The sin of partiality: Give Jesus a seat next to you.

The sin of partiality is mainly personal. Legislating equality and holding out for equity may change the dominators, but it probably won’t solved the problem. Degrading people with our partiality is a spiritual problem, a relationship-with-God problem.

Empire-thinkers, like most Americans, especially the so-called white ones, especially those of some means, who go to college and feel excited by the challenges of greater Center City Philadelphia, often think a fight over who gets to run the law and control the world is a worthy use of their time. “Personal” things like the church, or a cell, are for the rest of us. Most of us certainly don’t mean to be an “empire thinker,” we sincerely expect impartiality. That’s good. But effecting self-giving love is not as easy as “sending thoughts and prayers;” we need to do things and create cultures together that do things right.

Who are you leaving out?

Lots of people might feel illegal in Circle of Hope — at least to begin with.

One of our “illegal” friends sat next to me at the Cell Leader Intensive last Monday and provided a very eye-opening moment for me. I can’t remember if the person even mentioned this to the whole group. But the gist of what struck me was this: the reason it was hard to imagine becoming a cell leader was feeling unworthy! In their original country they were part of an impoverished, despised minority; in coming to the United States they surrendered their dignity at the border, became an “illegal,” and felt the need to invisibilize themselves. Being called into cell leading seemed so unlikely that it was hard to even consider it.

Meanwhile people in the group with a lot of choices were lamenting how hard it is to fit cell leading into their busy schedule. I’d say our system is generally sympathetic to their plight. During our meeting there was an undercurrent about how to make a cell work with the bored, dismissive people they know (and maybe are).

James came to mind

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? – James 2:2-4

Don’t get me wrong, NOBODY in the meeting did anything WRONG! I am not writing this so you can get another scolding from another self-righteous prophet ready to tell you how awful you are. But we do need to think wider than the majority of us normally would. In the meeting I tentatively mentioned how easy it would be to lock people out of our cells who would love to share the opportunity and dignity of being loved, affirmed and deployed to express their gifts. There are many people who get saved by Jesus, not just criticized or corralled! Like James points out, it is perilously easy to make a cell about the classist and elitist arguments of the upper classes and the upwardly mobile people who inhabit Center City. Conversely, it is easy to make it about despising those people and finding an identity in NOT choosing what “those other people” choose. The LAST thing an authentic cell should be is partial to the rich, partial to people who fit in, or partial to people with whom we would like to fit in because they are visibly attractive according to some personal or economic norm, or partial to people who despise the attractive or economically sound.

Give Jesus a seat in the cell

I was moved by James

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? – James 2:5-7

I am not criticizing our cells, far from it. The person I am talking about is in one of our cells and feels called to lead one. So we must get what James is saying, at least here and there. What I am is convicted. The Holy Spirit was shining light on some assumptions I felt in the room during our meeting and in me!

We are not bad because we have not finished transforming the world or are not proportionately multicultural according to our standards. There is no salvation in trying to meet up to the demands of some new “law” again. But we have to be careful lest we conform our ways to what “works” in the world, instead of perfecting our upside down approach to success. We could do the former by reacting typically, like showing an attractive, upscale person where to sit, rather than having them wait their turn while some “illegal” gets a chair. Or we might pointedly alienate some rich-looking person because they look likely to exploit us!

To an invisiblized person, who works night and day to support the family back home, who has the threat of discovery and deportation hanging over them, the cell is an island of respect and reality, not an obligation they must fulfill among their other privileges. It is no wonder that all over the world, cells multiply best among the poorest of people, and churches die by catering to the rich, who move into them and dominate them for their own good, just like they dominate the world.

We don’t need to go find the poor and despise the rich. We are all poor in the sight of God, who became poor so we would be rich in faith. God shows no partiality. Everyone is welcome to the family. But we do need to consider how full of partiality we might be and ask God to give us strength to resist the flow of destruction around us. The country and city are strikingly divided; we compare and contrast all day; the privileged, especially, are notorious for ignoring anyone who is not like them. We love those who love us. What we need to do is open our eyes to what can happen and do what God does, see everyone like God sees them, even enemies, and treat them accordingly.

It would be great if we lived in a classless world and everyone was equal. I think we should work for that. On the way there, I think Jesus has been loving every person in every class from India to Indiana ever since shepherds and wise men met him as a baby. I want the Holy Spirit to convict me every time I see a smidgen of the partiality that robs someone of their true dignity in Christ. I can start with giving Jesus a seat right next to me.

The A is for Available in F-A-T

A couple of my friends talk about their “bandwidth” whenever the screen of our relationship tells me it is “loading” rather than playing. That means I thought we were going to connect, but my friend was not available.

I haven’t really explored this, but I think people with a “bandwidth” metaphor might think they work like a TV: the stream coming in is only so much and the draws on the stream are many. So they run out; they dry up. There is a reason to pay attention to that reality, of course — we could thoughtlessly “burn out!” On the other hand Jesus followers know that the strength to love is pretty much unlimited; it is not really time or media-player bound. So we should not monitor or excuse our choices as a matter of limited natural resources.

That’s not to say that anyone who wants to love big better consider what’s coming in and what’s going out. God may not have limitations, but we humans do. We need to know what we are given to give, not just imagine fulfilling every need we hear about. I actually have to tell people: “No one told you you needed to come to every meeting!”

I think, over time with Jesus, our spiritual, intellectual and emotional “bandwidth” actually increases, so the amount of faithfulness, attention and teaching that can flow through us in a given amount of time increases too. It is like plumbing, the greater the diameter of the intake pipe to your house, the more water pressure can get to the shower, washing machine and lawn sprinkler, all running at the same time.

We use the old idea that leaders, especially, need to be FAT: faithful, available and teachable. One of the big problems these days is finding someone to lead who is “available.” That is, they have, or will free up, enough “bandwidth” to be available. The problem with being available has two main parts I want to point out: one part is feeling busy, the other part is being inattentive.

Feeling busy

The Economist  notes that busyness is less about how much time one has than how you perceive the time you have. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronize labor in the 1700s, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours were financially quantified, people worried more about wasting time, saving time or using “their” time profitably.

Individualistic societies, which emphasize achievement over affiliation (like the U.S.), help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. We constantly hear an urgent demand to make every moment count. When people see their time in terms of money (counting or getting), they often grow stingy with time to maximize profit. Workers who are paid by the hour volunteer less of their time and tend to feel more antsy when they are not working. When people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time.

The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all. Big increases in productivity on the job compel people to maximize the utility of their leisure time. The most direct way to do this is to consume more goods within a given unit of time. The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the “opportunity cost” of leisure (i.e., choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feeling stressed or “burned out.”

The endless opportunities made possible by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. Since the pleasures are all delivered to us in restricted measures, we need to come back for more.  The ability to satisfy desires instantly but fleetingly breeds impatience, fueled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much more. For instance, people visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google.

Being inattentive

Mentioning Google brings me to the second problem with being available. People are unavailable because they are inattentive. In The Guardian, last month, an article noted that ” technology is contributing toward so-called ‘continuous partial attention,’ severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.  ‘Everyone is distracted,’ Rosenstein (inventor of the “like” button) says. ‘All of the time.'”

It is revealing that many younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: “never get high on your own supply.” The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident. It is all just as their designers intended. We are not available because we are already occupied, the thing is vibrating in our pockets, calling us to attend to it, and we do.

So is anyone available?

People who lead the church, then, or who just want to follow Jesus, have a somewhat daunting assignment. The church seems to expect an inordinate amount of time and a lot of attention, and we don’t feel like we have a lot of either. We feel pressed when we “must attend meetings” since they cost time. Somehow we miss that we are meeting with people we love or who need to be loved. We can’t attend to God because we take our phones to the prayer room and they lead us astray. Our bandwidth for time and attention is sucked dry by the demands of the endless outlets that wring whatever profit they can derive from us along our brief journey through life.

Is there any hope? Of course there is. I am going to offer just one of many solutions for each of the problems that steal our availability to do something transformative with Jesus.

Decide for yourself what your time is for and how it will be used. Take all the waking hours you expect to have in a week and allot them for the vision you are given, the needs you have, and the goals you want to meet. This will probably take a chart (I recommend one on paper, not on a screen). Use the chart to pray, not just plot. Let God lead you through time. Ask, “Who am I in Jesus and how do I make my time available to be my true self?”

Put limits on the technology, like the techies are doing for their children. Start with tracking how much screen time (with screens of every size) you are spending in a day. Decide how much you should spend and limit the time to that. If your job is in front of a computer, get up every half hour and walk away (pray as you are walking). Don’t put your phone by your bed (even for an alarm) or read a screen in bed. Don’t delude yourself into thinking watching TV together is the best way to relate. Get your cell (group, not phone) to talk about these things.

If we don’t do things that hold back the flood of attention-grabbing by the technologies of late capitalism we will never be available to God, to one another or to the mission of Jesus. Jesus will actually end up vying for our attention!  The people we love will need  to wait until our screens load and are finished with us. The mission might become too costly because there is just not enough time. We will not be FAT enough to do it.

For myself, when I run up against a loved one or leader with little bandwidth, I get discouraged. It is tempting to give up and join the stampede toward our individual tents where we fruitlessly try to commune with the ever-available internet, pretend face-time is a face, “likes” are love, and addiction is not what is happening. I need to turn back to hope and meditate on the quality of aliveness, right under my nose. Jesus changes wrongs into rights.

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Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

Last Saturday, I kept running into hope and it made me cry.

  • As I rolled in to the Good Business Oversight Team summit, Pie Jesus came on my player right when I was thinking about the epidemic of heroin-induced deaths in our city and country. My grief over the loss of hope among the victims (and now their families!) made me a dangerous, vision-impaired driver!
  • Then I went to the Love Feast and felt the worship team and the covenant-makers stoking our hope as they expressed theirs – we were, in fact, a Circle of Hope. It made me weep with joy.
  • Before we went to bed, we tuned into Netflix and watched the last episode of season six of the most Christian TV show ever: Call the Midwife. The sweetness of their hope in the middle of a changing world and troubling family situations unleashed my own hope – and the tears.
hope
Click the pic if you want to see the scene

What a wonder it is that so many of us are drawn away and turn away from the death-dealing world and find God “right under our noses” so to speak. We’re often like Dorothy waking up from her vision and realizing her heart’s desire was in her own backyard all the time and among those who love her.

As Cynthia Bourgeault ends her book Mystical Hope she tries to sum up her profound teaching about finding hope right under our noses, while rolling down Washington Ave, and especially in the moments of love we give and receive. She is teaching us to find hope in a new way, not as an object of desire, but as the subject who is as near as a turn of heart. I am going to quote quite a bit of it for you:

“I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, the that ‘electromagnetic field of love’ is the Mercy – and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.

Hope’s home is the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life – a quiet strength beyond anything we have ever known.

And since that strength is, in fact, a piece of God’s purposiveness coursing like sap through our own being, it will lead us in the right way. It sweeps us along in the greater flow of divine life as God moves – and in the western religions, God does move – toward the fulfillment of divine purpose which is the deeper, more intense, more subtle, more intimate revelation of the heart of God.”

Long before we know Jesus, we have had experiences of being swept up in the flow of God’s good purpose. This “quality of aliveness” was called “righteousness” in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 23: “He restores my soul; he guides me in the paths of righteousness.” Unlike how many people read that couplet, the psalmist did not mean we should stay within the lines of a moral template so we will succeed at building an ideal replica of God’s kingdom and be justified by it. The poet was reminding us we live in a Spirit-charged “force field” (as we might picture it), a force field in which everything we do must move in order to come to fruit. The inner and outer need to sync up: our souls are restored and our feet are guided; as Jesus says, we become good trees that bear good fruit; as Psalm 1 says, we are good trees planted by flowing streams of righteousness.

In the New Testament, Paul calls this territory “in Christ.” In Christ we find that quality of aliveness we need.

To [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ….I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. – Colossians 1:27-2:10

“Christ in us” and “us in Christ” is the Mercy, that place of assured understanding, that mystery that continues to unfold as we experience it in our hearts “encouraged and united in love.” Christ in us is the “hope of glory.” In Christ we come to “fullness.”

Paul sounds a lot like Cynthia Bourgeault as she piles up metaphors and viewpoints, circling in on the mystical hope she can feel better than describe. Her everyday way to “in Christ” is meditation that turns her in toward that golden kernel of her true self, protected and saved by God. In a somewhat seamless movement, that everyday prayer then turned her out to write her book, knowing that no self-giving love is wasted in the world, not on her and not on us, either. Our prayer, especially the prayer of meditation, is not only what saves us from the world, it is also the key thing we do to save the world. It is our way to hope, our way to become a circle of hope, and our way toward encircling others with hope.

I have enjoyed sharing these five posts inspired by Bourgeault’s book. I’d love to hear how your own prayer was encouraged or developed as a result. Let me know. If you missed one, I think you can find them all by searching for “Cynthia Bourgeault” with the search bar.

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There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it

I’m still savoring the memory of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Mystical Hope, laying in my lap, a tear trickling down my cheek and a smile broadening across my face in deep relief and joy. I had just reached the part in which she quoted a little piece of a Thomas Merton cassette (!) speaking to his novices.  As I read it, I laughed out loud, since he used an image that was very similar to one I had received in prayer during a rich period of my thirties — an image that has sustained me ever since.

“God is near to us at the point that is just before final destruction. Take away everything else down to that point of final destruction, and the last little bit that’s left before destruction, a little kernel of gold which is the essence of you–and there is God protecting it…And this is something terrific. …[We] don’t normally get into that center unless we’re brought to the edge of what looks like destruction. In other words, we have to be facing the possibility of the destruction of everything else to know this will not be destroyed.”

Merton sounds a bit like he is inviting his novices to jump off a cliff, doesn’t he?! And I suppose he is. I suppose I jumped. But he is also inviting relative beginners into a life of prayer, like my three previous posts have been doing. It is a life that leads to the place of surrender and revelation he describes in the quote above.

Meditation “puts us immediately in touch with that ‘little kernel of gold which is the essence of’ us and allows us to begin to recognize it and trust it.” So much religion these days relies on a “good offense” or a “good defense.” On the one hand we are taught to release our preoccupation with death and suffering in order to experience blissful, mindless oneness with all life. Then on the other hand, many Christians offer something equally deficient when they promise an overcoming hope that seems hollow in the cancer ward, or when the baby is born with disabilities, or when the house is destroyed and a lifetime of memories seems washed away. Deeper than having a good defense or good offense  and more in line with the Lord’s example, on the other side of suffering is hope. Bourgeault says, “Only if we are still hanging on…only in the measure that we fail to yield completely into the mercy of God, will hope fail us. If we are willing to take it all the way, it will take us all the way.”

Jesus went beyond destruction to hope.

Isn’t this the journey Jesus took all the way? When he was arrested he told his disciples to put away their swords because he, like us, needed to pass through his own powerlessness and hopelessness. He was not going to hope in some nuclear arsenal of angels or call on a victory-making God. When he was in the garden praying and meditating (as the disciples fainted), he found that “protecting nearness” at the center of reality. How he went “to the edge of what looks like destruction” is an example for us. It is the Lord’s death as well as his resurrection that is our salvation.

In the wonderful old movie Babette’s Feast, the wonder centers around a sumptuous meal that reveals many secrets. It is like another last supper, only this one is full of old Danish people facing death, gathered full of faith and full of their regrets. The General gets up and names the wonder that is happening among them, the same wonder that is seen when Jesus, the living truth, yields himself faithfully into the Mercy. The General says, “Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced.” And all the joys and regrets become one in love as the Alpha and Omega is present in fullness.

There is hope

On All Saints Day, we look toward the people who have gone before us for the assurance that this wild thought is true: if I move over the edge of destruction, God will still protect the golden kernel of the true me. If I dare to meet the living God, my fallen, scarred, angry, abandoned, intolerably vulnerable self, my old self might die, but I will live. We get this assurance not only from our ultimate example, Jesus, but last week we celebrated Rosa Parks, who could have quoted Albert Camus: “In the middle of winter I discovered in myself an invincible summer.”

There is hope.

Or look much closer; look at Mike Escott’s covenant blog from the love feast last Saturday. He has gone through so much and is going through much right into life, right now:  “There had always been an emptiness inside me and after my mom passed, I fell into the grips of addiction. When I moved to Philadelphia to get sober, I was fortunate enough to meet Jimmy , in what will always be a “God shot” to me….I was immediately drawn to Circle of Hope and I now realize I was also being called to Christ. This journey brings me joy and deep connection. At times Circle Of Hope is all I felt I had, but the fellowship, my Cell, and my growing relationship with Christ have filled me and helped me to thrive again.”

There is hope.

God is protecting that golden true self at the heart of each of us, calling us to meet in that Spirit-open place where life moves us and draws us. The everyday way to living comfortably and securely outside our present-oriented injuries and fears and into our eternal now with God is the listening, feeling and releasing prayer of meditation. It is a new way, as Bourgeault says, “beyond linear, discursive thinking” into “inspired visionary knowing where Christianity finally becomes fully congruent with its own highest truth and its mystical treasures can be received into an awakened heart.”

If all that beautiful teaching from Merton and Bourgeault seem a bit much to you, just listen to Jesus and see where he leads. Or meditate on Rosa Parks when you pray. Or appreciate the love that guards Mike, even when he has just been called back from far away.

There is hope.

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Kindness by Naomi Shahib Nye

Sometimes I find poems that I want to keep. So I thought I’d add them to your collection, as well. This one by Naomi Shihab Nye invites us into the great grief of the world. In the communal cup of loss we share we find our deepest kinship with each other and the living world and beneath it, the kindness of our creator leading us beyond, the movement of Jesus through the world into eternal life after loss.

Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? — Romans 2:4

Kindness -- Naomi Shahib Nye

Kindness
Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

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Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope

Lynn Bauman’s paraphrase of Psalm 103:11 warms my heart:

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

I need to hang on to that deeply hopeful picture. May that deep, biblical truth ascend as old Christian memes lose their strength. I am longing for the descent of sayings like:

“Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph, a victim into a victory.”

And

“I know God has a plan. I pray for direction to follow it, patience to wait on it, and knowledge to know when it comes.”

I don’t think these proverbs are evil and I could say that they have generally proven true in my life, unlike for many other people I know. What I object to is that they reduce hope to something that must be proven. They beg skepticism: “What if the mess does not become a message?” and “We got divorced and it still hurts.” and “I lost my leg in Iraq and I am impoverished as a result.” What’s more, I personally object to the idea that God has a minute “plan” as if she were making sure we get to his preferred outcome: the right job, the safe neighborhood, the healthy family that all “prove” our blessed state. Even more, I dread the denial I am called to perfect in response to terrible outcomes that must be “part of  God’s plan” for me while Kim Kardashian gets rich.

My commitment to wait on the Lord is not the source of my hope. My passionate acts of goodness and faith do not necessarily result in hope. I can’t really manufacture hope. The Lord is my hope.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him. —
Psalm 62:5

I am not the source of my hope, and that’s why I dare not apply my meager sense of what outcome I need in order to have it.  Yet, at the same time, the source of hope is deep within me and flows to me with unrestrained abundance; it is so abundant it would be more accurate to say I am deeply within it. I am like the proverbial little fish who just heard a rumor and swam up to his mother and asked, “Mama, what is water? I have to have it!” We are immersed in the water of hope. We don’t miss it because it is something to which we hope we will arrive someday, we miss it because it is so close, more intimate than our own being.

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book Mystical Hope, describes the “embodying fullness” as “the Mercy.” Mercy is the water in which we swim. Mercy is what we know of God and the light by which we know it.

I adopted “mercy” as my main prayer when I got used to the Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As I was riding my bike through town, avoiding car doors, potholes and pedestrians, I realized one day that the curses rising up in me, adding to my frustration and sense of alienation, could be replaced with a one-word prayer that turned me toward my center, toward a realization that I was in the water, still swimming. Now I am likely to face a distressing or even hope-draining moment with “Mercy.”

Bourgeault explains “the Mercy” so beautifully. “When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like that young fish looking for water, we “’swim in mercy as in an endless sea.’ Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.” We see that so clearly as Jesus turns himself out on the cross and God turns creation inside out to return him to life.

The interpreters of the work of Christ keep looking for words to describe what they experience. Paul says:

Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. — Romans 5:5

The basic work of the Christian ends up being a quest for the “water.” Instead of living in a world run by scientific principles waiting to be proven again, or worse, a nobody-in-charge universe run by whoever manages to get into power, we become aware that we are “inside a warm-hearted and purposive intelligence, a coherence” of which we are part of the expression. It is the world of the Mercy. Instead of God as a distant “other” we are restored to God as our “source and substance, the ground of our own arising, the foundation of our hope.” I want to talk more about how we might experience this reality, since, for me, once experienced, it is undeniable. But for now, I will leave you in hope, realizing that the energy you exercise striving for some outcome you hope for could be well used for turning in to hope and swimming for joy in the Mercy.

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Mystical hope in a deteriorating world

We founded Circle of Hope in a ripe moment of history and the outcome has been beautiful. A few weeks into the process, we sat in a small circle discussing what our name would be. We ended up with several versions of a name with “hope” in it. But some people did not like any of those versions. A few people (and in a circle of ten, a few is relevant!) thought it was just too much to put “hope” right out there in the church’s name.

Barack copied us?

Maybe they were right to be cautious. Regardless, they were certainly representative of many others, since many people think hope is far-fetched, even dangerous — mainly because they think it is something tied to outcome. If you are a circle of hope you invite expectations that might not be met. So many people are laboring under all the “outcomes” required of them, and under all the “outcomes” that were promised and did not happen. For most people, “hope” is optimistic feeling, or at least a willingness to go on, because we sense things are going to get better. But is that sense about worn out  these days? What if you put “hope” right out there on your poster, like President Obama did, and then everything does not get better like you promised? What if you imply that Jesus is going to get you a job, provide a mate and cure your cancer and it does not happen? Won’t the name of your church just point out the fact that it did not happen?

We had people on our little team whose hopes had been dashed. What’s more, some of them had grown up in the church, where they even memorized Bible verses like in Psalm 116: “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication…I was brought very low and he helped me.” But it did not always happen just like the verse promised. After a while, it is hard to figure out what to do with dashed hopes.

I have memorized some Bible verses myself and I am an optimistic guy — and God has repeatedly helped me when I was “brought low.” Even so, I have never thought it was wise to make promises God was not going to keep, at least act as if God were the Amazon of human need.

Another way of experiencing hope

I am reading a little book that beautifully points out there is another kind of hope represented in the Bible which is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at hope in terms of outcomes. We can see it in Habakkuk 3:17-19 where the prophet dances on the heights even though the land is devastated, or when Jesus offers water inside for outwardly thirsty people in John 4:13-14, or in the “total immersion course” in the school of hope that the book of Job is where he ends up singing Job 19:25-26: “I know my redeemer lives.”

Cynthia Bourgeault calls this hope “mystical hope.” And that is the title of her book, too. Mystical hope has three characteristics in contrast to our usual notions of hope. These usual notions, based on outcomes, are not bad, they just are not complete or entirely useful. She says, in light of the three biblical examples mentioned:

Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.

This kind of hope has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by someone intimately at hand.

This hope bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy , and satisfaction: and “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it produces them from within.

Mystical hope makes a Circle of Hope and allows us to act for good outcomes. This week the pastors passed around a couple of pieces that tested our hope. One was from the Census Bureau.

The map above shows the increase in the number of young adults (18-34) in the United States living at home with their parents in 2015 compared to 2005. The changes in society in the last ten, certainly the last 40 years are staggering. More than 1 in 3 young people lived in their parents’ home in 2015. That is a huge increase in one decade. What’s more, of those people, 1 in 4 are idle, that is they neither go to school nor work. Many people see this as a poor outcome. Are all these people hopeless?

The other piece was about alone and lonely men. A journalist who researchers psychology was pondering the Las Vegas shooting. An apparently completely alone man was the shooter. As a “lone wolf” he is not that unusual among men. The author says:

As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.”

But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?

For many men, the answer is “no.” So, we spend our time posturing instead.

From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that Real men do everything on their ownReal men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

The byproduct is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.

Many woman might feel exactly the same way, of course. And the evil ways of late capitalism has made a perfect environment to create unhealthy, isolated people.

I want to say more about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book in the future. But for now, let me end with a quote that speaks back to twentysomethings who feel that their future is bleak and parents who feel their children are hopeless cases, and to men and women who feel isolated and friendless, stuck in some pattern that feels hopeless. There is something deeper than your situation.

Hope is not intended to be an extraordinary infusion, but an abiding state of being. We lose sight of the invitation – and in fact , our responsibility, as stewards of creation – to develop a conscious and permanent connection to the wellspring. We miss the call to become a vessel, to become a chalice into which this divine energy can pour; a lamp through which is can shine.

But what if we are intended to become this vessel, this body of hope? What if, in fact, this effervescent, “lightness-of-being” energy is the fuel that drives our human life toward its divine fulfillment? What if our insistence on treating it as a rare and exceptional phenomenon is a way of ducking the invitation that was permanently extended at the Samaritan well that blazing midday?

The journey to the wellspring, the to secret of Jesus, the Master of Galilee, is the great inner journey to which we Christians are called.

I am glad we put hope right out there in the name of our expression of the Church. It almost dares people not to meet Jesus. On the one hand, God has produced outcomes that are far greater than we imagined as we sat in a little circle of ten in my living room. We hoped good things would happen and even more than we hoped happened. So that’s great. But what about all that did not happen? What sustained us when we failed, broke up, died, lost faith, were betrayed and confused? It was that mystical hope, that turning toward the living water that energizes us to get up and follow Jesus.

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Is this church still holding together?

Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.

Not really sure who Mr. Chandler is, but he was in a magazine.

The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot.  We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?”  It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”

So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.

Most of what I think is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

What holds us together?

The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.

More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some more.)

1) We assume people are not infants…

(or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.

We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.

This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, beard and closeup
Pastors on their ship

2)  The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know

we are a “ship of fools”

as far as the deluded world is concerned.

You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.

I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.

3) Dialogue is practiced.

Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.

Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.

I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.

4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head,

not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”

The hardest thing to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.

People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.

5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other,

and promote such dissolution.

Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.

This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.

My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.

Faith over forty, with some help from dear friends

fortysomething

For many people who have not arrived yet, “forty years old” is a phrase with almost no “juice” to it. It sounds like that great, somewhat boring, arid territory between 36 and retirement, when all you do is work, maybe raise children, and hopefully don’t get divorced, since you don’t want to find someone new at that age. (At least I have heard such things and more). For many who have arrived, fortysomething feels like broken dreams and broken promises piled up, a time of lost friends and difficulties with making new ones. (That can happen).

For others, the forties are a time of freedom (finally!), a time of new confidence to be one’s true self and a time to build something great on the foundation laid and the wisdom gained. If you are building a church (like we are!), the fortysomethings (and older) are often golden. They contain crucial gravity — deep and magnetic; they hold us together. When they offer themselves and often their leadership, they make a movement possible. Of course, if they sink into self-centeredness and merely survive, they are kind of a lead weight. (That happens too).

When I was 41, I moved to Philadelphia to put everything I had gained in service to the inspiration God gave me, and Circle of Hope was generated. I don’t regret a minute. The forties were great! Now I am watching a whole new collection of fortysomethings finding themselves as “elders” in our ever-young church. And many of them are inspired, just as I was.

I asked a random collection of Circle of Hope fortysomethings to give me some of their personal thoughts on this question: What is the best thing about being a Christian in my forties? Maybe you’d like to add your own response in the comments section below (I did not ask everyone I could have asked to share, so please add some more). I’ve organized their thoughts in some categories about what the forties are like for everyone, and for Jesus followers, in particular.

A decade for reckoning

The 40’s is a time of reckoning with life as it really is, in all its beauty and difficulty. The idealized dreams and expectations of the 20’s and 30’s are tempered by responsibility. We learn to bear the necessary losses.

The responses from my friends are in italics

The best thing about being a Christian…is the intimacy with Jesus!  Once God began healing what feels like ancient wounds, then came the arrival of my innocence and ability to rest with Jesus and the Father as well as listen for the many ways they might communicate. The mystery and creativity are exciting and the journey is never-ending.

 Faith in my forties has lead to a re-examination of the “rules” of believing and a greater dependence on grace. At this point many disappointments have occurred (many joys too) and questions have come up that can’t be answered (at least not in the way I want them to be). Grace is the only thing I can rely on. Legalism doesn’t work…and everyone tries to make it work, left, right and center. That grace I depend on for myself translates into trying to be more generous and less judgmental than I used to be when everything was black and white. 
            I also have a community of believers made up of people I probably would not be this close to otherwise…and it’s been great to shut up and listen to what they have to say.

A decade for settling into your true self

The 40’s can be a time of feeling settled about who you are and who you are not. We often have more confidence in the gifts and abilities we have. We are probably ready for contemplative prayer at a deeper level than we have been and it allows for a deeper sense of being beloved and being able to discern the spirits.

I’ve transitioned from worrying about fixing myself (to be the right kind of Christian) to doing the best I can with what I’ve been given–it’s helped me immensely in thinking about giftedness and what my gifts really are rather than chasing the gifts that I think I’m supposed to have or that others want me to have. This means that I’m much more able to say “no” to things than I used to be able to while at the same time saying “yes” to those things that fit my skills–and I can do that with very little guilt or angst or worry that I’m disappointing others (even if they are disappointed) or God. The 40s have also brought for me a new sense of peace with my own struggles, my thorns of the flesh, and a recognition that they likely are with me for life even as I struggle.  I’m surprised at how this recognition has brought me grace and freedom.

A decade for honest reassessment

While there’s a sense of growing confidence, the 40’s can usher in a new crisis moment too: a time of reassessment and perhaps a mid-course correction. We have often learned to ask the right questions and live into them without needing all the answers.

In my forties, I’ve found that having my faith is like seeing the trail markers along a hiking path; I know that the path is marked, the paint lines are there even when they are somewhat obscured by wear, distance or confusing maps. I trust that the guideposts are there leading me through thick forests and up onto glorious vistas. I face many uncertainties, so many losses and changes but I find peace knowing that I will find the white mark on the tree — God is with me.

My life prior to 40 was a roller-coaster ride of education, marriage, career, parenting, moving, charitable work, and continuously trying to be the best person I could be. Life was always changing and required my full attention.  But as 40 approached I realized I was completely, spiritually, physically, and mentally exhausted. I stepped back and it occurred to me that I no longer liked myself. 
            Fortunately, my husband and children are supportive, loving, and understanding and supportive souls who were patient with my crankiness. They let me rest when I needed rest. I exercised, picked up indulgent hobbies, and took time to be alone. But most importantly, I’ve stopped listening to the voices in my head that told me I was doing the wrong thing, or the bad thing, or the ‘socially inappropriate’ or ‘selfish’ thing. 
            It’s taken some time, but I’m turning 45 next year and I no longer care whether others approve of my clothing or my life choices. I know that my ‘chosen family’ is my husband, my sons, and my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I love you all deeply. Finally, I firmly believe that I am a beautiful and wonderful person known and loved by God, and from the center of that grace and peace, it’s much easier to consider all the rest of life’s stuff as JOY. 

My immediate thoughts:

  • experience (good and bad)
  • sense of time and place
  • sense of purpose / place in the world / mission / needs
  • deep, long term relationships, local and long distance
  • spiritual sense of scripture, not academic 
  • so much sin, so much forgiveness

“A man can accomplish anything when he realizes he is a part of something bigger – a team of people who share that conviction can change the world.”

A decade for contribution and opportunity

While the 40’s can be a time of difficult reassessment and crisis, the encouraging note is that they can be a time of hitting your “sweet spot.” You’ve had enough experience to develop your talents and abilities, and have lived enough life to offer wisdom to others. We often awaken to surprising newness that feels like we are following God, maybe for the first time.

Maybe you can have an actual sense of vocation when you’re 40, not before, not realistically. More than aspiration, more than aptitude test printouts, not some perceived potential to measure up to. Not something that just “worked out.” Instead: you have an actual track record (if you showed up along the way) skills (if you ventured out into difficulty at all) probably those skills are developed and useful for achieving the purposes of self and loved ones. If you survived to 40 and are reading Rods blog, you probably have loved ones. You might know your own limitations too, for self and loved ones, since you’ve had a long time to try hard at whatever.  Probably by now you’re in a particular place and not looking for somewhere to go — so you can know yourself by being known over time. Probably by 40 you’ve needed real saving from some crisis or another. Salvation is known and made real in the emotional work of acceptance, that’s a 40s state of mind right there. Good to show up to a cell as a somebody knowing a little something, with a living gospel story not just a curious conversationalist. If you are paying attention you might even knowingly and joyfully exercise all this as opportunities present. All this makes 40somethings who’ve maintained faith over years really valuable to the community here. Hope we can get vocationed.

May you get to the ripe old age of forty in faith! It is not that easy. If you have lost your faith, then these people probably encourage you to look deeper and farther than the losses and heart-hardening influences that have taken you another direction. We are forming a community that has enough gravity to be sustainable in the harsh spiritual environment the world is creating right now. Maybe you should be a part. If you are in your teens, twenties or thirties, maybe you should get ready for what you will face on the journey ahead. As you can see, it can be full of real faith…and beautiful.

Forgiveness begins reconciliation: “White” supremacy and the Smith family

Last week in our cell, we talked about the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy which our pastors (including me) signed and asked us all to consider. After the outburst of anger and pain in St. Louis last week, it makes our hope for reconciliation even more radical in the face of society’s persistent injustice. But like the authors of the declaration, we have hope.

True. But “white,” “silence,” and “complicity” could all mean more than they appear if you asked our cell’s members.

We have a relatively large cell, so our reactions to the declaration fell on quite a spectrum. Some did not read much of the statement since it was so long. Some found it hard to understand. Some had never heard of it, yet. But once I provided the gist of it, we all had stories about racist people who don’t get it and our own feelings about white supremacy. So-called white people had their own experiences of wearing supremacy to share.

In the course of our dialogue, I remembered a verse from Jesus Loves Me, which I learned when my parents dropped me off for Sunday School. Many people had never heard it. I looked it up on Google to make sure it actually existed! Sure enough:

Jesus loves me, Indian boy
Bow and arrow for a toy
Big Filipino, wee Chinese
Living far across the seas.

The verse is a nice, little lesson for “Jesus loves everybody, even people who are not ‘us.’” The sentiment is nice, as long as you can erase the white supremacy from the mixture (which is unlikely, of course). The song also teaches that we are the center of the universe and tall Filipinos (they are the little ones in other versions) and those wee Chinese people with their funny clothes and language are also partakers of our grace. I say “our” because God gave it to us to give to them. They’ve gotten into this Christianity we have owned for a long time. All that is also laced into the message and fed to youngsters.

Anthony Lamar Smith, Jason Stockley victim, Anthony Lamar Smith photo
Click the picture for the Smith story

For instance, after Charlottesville, the members of the BIC List had an argument as to whether white supremacy exists. I imagine some are shaking their heads over the family members of Anthony Lamar Smith who were at the forefront of protests  in St. Louis after Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder last week. While the family already received $900,000 in their wrongful death suit, justice for the policeman, personally, did not happen in their estimation. All this again reminded so-called black people to remember that they can be killed by the police without repercussion.

What do Jesus followers do in the face of this?

To be clear, it would be impossible to list all the things Jesus followers do about these things because they do a lot, from trying to change the justice system, to alleviating the impoverishing impact of injustice, to invading the prison system with grace, to flooding the streets with those who are brave enough to say “No!.” Many of our members in Circle of Hope are leading us every day to do a lot.

But generally, what should we all do about white supremacy, the long oppression that continues to raise its ugly, often-denied head?

Repent

So-called white people need to repent. The violence, self-aggrandizement, systemic division and oppression, the persistent self-interest all happened; it created and maintains white supremacy. Yes, you may not have done much personally, but you continue to benefit, whether you want the white privilege or not. Donald Trump is the president of white privilege. The election was a whitelash. Maybe the whole term “white” will begin its long-needed decline, soon, but it is alive and destructive right now. To repent means admitting the sin and turning away from it. Admitting is not quite enough. It is the turning that transforms and heals.

Forgive

So-called white people can forgive themselves so “people of color” (yes, that is the pernicious label for everyone who is not “white”) can get along without having to comfort you in your guilt. Guilt might be a starting point, if you have never felt it about your privilege. But that should last for about five minutes, maybe. If you carry your guilt like a badge of your awareness, it is, essentially, yet another feature of your privilege.

So-called black people, of all the people who experience the ill-effects of white supremacy, need to forgive, if they follow Jesus. Desmond Tutu taught this so much during the South African transformation that he put it all in a book: No Future without Forgiveness. Here’s a quote:

“To forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.”

Forgiveness is the beginning point, like Jesus says. Forgive as you have been forgiven. As Tutu adds, it makes you human and no one can take that from you.

…working in the lives of all genders, of course.

Many “people of color” to whom I have spoken are afraid not being angry and out for retribution makes them disengaged or cowardly, even a traitor. That could be true. But getting loud for justice can also be an endless, unproductive fight against the windmill of evil humanity. Jesus followers are going to keep prophesying and acting, but if that’s all we’ve got, good luck. Martin Luther King had more than that to motivate his efforts. Here’s a point from one of his early sermon outlines:

Forgiveness is a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. Forgiveness is always spoken of for others. Give Peter’s attempt to put it in legal and statistical terms.[How many times should I forgive?]

Here then is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness. Of course we don’t think this is practical.

This is the solution of the race problem.

Forgiveness is often mistaken for reconciliation. If the dominated believer thinks that forgiveness means everything is settled, a call to forgiveness could mean “I need to roll over and take what the oppressor dishes out because I forgave them” or “I need to make it work for white people because I love Jesus.” That’s not accurate. Forgiveness begins the road to reconciliation, which is God’s goal. We forgive for the redemption of the person who sins against us, not to preserve their status quo. Forgiveness is a weapon of transformation, not the imposition of self-denial, as if not being my true self in Christ will help the world, as if letting someone live a lie will save them from some suffering. In the hands of Jesus, forgiveness is the tool that begins the possibility of new individuals and instills the hope of the beloved community. Without it, we just keep using the tools of the world to change the world, and nothing really changes; no one is new and no new community is formed. Perhaps something changes in us, though, since we become the tools of hatred and violence.

In our cell we were tempted to refight all the battles the world foists upon us when I brought up white supremacy, how it labels us this or that, creates division, rewards white people and despises the rest. One of our members with an “Asian” background (who has a great story about teaching some racist tormenters about his culture and changing his environment one time), reoriented us when he talked about having nothing when his family arrived as immigrants to the United States and now having houses in which to live. He had a perspective which differed from most of us. We see things in many different ways in our diverse church. As my friend finished his story, I secretly celebrated our capacity to have a great conversation about white supremacy and still enjoy the cookies. We all took a sweet next step on the road to the beloved community.

Why do we turn to stuff we hate instead of praying?

I had another apostle Paul moment when I was on my retreat this weekend. I was reading over some journal entries and noted that over and over again I wrote things like, “I turned to something other than you. I should have prayed, instead I did this. I woke up anxious, but I wish I had sat down with you instead of doing something else.”

I wish all my apostle Paul moments were like Jesus meeting him on the Damascus Road or like the time he was shipwrecked on Malta and bitten by a viper yet unharmed. (Don’t know that one?)

Instead, I’ve got the Apostle Paul moment from Romans 7 on my mind. He says, “I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me” (Romans 7:21-23).

When I know turning to God in prayer will be a source of healing and comfort, or at least will fend off responses that will hurt me or someone else, why don’t I do that? Many times I do do it. But why would I ever not?

I’ve got ruts

I was given a good answer while I was finishing a book I started some weeks ago, Finding God in the Waves. It helped me remember my ruts. I have some mind/heart/soul ruts that make some of my reactions pretty-much automatic, so automatic they just feel like “me.” These ingrained patterns are psychological and spiritual, sin-ridden. The society keeps saying everyone should just get used to what they are as if they chose it. But that is deeply unsatisfying, and Paul doesn’t think it is realistic. Anyone who really thinks their choice is the center of life is probably on the edge of despair or madness. I choose what I don’t want all the time.

The other day the Leadership Team Core was wondering why there is an increase in teen suicide – part of  the reason could be that teens are left alone with their choices. I understand the pull to avoid and numb and detach from the demands to choose who I am. It is hard to endure. My prayer ruts are pretty deep, but I still have the vestiges of what sin did to me. My automatic avoidance mechanisms can keep me from choosing what I want. Get me anxious, afraid, despairing, or something and those old, automatic attempts at self-preservation tend to kick in, if I am not looking. I can sink pretty far before Jesus pulls me out.

I get pushed into ruts

It is not just the sin at work in me, however, it is also the sin at work on me that gets me into a rut. We have some reaction ruts in our brains and habits, but we can get forced into ruts by systemic issues, too. A list of influences came to mind as I was thought of myself and others with whom I had spoken. These things could also kick off our automatic reactions: Lies from the President. The titans of industry who caused the last recession (from which many have not recovered) flexing their muscles. Machines and the machines’ secretaries that never quite work right (Google Drive Crashed last Thursday and almost upended the Hub). Then Harvey bangs up against Texas and causes a ripple of fear and despair throughout the country. Then here comes Irma.

When I wished my sister in Oregon a happy birthday, she told me she was watching  smoke from her window from wildfires caused by lightning strikes. Come to find out, the West is on fire, check out the map. Most of the country is breathing smoke. Montana is a disaster. One fire near my sister started July 11, has consumed 177,693.00 acres and is only 5.00% contained! Sometimes we wonder why people don’t say hi to us on the sidewalk — I think a lot of them are trying to endure what is beating down on them!

Romans 7 leads to Romans 8

The good part about having a Romans 7 moment with Paul is that it leads to a Romans 8 moment.

Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.  And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death (Romans 7:24-8:2).

When we fall into our ruts or are pushed into them by outside forces, we need help! It would be nice if I accessed all the power I have in the Spirit. But I have been known to detour. For instance, on the way to my retreat, I decided I wanted Wawa. I consciously told myself, “Wawa is a waste of time and calories,” but I pictured the bag and bottle I liked and turned off the road in Plymouth Meeting. Sure enough, I got lost, like I always do, in Plymouth Meeting. My phone was turned to “no tolls” (I discovered later) so I couldn’t even find my way back to the turnpike. I eventually ran by a Wawa and got my false comfort, but what I mostly got was a lesson in what runs me around. What do you turn to when you are having a feeling (or are just angry or anxious and don’t know what you feel yet)? Other detours I heard about last week include: screens, drugs, porn, making something too-perfect (like dinner), exercise, manicuring my playlist, games, decorating the house. Most of these things are OK in moderation. They are just things we tend to turn to when we don’t turn to God. They are destinations at the end of a rut, our ineffectual means to halt intolerable feelings.

You can decide how Romans 7 works in you. You probably know the tried and true ways to Romans 8 like I do. The spiritual disciplines make a difference. Back to my most recent favorite book. Mike McHargue, the Evangelical turned atheist who is now back at faith, says that the good news about prayer is that those predisposed to spiritual experiences and those who are not can both benefit from all forms of prayer. Prayer is the place to get some new ruts.

Both kinds of people will get stronger with exercise, [It’s] possible for anyone to increase her or his propensity toward spiritual experiences. Through consistent meditative practice, each of us has the potential to make our brain more spiritual—even to the point of increasing the probability that we will experience something truly mystical….The practice is what matters. Plenty of skeptics meditate for the mental and physical health benefits, and if feeling closer to God or confronting doubt is important to you, prayer is going to be more effective than just about anything else you can do. Prayer might not help you solve the mystery of God rationally, but it may help you encounter God.

My retreat helped. Today, I am more aware of the Spirit, less consumed by my challenges and my failure to meet them, more available to my creativity, and more empowered to be creative after Irma is finished with us. I hope these few moments with my blog contributed to development of new ruts in you, too. Why not spend a couple of minutes praying right now? Seriously, why not?

Turn to resilient love: History is bearing the fruit of nominalism

Last week I offered an article to my Facebook friends about the “secret” war the U.S. is helping to sustain in Yemen as the unhinged Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the Defense Minister, causes war crimes out of the view of journalists. Our own unhinged ruler further loosened the  long leash the Obama administration had given the Saudis as the civil war between Shias and Sunnis raged on, backed by Iranians and Saudis with Al Qaeda in the wings.

I lamented the lack of a moral center in the whole, horrible mess. Americans have wondered how Russia can think the ends justify the means as that government supports the Syrian government bombing and starving civilians. Yet the U.S. government is doing the same thing through its ally Saudi Arabia, and it’s just as unconscionable when the U.S. is complicit in war crimes.

It breaks our hearts to see children starving. But how can anyone decide what to do? It appears that most people are sinking in a philosophical morass that started a long time ago and is bearing the fruit of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and many other horrors. The myth of freedom demands that desire is at the center of everything we do. It is how we decide. Desire defines our “individuality.” Western culture believes an individual must be the author of his or her desire in order to be free. Nothing or no one can tell us what to do. So how could the U.S. tell the Saudis not to starve Yemenis in the name of their country’s desire to be free according to its sense of identity?

Last week’s blog post was about Donald Trump’s lack of moral center, as he pardoned the racist Joe Arpaio. A couple of friends got on my son’s feed after he posted my work and made light of it, mainly because i dared use the tragedy of Congolese slaves as part of my example. I think I violated their sense of ownership of their own experience, co-opted the story of their desire, and appeared to thwart their struggle to be the authors of their own destiny. I was trying to be a Christian with them, but we’ll have to keep trying.

What happened to goodness?

Finding a moral center in a Trumpian world is difficult. People can’t seem to agree on what is good. There are many reasons for this difficulty that Jesus followers should ponder. For one thing, progressives and conservatives alike serve the same god: individuality. If Christians are to speak the truth in love, they need to get off either bandwagon. We may find some affinity with good-hearted people in either camp, but the world desperately needs the church to get back in God’s camp and provide an alternative to the madness. When will we clearly say, “No, we are not going to ‘follow our hearts’ no matter what society, the church or anyone else says, no matter how many times Disney preaches it to our children”?

I’ve been studying and pondering how we got to the place where Christians can support Trump and the place where identity wars can divide brothers and sisters in faith. Here’s the philosophical/theological trail toward the answer I’ve discovered so far (with help from Rod Dreher).

in the 1300’s “nominalism” took the medieval philosopher’s sense that everything has an inherent, God-given meaning and tweaked it to say that the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends on what humans assign them. You can see the seeds of our present preoccupation with our individual identities in this thought. How we have been named and how we name ourselves makes all the difference to most of us, and the title “child of God” is not usually our number one sense of self, since that derives from God and not ourselves.

In the 1400’s optimism about human potential shifted Europe’s focus from God to humanity who were seen as “the measure of all things.” We’ve been measuring our progress ever since.

In the 1500’s the Reformation broke any remaining sense of religious authority to shreds and started the infighting that makes Christians hard to trust. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand” and ably expressed the personal conviction that has been individualizing faith ever since.

In the 1600’s The Wars of Religion in Europe further discredited religion and helped usher in the modern nation state. The scientific revolution  replaced the organic sense of the universe with a machine. Descartes applied the mechanistic thinking to the body: “I think therefore I am,” not “I am an organic part of God’s world.” Most Europeans, like Descartes, still thought of themselves as faithful Christians at this time, but the way they thought of themselves and decided what is true began to change.

In the 1700’s the Enlightenment created a framework for existence with reason, not God, at the center. Religion became private, not public. The United States protected an  individual’s right to faith in a faithless state. France created an antifaith democracy.

In the 1800’s The industrial revolution ended the connection most people had with the land. Relationships became defined by money. The romantic movement rebelled by emphasizing individualism and passion.

In the 1900’s The horrible world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress as well as faith in Jesus. The growth of technology and consumerism further convinced people to fulfill individual desires and submit to huge corporations which supplied that fulfillment. The sexual revolution elevated the desiring individual as the center of a new social order, deposing enfeebled Christianity and all other religions.

Now in the 2000’s people have almost no moral center outside themselves to rely on, no community that is respected to monitor their behavior, and no sense of covenant that can require their sacrifice. We are reduced to individuals gathering enough power to win an argument about whether our desires will be legalized and our identity protected.

Good is faith working in love

All along the way the church has been sustained by the Holy Spirit and has continued to perform miracles and connect people to God, in spite of increasing opposition and a persuasive counter-narrative to the Gospel. Moana’s song, above, sounds fresh, new resonant, while Sunday’s songs are made to seem old and discordant. Christians readily adopt the demands of the new order just so they can stay in business, or at least not have the endless arguments with judgmental people who parse their every word looking for some insidious oppression that would steal away the freedom to be whatever is desired and to do whatever money can buy. Even so, God’s love is resilient.

In the middle of all the turmoil, I think the church has an opportunity to save the world. One of the ways we do it is to resist being co-opted by the arguments that are fragmenting it. If you want to satisfy your nominalist itch, name yourself a “Jesus follower.” If you are drawn by all the Disney propaganda and worry that your desires will not find enough freedom to flourish (or you are worried about others)  at least wonder, with James, whether your desires will lead to life, as they promise. And when the constant, conflict-promoting media tempts you to turn a suspicious eye on your loved one or neighbor and require some test of their truth to gain your acceptance, turn to love, which covers a multitude of sin. Trust first, accept first, include first and then sort out the inevitable issues that only faith working out in  resilient love together can solve.

Hurricane Harvey was not the distraction Trump imagined

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Saturday, and is still doing damage. This unprecedented storm could have 3-4 more days to dump rain on the Houston area – up to 50 inches in some areas!

However, even headlines about Harvey have not been enough to make people forget all of the maneuvering that the Trump Administration did on Friday.

Donald Trump apparently thought Harvey would dominate the airwaves so he could do some things relatively unnoticed – like pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, just as he warned he would do in a tweet not long ago. Political technicians call Friday’s ploy a “news dump.” In this case the president was using human tragedy for political gain. When asked about it, former RNC Chair Michael Steele said, “I can’t figure out crazy anymore.” Senate  Minority Leader Chuck Schumer  took to Twitter to accuse the President of using the storm as “cover,” and described that choice as, “So sad, so weak.”

The story of Arpaio’s pardon would not go away, despite the hurricane.  The conservative Washington Examiner, for example, published a very critical editorial under the headline, “Trump, once the law and order candidate, embraces lawless disorder with Arpaio pardon.” The editorial board of the Arizona Republic, Arizona’s biggest newspaper, declared that, “Donald Trump’s pardon elevates Arpaio once again to the pantheon of those who see institutional racism as something that made America great.”

If the administration is hoping everyone eventually forgets about all of this, it does not look like Arpaio is going to help out by fading away. Despite being 85 years old, and having been thrown out of office by the voters of Maricopa County, he says he’s considering running for office because, “I think I’ve got a big political message to get out.” If John McCain’s senate seat comes open, it would not be a surprise to see “America’s Toughest Sheriff” make a run at it.

like hurricane harvey

Why talk about this stuff?

It was a beautiful week last week in Pennsylvania. School is about to start. The church is ramping up to do great things. Why talk about Trump and some discredited racist sheriff from Arizona?

Here is one reason, as The Atlantic pointed out. Arpaio was not convicted of an ordinary crime, but of deliberately disobeying a federal court order and lying about that; but beyond that, during the litigation that led to his conviction for criminal contempt, he hired a private detective to investigate the wife of a federal judge hearing a case against his office.” Judges protect the rights of everyone in the United States – for a while yet. As Jesus followers, we are especially concerned for those who have no voice and few rights: the poor and oppressed – especially when the national sin of racism is prominent.

Another reason: Everyone in the news is teaching us, whether we are listening carefully or not. We are getting an idea of who we are from how our leaders act, even our children are learning about life from them. The news lets us know where we are now, and even more, it helps us discern where we need to go.

Right now, we are being led poorly and we need to go another direction. In all dire situations, in all times, the church needs to show where everyone needs to go. We never need to rely on elected officials to show us the way, but especially now, the leaders of the church should lead us to become an alternative to the madness. Trump is a big wind knocking down things that took a long time to build, and he, like Harvey, hits the poorest the hardest.

Here’s a final reason to listen to the news. Leaders need to listen. That means church leaders, parents, teachers, bosses, everyone. Trump is not listening. He is a textbook on lack of integrity. We need to take note. People may be briefly flummoxed by a narcissist, but they often figure out what’s going on. Even if they don’t fight back directly; they find ways to stop the process. So we will see where this all ends up. But, to be sure, a poor leader is bad for everyone. Beware! If you have responsibility, you need to wear it well. And don’t we all have some responsibility we should be taking seriously?

Crisis in the Congo: An invitation to peek out from under our blanket of self-absorption

On the Congo River at Kinshasa

While many people were wrapped up in Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House on Saturday, at least 200 people were killed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A landslide swept through a fishing village on the banks of Lake Albert in Ituri province. Some people are still buried and may never be found. Landslides are common in the area, since the hills are deforested and desperate people crowd onto them in search of affordable land for their homes.

While we continued to obsess over the outrages in Charlottesville, we ignored the ongoing violence in the central Congo. 1.4 million people have been displaced by a conflict between government forces and those of the traditional chief, the Kamuina Nsapu. 8000 people among the displaced are Mennonites. “There is no place where this conflict has gone where there are no Mennonite churches,” says Rod Hollinger-Janzen of Inter-Mennonite Missions. Church leaders report that 36 Mennonites are among the U.N.-estimated 3,300 deaths since October. Church buildings and church schools have been damaged or destroyed.

While Congress was trying to eliminate the minimal and expensive healthcare provided by the Affordable Care Act, the Congo plunged deeper into a humanitarian crisis, with about 7.7 million people on the verge of starvation, according to UN food agencies.

Let’s find Kinshasa on the map

As we took a peek under the blanket of silence that covers the great national sin of racism in the wake white of supremacists making themselves known in Virginia, we did not bother to peer out from under the blanket that hides the rest of the world from us. Can you find Kinshasa on a map? 11 million people live there — 3 million more than New York City.

But why would we know? The country was founded on invisibilizing Africans. The slaveholders who greatly influenced our country’s Constitution managed to get 3/5 of the enslaved population of their states counted as citizens, even though they knew they would never vote and their interests would never be represented. When Charlottesville was discussed on the BIC-List, voices immediately rose to parrot the President’s claim that there was “violence on both sides” – it sounds like the same kind of “equality” African Americans have received since the beginning of the country. 25% of the descendants of slaves in the United States probably traveled the great river near Kinshasa  because they were stolen from  the area that is now the DRCongo and Northwestern Angola.

Are the troubles in Africa more important than troubles in the U.S.? Not really. Are we responsible for the displaced in the Congo? — to the best of our ability, yes, of course –just like we are responsible to take action against injustice and hopelessness in our own churches and cities.  And, thank God, the Mennonite Central Committee is helping people in our name and in the name of Jesus right now. Circle of Hope contributed over $100,000 to MCC last year, and my household added more, directly.

But even if we cannot be responsible for solving all the problems of the world, we could at least do our best to be aware of them. Our country is responsible for causing many of them, after all.

I acknowledge that you might have varying degrees of willingness to be a “we” or think in terms of “our” with me. But let me finish. I just want to say that It would be best if we were not so self-absorbed that we react to every Trumped-up bit of nonsense that comes over the airwaves as if it were of primary importance. We should discern what are the most important things for us to care about, not just careen from newsbite to newsbite.  Even as the President tries to distract us from some sin by committing another, we should not take the bait, but attempt to see from the eternal perspective of Jesus and act accordingly.