He is officially the most quoted man in the history of HappySonship.com. It was (officially) necessary to reach out to one of our favorite pastors/authors/radicals alive, and ask a few questions.
So here we go.
1. What has been your worst moment as a pastor?
I’ll answer in terms of moments (plural), because they belong to a painful genre. People come and go in churches, that’s just reality of church life in the consumerist context of North America. I accept that. But when long time members and friends leave, and do so with malice and ill-will, this can be extremely painful. When I began to lead Word of Life Church beyond the narrow confines of God-and-Country, Self-Help, Americanized evangelicalism, I had some close friends turn on me with a viciousness that was stunning. Those painful experiences remind me of a verse from “The Whole Night Sky,” a song by Bruce Cockburn.
They turned their backs
I made it too hard
Every place they touched me
Is a laceration now
Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere
And knocks you off your feet
And look, see my tears
They fill the whole night sky
The whole night sky
I’m sure most pastors know what I’m talking about. A few years ago I preached one of my Finding God On Your iPod sermons on “The Whole Night Sky.” Click here for that sermon.
2. Tell me about Water to Wine? (My favorite book this year)
I’m glad you like it. Water To Wine is essentially a memoir chronically my spiritual and theological journey away from a success-in-life, religious-right charismatic pop-Christianity into a more authentic faith that embraces the ecumenical width and historical depth of the Great Tradition. The metaphor I use to tell my story is Jesus turning water to wine. It’s the story of a “successful” pastor (in the American sense of the word) risking everything to move beyond watery grape juice Christianity into the robust and intoxicating wine of a richer, deeper, fuller Christianity. I wrote Water To Wine because so many people, especially pastors, had expressed interest in my story. Because my spiritual and theologically journey has been quite public, hundreds of pastors have contacted me over the last five or six years; most of them feel an affinity with my journey and are looking for some kind of direction. Water To Wine is my conversation with people who have reached a profound dissatisfaction with grape juice consumer Christianity, but are not sure how to go about finding something better. Water To Wine is a deeply personal book, and for this reason it is quite dear to my heart.
3. Señor Zahnd, who’s winning the election? #HelpHimJesus
Satan. By which I mean the satan, the accuser, the spirit accusation. America is experiencing an alarming exponential increase in acrimony and vitriol in its political discourse. This is why Christians need to become serious about embodying the politics of Jesus—a politics that has as its ultimate goal, not power, but love. Christians are free to vote according to their conscience, but if their political engagement makes it harder for them to love other people, then as followers of Jesus they need to disengage from politics. The kingdom of Christ is not furthered through the apparatus of power politics. The politics of Jesus are the politics of love and are to be lived out by the church. The church is not called to covet Caesar’s sword; the coercion of Caesar’s sword is incompatible with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is without coercion; we persuade by love, witness, spirit, reason, rhetoric, and, if need be, martyrdom…but never by force. I am a conscientious objector to participation in partisan politics and the culture wars. A wise Buddhist once told me, “the prophets and sages have always known that politics is bad for the soul.” He’s right.
4. How do you balance travels, preaching, family, ministry?
I don’t think of it as a balancing act, but simply as my life, and my life involves all of these things. Our children are now all grown (we have three adult sons and five grandchildren), so the child-rearing season of life is behind us. Much of the day-to-day pastoral and administrative responsibilities of the church are handled by our ministry team. This leaves my wife and I free to travel extensively in ministry together. I virtually never travel anywhere without Peri. When I am invited to speak somewhere, I insist that they also cover my wife’s travel expenses. I’ve never had anyone object to this.
5. What does the perfect church look like?
I have no idea. And of course it doesn’t exist. A healthy church is marked by love and mercy; a healthy church is being formed by practices of prayer and worship; a healthy church emphasizes faith as the journey of following Jesus. But a perfect church is an illusion. Since it is composed of sinners, the church will always be marred by deep imperfection. But the church, with all of its imperfections, is nevertheless essential. It is no overstatement to assert that the saving work of Jesus—his incarnation, life, ministry, preaching, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection—reaches its culmination in the creation of the church. The church is the garden in which Christ the gardener nurtures us into a flourishing humanity. But it’s an ongoing work that moves toward a goal of maturing love, not illusory perfection.
6. What would you do if the leaders of ISIS wanted to come over for dinner?
Prepare the very best meal I could and then seek to find even the slightest common ground of our shared humanity. I would ask to hear his story and listen carefully. I would talk about Jesus—the Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and blessed the peacemakers. I would happily share a table with an ISIS leader. The table is where all of the best Christian work is done. Jesus changes the world, not at ballot-boxes or on battlefields, but at a shared table.
7. Who do you read most? And why?
My favorite Christian writers are Walter Brueggemann (the preeminent Old Testament scholar), N.T. Wright (the preeminent New Testament scholar), Stanley Hauerwas (my favorite theologian), Eugene Peterson (the absolute best in pastoral theology), and René Girard (the most influential thinker in my theology). My favorite novelists are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Graham Greene. I’ve gained us much theology from their novels as anywhere else. My favorite Dostoevsky novel is The Brothers Karamazov and my favorite Graham Greene novel is The Power and the Glory. I highly recommend them both.
8. Are the Royals repeating? (Note that I’m a Cardinals fan!)
Well, the Royals game within one game of winning it all in 2014 and then did win it all in 2015. So they almost repeated. But after suffering as a loyal fan of perennial loser for decades, I’m not going to get greedy. That being said, I’m all for another I-70 series. Go Cardinals! Go Royals!
9. How can a generation that leans towards Bernie make peace with the fathers that lean towards Trump? (BIG generalization… but you know what I mean?)
I think a younger generation (that is rightly alarmed by the recklessness of Donald Trump’s rhetoric) can afford to be patient with their older family members who seem to be enthralled by Trump-style populism. I say they can afford to be patient, because we are largely witnessing the dying gasps of the politics of white privilege. Perhaps we can put up with some of the ugliness of it all if we can understand that it is passing away. But more importantly, we make peace by being peaceable. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. Every day I pray the Prayer of Saint Francis that begins like this: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hated, let me sow love…
10. What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
I would hope they could say this: He kept seeking Jesus. And I hope they play a few Bob Dylan songs.
We are incredibly grateful to Brian for his kindness and his teachings.
I will leave you from a quote from each of his books, so you do yourself the favor of buying them all.
1. “Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ.”
2. “Conscripting Jesus to a nationalistic agenda creates a grotesque caricature of Christ that the church must reject—now more than ever! Understanding Jesus as the Prince of Peace who transcends idolatrous nationalism and overcomes the archaic ways of war is an imperative the church must at last begin to take seriously.”
3. “Jesus overturned money-changing tables in the temple, but set up banqueting tables in his Father’s house.”
4. “Jesus said his disciples would be known for their love, not for their placards of protest and angry letters to the editor.”