Good Friday and the Illusion of Control

For Christians like me, Good Friday is often that day in Holy Week to easily move past.  Many of us are more comfortable with the joyous entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, than we are with Good Friday. We’d much prefer moving on to the joy of Easter.

Part of our discomfort is that we simply don’t want to deal with the pain that takes place between these two events.  Who wants to focus on betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and death?

Our society in the USA (at least for white middle class folk like me), is built on the illusion that we are in control.  Captains of our own destiny.  This illusion teaches that power, possessions and accomplishments will make us happy and give our lives meaning. Our economic and to varying degrees, our political system, is built on this narrative of the rugged individualist.  This illusion also permeates and to often warps Christian theology

The pandemic that we are living through, has laid to rest this illusion.  We aren’t in control. We have a profound sense of dislocation. We worry over our health and economic well being of self, family, neighbors, nation and world.

This pandemic has made the Good Friday story relevant and real. We can relate to the despair that the early disciples felt on that Good Friday as they watched Jesus take his final breath.  Many of us have lost family or friends to COVID-19. We too know grief.

The story of the cross is of God entering into the pain and brokenness of the human condition lived out in the life and witness of Jesus.  People who live on the margins know this to be true. (For the Passion story, read Luke 22 -23)

In the 1970’s a group of Catholic bishops in South America, led by Gustavo Guttierez spoke of God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  They chose the phrase ‘Liberation Theology’, to reflect God’s accompaniment with the vulnerable.

Liberation Theology is rooted in a theology of the cross, in particular Jesus being crucified at the hands of the Roman Empire.  This complements Jesus’ other teachings, such as Matthew 25:40:

“Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.”

Such words, coupled with Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, reflects the heart and essence of God.  As Jesus says in John 15:

“No one has greater love than this, than to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

Such teachings and witness have so much to say during this pandemic crisis. We belong to one another and, we belong to God.  It was true at the time of Jesus and it is true now.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker theologian speaks of  a tensions between an ‘economy of scarcity’ as compared to a ‘gospel of abundance’.  During this pandemic we see the economy of scarcity being lived out as affluent nations gobble up ventilators, while poor countries struggle to respond.

For example in Nicaragua I’m on the board for a public health ministry called AMOS: Health and Hope (  It is estimated that there are less than 100 ventilators in a nation of 6 million people.  The AMOS staff are gearing up to be on the frontlines of COVID-19 with few tools to draw upon.

Cross overlooking volcano in Managua

Truly the vulnerable in such nations are living out the pain of the Good Friday story.

Yet, there is another way.  The path of sacrificial love as expressed by Jesus. A way of living and being that teaches that we belong to one another.  That love transcends national boundaries.  That when we see each other as connected, we become responsible to and for one another.  This is what Parker Palmer calls, a Gospel of Abundance.  This radical love is in part, what the cross symbolizes.

That few countries, including my own, will respond in such a way, does not make it any less true.  Or, any less compelling.

Those who live on the margins know the truth found in Good Friday. During this challenging time more of us are discovering this truth too.







Heresy of the Prosperity Gospel

Paula White and Joel Osteen are two of the most prominent advocates of the Prosperity Gospel.  Paula White from her pulpit in Florida and Joel Osteen from his pulpit in Texas will each preach on any given Sunday to more people than in my 30 years of ministry.

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the ‘prosperity gospel’, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive thinking, and donations to Christian ministries will increase one’s material wealth.

It is a faith tradition with which Donald Trump and his penchant for conspicuous consumption has long  been associated. His “spiritual adviser” is Paula White, who as the leader of New Destiny Christian Center near Orlando, Fla., is perhaps the best known prosperity preacher in the country

“Every day you’re [living] your destiny, designed by God and discovered by you,” White said in a recent sermon. “You’re either in a position of abundance, you’re in a position of prosperity, or you’re in a position of poverty. Now that’s in every area of your life. … You’re living abundant in your affairs of life — and that includes your financial conditions — or you’re living in poverty.”

The prosperity gospel is a merging of selective excerpts from the Bible, with materialism, with positive thinking going back to Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and more recently Robert Schuler and his ‘Glass Cathedral’.   Oprah in a not dissimilar manner blends positive thinking with a cafeteria approach to spirituality. All speak to the belief that positive thinking leads to good outcomes and is a blessing from a Divine source.

I’m all for positive thinking.  I try to be a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy.

But to equate good outcomes with God’s favor is problematic.  Rabbi Harold Kushner in his classic book ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, shares the story of his own family.  Their son Aaron was born with an incurable disease that they knew would lead to Aaron’s death in his teens.

Listen to what well-meaning people offered to the Rabbi and his wife: ‘God is testing you’.  Or, ‘God is punishing you’.  Or, ‘God is teaching you an important lesson’.  Rabbi Kushner response? “I don’t want any part of a God who is so petty as to punish an innocent child for any perceived sin of another….Nor, do want to worship a God who would test or teach us a lesson with the price tag being the death of a child.”

I wonder what the prosperity gospel adherents would say to the rabbi and his family?   Classic prosperity gospel teaching is that such tragedy is the result of a ‘lack of faith’.

Kate Bowler, a theologian and historian at Duke University, wrote an opinion article in the New York Times in Feb. 2016 entitled: ‘Death the Prosperity Gospel and Me’.  She writes: ‘I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.’

She goes on to wonder what such proponents make of her recent diagnosis.  In her early 30’s with a toddler at home, she is diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer.  Is it because she’s a critic of the prosperity gospel?  Is it because she doesn’t believe deeply enough?…/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html

I understand the allure of the prosperity theology.  But simply put it is antithetical to what Jesus said and how he lived.  In Luke’s Gospel 4:  14 – 30  he stood before his hometown neighbors and quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus got specific and sought to apply these teachings to the injustice and societal exploitation of this time. How did his neighbors respond?  They tried to throw him off a cliff.  They didn’t like how he called them to renounce their privilege and stand in solidarity with those who were powerless and forgotten.

Elsewhere Jesus said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’…and, ‘the last will be first’ and ‘whatever you do for the most vulnerable you do unto me.’   This is hard stuff.  It doesn’t fill huge arenas with promises of personal wealth and good health.

Rather it’s all about standing with and standing up for those who are on the margins, those without a voice.  Those being rounded up for deportation.  Welcoming immigrants and refugees that others would keep out.

The way of Jesus, the way of the Hebrew prophets is about selflessness not selfishness.  Paradoxically it’s about being great as we humble ourselves in service to others.

It’s about washing feet (Gospel of John 13) . It’s about being a servant.

Such a message doesn’t fill arenas or draw a massive television audience.  But it is the Gospel of Jesus.  It’s a Gospel that has withstood all attempts to trivialize or control.

This is the Good News. Thanks be to God.

Domesticating Jesus

Here’s a provocative quote by the Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr:

photo Rohr quote

Rohr challenges the tendency of the Christian church to domesticate the story and witness of Jesus. Some would say its been all downhill since 300 AD when Emperor Constantine had his battlefield conversion to Christ. With that conversion he merged the trappings of empire with the Christian story. Thus began a cyclical process of each generation coopting the way of Jesus to meet their own needs.

We see this with today’s Prosperity Gospel movement which teaches that God desires to bless us with material wealth and happiness. Joel Osteen the pastor of a mega church in Texas, marries this promise of personal wealth, health and happiness with the veneer of being a Christ follower.

In this presidential primary we see politician’s using their faith to support a political agenda. We have so called Christians calling for the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and ‘carpet bombing’ entire cities in Syria to root out terrorists.

Reading the story and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, we see that his words stand in stark contrast to this tendency to domesticate. And of course, for people like me, who pastor churches it is also clear that I/we too contribute to this process of domestication. More times than I care to think about, I/we too have pulled away from the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings.

‘To walk in the way of Jesus’ says Richard Rohr, ‘is to enter upon a journey of transformation’. Transformation not only of me as a person but a call for the church to be a vehicle for transforming society.

This path of transformation as lived and taught by Jesus is a journey of servant-hood towards those on the margins, forgotten, oppressed. It’s about giving up control and allowing the way of Jesus to guide our path regardless of the costly places it takes us. The way of Jesus is the antithesis of the ‘prosperity gospel’ and politicians who would condemn or cast out. The antithesis of liberals who want to pick and choose when and where to get involved.

Says Rohr: ‘We made Jesus into a mere Religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else.’ It isn’t rocket science to understand the way of Jesus…but it also isn’t easy. Pope Francis understands this temptation to domesticate. On his recent trip to Mexico he challenged bishops and politicians to repent from their worship of power and privilege. He calls each of us to recommit to this paradoxical journey, ‘where the last will be first’ and ‘the humble servant becomes great’.