Book review: Nowhere to Go But Up

In Nowhere to Go But Up, retired Lutheran pastor Kevin Ruffcorn challenges traditional ways of thinking about hell, atonement, salvation and the nature of God’s love.

After more than 40 years in the trenches of local parish ministry, Ruffcorn surely knows that raising his head on these issues is going to draw a lot of hostile fire, but he does it anyway.

It was during his parish years, he says, that he “became increasingly convinced that the focus of Jesus’ teachings was not on the avoidance of hell in the life to come but rather the ability to live in the reality of God’s kingdom in our everyday lives.”

Ruffcorn’s basic contention is that where Jesus proclaims a God of love, “the doctrine of hell portrays God as a judgmental and wrathful being.” Why, he wonders, would the love of Jesus that was so unconditional during his lifetime become totally conditional upon his death? If Jesus was forgiving, why isn’t his Heavenly Father? If Jesus told us to forgive 70 times 7 times, how can God so easily condemn people to eternal torment?

“Hell is not a biblical concept,” Ruffcorn argues, but “a piece of pagan mythology and philosophy” that was “transplanted into the Bible” and made a doctrine of the church. Most of what we think we know about hell comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, not from the Bible.

Jesus does speak of Gehenna, but he never refers to “hell” (because the word Gehenna is usually mistranslated). Rather, he refers to the valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem where refuse was burned. Gehenna is a dump where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out. It’s a real place that serves as a powerful metaphor for what happens when your life goes off the rails, but it’s not a place where nonbelievers are tortured for eternity.

As the early church moved into the pagan world, it didn’t take long for Jesus’ emphasis on love to erode. Heaven became a reward for the righteous and hell a place of punishment for the sinful. This carrot and stick approach relies on fear, Ruffcorn says, and its purpose is to control people.

Similarly, the purpose of the cross and Jesus’ act of atonement moved from the victory of God over death to a way to appease a wrathful God who wants to incinerate sinners. Divine punishment no longer has the purpose of correcting sinners to bring them back into relationship with God. Its purpose moves from restoration to retribution.

Ruffcorn weaves some real-life stories into his discussions of theology, showing just how destructive some of our traditional ideas can be. Seeing the world in a new light transforms our lives and our relationships, he argues. When gloom and doom are replaced by a positive attitude, we have nowhere to go but up.

It’s a fairly quick read that doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail. It probably won’t convince those who have heard hellfire and brimstone sermons all their life and still imagine that it’s all biblical. But those who are willing to read with open minds and hearts may indeed fine their attitudes transformed.

My only criticism is a factual flub. In his brief discussion of the origin of Christmas, Ruffcorn follows the now discredited notion that Christians chose December 25 to compete with pagan winter festivals. As I point out in my book, Keeping Christmas (coincidentally also published by Resource Publications), Christians had good reason to believe that December 25 was the birthday of Jesus.


In exchange for a copy of the book, I agreed to write a review of it for Speakeasy.


Kevin Ruffcorn’s website:

Find it on Amazon:

The Politics of Jesus

One of the biggest lies ever told about Jesus is that he was not political. Of course, he was political.

If he wasn’t political, he’d be as irrelevant today as he would have been in his own lifetime. If he wasn’t political, he would have died of natural crosses rather than dying on a cross. If he hadn’t been political, we would never have heard of him.

But, of course, if he hadn’t been political, he wouldn’t be God incarnate, would he? He wouldn’t have bothered to enter into human life, becoming human himself. He could have stayed in heaven at his Father’s side and occasionally nudged his old man and said, “Hey, look at those crazy people.”

But because both Father and Son love crazy people like you and me, Jesus became one of us. We murdered him not because he was a swell guy but because he challenged us. He pushed us. He got in our faces. He told us our politics was wrong, and his politics was right.

Jesus was political, all right.

But he was never partisan. Today he would not be a Democrat. He would not be a Republican. He was so independent that he probably wouldn’t even register as an Independent.

Maybe that’s why some people think he wasn’t political. He refused to participate in our broken political system. But don’t tell me he didn’t care about politics. That’s a lie. To know it’s a lie, all you have to do is read the gospels without partisan blinders and earplugs. Jesus was political through and through. How do we know? Because he cared about people. And politics is about caring for people – or at least, in God’s world, it’s supposed to be.

This is my third and last message concerning the powers and principalities. In my first message, I defined the Powers That Be, those invisible forces that shape our world and our thinking. Last week I talked about the armor of God that we can wear to protect ourselves from the powers. Today I want to talk about how Jesus battled the powers. Today we’re talking about the politics of Jesus.

You think Jesus wasn’t political? What was his message to Israel, right out of the starting gate? Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, verse 15, Jesus announces: “The time is at hand. The kingdom of God is here. Change your way of thinking and believe the good news.”

Notice he doesn’t say the “family of God,” or the “community of God” or even – as some would prefer to hear it today – the “kindom of God.” No, he says, “The kingdom of God is here.”

Tell me the word “king” is not political. Even more, convince the Romans of that. Caesar accepts no rivals. The only kings he allows are puppet princes. What does the sign over Jesus’ cross say? It says, Luke 23:38, “This is the king of the Jews.” The cross is what happens to Caesar’s rivals.

Oh, you say, he was misunderstood. He wasn’t political at all. After all, didn’t he tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world”? (John 18:36)

In his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, what does Jesus say? He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Good news for the poor. Captives go free. The Lord’s Anointed One. The Lord’s favor. Nothing political there, right?

Jesus comes by his politics naturally. His mom was well-known radical. Hear the words of Mary’s Song, what we call the Magnificat.

“The Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is his name. He shows mercy to all who love him from generation to generation. With his mighty arm he scatters the proud, flings the powerful down from their thrones, and elevates the lowly in their place. He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” (Luke 1.49-53).

He fills the hungry with good things. Once he feeds more than 5,000 people in some remote place. They’re about ready to seize him to make him their king, but he hightails it before that can happen (John 6:15). He may have a kingdom, but he won’t be crowned by anyone but God.

But he will be crowned. Consider that name: Jesus Christ. Christ is not a last name, of course. It’s a title. Jesus the Christ, meaning Jesus the Messiah, meaning Jesus God’s Anointed One, meaning Jesus the King. Every time we say the word Christ, we honor Jesus as king.

When he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, he’s not saying that his kingdom is in outer space or heaven, or anyplace otherworldly like that. He’s saying that his kingdom is right here and now, but it isn’t at all like other kingdoms in this world. It runs by different rules altogether.

In worldly kingdoms, he once tells his disciples, “their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. Among you, whoever wishes to become great must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first must be servant to all.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Talk about turning the world upside down!

In fact, Jesus challenges the basic social system prevailing throughout the Roman empire. Patronage was the basis of Roman society, economics, law and family. In Roman mythology, it was the patriarch Romulus who established the class system of upper and lower classes and slaves. It was run on a system of reciprocal benefit and mutual obligation.

Say you’re a social climber who wants to expand your influence. You throw an expensive dinner party to which you invite all the movers and shakers in your community. By attending, they accept an obligation to you. They “owe you one,” as the saying as it. They have an obligation – call it an “ob” –  with your name on it. They can pay off this “ob” by reciprocating with a party invitation to you, or by paying you an equivalent amount in goods or services or some form of social favor.

Every time you pass somebody on the street, just a nod of the head is enough to acknowledge, “Yeah, I owe you,” or “Don’t forget, you owe me.” Everybody keeps the books in their heads. Nobody forgets.

Now you know why Jesus tells so many parables about feasts and dinner parties. For example, in Luke 14:12-14, he says, “When you give a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, because they cannot repay you.”

Historian Diana Butler Bass says we often misinterpret this story today because we don’t understand the context. We say, “Isn’t it nice of Jesus to invite the poor to dinner.” Jesus isn’t being nice. Nice people don’t get nailed to a cross. Jesus is challenging the economic system. He’s encouraging a quiet revolution against the Powers That Be.

Read the parable in Matthew 25. Jesus says that when comes in his glory, nations will be divided the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Who will be rewarded? Only those who are mindful of the least in society – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned

We have managed to tame most of Jesus’ parables so that they don’t say what they are intended to say, but a couple of them refuse to be tamed. Take the one in Matthew 20 about the landowner who needs workers for his vineyard – and no matter how long they work, he pays them all the same. The ones who worked the longest are not happy. Why weren’t the ones who came later paid less? The landowner says, “Can’t I be generous?”

Jesus’ own generosity offends the powers. Everywhere he goes, he heals people, and he never charges them a penny for it. No, no, Jesus. You can’t go around giving people free health care!

Or free forgiveness. The religious authorities are scandalized when Jesus claims authority to forgive sins. No, they say, only God can forgive sins, and only through sacrifices made in the temple. Jesus is dispensing forgiveness without a license. He’s subverting the temple system.

He makes his intent clear when he charges into the temple and attacks the merchants who are selling animals for sacrifice. He says, “You’ve turned God’s house into a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:17). It is no coincidence that he is dead less than a week later.

He’s not averse, though, to paying the half-shekel temple tax levied on all Jewish men. Pushed to pay it, he tells Peter to throw out a line and hook a fish – and inside Peter finds a one-shekel coin, enough to pay the tax for both of them (Matthew 17:24-27).

What about paying taxes to the dreaded Romans? You remember the episode where he’s put on the spot with that question. If he says yes, he’ll be damned as a collaborator. If he says no, he’s guilty of sedition. Many commentators see his answer as a clever non-answer, showing that he won’t be drawn into a political matter.

Not so at all. Pointing to a Roman coin, he says: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). He’s not making some phony division of the world into secular and sacred realms. He’s asking, what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? To whom is your highest allegiance due?

Is there even any question? “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6.4-5). Toss some coins Caesar’s way, but give your heart to God.

If you still doubt, look at Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the event we celebrate on Palm and Passion Sunday. We have stereotyped it as a children’s parade, but if children were present, they were not the focus of it. The people shout, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us!”

Jesus rides into the city on a donkey. It may look non-threatening to us, but the donkey is the royal animal of Israel. Its significance is clear in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…”

For these and other acts, Jesus has to die. He does not die between two thieves. That’s a grievous mistranslation. The two men who are executed with him are rebels, insurrectionists, and it’s assumed he’s just like them. Well, he is a revolutionary, only no one knows just how revolutionary he really is.

How does he survive as long as he does? By living off the grid, constantly moving, always dodging the authorities. “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests,” he says, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Some people contend that Jesus left no platform, no political pattern for life. Really? What do you call the Beatitudes? It’s no accident that so many people want to erect idols to the Ten Commandments – and they are idols – but no one wants to post the Beatitudes in schools and courthouses and other public places.

That’s because Jesus’ politics is too radical for us. What’s all this stuff about, “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are the merciful” and “Blessed are the peacemakers”? No, no. Our political platform is, “Blessed are the rich,” “Blessed are those who crush their enemies,” “Blessed are those who bully their way to the top.”

Jesus called his political platform the Kingdom of God. No human kingdom and no human politics has the power or authority to shape human life the way God wants human life to be shaped. Only the coming of God’s Kingdom can save us. Only the politics of Jesus can confront the powers and principalities and say, “No more! God demands better than this!” Only the politics of Jesus can save us.

Your life is the ballot box where you cast your vote for the politics of Jesus. You either strive to live like Jesus, or you serve another master. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!

This message was delivered October 25, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Matthew 10:34-39.

Strong in the Lord

Every morning you make a decision. How should you dress for the day?

Should you dress for the season? Long pants or short? White after Labor Day?

Should you dress for the weather? Raincoat or sunscreen? Street shoes or snow boots?

Or should you dress for the occasion? Work clothes or office duds? Loungewear or formalwear? Should you dress for success or go with the flow?

Whatever you decide to wear, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you also need to put on the full armor of God.

Yes, you need protection from the sun and rain, cold wind and snowy blast. You also need protection from evil spiritual forces. These are what the Apostle Paul calls the powers and principalities. They are the rulers and authorities of this world. They are the nameless and often faceless forces of institutions, culture, and society that are the overlords of our age.

Paul says these forces have been corrupted by Satan, “the ruler who dominates the very air” (Ephesians 2.2). Yes, the evil is so pervasive that it’s in the very air we breathe. In these days when we are concerned about the air we breathe because of the coronavirus, that notion should be especially powerful for us.

We can’t escape the influence of these forces. But we can stand against them. We can “out” them; we can reveal them for what they are. And we can blunt the force they have in our lives and the lives of others around us.

We begin by putting on the full armor of God – not just pieces of it, but the whole thing, the “panoply” of it, as Paul says. When we say it’s the armor “of” God, we’re saying not only that it’s the armor that God provides for us but also that it’s also the very armor that God wears.

Paul’s inspiration comes from Isaiah 59. In this passage, God is angered by the lack of justice in the world, so God decides to intervene. Isaiah says that God prepares for battle by putting on righteousness like a breastplate, salvation like a helmet, judgment like an overcoat and zeal like a mantle. (Isaiah 59.17)

It’s natural for Paul to pick up on this military image because he’s fond of vigorous athletic and military images to describe the Christian struggle. He’s in prison, so it’s possible he’s influenced by the sight of Roman soldiers guarding him.

But we need to be careful not to take the image literally. This is figurative language, picture language. Isaiah uses similes. He says God’s armor is “like” this but it’s clearly not the same. Paul uses metaphors, as when he speaks of a “belt of truth.” How does truth hold your pants up? It’s a metaphor, not a literal reality.

These concerns are why I’ve demilitarized the image of a Roman soldier. I’ve rendered him as a green plastic soldier similar to the green plastic Army men that I played with as a boy. They may be more familiar to younger people as the Green Army Men from the “Toy Story” movies.

But even if the image is playful, the reality they represent is not. God’s armor is real, because the forces it protects us from are very real. Using military images, Paul is not glorifying war or armed conflict. He’s saying, “God’s armor is like this, only better.” Wearing this armor, he says, makes us strong not in ourselves but “strong in the Lord.”

We are strong in the Lord, first, when we put on the belt of truth. Belts can be decorative, and they can help hold your pants up, but their primary job is to provide core body support. They help give you the backbone you need to stand straight. A commitment to truth holds you up. Deviate from the truth, and you’ll be soft in the belly.

We are strong in the Lord, second, when we put on the body armor of righteousness, or as it’s traditionally called, the breastplate of righteousness. This armor protects your heart and other vital organs.

What does it mean to be protected by righteousness? Some people think that righteousness is personal morality, but personal morality is highly overrated. Even murderers act from a sense of personal morality. It’s twisted, but it’s there. Biblical righteousness is more than mere morality. The only morality that counts is behavior that is anchored in a right relationship with God.

Elsewhere, Paul talks about the breastplate of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Faith and love are linked because righteousness is all about relationship. To be righteous is to be rightly related to God and to others – as Jesus said, to love God and neighbor. Right relationship protects us especially from sins with a sharp edge.

We are strong in the Lord, third, when we walk in shoes of peace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Isaiah said: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ ” (Isaiah 52:7). Let us walk softly with shoes of peace.

We are strong in the Lord, fourth, when we raise the shield of faith. Roman shields were rectangular so that when soldiers closed ranks, their shields would fit together to present a solid front to the enemy and deflect arrows as well as boulders thrown at them.

Our faith is like that. It protects us individually, but it is strongest when we stand in faith next to our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are bound together in love, we have a strength that none of us could muster individually.

We are strong in the Lord, fifth, when our heads are protected by the helmet of salvation. This is the sturdy assurance that we are saved, an assurance that will help us keep our heads on straight in times of trial and cushion us against the hard blows of life.

We are strong in the Lord, sixth, when we are armed with the sword of the Spirit. This sword is the word of God, Paul says. Don’t misunderstand here. The word Paul uses is not logos, meaning Jesus, the Word of God with a capital W; or the Bible, which many consider the word of God, with a lowercase w.

The word Paul uses is rema. It means the message, the gospel. That’s our armament. That’s what we use to conquer the world. Only let’s not weaponize it. Let’s not use the gospel as something to beat up other people, but as good news to open their hearts.

In the book of Revelation, when Jesus conquers evil, he uses what’s called the “sharp two-edged sword of his mouth.” That’s his creative and powerful logos, or word. Similarly, we are empowered to create or destroy with the words we speak. With the sword of the Spirit, we try to speak the truth in love and build up one another for the work of God’s ministry.

Finally, Paul says, we are strong in the Lord when we pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Prayer isn’t part of our armor. But it’s what holds everything together seamlessly. If there are any gaps in our armor, prayer fills them in.

Thus protected, we are equipped to stand against attacks from the powers. But let’s not, please, sing another chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Despite the militaristic imagery, this is not a call to violence. It is a call to push back hard against the powers. The goal is not to defeat them – which is surely beyond our power – but rather to thwart their evil intent and turn it toward good.

The first step is to identify them. 1 John 4:1 calls this “discerning the spirits” or “testing the spirits.” In Ephesians 4:31, Paul gives us some guidelines. Do these spirits promote faith and love? Have they put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice? Are they kind and tenderhearted and forgiving?

It’s not enough to judge their words. Look at their actions. Observe what they do. Evil often disguises itself as good. It may look good on the surface, but below the surface be rotten to the core.

Once you’ve identified the powers, the task becomes unmasking them in public. Best of luck with this part. The powers are often unmasked, but they are like magicians. They are skilled at misdirecting your attention here so you won’t see what they’re doing there. They will try to turn the unmasking to their benefit.

Finally, you have to simply call them out on it. You have to denounce the powers for what they are. This is often called “speaking truth to power.” This notion was popularized by the Quakers, especially the black Quaker human rights activist Bayard Rustin. He goes so far as to say that the primary social function of religion is to speak truth to power.

There’s even a Greek word for it in the New Testament. It’s parrēsia. It means speaking with boldness, assurance, confidence, frankness, openness. That’s how the early Christians spoke – and if you read the book of Acts, you’ll see that speaking this way got them into a lot of trouble. But it was what human rights activist John Lewis calls “good trouble.” It’s the kind of trouble you want to be involved with.

The classic biblical story of saying truth to power involves the prophet Nathan confronting King David after David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah. It’s a rare moment when a prophet can speak truth to a king and live to tell the tale. You can read about it in 2 Samuel chapter 12.

Don’t expect accolades, promotions or rewards when speaking truth to power. You’ve seen how whistleblowers have been treated in Washington over the last four years, despite the protection of laws. Many people who do it end up ruined or buried by the minions that serve the powers. But seismic changes can happen. Witness the fall of the communist bloc 30 years ago. Witness the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa about the same time. Surely God was active in those days!

We are at one of those crucial moments right now. The viral pandemic, waves of police lawlessness, and Trump’s racism and authoritarianism have come together to create a unique opportunity for our society. A moment of racial reckoning may be at hand. Events may force America to confront its greatest sickness.

It could be a kairos moment, a God moment, the right time for divine intervention. Or maybe we will let the moment slip away. Maybe we will – as we have so often done before – blink when we should stare down the evil of racism, denounce it for the evil it is and say, “No more! Repent and trust the gospel of Jesus Christ!”

We do not wear the armor of God to protect us from trivial sins. We wear the armor of God to protect us while we confront the evil forces that create misery in our world. Tomorrow, when you’re getting dressed, consider the weather and the season and the occasion. But whatever else you put on, put on God’s armor. It’s what you really need in the battle ahead!

But remember that you never fight alone. As Charles Albert Tindley says in his hymn, “Beams of Heaven”:

Harder yet may be the fight; right may often yield to might;

wickedness awhile may reign; Satan’s cause may seem to gain.

But there’s a God who rules above with hand of power and heart of love;

and if I’m right, he’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace someday.

I shall have peace someday.


This message was delivered October 18, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Ephesians 6:10-18.

The Powers That Be

We have lost two human rights heroes so far this year – John Lewis in July and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. Our nation was enriched by their long and distinguished service, and we are greatly impoverished by their absence.

Three former presidents attended Lewis’ memorial service in Atlanta. One former president did not attend because of his age and concern about travel during a pandemic. The sitting president did not attend because he was still miffed that Lewis didn’t attend his inauguration nearly four years ago. If Trump had shown up, it would have been the height of hypocrisy because he represents just about everything that Lewis opposed.

In his eulogy for Lewis, former President Barack Obama said a remarkable thing. He said of Lewis’ life: “It vindicated … that faith, that most American of ideas, that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.

“What a radical idea! What a revolutionary notion – this idea that any of us, ordinary people … can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just – we can do better.’ ”

Did you catch the biblical reference there? It was from the King James Version, where Ephesians 6:12 says: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Modern translations speak of rulers and authorities, rather than powers and principalities. However you refer to them, we need to understand what they are so that we can identify them, publicly denounce them for what they are, and stand against them.

What we are talking about here is commonly called “spiritual warfare,” but it is far more than what’s commonly talked about. In many churches, spiritual warfare is strictly an individual thing. It’s you against the demons. You’ve got to fight those demons or they’ll entice you to perform sinful and degrading acts – smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, sex, rock and roll, not to mention the farthest reaches of moral squalor – the toleration of homosexuality and liberal politics.

Spiritual warfare does involve your personal battle against personal sin, but it is far more than that, and far more is at stake than your individual morality. We’re talking here about cosmic forces that are larger than any individual. These are invisible forces that shape all our lives.

We have several names for them: The Establishment. The Man. The Boss. The System. The status quo. The Powers That Be.

You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Well, you can try. Soon you’ll discover that though individuals of flesh and blood may be the ones who tell you “No,” they’re not the real problem. The real problem is the system, and it’s far bigger than any individual or group of individuals in it. It’s the system you can’t fight.

Ever try to dispute a claim with your insurance company? Ever try to argue with your bank? Internet provider? The water company? The police department? Social Security or Medicare?

Powers and principalities are systems and institutions and cultural norms and thought patterns. They are everywhere, and they influence every aspect of our lives. They are not necessarily evil. In fact, they were created to be, and can continue to be, forces for good. But they have a life of their own, and when they turn bad, bad things happen to people who get in their way.

Just about everything I know about powers and principalities I learned from Walter Wink, a United Methodist theologian who began his studies with statements by the Apostle Paul in Colossians and Ephesians. (See Colossians 1:16, 2:15, Ephesians 1:21-22.)

The first thing to know, Wink says, is the powers were created by God, and like all of God’s creation, they are intended for good. But like human beings, they got corrupted, and now many of them act as forces of evil. Still, like humans, they can be redeemed. This means that Christ died to redeem not only sinful individuals but also the institutions that sinfully enslave individuals and societies.

Societies, governments, corporations, economic systems – these are all powers and principalities. Their God-given purpose is the serve the common welfare. But they have become spiritually diseased. They have become demonic. Their effect is evil.

Racism is one of the powers. It is a form of domination and subordination that serves the welfare of only some, not all. It’s a perversion of God’s provision for human society. It’s an impersonal force, but like all powers, it can be incarnated in human beings. It was incarnated in Alabama in the 1960s in Bull Connor and George Wallace. It’s incarnated today a little more subtly in Donald Trump and his campaign to “Make America White Again.”

So many people today still think, “Well, I’m not racist,” so that settles the problem. But it doesn’t. Because the problem is bigger than any individual. The problem is systemic. The problem is perpetuated by white people who may not be racist but have no idea how to defeat a system that holds them prisoner as surely as it imprisons black people.

Racism is far from the only evil power. The powers include most forms of nationalism because nationalism is a perversion of patriotism. It turns the healthy love of your own country into the hatred of other countries. White nationalism and Christian nationalism are two familiar forms of this sickness – turning love for your own into hatred of others simply because they are different.

Our capitalist economic system has become a perverted power. Look at the stock market. Stocks were intended to be a way of investing in an enterprise. You helped capitalize – that is, raise money for – a company that provided certain goods and services. If the company performed well, it made a profit, and as an investor, you got a share of it.

These days, the primary purpose of a stock is to produce value or income for stockholders. Providing valuable goods and services is a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all. Greed has overcome the pursuit of virtue. When the top 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the wealth, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our society works. The system is broken.

Another of the powers is authoritarianism. The powers always get their way through violence or the threat of violence. Sometimes it’s simple gangsterism, but it’s usually through institutionalized violence. One form was the legal system known as Jim Crow that enslaved black people for more than a century after they were legally emancipated.

Another form: drug laws designed to incarcerate black men at a higher rate than others. Another form: police violence and a criminal justice system that looks the other way – as we are understanding more thoroughly in the case of Breonna Taylor’s killing – “lawful but awful,” as one observer says.

You may note that authoritarianism is favored only by those in power, and only when they are in power. When they are out of power, they favor something else – whatever is to their advantage, since seeking advantage over others is what they really want.

Many of the “isms” are forms of oppression, because they give one set of people power over another. Think of sexism, heterosexism (also called homophobia), ageism, and classism.

Journalist Isabel Wilkerson has raised a stir in her new book titled Caste. She contends that America lives under a caste system that ranks people by race. Upper caste people are white. Lower caste people are non-white. Wilkerson says caste creates a ladder of humanity, sorting people in a scheme of hierarchy that they cannot escape. If she’s right, caste is another of the powers.

Caste is mostly unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged and so internalized that you don’t even know it’s there. Wilkerson says it’s like the studs and joists in your house. You can’t see them, but they hold the structure together. They are invisible but powerful forces. That’s how all the powers work – invisibly and powerfully.

What Wilkerson calls caste may just be another form of classism. However you think of it, you need to be aware of its influence. Sometimes it uses race to enforce its rules. Sometimes it uses sex or age or gender preference. Sometimes it follows rules that are inscrutable. You may never know why certain things happen in your life – why you didn’t get that job, for example, or why you did get it.

It’s nothing personal, understand. The powers don’t care who they crush as long as the crushing benefits them. The powers do care about whom they elevate. The powers love to become incarnated in humans, especially authoritarian leaders and, of course, dictators. When the powers are embodied in flesh and blood, the fight gets nasty as well as personal.

In case you think I’m spinning just another elaborate conspiracy theory, let me tell you that conspiracy theories and other similar cultural currents also are powers. They may have a tiny kernel of truth in them, but they become perverted into evil forces.

Take the Illuminati, for example. They were a real secret society involved in the French Revolution in 1789, but they soon acquired a reputation far surpassing reality. Talk of them today is fantasy.

One way the powers get away with everything is by tricking us into thinking that we as individuals are responsible for their sins. Blame the victim, in other words. If we think that we are personally responsible for all this evil, we can become overwhelmed by the immensity of it and overcome by our inability to do anything about it.

That is precisely what the powers want. They want us to feel overwhelmed. They want us to think there is nothing we can do to fight them and there is no way to defeat them. But we can stand against them, and we can defeat them.

That’s what we’ll focus on next week, when we talk about putting on the full armor of God.

You’ll need armor because confronting the powers will get you into trouble. John Lewis called it “good trouble.” It’s the kind of trouble Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always getting into with her fiery dissents to Supreme Court decisions. It’s the kind of trouble Jesus got into confronting the powers in his day. It’s the kind of trouble most genuine American heroes get into.

Obama was right. “What a revolutionary notion” this is – “this idea that any of us, ordinary people … can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just – we can do better.’ ”

The odds against us are great. But we never stand alone. We are like young David confronting the giant Goliath with his five smooth stones and the confidence that the Lord is on his side.

As Paul told the church at Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

With that conviction, we can stand strong against the powers that be.

The message was delivered October 11, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Ephesians 6:10-12.

Loaves and fishes

Are you a wannabe? Or are you a gonnabe?

Wannabes want to be like someone else. A wannabe is girl who wants to be like Lady Gaga, or maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A wannabe is a boy who wants to be like Patrick Mahomes, or maybe Alex Gordon. Try as they might, they can never become someone else.

By contrast, gonnabes want to become the best possible version of themselves. Gonnabes may start out like wannabes, but they move beyond the stage of mere aspiration. They change the wanna into gonna. They become what they wannabe. They become the best possible version of themselves.

Churches are the same way. We got our wannabes, and we got our gonnabes. The question every church must ask itself is simple: Which one are we? Are we a wannabe, or are we a gonnabe?

The question may never have been more important than it is now, as we struggle through the covid-19 pandemic. We have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. If we do, we may come out stronger than we were before. If we don’t, we are in big trouble.

Pardon the grinding noise as I shift gears.

Every year for the last 20-plus years, Church of the Resurrection has sponsored a Leadership Institute. It attracts pastors, church staff members and laypeople from multiple denominations around the country – indeed, around the world. They gather for two or three days to hear top-flight speakers and attend workshops on best practices.

I’ve attended many of these sessions, including the most recent one Sept. 24 and 25. It was very different from the previous ones, in that it was totally online. That has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s shorter, and you don’t have to travel to get there. On the minus side, you have much less opportunity to meet new people and to reconnect with friends. Last year, I was able to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in maybe 10 years. That alone made the whole thing worthwhile.

The in-person 2019 Leadership Institute attracted 3,200 people – a record number. The online-only 2020 Leadership Institute attracted 4,200 people. That means one thousand more church people than last year wanted to connect in whatever way they could to hear how they could become better church leaders in time of pandemic.

These are wannabes on the way to becoming gonnabes. It’s not that they want to become like Adam Hamilton. Rather, they want to become the best possible version of themselves that they can be so that they can lead their churches to become the best possible version of themselves that they can be.

I want to share some of what I learned during this session, because it’s important.

First, Adam made a point that I’ve shared with you before. The “old normal,” whatever we imagine it to have been, is gone. The old normal is history.

Life before March 15 is history. Pre-March 15 Edgerton is as much history as the villages of McCamish and Lanesfield that once stood nearby. Pre-March 15 Gardner is as much history as that sign that pointed “This way to Santa Fe, this way to Oregon and California.”

Life can never be the same as it was pre-pandemic. Even as we grieve that loss, we want to recognize that we have an opportunity to make life a little better than it was. God did not cause this pandemic, but as always God is trying to work good through it by working with us to create positive change.

Covid-19 will continue to make our lives difficult for some time yet. But, unless we blow our response entirely, this is only a temporary situation. The new normal that will come out of this is what we are creating right now.

We don’t have to completely get our act together right now. But we need to start thinking about what we need to do to get our act together, and working to implement those ideas, or we will be caught off-guard and stumble bigtime.

One of the speakers at this year’s Leadership Institute was Ron Heifetz, who is one of the world’s best-known authorities on leadership. He normally teaches at Harvard in Massachusetts, but the pandemic lockdown caught him vacationing in Hawaii. That’s where he’s been stuck since mid-March. Tough duty, he admits.

He says there are three questions we need to ask ourselves as leaders and as institutions.

1. What is essential for us to preserve? Or, as Adam Hamilton paraphrases it: What must we keep doing?

2. What must we let go from our past? What must we stop doing?

3. What innovations must we make? What must we change?

These are challenging questions. These are not new questions, though. These are the same questions we ask ourselves all the time, if we are truly attuned to the gospel imperative of being fresh wineskins for the good news of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, when we were moving to a one-board form of church governance, I said that questions similar to these should be part of every Church Council meeting – and one of these days, when we return to regular Church Council meetings, they will be again.

What is essential? What must we continue to do, no matter what? What defines us as a church? What is there without which we are not who we really are, or at least want to be?

For the last seven months, we have continued to worship. We worshipped online only at first. Now we worship in person and online as well – at least, when the wi-fi cooperates.

We continue to feed people through the Community Food Pantry. We have had to stop hosting Grace Café because of safety concerns. If we consider that part of our food ministry to be essential to our identity, we will pick it up again eventually, though perhaps this hiatus give us an opportunity to tinker with the format before we start up again.

Small group meetings for Bible study and book sharing have continued in new ways. Purely social gatherings, such as senior game night, have had to stop because we cannot imagine an online alternative.

Being able to go online has saved us. In fact, going online has greatly expanded our reach. Before March 15, the only way you could be part of worship was to physically show up at 9 on Sunday morning. Since then, we have expanded the number of ways you can be part of this worship time. Now we routinely reach 100 or more, sometimes way more, every week. Our “attendance” has multiplied.

That happened because of innovations we made to preserve what’s essential. Necessity forced us to go online. We had to innovate. We had to change. And more changes are ahead.

Our monthly newsletter has now become a Weekly Update distributed by email and US mail. Its content keeps expanding. Who knows what it may look like in seven more months?

The nasty question, of course, is what activities we might discard and leave behind, either because we cannot find a new way to do them, or we decide that they’re no longer worth the effort required to do them well – and if we can’t do them well, we should not do them at all.

We have so slimmed our ministry menu of late that there may be nothing else left on the plate that’s extra. Or maybe there’s room for more of a different kind. We will have these conversations as we move along.

One thing that is here to stay is our online presence. It is vital to our present as well as to our future. We just have to get better at it. I remember my first two attempts at Facebook Live when I appeared sideways. Somebody changed the rules on how you start it up, and I missed the memo, so I appeared vertically challenged. I’ve learned a few things since then. I know there’s plenty more to learn to improve our livestream experience.

Church of the Resurrection recently discovered just how important its online presence is. On Sept. 20, 502 people joined the church in an online ceremony. More than 50 of those people don’t live around here. Some of them have never even been in the building. Some of them may never be. But they have pledged to be supportive members.

So COR now has a purely online congregation as well as a hybrid congregation of those who worship online plus – as of this weekend – those who worship in person. Such transitions are difficult, as we can testify after worshipping outside for five weeks before we moved inside, and still under strict conditions that we could never have imagined seven months ago.

Talk of change always gives people the willies. Ron Heifetz makes the point that people don’t fear change per se. What people fear is loss. We’re afraid that change will bring loss of something we hold dear. But if we adapt creatively to the changes around us, the gains can outweigh any loss we feel, and the future can be bright.

We face two kinds of challenges, Heifetz says – technical and adaptive. A technical challenge is something you probably already know the solution to. The furnace quits; you fix the furnace. The wi-fi quits; you fix the wi-fi. Those are technical solutions to technical problems.

But some challenges are so big and so broad that they cannot be met by technical solutions. They require adaptive changes. They require basic changes in how we do things. And deep change is always risky because people fear the possibility of loss.

But Heifetz says we usually don’t need to make revolutionary changes to meet adaptive challenges. He says most positive change involves relatively conservative adaptations of what is already in place. If change is rooted in who we are, we won’t feel a great loss because we won’t lose anything in the transition.

Denial of the situation will kill us, Heifetz says. Nostalgia for the past will kill us, too. We have to face the reality of the present and do what we need to do to preserve what we believe to be essential. We can look back fondly at where we’ve been, but we have to realize that the past is not a proper guide to the future.

Most of all, we need to proceed in faith. I won’t insult your intelligence by denying that even that can be scary.

Take the time Jesus and his disciples land their boat at a remote place and discover that a huge crowd is already there waiting for them. Late in the afternoon, the disciples tell Jesus it’s time to send everybody away to buy food. They see a technical problem – people are hungry – and they propose a technical solution – let them buy food.

Jesus sees the problem differently. “You feed them,” he tells his disciples. He knows that a technical solution to the problem is impractical. So he provides an innovative solution. It’s not one the disciples could have expected. It’s not one we can expect today. But we also need to look for innovative solutions to adapt to our new circumstances.

As I was musing on this scripture and some others last week, there came to me a possible solution to something that’s been bugging me for awhile. Some time ago, I helped saddle this church with a generic vision and mission statement that provide little inspiration for anyone. Maybe I’m the only one who cares about it. But I want to suggest an alternative today because it could be helpful as we chart our future.

It seems to me two things are among the things essential to who we are. These are worship and feeding people. Most everything we do revolves around those two concerns.

A vision statement is supposed to describe the change you want to make. A mission statement is supposed to describe what you do to make it happen. I think our mission is nourishing people in body and spirit. I think our vision is a community that is free of hunger and rich in spirit.

See how those fit together? We nourish those who are hungry and poor in spirit because we want to see a community that is free of hunger and rich in spirit. I think that says a lot about who we are. Let me know what you think of the idea.

By ourselves, we cannot feed all who are hungry in the Gardner-Edgerton area. But we can set the pace for doing it. We can be like that young lad who showed up that day in Galilee with a knapsack containing five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish. He was willing to share what he had, and God multiplied it to feed thousands.

God can work miracles in our midst, too, if we are faithful; if we have a strong sense of who we are; if we decide that on these essentials we will stand, and on these essentials we will innovate.

Because we are not just wannabes. We are gonnabes. We know what we wannabe. We wanna be God’s change agents in our corner of the world. We wanna praise God, and we wanna be used by God to feed hungry people and tell the good news about Jesus. And we’re gonna do whatever it takes to become what we wannabe!

This message was presented October 4, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Matthew 14:14-18.