald

The First Noel Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22

So use this Thanksgiving weekend as your entry into Christmas! Send me your best versions of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “I Heard the Bells in Christmas Day,” and “O Holy Night”!

Brackets and voting will begin on December 4. Submissions are due on the following schedule (but the earlier you get them to me, the easier it is as I create the brackets):

Nov. 30: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Dec. 7: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Dec. 14: O Holy Night

Share with your friends! Get the word out! Rock the Vote!

Hadrian’s Wall

It isn’t remarkable to look at, this path I walk atop the stacked stones of Hadrian’s Wall–but it is an ancient border, an historic boundary, a demarcation of Empire. For 1900 years these stones have weathered the ebb and flow of human history.

Telling the story of the wall depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the south side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called barbarians. Just steps behind you, a bathhouse and a granary, barracks and a temple are all the evidence you need to prove your superior civilization. Goods from what are now Spain, Italy, Germany–even spices from as far away as Turkey lie in your fort. It’s remarkable evidence of the travel and trade made possible by the Pax Romana, a peace which you have helped create by your might of arms.

On the south side, Hadrian’s Wall is the boundary of civilization, the last marker of all that is ordered and cultured and superior and good.

But on the north side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called oppressors, aggressors. For three hundred years those Romans have taken your land and ruthlessly killed and punished any of your people who showed any hint of independence. Your Picti and Gaelic culture is also rich, hundreds of years old.

On the north side, Hadrian’s Wall is the sign of theft and aggression, of those who want to eliminate your uniqueness and subjugate you, bending you to their way of life. You know they would kill or enslave you, ripping you from your home and sending you to another wall on another boundary of the empire to be their mercenary soldier.

The sweep of time brings more complexity. Those south of the wall eventually pull back and leave Britannia entirely as the Empire crumbles everywhere. And those to the north discover that even as Hadrian’s Wall wanes as a boundary, the coastline waxes as a new threshold, a new demarcation.

Telling the coastline story also depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the shore, the Picti and Gaelic people see boats of barbarians arriving, pillaging, raping, stealing. But in the boats those Danish Vikings, with their equally rich tradition and culture, see new land in which to live, explore, colonize.

The former “barbarians” now decry new “barbarians” in the never ending us/them chessboard.

Nor does it stop as time marches on: Saxons, Vikings, Normans…wave after wave creating boundary lines and borders that ebb and flow, each side of the boundary telling a different story of the “other”.

I smile grimly and shake my head, realizing that all I’m really doing as I walk this ancient wall is musing on my own version of “history is written by the victors.”

I would imagine if you took a DNA sample from random people in Northern England and Southern Scotland, and sent it in to 23 and Me for genome testing, you’d find that the blood flowing in the veins of many of today’s people comes from those who once stood on opposite sides of the boundary lines. Some people today are the lineage of former enemies many times over through the centuries.

So which side of the boundary…upon which side of the wall do I stand?

Or perhaps a question that interests me more: given all the divides between people and communities, given the divisions and complexities within myself…can I become a person who tries to understand and value the people and the community who live and dream on the other side?

Our world seems to be abandoning that desire to find understanding, as the threat on the other side appears ever greater to us. Some of that threat is real. There are oppressors who come and pillage, who make impossible the best parts of life, the intellect and the arts and family and home. And there are oppressors who suffocate and subjugate with a smile, who enforce conformity to their “civilization” in ways that oppress.

A haunting truth lies rotting behind the veneer of civilized modernity: force and military might make civilization possible. We humans have an ancient history of not living into our best selves. Time has shown again and again that weapons and borders have almost always been required for humans to have the safety and freedom to compose verse, paint frescoes, stage dramas, create art. Whether it is Hadrian’s Wall backed by Roman broadsword, cannons fueled by gunfire, or Trident missiles on submarines, this is the world as we experience it.

I confess I have been naive enough in the past to not open my eyes to that truth. But even looking it in the face, I do not have to make the way of the world my way of living. As a Christian who follows Jesus, the one born as an outsider to Empire and who died crucified under Empire power, I believe I must not.

Christianity crumbles when wedded with empire, as the church wields power to civilize, colonize, evangelize. Fear of the barbarian or infidel is stoked to flame, leading the church to compromise the values demonstrated by the one who took up the cross. The examples could fill a gruesome book: Constantine, the Crusades, Reformation purging, Jim Crow, American Evangelicalism in the world of Trump.

Listen to the rhetoric, the language used for any outside the wall. Listen to the embrace of the word “Nationalist”. Listen to all the words focused on fear, on doing anything to stop those who would bring any change to civilization as we know it. Listen to the dehumanization done in order to justify the bloody-handed exchange, the exchange which gives the government permission to do the dirty work of exclusion and eradication of those who are feared–all for the perceived greater good of protecting the civilization behind the wall. It is compromise with the Empire.

Are we surprised a literal wall was the talking point of the 2016 election, surprised that sending more than 15,000 troops to the border is what we see in the 2018 election cycle? He stokes the fires of fear well, and draws the church into the chains of empire with illusions and promises of power.

I embody many markers of privilege (male, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, educated, owner of my home…not to mention someone with the ability to easily travel and walk Hadrian’s Wall and spend time reflecting and writing). Those who live under systemic injustice and oppression have never had the luxury of being naive about the way the world works. With an intrinsic and daily understanding of oppressive power, the desire to wield worldly power for good must be strong.

For myself, I do see the injustice within every empire, within every power structure, within every grouping of “us”. I also see the history of humanity’s greed and destruction in the chaos that comes when there is no structure to try and bring a check to power. I see both systems and persons in need of transformation, which keeps me from both utopian liberalism and simplistic personal piety as the answers to our human dilemma. I see no ultimate hope in trying to enforce our incomplete picture of justice on the world; to do so, without succumbing to the dangers of power and Empire, does not seem to be within humanity’s grasp. Using power to enforce justice warps and mars the end goal. Can we change the power structures without force? With sadness, I confess I see no hope that those in power will simply hand over the reins to the marginalized, just because we convince them it is the right and just thing to do.

Evidently the winds of Northumbria can dampen the spirits of even this eternal optimist.

I yearn for the needed transformation–transformation of both persons and structures.

I ache for the moral arc of the universe to hurry up already with its bend toward justice.

Though I sometimes push back against the demands of the cross, push back against surrender and sacrifice and the difficulty of laying down my power for the sake of the marginalized…deep down I believe it to be the way of transformation. I believe it can be a bulwark against my temptation to misuse privileged power, to be corrupted by it.

Though I sometimes anguish and rage and question why Jesus told Peter to put away the sword in the garden, why he didn’t call down legions of angels, why he submitted to unjust power instead of use it for good…deep down I recognize and respect the thread of consistency that runs from Christ’s temptations in the desert all the way through to the way he laid down his life.

And ultimately, my embrace of a faith with prophetic imagination to resist both Empire and the tools of Empire is a humble kneeling before the mystery of the Gospel. It is a bedrock of trust that Christian faith at its core is trust in Creator God’s redemptive, resurrection power. It is a recognition that only something beyond the ability of even the best of corporate humanity, only something outside of ourselves, will ultimately bring justice.

I still believe through my aches and questions that it is not within our power or grasp to bring justice and peace. We are powerless to make the waves of justice roll completely. There is a paradox woven into the heart of creation by which evil is overcome by yielding, not by grasping power.

Is there a place for action, for human agency? I can see clear paths to what might be called prophetic witness, acts which bring oppression and injustice and compromise with Empire out of the darkness and into the light. The paths to prophetic action, for me, are more challenging. I see the errors clearly, and the healthy part seems difficult to discern. The error on one side is for inaction to be complicit with injustice. The error on the other is to become a similar oppressor to the one I am trying to resist. I’m not advocating inaction in this embrace of yielding or submission. Rather, I long for the true transformation that I believe can come through following Christ’s example–resisting the temptation to use power for good and discovering a greater resurrection power on the other side.

It is not my place to expect that the oppressed will yield or submit. It is my place to yield myself, and to wait for a Power outside myself to transform me, redeem me, resurrect me. That life-giving, transforming, indwelling power of the resurrected Jesus is what makes my needed transformation possible, and grafts me into connection with others, a redeemed community who are the hands and feet of Jesus in this aching world today. The yielded ones who then are brought close to each other, who are joined with Christ, who experience God’s resurrection power in them to bring transformation to structures and society, incomplete though it may be.

This upside-down, illogical craziness is why it’s called a faith journey. And it is why the church is so easily and insidiously corrupted by the hard logic of Empire.

As I walk the wall, thinking of the ebb and flow of boundaries, recognizing the upside-down, illogical craziness of laying down sword and knocking down stones to understand those on other side…the thought occurs to me that Incarnation and Resurrection have their mysterious link. Out of desire to understand and know us, God laid aside power, went to the other side of the wall, and was vulnerably born into the margins. The Incarnation itself crosses boundaries rather than building walls. The act of drawing near in order to connect with humanity required the risk of laying aside power.

The God who set aside and risked all in order to draw near to humanity, the God who laid aside power, is the same God in whom a greater resurrection power rose up. That resurrection power now ushers in a new way of being for all creation. It is an outside-of-creation power to beat swords into plowshares. To make justice roll down like mighty waters. To bend the moral arc of the universe.

As I try and mold my life after Jesus, I will keep trying to remember the humanity of those on the other side, without discounting the reality of the need for some boundaries and walls for safety. I’ll ask for wisdom, insight, and courage to find humanity in all people as I resist the temptation to make the other “barbarian.” I’ll work to not misuse power as I take actions of prophetic witness. And I will hope for resurrection power to bring about my transformation and the transformation of unjust structures in this world.