Moneyland: What does a Jesus-follower do in the era of that dark power?

People are writing such wonderful things these days! But it seems so few people are paying attention! This post has that spirit of hope and lament running through it.

It happened again.  I couldn’t resist starting my new book before I finished the one I was reading. The first one was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration — an old entry on our Kindle bookshelf about how African Americans finally fled Jim Crow in the South. It is so well written, I keep going back to it. But it is so painful I can’t talk about it yet. [NPR interviewed the author in 2010]

I think I heard about the new one, Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World by chance on NPR. I need to talk about that one since Gwen is about ready to head for Ukraine in June and that is where an unusual door opened into the secret world of the kleptocrats who saw a weakness in capitalist democracies and have exploited it to the fullest. Not only are they rich, they have an extraordinary control over the countries they exploit and generally live above the law. Paul Manafort, who opened the Ukrainian door to us here in the U.S. was just inept enough at his exploitation to end up in jail. His boss, Donald Trump, also seems rather inept, but he has no lack of brazen self-interest as he attempts to propel himself into the head of the plutocracy. The next proposed boss, Joe Biden, has a son, Hunter, who has also been in and out of the weird Ukrainian door to Moneyland, so we’ll see where all this ends up.

Moneyland people by art for show.
News from a Moneylander family: Treasury Secretary Minuchen’s father bought Jeff Koon’s “Rabbit” for $91.1 MILLION last week, setting a record for a piece by a living artist.

Meanwhile, the little people, like you and me are totally in the dark about the flow of money in “moneyland.” The author, Oliver Bullough, does his best unravel it for us. For example, if you give to a non-profit supporting a hospital in Kiev the administrator may have a bank account in St. Kitts, like Paul Manafort, or she may have to pay someone who has one or risk the lives of her children. If you want to spread your goodwill to another city in Ukraine, you will have to ride the neglected roads (budget lines pillaged by insiders) and get through countless checkpoints at which the armed forces/police ask for their cut (rule of law is undermined). We experienced this in Zimbabwe, personally, when we were there, Robert Mugabe being the head kleptocrat.

Bullough writes in his revealing introduction:

“It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the superrich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, it’s inaccessible.

This is the place I called Moneyland — Maltese passports, English libel, American privacy, Panamanian shell companies, Jersey trusts, Liechtenstein foundations, all added together to create a virtual space that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The laws of Moneyland are whichever laws anywhere are most suited to those wealthy enough to afford them at any moment in time. If a country somewhere changes the law to restrict Moneylanders in any way, they shift themselves or their assets to countries with more generous laws. If a country passes a law that offers new possibilities for enrichment, then the assets shift likewise….

If we wish to preserve democracy…we must confront Moneyland’s nomad citizens, and must find a way to dismantle the offshore structures that make it so easy for them to hide their money from democratic oversight. They are at least as significant a threat to the rules-based order that we’ve created to make the world safe as the terrorists and dictators we read about every day.”

What do Christians’ do in response to all this?

Image result for christians heads in the sandGet our heads out of the sand

I hope this isn’t overly critical. But aren’t Christians generally known for keeping their heads in the the sand, even though they should feel safer to look around than people living without Jesus? I think I can sympathize with the temptation to perfect avoidance. For most of us, we are happy if we feel relatively safe and we hope nothing changes. These days, the world makes many of us so anxious, we are even more likely to turn a blind eye to what evil is up to as long as we are not on its radar. But that is not the call from our teachers:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:11-16)

We are not to acquiesce to or collude with the darkness, we are supposed to expose it!

I am distressed there are enough blind Christians in the United States to support the smokescreen from the Trump administration that promises protection from the infidels in Iran and an abortion-free society in exchange for spending all our treasure on warfare and indebting the country for generations, while the rich hide their money offshore and the rest of us suckers pay the taxes for it all. If you have a job and don’t feel too hard-pressed right now, at least care about the poor, the most defenseless who bear the regressive weight of the schemes of Moneyland. The Ryan tax cut for the rich and Trump’s incarceration of immigrant children should provide a graphic enough picture of what is in store for the poorest. Surely no Jesus follower wants to collude with that! We should expose it.

Tell the truth

Bullough accuses most of us of not even knowing the truth. But he is sympathetic, since the truth about Moneyland is a well-guarded secret. I appreciate how he offers his book as an antidote. I’m glad he had the freedom of speech to write it. I’d say most of my readers also trust in freedom of speech to change the world. If we do anything to protest, it mostly has to do with speaking, or writing, or chanting in the streets.

It’s when we don’t feel the freedom that things get rough. Here’s an example from the Bible. When King Herod heard about what Jesus was saying, he was a bit terrified (see Mark 6:14-29). Jesus reminded the king of John the Baptist so much, he was afraid John had risen from the dead! He had just killed the Lord’s cousin for daring to speak up about his unholy marriage, among other things. Jesus soon followed in his cousin’s footsteps for telling the truth to the Jewish and Roman rulers who sent him to the cross. As usual, the rule of law was about the rulers. When that is the case, truth tellers need to hold on to their eternal life — they are going to need it.

I think I notice a subtle change in our truth-telling church over the last ten years. As the post 9/11 babies come into leadership, there is less conflict, less truth telling, more ghosting and more cutting off. Jesus tells them, “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” They tend to reply with Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-8).

I don’t know if that applies to you, personally, but the world seems to be conforming to the spirit of the age and truth-tellers could get killed, and do. I think our fear of death is shutting our mouths. We may not fear getting killed, but we think our money will be stolen and our jobs eliminated if we don’t keep quiet. We know education does not guarantee security. We see how the whims of the president can destroy a family’s farm in Iowa in a matter of months. People are thinking, “Who knows what might happen if I make myself a target?”

Jesus’ ultimate answer to Pilate wasn’t, “I tell the truth and that is what changes the world.” Jesus is the truth, the way, the truth and the life. When we relate to him, we relate to his Father. Our reconciliation saves us and changes the world, which brings me to the main thing we do in the face of Moneyland.

Build an alternative community

Some scholars call Ephesians “Paul’s book of the church.” I think it is his book about following Jesus, which never happens outside the church. Jesus followers live a reconciled life as closely connected and interdependent as members of a body. This makes us an alternative to the “fruitless deeds of darkness” mentioned above. If we are Christian in principle but not practice, mostly law and not love, we are sitting ducks for the ways of the dying world or just more ideologues in a power struggle.

Paul teaches:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of 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.

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (4:15-18)…

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:12).

Oliver Bullough might wish his book was so influential people would be talking about it 2000 years from now. May you write something that profound!

We rely on you to be profoundly yourself in Christ and to dare to make an alternative community with us. The resistance we perfect and the transformation we effect depends on being the body of Christ. We are like Jesus before Pilate — we are who we are; we are the truth. We aren’t there to argue, we are there because the world is struggling against God and its true self and we aren’t struggling with them.

Is Moneyland a real place? It is if evil can blind us, if the powers can keep us in the dark with them. Regardless, it is not as real as the kingdom of God where we live with Jesus and one another. Every time we turn toward home and turn away from the deceptions all around us, we are strengthening our true selves, and just that small action speaks the truth in love to a world desperately in need of it.

We contained a crisis and discovered a strategy for reconciliation

The church is famous for kicking sinners out, even though they are the very people the church is designed to serve! Like I said last week, I think troubled people need extra grace; they don’t need to be cut off just when they are in their deepest trouble. I think most churches are trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve dared to make our solutions to sin a feature of who we are. Some of our ideas seem so new to people, it has not been unusual for our approach to conflict to cause conflict!

This incident I want to tell you about, even though I’m not worrying about remembering all the facts perfectly, helped us create a useful approach to the kind of conflict that endangers people and threatens the whole church. We sum it up in our statement: Forgiveness and Containment.

A couple popped up from our South Philly neighborhood. Each of them were in a cell group. They seemed excited that she was pregnant and they wanted to get married. They were emotionally needy but both seemed to be gaining new faith. They wanted to become covenant members rather spontaneously and so we said, “Why not?” We baptized them, married them and made them covenant members on the same day! The week after they joined our covenant, their marriage went into a dramatic meltdown. Violence. Midnight phone calls. She locked him out and he stayed at his cell leader’s house. Come to find out she had a restraining order on him even as they were getting married and making a covenant! It was a spectacularly messy situation.

The people who cared for these newcomers spontaneously formed a circle around them. They quite consciously saw an opportunity to act as white corpuscles rushing through the body of Christ’s bloodstream to get to the wound. They formed what we later named a “container.”

How much choosing is really involved in sinning?

We realized we had a conviction about acting out Matthew 18 (read it!), since we are way Anabaptist and we think the Bible should be lived, not litigated. So embracing all these sinners, as we tend to do, was very educational!

There are many kinds of sinners – like all of us reading this. I do think some, like the people at the top of our leadership pyramid in the U.S., actually practice sinning, like lying and cheating, exploiting the poor, causing war, perpetuating racism, stirring up hatred and strife etc, etc. They choose to sin because it is practical and because they have the power to get away with it and they think that’s how it should be. But I think those kind of people might be rare.

Since I began practicing some psychotherapy, I’ve become even more convinced even sociopaths and people with a narcissistic personality disorder are doing a lot less choosing than I wish they were. If they were making choices all day, it would be easier to judge them – and I often wish I could forget Romans 14 and 15 and just condemn people. Many people are not choosing to sin, they think behavior Jesus followers might name sin is normal – even after they follow Jesus! They do less choosing than they do following their perverted desires and deeply-installed false gods that everyone around them names as good. It should not be too surprising if  they made a covenant before God with someone on whom they have a restraining order!

Glenda Jackson retired from being a member of the British parliament and came back to the stage in the past few years. She had a bit to say about the ascendant sense that choosing is what being human is about. (In the picture you can see her choosing to play King Lear on Broadway). She is famous for saying:

In coming to the basis of Thatcherism, I come to the spiritual part of what I regard as the desperately wrong track down which Thatcherism took this country. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees, all these were the way forward.

Like Glenda Jackson, I don’t believe we get to reconciliation if it all depends on individuals choosing it like they choose a make of car or brand of cigarettes. Righteousness happens in the context of relationship with God and others, not just in our personal choices. I don’t think Jesus calls us to jump into “disciplining” people when someone cannot hold themselves together, as if they just made a mistake. They need to be transformed, not just taught or forced to make better choices.

I think many people have an arrogant sense of their own responsibility and so that of others. People are bound in sin long before they come to some kind of realization that they can make other choices. Feeling sorry for their condition makes me sound soft on sin – but I honestly think people accused Jesus (Matt. 9) and Paul of the very same thing (see Romans 5:20-1 for why). I sometimes feel compelled to tell people, “I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in your sin. He already died because of it. His interest is forgiveness and restoration, not judgment. His choice and not yours is what is important.”

Our choice to be preoccupied with our sin and with the sin of others, makes a mockery of the Lord’s work. What we should be obsessed with is redemption and the possibilities of resurrection life — if I am not so preoccupied, I am not sure I am even a Jesus follower. He did not die so I would keep believing that my choices are what makes the universe happen, or worse, that my choices are what is ruining it.

The focus of Jesus is a new creation. Like Paul says, “Nothing counts but love and a new creation.” The Lord’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 18 about forgiveness and reconciliation are among the most practical things he says about what he is after. It is teaching as fundamental as “Love your enemies” and “Love one another as I have loved you.” His teaching: “When you are sinned against, win your brother or sister back,” is basic to the new creation.

Create an atmosphere bent on reconciliation

Like I said, we kind of bumped into a means to work on reconciliation in the most damaging of circumstances when that young couple blew their marriage to smithereens and began to infect the church with their fury, neediness and demands. They were more than willing to get people on their side and fight it out. And they did not know how damaging they were being — and with a baby on the way! They needed to be contained so they would not infect the church. And they needed to be contained so the church would not naturally cleanse itself of them before they got a chance to come to their senses, be healed and be reconciled to God and one another.

In our statement, Forgiveness and Containment, we start by convincing people that forgiveness is essential. Most people believe this theoretically, but they don’t act like it is fundamental to their lifestyle. Any “discipline of correction” from Jesus begins with forgiveness. Jesus is correcting our lack of forgiveness by pouring grace on us. I won’t go into all we say about forgiveness except to say this: Conflict is inevitable in community. There is invariably trouble. Without forgiveness, community is only possible where people are superficial.

Many churches are devoid of real connection because people solve the sinning problem by outlawing conflicts instead of learning to be redeemed by our endless involvement in them. The best they do with problems is to say, “No problem” (or get away even quicker with “NP”), and pretend they are not angry. As a bad but persistent evangelist, I can tell you that many people don’t want to touch the church with a ten foot pole because Christians can’t do conflict, can’t be trusted, and seem to love drawing lines that cause conflict. In our neck of the woods, winning the culture war battles is definitely losing the cause of redemption because it is about having a lot of conflict while pretending nothing is happening personally.

What a cell should be best at is healthy conflict. But I dare say you don’t trust us enough to speak freely and wouldn’t have much of a life-giving strategy to process conflict should it happen during the next cell meeting or the next half hour. And if you came across a person who couldn’t feel, couldn’t budge, was visibly angry, what would happen?

Most of us would cut that peron off. In the short run, it seems far easier to simply “forget” than to forgive. Saying, “No problem,” often effectively means, “You are dead to me.” However, the mind is rarely so accommodating. It is very difficult for us to forget experiences and the feelings that go with them. If we make a practice of sweeping hurt under the rug, one day we will undoubtedly trip over the bump. In the long run, we need deep and penetrating acts of forgiveness to be free.

So Matthew 18 is a crucial primer on the practical work of forgiveness, which is the central feature of an authentic church that loves like Jesus loves – Jesus who we gladly proclaim died as an act of forgiveness among other things. How do we get there when these sin-ridden people blow themselves up in the middle of our perpetual Easter worship? I am going to say one more thing about creating an atmosphere of reconciliation. You can read our strategy for what to do when pollution threatens that atmosphere by looking over Forgiveness and Containment.

Forgiveness
“Forgiveness” — click for source.

Making and keeping a covenant is central to an atmosphere of reconciliation

When we got going, we decided to double down on what other churches were deserting: the covenant. At the center of our body are the covenant keepers — whose yes is yes and public stated. People in covenant agree to live reconciled. They agree to agree. That’s the main thing. Additionally, in our marriages there is a covenant. And in our cells there is an implicit covenant even if the cell does not write it down. We work on all those relationships as basic.

People come to the church with an expectation of being ideally loved, often much better than they love or were loved in their families growing up. Mostly, they relate according to the self-defensive rules they learned by the time they were six. So you can see how there is going to be trouble unless someone is doggedly nurturing an environment where self-giving love like Jesus’ can be learned.  Our covenant love needs to lead us, not just the discipline hit squad.

Suppose you have a person in your cell who avoids another person in the church because they can’t stand being in the same room with them?  What am I to do? Most people give up on such people, or even forget about them. But here are in my cell and I love them. Maybe I should throw them out because they are choosing to sin. But I never do. Instead, I keep them in the covenant where I hope they will get over their immaturity and be reconciled.

What we want to do is get to reconciliation. So we need to pay attention to how we can recover from covenant-breaking and pay attention to how the covenant breakers can get back into an experience of our love. I think Matthew 18 works best with a clear breech.

  • I expected you to take care of my children but you yelled an obscenity at one of them and they are still traumatized.
  • I expected you to be trustworthy but you took money from the team’s checkbook to buy groceries because you were too ashamed to ask for help.
  • I expected you to share money with the common fund like you said you would when you made a covenant and you didn’t.
  • I found out you have been approaching women and threatening them with your overtly sexual behavior.

Those are all easier. And they are probably the kind of things the Lord is mainly talking about.

Covenant breaking is probably not,

  • I was offended by your body language
  • You ignored what I was saying
  • I am really tired of your psychological foibles
  • I thought you said you would do the dishes.

Those experiences will all require some forgiveness, but I don’t think every day conflicts need to go directly to sin. Regardless, Matthew 18 works if you are just offended, too. It helps you create an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a main skill I try to build in couples therapy. If you are upset, own your feeling and tell your story. Listen to each other and understand. That may be enough to get to forgiveness.

There is a lot more to a life bent towards reconciliation. I have been thinking and writing about it so much, I realized I could put together a reading list for a group I was teaching. See if it helps you learn more about the revolutionary traits Jesus frees us to exercise. They transform the world: Readings on reconciliation.

How the Dialogue List helped teach us lessons in love

A group from the BIC asked me to lead some a study about reconciliation last week. Many of the practical things I talked about can be traced back to a formative incident over twenty years ago when Circle of Hope was a very young church. Looking back, I seem young at 44! And oh, you twenty-somethings who made a church!

Early COH looked a lot like this.

Following my conviction that Jesus would build His church and I could hope for people to form the trust system I thought every church should be, I had created the “Dialogue List.” It was a listserv open to anything anyone wanted to talk about. So it was a constant exercise in trust just to read it and meet the unpredictable things that might show up on it.  We learned a lot about reconciliation by having the Dialogue List.

At that time a creative, rather charismatic man, who was married to one of our worship leaders, decided to come out as gay. This caused a crisis in his marriage, which he did not immediately want to leave, since he had two children and loved his wife. Their situation began to cause a crisis in the church since he was not afraid to be vulnerable and he was outspoken – and he felt like he had friends, which was true. He was not making a statement or a political move by coming out, he was having a problem. He eventually moved back to New York with his lover. Not long ago he was at a Frankford Ave meeting  where I was happy to reconnect. I had been deeply involved in their lives.

Another young man from a traditional Christian background, who was a rather large help to our various building projects, was offended that we let this sinful process go on in the church with what seemed like very little judgment. He wrote to the Dialogue List to voice his protest. He said we were harboring sinners and making a mockery of God’s call to holiness. He felt like he was supposed to swallow that and was choking on it. He wanted the gay man banned from the church.

I should not have been surprised this happened, but I was surprised. It all happened before I got extensive training in mediation and negotiation, so I think my appreciation of a healthy conflict was weak. It all happened long before I got my doctorate in marriage and family therapy, so my appreciation of individual and systemic disorders was foggy. All I had going for me was my vision of what I thought was a healthy church based on the Bible. So I swallowed hard and decided to write back.

Condemnation is an enemy we must not love

I knew making a public reply amounted to a nuclear option. I was about to cash in all my “respect chips” and respond to the Dialogue List as everyone listened in. But I wanted to make it plain where I was going to take a stand. I took it squarely on the side of the weaker brother: the gay man who had just torpedoed his family. And my key passage to justify my stance was and has been since, Romans 14-15.

Here are the most relevant verses:

1– Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
4 — Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
10 — You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat
13 — Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1-2 — We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
7 — Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
18-19 — I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Those last two verses might not normally be in this discussion, but I think they were part of what Paul was talking about. He did not think he had much to say about anything if it was not backed up by his demonstration of the gospel of Christ – the gospel that knits together Jews and Gentiles and is destined to reconciles the whole Roman Empire in a new unity in the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  The young man who wrote to the list had a point, but he did not have the love, did not speak from the Spirit, and did not have great deeds of mission to back up his dramatic judgment. I thought what he was saying was deadly to all we hoped to become.

We had a breaking marriage with children on our hands and a couple who cared about their kids and cared for each other too. They were sorting out a sex issue in public, which automatically fascinates everyone. Their impending divorce was a disappointing surprise to many of their intimates in our 200 person community. As far as I was concerned, their various sins were not the biggest issue, but their reconciliation and ongoing faith were huge issues. What’s more, how we handled this challenge as a new community might determine what kind of a church we would become.

Related image

Getting involved in messes is messy

So I spoke back very strongly to the young man who wrote to the Dialogue List. It was straightforward letter – probably too straightforward, since I was upset. When I was remembering this incident, I tried to find a copy of the note I wrote, but I failed to do so – thank God! I hope I am blessed and it isn’t in internet eternity somewhere. I doubt I handled everything that great. I explained how public judgment was out of the question, not only because it revealed a hard heart, but, in this case, it was without personal relationship with the accused. It amounted to slander. It was also irresponsible. If the writer had done the discipling and comforting work, then maybe he would have had something to say. But he really only knew what they had heard. As far as I was concerned, if anyone needed to be banned from the church, it was the one who was willing to pronounce such judgment, however warranted according to his principles. As long as I was around to lead things, it was going to be love first, working for reconciliation as a top priority, and serving those who are wicked, or out of order, or ignorant enough to cause trouble in hope of their redemption.

As it turned out, my letter to the Dialogue List surprised many people because they expected me to meet their stereotype of hard-nosed evangelicals who think gay people are bad by definition. And I surprised another whole segment of the population because I was willing to “kick someone out of the church,” only it was the Judaizer who wanted to return us to the law.

I later learned from a master reconciler in South Africa that anyone who tries to get people to reconcile, especially when conflict over family ties or taboos is on the table, is a bridge that gets walked on by both sides. If we are not ready to be misunderstood, it is unlikely we can help people overcome their misunderstandings. I still feel some adrenaline when I talk about my difficult letter to the list because it was an exciting time and I was getting walked on! But I also wince at how badly I played my part in it and how much more I had to learn. The many reasons I felt walked on turned out to be creative suffering that helped grow me up. I think the suffering we endured with this couple together helped grow up the church, too.

The couple got amicably divorced. We helped the wife move back to upstate New York where she met another good man and had more children and a life of deep faith. The husband went off with his lover and continued to have a hard time, but still felt fondly about Jesus. His children also faced some big challenges. I wish he had stayed in covenant with us. The man who made the accusation, eventually moved to the far burbs. But a couple of years later, he wrote me an email to thank me for my rough treatment. He said I was right to face him down in public and he learned an important lesson. People in our church still relate to him and his nice family.

This incident and several others started us on a path towards practical forgiveness and reconciliation right in line with Matthew 18. I think I will share some more about that next week. I hope this little story inspires you to go against the current of the present moment in history in the U.S. and make something beautiful – a church where people can suffer, grow and never fear that they have friends who will work for their best interests and help them move through their misunderstandings and troubles in love.

There is another way: In an age of suspicion develop a trust system

When the birds start singing in spring, my heart starts to remember old, joyful songs, as well. I pause for birds, partly because Jesus taught me to do so: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26). But even if I did not know the Sermon on the Mount so well, the birds would have taught me to trust God. And such trust would have loosened a song of joy in my heart.

This spring, we have experienced an avalanche of the unmelted snow of mistrust on the mountains of lies and greed that characterize our no-trust country. I’m afraid it is all going to melt and flood us by June. You may have stopped watching news channels, but they are all unmoored from the truth. This week the President lied so hard about the Mueller report that his tongue must have hurt. People are not only losing their trust in God and the church of Jesus Christ, they don’t trust one another either.

We are called to develop a trust system

In the middle of that flood, we have a very prescient proverb we managed to get into our collection: We are called to develop a trust system. That means we are more like the birds of the air and less like Donald Trump and we know it. What’s more, it means we intend to build an alternative system to the world’s mistrust, by trusting each other and breeding trust in people who want to stop feeling worthless and claim their honor as trustworthy people.

I was cleaning up my books the other day (they tend to multiply!) and I ran across one I could not remember buying called Smart Trust. It is one of those business books that teach capitalists basic morality as a means to be happy and successful like Warren Buffet. I like these books because they boil down ideas into practical ways we can implement. For instance, here is most of this book boiled down into a 25-minute speech.

And the rest of this blog post is going to boil the book down even further into a few useful paragraphs.

I offer this to you for a couple of reasons. 1) A big reason: Quite a few of us are sucked into the mistrust system the world is perpetrating. We are susceptible to conspiracy theories, suspicious of all leaders and prone to cutting off because no one can be trusted. If that is you, you are undermining our trust system. 2) A bigger reason: Each of us can contribute to making an alternative by staying conscious of our responsibility to build a trust system, which simply begins with trust in Jesus and trust in his people.  We can nurture joy instead of despair. A new world is possible.

Trust builder traits

Covey and his team did some nice business-book research on their topic by finding people all over the world who demonstrate “smart trust.” In their opinion, this conscious, strategic trusting is the defining skill that separates mere managers from leaders.

For our purpose, “smart trust” it is the defining skill that separates a Jesus-follower who can develop a trust system from those who James calls a “double-minded” — who can’t trust and can’t be trusted. Likewise, they are people Jude calls “clouds without rainwater.” If those negative attributions seem to harsh, return to Jesus trying to lure us into leaving  destruction by pointing out the birds managing to trust God in the middle of it.

The authors collected five traits that characterize these trust builders:

  • They choose to believe that trust is essential.
  • They start by developing the character and competence (the credibility) that allows them to trust themselves and be a trusted part of a trust system, in our case, the kingdom of God.
  • They say what they intend to do and assume others also have positive intentions. They make people prove they are untrustworthy, not earn trust.
  • They do what they say they are going to do.
  • They take the lead in extending trust, which leads to a “virtuous cycle” in which others are unleashed to build great things and feel the joy of the good work of faith, hope and love.

I think you can note these traits in the character of our church. We have been building a trust system for a long time. When it breaks down, we can see it, because we normally don’t live in a Trump-like world in which no one can be trusted and the untrustworthy cast suspicion on everyone else. When Trump decided not to cooperate with Congress, it became evident that the authors of the U.S. Constitution, even though they put checks and balances in their famous doc, relied on “gentlemen” to apply it. They expected leaders to at least be concerned about their honor and reputation! When power is more important than mutuality, the “rule of law” is about whoever has the power to enforce the law. When we can’t trust our leaders, we need to find some new “gentlepeople.” We want to be those  trustworthy people, led by Jesus, the ultimate leader.

The example of the Grameen Bank.

The authors piled up stories of trusting and trustworthy leaders from around the world. I think the story of Muhammad Yunus is especially notable. He should be honored, as he is, by people around the world. He is the Banker to the Poor who made a bank built on trust to help the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, initially, get out of their slavery to their lenders. In his system of microcredit, trust is the key. He says, unlike banks who tie up clients in legal knots, making sure they are never out of the bank’s reach, “Grameen assumes every borrower is honest. There are no legal instruments between lenders and the borrowers. We were convinced that the bank should be built on human trust, not on meaningless paper contracts….We may be accused of being naïve, but our experience with bad debt is less than 1 percent.”

Our Debt Annihilation Team is an ongoing experiment with similar intent. They have also experienced “bad debt.” But there has been more joy than confirmation that people cannot be trusted. We extend some relational “microcredit” every time we sit down face-to-face in one of our free-forming cells, don’t you think?

Blind trust or mistrust

Good business books come up with metaphors and charts to make their big points. Covey asks us “Which glasses are you wearing?” Is your lenas blind trust or distrust?  The Proverbs taught us long ago what social scientists keep proving: “As we think in our hearts, so we are” (Prov 23:7 KJV). The “glasses” through which we see people and situations make a difference. The two extremes most of us fall into in relation to trust can be seen in the chart below. See what you think about how you generally work, or how you work in various situations like job and family. How do you work in the church?

The third way: build a trust system

One of the reasons to excerpt this book for you is that their idea of  “smart trust” is a “third way.” And we do love our third ways! These ways are alternatives to the either/or the world usually presents to us. Our alternativity is not just our own way, it is a way of trusting the leadership of Jesus all along our way. Our basic faith in the trustworthiness of the Lord makes us radicals.

This “smart trust matrix” is designed to give us a better pair of glasses so we can see our way into a better place where being trusted and trustworthy unleashes our creativity and joy.

I don’t always get what a four-quadrant matrix means, but they at least get me to think. This one is trying to move me to have some discernment when it comes to trusting people in our trust system. Like Paul tells the Corinthians while he is helping them move through some conflict, I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”  That’s the kind of assumption we want to develop. Paul knows he is talking to people in all four quadrants, but they all need to get to a place where they are on the Lord’s side (1 Cor 10). Quadrant 1 is blind trust; Quadrant 4 is mistrust; Quadrant 3 is no trust. You may need to move through all of them to get to Quadrant 2: smart trust. Or, as Paul would say, we need to develop good judgment that leads to reconciliation and unleashes joy.

The other side of the smart trust coin of course, begins with being trustworthy ourselves. We don’t just inspect other people to see how they fit into a matrix! Being trustworthy breeds reciprocal trust. And even if no one trusts you back, Jesus does. The Lord’s trust strategy is at the heart of what Victor Hugo was working out in Les Miserables when the bishop trusted Jean Valjean with the candlesticks. Viewers have gotten teary-eyed ever since, believing that one person can, in fact, make a difference. Grace works. Entrusting people with grace is the basic strategy of God in Jesus for the transformation of creation.

Jean Valjean becomes a better man and even releases Javert. Over 70 million people have seen Les Mis onstage. They long for a different kind of world where grace makes a difference and people are considered worthwhile. The BBC put out yet another TV version this month. People keep hoping the liars who set off avalanches of mistrust will not win the day! And even the days they seem to be winning are better because of  those who trust God and one another and stubbornly build a trust system where the skills of transformation can be learned.

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

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Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

Wrestling with rumors: WWJD with #WWG1GWA?

On March 20, President Trump retweeted a 2-year-old video of a teenager receiving a zealous pat down by a TSA agent in the Dallas airport while his mother filmed the incident, knowing she would be delayed that much more if she caused any more trouble with the security guards (WP). I don’t want to show you the video, because it just gives it more playtime, and by this time, the video is a meme.

Image result for qanon rally

We are in a season of rumor

But I can’t help talking about the source who belatedly brought the video to Trump’s attention, through a winding path of Twitter celebrities. It shows where he gets his information and makes me wonder why the president, and so many others, are so fond of spreading conspiracy theories. The TSA is branded as an instrument of the over-reaching government and Trump spreads the rumor its all part of a conspiracy.

In general, we are all figuring out what is going on by spreading and assessing rumors. For instance, last week an FB friend asked me if an old rumor about Circle of Hope is true: “I was told you don’t believe in dinosaurs.” She sent me a screenshot of the FB dialogue about us and one person chimed in to verify our “unbelief.” “Absolutely true!” he said. We are in the season of rumors becoming accepted facts. BTW, I had just been to the Natural History Museum in NYC and saw some of the dinosaur fossil record, which I don’t think is an elaborate fake.

I suppose “conspiracy theories” are graduate-level rumors. My acquaintance, Nicholas DiFonzo gave a brief outline of his extensive and helpful research on rumor on this video.

The video Trump shared appeared on a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed, which is operated by a man who pushes QAnon theories. I don’t pretend to know what is going on with QAnon since I just became aware of them. Although, being Anabaptish by persuasion, I’m probably in line with half their motivations. Regardless of my general ignorance, here is one man’s take on who the anonymous Q (and team) are: QAnon for beginners.

The man Trump retweeted has a Twitter bio which includes the phrase “WWG1WGA,” shorthand for “Where We Go One We Go All.” That hashtag is a rallying point for the narrative that ties together the Pizzagate conspiracy and a supposed “deep state” plot to control American politics (WP from last August). WWG1WGA is the main Q slogan.  It’s thought to come from the 1996 Ridley Scott film White Squall about a group of young people caught at sea in a terrible storm. “The Storm” is a common metaphor for Trump’s assault on the Deep State. Trump himself referenced it last October during a dinner with military commanders. People are painting the slogan on walls here and there.

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The Washington Post sneers at such conspiracy theory purveyors, but it is useful to understand them. Once a rumor has been repeated enough and not debunked, it begins to build a worldview. Many QAnon people are persuaded Donald Trump is standing in the way of a cabal of the 1% who are determined to create a global police state that will take away their freedoms, and they are determined to be on the right side of history (an example of America’s doomsday obsession).

QAnon has a religious wing

Apart from the President’s collusion with them, my main interest in QAnon was generated by the following video from the blogger Sean/Cordicon (above). Through him, I learned about the QAnon manifesto. He also represents the religious wing to the movement which emerged out of the ooze of 8Chan. (You can see elements of the QAnon 8Chan  posts here). In the following video, Cordicon is a little disappointed with the marketing campaign for the movement’s seminal book, but he has more instructive things to say about the surprising connections being made with 1st century Christianity.

Sean seems like a sensitive guy, and he is passionate about Jesus. At some point, he discovered a Jesus, promoted since the 1830’s or so, who is something of a prototype for himself: a person who has been denied his true existence by the powers. In case you did not watch the video (who has time for every link in this post!), I’ll tell you that, at one point, he held up the book below about the “Q” source for the gospels posited by some 19th century theologians. He claims this book represents the true Jesus.

Image result for the gospel of q

I suppose it was inevitable that QAnon and the Q Source for the gospels would meet and have a baby via the internet.

The Gospel of Q that has captured Sean’s imagination remains a hypothetical document. No intact copy has ever been found. No reference to the document in early Christian writings has survived. Its existence is inferred from an analysis of the text of Matthew and Luke.

James Robinson helped infer it. Robinson was part of the famous Jesus Seminar that began dialogue in the 1980s. He is also one of the main popularizers of the Gospel of Q. He says,

The Sayings Gospel Q is even older than the Gospels in the New Testament. In fact, it is the oldest Gospel known! Yet it is not in the New Testament itself — rather, it was known to, and used by, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the eighties and nineties of the first century when they composed their Gospels. But then it was lost from sight and only rediscovered in 1838, embedded in Matthew and Luke.

After all, Q is a product of the Jewish Jesus movement that continued to proclaim his message in Galilee and Syria for years to come, but from which practically no first-century texts have survived. The New Testament is mainly a Gentile collection, and hence only preserves the sources of Gentile churches.”

The “Gentile churches” got a reputation with a collection of mainly German scholars, not for following the Spirit of God, but for imposing a European, Greek and Roman gospel that eradicated the original Jewish, Syrian Jesus. You can see how this easily morphs into general QAnon thinking. The QAnon people are rebelling against the “new world order” imposed by some “Illuminati,” the same kind of people who buried the real Jesus!

Here’s a little more about the hidden “Q” source for Matthew and Luke. Scholars compared Matthew and Luke to Mark and saw when Matthew and Luke tell the story about Jesus, for the most part they both follow the order and often even the wording of Mark. But, into this common narrative outline, Matthew and Luke each insert extra sayings and teachings of Jesus. And although Matthew and Luke do not put these sayings in the same order, nevertheless they each repeat many of the same ones, sometimes word for word.

The scholars thought it unlikely that either Matthew or Luke could have copied from the other, so how can this sort of agreement be explained? The answer appeared to be that Matthew and Luke each had two sources in common: the Gospel of Mark and another gospel, now lost, a collection of sayings known only as Q. Q stands for “Quelle,” the German word for source. Although no actual copy of Q has ever been found, many scholars are convinced that such a document once circulated in early Christian communities. Here is an essay about it from The Atlantic: The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.

Should we think about Q or do anything about it?

I wrote this piece to try to give some context to what is brewing in the U.S.. You might run into QAnon and think the theories are facts! Rumors grow into conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories become division and wars.

Even more, I wrote to question what amounts to a rumor and then a conspiracy theory that the true, original Jesus has been lost with Q. You might come to think if we strip away the narrative of the Lord’s “supposed” death and resurrection and all the miracle stories, we would see the real Jesus in the wisdom sayings that are left. We would then have the purest Jesus, relieved of the burden of European domination, Greek philosophy and expectations of power.

To be honest, I agree with some of what the Jesus Seminar was trying to do as they searched for Jesus beyond the trappings of His Westernization, even if they were searching from a position of authority with their Western academic assumptions firmly in place and came to spurious conclusions. But I don’t think we need to throw out the “bathwater” of the Bible to find the “baby” Jesus again.

And while I can appreciate that Sean would love to have a Jesus who emerges from behind the veil of the domination system, I don’t think we need to embroil the Lord in the latest conspiracy theory, as if he can be reduced to a LARP. Sean does not think he is in a live action role play, but I’m pretty sure he would admit he has plenty of people jumping on the bandwagon who aren’t as serious as he is. Jesus has often been used as a pawn in some political struggle. We don’t need to collaborate with the latest.

I was drawn to Paul again in 2 Corinthians 10 as a place to ponder what Jesus would do:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

We must not wage war as the world does, not with its philosophies and not with its weapons. That seems sure. We must develop a deep, Spirit to spirit relationship with God, live in an authentic community in Christ where we can discern together, and trust that our meager attempts to understand the truth and tell it will be met with supernatural assistance.

Maybe most of all, I think Sean reminded me that Jesus listens to people, even on the internet, with compassion and openness, ready to honor their value and deepen their understanding. We are all wrestling with rumors. No rumor tells the truth about Circle of Hope and no link on this page tells the past, present or future story of whoever it is from or about. Paul is talking about saving eternal lives, not winning an argument.

Our open hearts and listening ears weaponize our love. Long after the present realignment in the world order is over, Jesus will still be fighting His battle the way he does, with suffering love and a hope that transcends whatever the rebels think they will achieve with their hashtag army. Until that day is done, we wage war, with Paul, with resurrection power, not mere words and certainly not based on our right to bear death-dealing arms. It is a confusing moment in our history, so expending the energy to live in truth will cost us. But as we enter Holy Week we can see again what kind of story we are writing with our expensive love.

Sisi, Bibi, Barr, and Obama: Deliver us from our distress

My loved ones and I were spontaneously constructing our own Psalm 107 as the news forced its way into our consciousness today. I know many of you are tuned out; the daily process of deception and destruction is hard to watch. So you might be distressed I am bothering you with “political stuff.” But I have to remind you, the 1% and their minions in government have taken the power in their hands and we are slowly being bled of our money and morals in the U.S..

Yet we persist. We are a circle of hope and we did not expect the government or the wealthy to save us – at least those of us who have been reading the Bible.

So we moved with Psalm 107’s refrain today in our litany of despair and frustration. We thought of each other and took heart as we joined in:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

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Click for Al Jazeera

Sisi

My friend Jonny was up in arms. According to a report released by Egypt’s presidency, the meeting today with President Sisi was Trump’s sixth since 2016, reportedly more than any other leader.  “Human rights groups have accused the Egyptian regime of carrying out widespread and systematic torture of political prisoners, silencing dissidents and using death sentences to settle scores. Sisi’s government has vehemently denied the allegations.” [CNN]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Bibi

My wife and I sat down at dinner after watching Israeli elections returns for five minutes and said, “I’m not sure we are doing enough for those dear Palestinians we met when our delegation visited.” Trump advocates a permanent annexation of the Golan Heights, moves the embassy to Jerusalem, and essentially meddles in the Israeli election by campaigning for Netanyahu. Bibi essentially calls for a one state, Jewish nation which Haaretz calls apartheid in the making. Even the Wall Street Journal sees problems [WSJ].

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Barr

Meanwhile, Attorney  General Barr went to Congress and would not answer some fairly straightforward question. People ranted. [Rantt]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Obama blamed again

As part of his Sisi press conference, Trump again blamed Obama for inventing the policy of separating children at the border and putting them in cages, while he righteously stopped the policy.

Maybe you think NPR is a fake news outlet. But here is what they immediately said about Trump’s remarks:

“Trump’s false claim that child separations were carried out by the Obama administration has been frequently refuted.

‘The Obama administration did not do that, no. We did not separate children from their parents,’ former Obama domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz told NPR in May 2018. ‘This is a new decision, a policy decision put in place by the attorney general,’ which Muñoz said ‘puts us in league with the most brutal regimes in the world’s history.’

It was then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions who instituted the ‘zero tolerance’ policy at the Southern border in April 2018, which resulted in children being separated from their parents who were taken into custody for criminal prosecution.”

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

I sat at dinner and lamented how I had seen a collection of mind-boggling leaders in my day. Maybe I have been one at times, myself. I was tempted to despair, especially since I know so many young people in the grip of the insanity (and I paid a lot more taxes on less income due to Paul Ryan’s tax give way “reform”).

But then I looked over at my dear wife, noticed the good food on my table in my nice house, recalled the wonderful note Howard put on our Coordinating Group’s check-in this morning, remembered how lovely it was to be with Rachel earlier in the day, admired the courage of one of my clients, enjoyed the unexpected public love from one of my friends – the wonders piled up as I gave thanks for Gwen’s signature brussel sprouts.

I can say with confidence:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

Be at rest. God is with us, and with the world through us. Miracles are happening every day.

Insiders and Outsiders: Knitting them together in love

Insiders and Outsiders — Juliusz Lewandowski

The Seminarian’s Cohort held an interesting exploration last month on a perennial subject in the church: “outsiders” and “insiders.” Sometimes the boundaries of the church are too thick and our area too constricted. Sometimes the the boundaries are too porous and undefined. So the subject of who’s inside and who is not is always interesting to those who want to be in and are bumping into the barriers to entry they perceive. And it is always interesting to people who are in and feeling threatened by newness or the loss of what they hold dear. The subject was also interesting to the Bible writers who were also forming community around the revelation of God — an enterprise that always implies that some people are moving in a common direction with God and others are not.

Here is a paraphrase of a key section of 2 Corinthians which has been used by defenders of holiness to explain their sense of the church being a new Israel on the way to the promised land and needing to be pure from outside influences. It tells us that insiders should be separate from outsiders and entry into the church means a deep commitment to becoming and staying separate.

The big temptation for God’s people has always been idol worship, being deceived, and thinking dark is light and lawlessness is righteousness. In Jesus, God has fulfilled an ancient promise to walk among His people, once in Jesus and now in His Spirit. We are the temple of God. That makes us innately holy and we dare not forget that. We need to separate ourselves from unholiness. Our goal should be to perfect holiness out of reverence for God. — 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Here is a paraphrase of a key section just before the previous one in 2 Corinthians which has been used by people who think the Body of Christ is intrinsically porous and has, as its main cause, including people from all the nations. It tells us that insiders remain on the earth for outsiders, persistently invade their territory, and urge them to enter into faith.

The love of Christ urges us on beyond our boundaries. We have a resurrection viewpoint we did not have before. So we see everyone as a new creation to be realized in the love of Christ. This is the basis of our new life: in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The call to insiders and outsiders to accept one another

The dividing lines in the church (and in our culture, by and large) follow the contrasting principles derived from these verses. On the one hand there are ethics based on taboo, shame, security, tribe and tradition. See this article of the religion of Trumpism from last week.  On the other hand, the dominant ethic is “do no harm,” based on freedom, democracy, individualism, self-reliance, and progress.

Paul, while solidly one end of the spectrum, personally, worked throughout his whole ministry to keep insider-oriented people and outward-focused people in the love of Christ. In Romans 14 and many other places, we see him trying to knit the two perspectives together. Here is another paraphrase:

Accept those whose faith depends on strong boundaries, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. When it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, some believe in eating anything, others won’t eat idol-tainted meat or any meat. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has accepted them. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Those who find it hard to stand will be made strong in the age to come. And those who think they stand tall may find that their certainty was misplaced when they meet the judge. — Romans 14:1-12

My Christianity was inspired by radicals who were committed to fleeing the death of the world’s ways and perfecting holiness, namely Francis of Assisi and John Wesley (as well as all those people in the Jesus Movement). Unlike other monks and missionaries. my mentors were interested in getting their holiness into the lives of others, not cloistering it away for themselves. Very early on, I felt an aversion to “reactive separatists.” Gwen and I summed up what we thought the Bible meant with the term “invasive separatism.” Our term is simple. It means we know who we are and we intend to live in a community that understands what God has made them. It also means from that place we shine whatever life we have and give whatever gifts we’ve been given.

When I first watched the TV series A.D. Kingdom and Empire I was excited to see the writers displaying great understanding about the subject of insiders and outsiders. As the series shows, the Jews who became Christians had spent a lifetime perfecting holiness. Then the  Holy Spirit demanded all sorts of change and acceptance. The way the script portrays the Apostle Paul is especially good at showing this perennial challenge. The fanatical Jew becomes a fanatical Jesus follower. The more conservative and communal original disciples have to decide whether they can accept their former persecutor into the fold on the basis of his unusual experience with Jesus. Even more, Gentiles and Roman persecutors receive the Holy Spirit and receiving them an insiders seems taboo enough to make a person queasy.  In the following clip, the ultimate symbol of an outsider, the Roman centurion Cornelius, is sent as a messenger to Peter who is compelled to accept him.

That’s us on TV!

Circle of Hope, although certainly turned toward “outsiders” has a lot of dialogue like those shown in the TV series. Social action people protect our morality against the powers that be and fight people who won’t do justice as they see it. Circle of Hope purists are suspicious of and resistant to change or just blithely set in their ways. Immigrants who are banging on the walls of the nation do not always find a place in the church, easily. The oldest rituals are maintained, like Sunday meetings at 5 and 7; just last week the pastors  had to argue that other meetings are also “public meetings.” Radical Christians sometimes shake the dust off their feet because they are tired of our uninspired compromises.

The Cohort soon realized that we had a subject that was much larger than we anticipated. Most of the time we don’t have much consciousness about people who are not “us” even if we just made the most recent rendition of “us” last week! When we got to thinking together, we had some important revelations to collect. Here is a sampling:

  • The call to the church to be separate is central to inclusivity. If there is no substance, just diffusion, there is no “in” in inclusion. If we pay attention to being inclusive too much we can undo what we are actually talking about. We want to welcome people into our life together with Jesus. If we protect people from the pain of change, thinking that is kinder than helping them over the boundary, we can leave them alone, “free” to be unconnected.
  • True alternativity requires self-awareness about the inevitable exclusion someone will feel. Unlike the present philosophy running the world, we do not believe that individual identity is a starting point. Inclusion is not granting the justice of everyone’s personal godhood or even assuming the personhood they bring to body will find a place to rest. They’ll certainly find love and acceptance, but a relationship with Jesus and his people is all about transformation.
  • People need to choose. We can make that easier. There is a call from God to every person in our not belonging. That means when we realize we are out, that painful experience calls us into something else. We have to choose to be in. The question is, “Can you accept belonging?”
  • People are filled with shame and naturally feel issues about how to attach and how they are not accepted or acceptable. There is really no way to avoid excluding someone, since they have already been excluded, at some level, long before they get to the church. Our strong desire to not be responsible for excluding anyone or making them feel bad can be self-serving and unhelpful.
  • We may need to reteach our long-held assumptions stemming from the process of reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18. The process of inclusion includes carefrontation. So much of what people fear is confrontation. Our world daily reinforces how depressing constant confrontation can be. Our resistance to adding to confrontation unwittingly leaves people out, since we won’t deal with their experience of being unreconciled because it might confront them and hurt them.
  • We noted that our document about atonement explanations is a characteristic, generous way we do theology that allows the several ways the Bible describes the work of Jesus to be OK. We encourage people to develop, and to assume the fluid nature of their faith. Some people may need a careful, boundaried period (like people in recovery, or people who have experienced trauma). Others may relish the ability to have different elements of themselves dialogue in safety about what are often mutually-exclusive thoughts. This kind of acceptance is reflected in the movement we note from Earth to Wind to Fire to Water along the Way of Jesus.

Fascinating subject, isn’t it? We just scratched the surface. Once again, daring to bring up subjects that are too big for us to handle helped us to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. At the same time, our dialogue demonstrated just how much confidence God has built into us — and we know stuff, too!

Undo triangulation in the church: Practice Matthew 18

Everyone in the church wants to be in a healthy church. And the promise of Jesus is His church will be full of healthy relationships filled with love – the kind of love He showed us on the cross and continues to give us through the Holy Spirit. We all want love.

But the church is filled with you and me, so we have to admit that we are on the way to love; we have not mastered it. We have to work at it. It is easy to look at the church and see places where our love is not all that might be expected from Jesus followers. What’s more, in a church like Circle of Hope, which is committed to embracing whoever wants our attention, we have all sorts of unbelievers, unfinished and downright wicked people who might be part of the mix at any given moment. So we contain lots of people who know very little about the Lord’s love. As a result, relationships in the church are not going to work out right all the time; we’ll have to keep making them. Otherwise, we might look like this church building:

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It would be better to look like Matthew 18:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. — Matthew 18:15-22

The passage is a little working doc for how to act out forgiveness and maintain reconciliation in the church. I want to highlight one part of it today: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” That teaching is a fundamental antidote to the disappointing lack of love in the church.

When I was at the Watermark Church meeting last Sunday, the speaker told us we should have a 24 hour rule – if you need to work something out with someone, don’t let it go for more than 24 hours and don’t spend those 24 hours talking to a bunch of people about your bad feelings. As the passage says, including others in the process comes after you have failed to work things out person to person, individually. Likewise, if you are hearing some gossip or ill will about someone, you should ask the person who feels hurt if they have talked to whoever has sinned against them or just offended them. Plus, you should remind them that you will not be keeping their gossip or slander secret.

That’s all great in typical situations. But let’s be clear. As one of my readers pointed out, there are people in relationships from which they need to be rescued. Where there is  violence or abusive domination, a person cannot be left on their own to take steps they cannot take. This post is not about that sin. I always err on the side of helping such a victim escape before we even consider getting into what this piece is talking about — perpetrators and victims have even lived in my house!  Even then, I know there is more discernment to receive about what God is doing and my power versus the perpetrator’s power is not how the world is saved. And, ultimately, the abused and the abuser stand before God, just like me, and any judgment I have about their situation is provisional.

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Triangulation

A 24-hour rule would be very useful to combat what social psychologists call “triangulation” in relationships. There are well-worked theories about this common experience, since it is one of the aspects of the workplace that undermines morale and creates a lack of safety. Triangles are even more dangerous in church, where relationships are often more intimate, or at least people think they should be.

The spiritual and emotional health of a church and its effectiveness in mission is directly dependent on how often triangulation occurs and whether or not it is tolerated by leaders. Triangulation names an experience with which we are all likely acquainted. It occurs when two people don’t speak directly to each other. Jesus tells us to let our “yes” be “yes” – to speak honestly and forthrightly – no subterfuge, no fear. When we are not following Jesus, two people may try to mediate their concerns through a third party. Cell Leaders and pastors are tempted to be that third party all the time. When triangulation is tolerated, it produces gossip, rumors, inefficient practices, factions, misunderstanding and victimization. It creates an unsafe culture and an ineffective process.

It is easy to imagine why Jesus had to teach his disciple crew about how to stay reconciled. The disciples undoubtedly had habits that did not produce open, honest, fearless love relationships, just like the rest of us. They probably experienced stereotypic situations just like Stephen Karpman pictured when he defined his famous “Drama Triangle” in the 1970’s. Karpman’s three roles are easy to spot in an unhealthy triangle:

Victim–Victims blame and fault others (or situations), but not themselves; they don’t typically take responsibility for their own lives. They show up as angry or pathetic, in response to perceived injustice. They send out a vibe that says, “Help me. Rescue me. Need me. Be with me. Love me.  Organize me,” to all rescuers within range. They may exaggerate the level of harm they’ve experienced to gain pity or sympathy from a rescuer. The victim’s guilt or blame is the fuel that keeps the drama-triangle cycle spinning like a flywheel.

Stereotyping does not help much, so remember that Matthew 18 is centered in prayer and is about discernment, not objectivity or judgment. A victim may also be the challenger every system needs. And helping someone who feels injured work out their issues is exactly our speciality. That doesn’t mean we let them lead the whole cell or congregation before they have some consciousness about their process.

Persecutor–In order for there to be a victim, there must be a persecutor. The persecutor can be a person, circumstance, event, or thing. Persecutors become the target of the victims’ need to blame something outside themselves for their problems.

Again, this is a label to help define a common situation. There may be actual oppression going on, not just projection of inner turmoil by a “victim.”  Conversely, “persecutors” often feel like they are victims of an accuser’s ire or criticism. They are tempted not to listen, as Matthew 18 prescribes, because they feel some injustice and use their privilege or power to silence the victim.

Rescuer–The rescuer thinks of themselves as the hero of the drama-triangle story. Rescuers see it as their role to help the helpless, and feel their motivation is pure. Quite often these people are extremely helpful in difficulty. They are friends. But often  they are tempted to swallow the sin happening between people like they are Jesus protecting the church from a grenade. They often don’t view victims as capable, so they act in their stead, often without realizing the full consequences of intervening.  Sometimes they rush to protect others’ vulnerabilities because they’re reluctant to face their own.

We are definitely called to rescue the perishing. We are definitely wrapped up in what others are doing in the body of Christ, of which we are all an intrinsic part. There should be no implication that we shouldn’t get involved. It is how we get involved that makes a difference.

How the Drama Triangle Works

Here’s how the system of triangulation starts: a victim approaches a rescuer with information about what a persecutor has done. The rescuer might be their friend, their mate, and in the church it would not be surprising if they looked for a person in power to rescue them, like a cell leader, team leader, or pastor.

If the rescuer is a pastor, their compassion and sense of justice may be stirred. So they may try to use their  power to protect the victim. They may take the problem to a meeting. They may have a one-on-one with the persecutor to confront them or try to elicit a confession. They may try to sabotage or exact revenge on the persecutor, who by this time may be getting “tried” by semi-public opinion. A lot of time can be eaten up in this kind of drama.

A rescuer often enjoys the rush of being important in the middle of it all. They feel like they are building community and healing sinners. That might be true. But it may also be true that their need to be useful, or valued is what they are really all about. They may relish the power or precedence that rescuing affords them. They may just enjoy hearing and even spreading rumors or being in on secrets. Or they may like presiding as a judges effecting justice while appearing holy and above the fray.

Is it any surprise that triangulation can bring organizations and their productivity to a standstill?

3 Ways for Leaders to Reduce Triangulation

Make Matthew 18 the way the church functions. The leaders need to make it plain that we follow Jesus, not the difficult and often unconscious ways we relate. Violaters will not be prosecuted, unless they are committed to sin. But they will hear a lot about Matthew 18!

Help victims participate in reconciliation. Whenever a  victim approaches you, start by asking if they have already spoken to the persecutor. If not, instruct the victim to do so and report back on the conversation. Reporting back is important because otherwise the conversation between victim and perpetrator likely won’t happen. If the victim persists in trying to get you involved, and they might be persistent or even manipulative, here is what you might say:

  • I value our relationship and the one I have with who you are talking about. I do not think it is right for me to be in the middle, so please stop now.
  • What you’re sharing with me has little or nothing to do with me, and I feel uncomfortable. Please take this where it belongs.
  • This type of conversation is unproductive, and I would like you to take the Matthew 18 way to handle it.

Offer to facilitate some mediation. If the victim feels uncomfortable having the conversation directly with the persecutor, you could, on rare occasions, offer to sit in on the meeting to help support better communication in the future. When you attend this meeting, be sure to act as a facilitator, not a rescuer. If you pass judgment or take sides, the other two parties won’t be as inclined to own and resolve their issues. The drama triangle will continue or a new one will emerge.

4 suggestions for “step two”

People do not know how to reconcile and live in peace, that is evident. So it should not surprise us if we get involved in the second step of the Lord’s process. A “rescuer” is often one of the “first responders” when there are relational problems in the church. So they may be called in to make the process work. There are many things to learn about making and keeping peace, so I would never presume to sum it up in a blog post! But here are a few things that might help a conversation about conflict end up in community.

Name the conflict. If you’re facilitating a meeting between members of a drama triangle, ask each party to name the conflict. You could even write it down so they can both face it rather than just face each other. This might create enough detachment to get away from personal criticism. However, this is a mature way to talk and some people might be incapable of it. Be patient but frank.

Help the parties listen with curiosity. It is hard to be curious and angry at the same time. Help the victim first, then the persecutor develop an interpretation of the presenting event from the others’ perspective. What were they thinking? What did they feel? What would you have done in the same circumstance? The victim’s and persecutor’s curiosity might defuse their anger long enough to see the conflict from another perspective. They can then direct their curiosity toward how to resolve the conflict.

Ask for a commitment. Victims and persecutors get some sense of power from criticism, even though that criticism can cause cancer in the body of Christ. There is a positive way to see it, however. Criticism could be seen as a commitment put in negative terms. Rather than “You are a liar” try “I value the truth.” Some people say that if we want to know what we really care about, check out what we criticize and convert it to a commitment. When we are listening to someone else rant, tell them to what value it sounds like they are committed. That might reduce the toxins in the atmosphere.

Insist on requests. If an injured party can’t own what they think and feel and ask for what they want, anything they say probably makes the relationship worse.

Staying out is better than getting out of the Triangle

It will always be tempting to play the part of victim, persecutor, and rescuer in the next relationship drama. We may get triangled at times. We’ll live. Jesus has provided a way out and he will be with us all along the way. The Lord is deeply invested in his love casting out fear and creating the alternative community for which he gave his life and in which he lives.

Leaders, in particular need to help everyone stay out of triangles by encouraging direct address and refusing to play any of these roles, as tempting as they may be. Any of us may be asked to play the role of rescuer every day! It may feed our frayed egos to say yes. But every day we remember not to play we help save the church from the divisiveness that ruins the wonderful heart of love everyone wants and needs. Reducing triangulation leads to an increase in accountability and an increase in the healthy responsibility people need to develop for their own behavior, thoughts and feelings as well as their responsibility to nurture the love in Jesus in the church.

Thanks to CO2 for the business angle and general outline for this post.

Exploring DBT skills with Jesus: Ever thought you’re an idiot? Read this

At the CAPS International Conference, Marcus Rodriguez treated our workshop to an entertaining, enlightening and encouraging gallop through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, focusing on “radical acceptance” – one of the many skills DBT uses. This therapy is under the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) umbrella. It was originally created to help with borderline personality disorder. Now it is used to help with a variety of other conditions. It is a very organized way to teach people to change when their behavior is damaging relationships and even threatening to destroy them.

DBT teaches clients four sets of behavioral skills under the headings: mindfulness; distress tolerance; interpersonal effectiveness; and emotion regulation. But, whether we are ill or not, as Marcus demonstrated, we can all benefit from adapting and incorporating the skills into our lives.

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Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not

For some people, applying DBT skills might seem sketchy, since many of the skills are straight from the Buddhist playbook. You might know that I’ve suggested elsewhere how Christians can be friends with Buddhists. But appreciating the strengths of Buddhist or DBT philosophy doesn’t mean we overlook the core elements that could undermine our faith in the name of reducing our suffering. There isn’t much in any psychotherapy models which a Jesus follower wouldn’t need to adapt.

DBT represents some of the real differences between Jesus and Buddha. The Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine).” The Christ said, “Follow me.” The Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” The Christ said, “I am the light of the world.” Yet contrary to the original intentions of both, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.

Peter Kreeft sums up the differences nicely. He says, “On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible. For where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. He wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Buddha “solves” the problem of pain by practicing spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the ego, self, soul or I-image of God in humanity.” No Christians using DBT think they are doing this, I suspect. But the modality comes from that playbook.

It is easy to say that many Christians are better Buddhists than they are Jesus followers, since they practice law-keeping designed to squash their desires before they result in sin, often at the cost of their soul. They kill their souls in order to not face the shame of needing new life. It would be better if they followed the Buddha’s example and sat under a tree until they were enlightened – that is, enlightened in the way Paul hopes: that

“the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18).

In that same hope, I offer three DBT skills that everyone could practice that will increase our capacity to gain a spirit of wisdom instead of rolling around in our unquestioned behaviors that lead to sin and ruptured relationships.

Mindfulness

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. – Philippians 4:8

“Mindfulness” has a lot of definitions. For Marcus, it begins with stepping back from your normal thinking pattern and noting how you are enacting the pattern. That’s also known as mentalizing. Other teachers say mindfulness means living one’s life more in the present moment, instead of allowing oneself to be hijacked by the past and the future.

Marcus instructed us to bring to mind a situation about which we felt deeply, but which was not changing and not likely to change because of something we could do to change it. We closed our eyes, or stared at a focal point, breathed in and then breathed out the sentence we had constructed to describe the situation. We were told to simply note the fact when our minds wandered, thank ourselves for noticing, and return to our practice.

Our teacher was helping us to get a feel for how we could step back and look at automatic behaviors we need to change using this crucial DBT skill. For instance, if you’re entangled in your thoughts, you might think/feel: “Susan is really nice. She’s such a great person. I wish I were more like her. I should ask her if she wants to go for coffee sometime. I’d like to get to know her better.” Being mindful, you get some space to reduce the extraneous thoughts and observe, “There’s a thought that Susan is such a nice person.”

We would all like to pause, check in, identify our emotions and consciously make healthy decisions. Try it. It might surprise you just how little you are thinking and feeling about what you are actually thinking and feeling. This mindfulness is a lot like what Paul is suggesting to the Philippians, isn’t it?

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Reality Acceptance

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. – Romans 15:5-7

This skill focuses on accepting our daily experiences and working to accept the more painful events that have happened. Marcus had many colorful examples about how fighting reality only heightens our suffering, like, “Beating up your pillow all night does nothing but make the bed sweaty.” He had a ready excuse to practice this skill during our workshop, since he needed a projector and was not provided one. That reality frustrated and embarrassed him. He said, “Instead of telling myself, ‘My life sucks’ I have to remind myself ‘It is what it is. I will get through it. Breathe.’”

This spirit of acceptance is what Paul recommends to the Romans as they face the divisions in their church. But it also applies to accepting the divisions we feel in ourselves. DBT requires a hard won discipline of living in whatever is materially real in the moment, free from desires and guilt. For Jesus followers, a grateful acceptance of being accepted by Jesus is required, but the results are similar, I think. Our faith is constantly accepting that God is with us in Jesus, and accepting that controlling our desire to control cannot really save us — although it is great cooperation with the One who can!

Nonjudgmental Stance

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

Marcus was concerned that we learn the difference between a judgment and a fact. Negative judgments tend to boost our emotional pain. So when we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, we should pay attention to what judgment we are making or we will just make things worse. “I hate Philadelphia because it rains so much” is different from “I had hoped it would not rain today.”  “My partner is an idiot,” is different from: “I worked another long day and when I got home my partner asked me what I was making for dinner. I am angry about this and disappointed he’s not making an effort to help.”

Being less judgmental doesn’t eliminate our pain, but it might take it from an 8 to a 5. If we practice the “radical acceptance” Marcus was teaching us, we might move the needle from 5 to 3. Radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what happened, or approving, excusing, absolving, allowing, resigning, or wallowing in suffering. Radical acceptance simply means we acknowledge the facts of our lives without judgment. We often fight reality instead, which only intensifies our emotional reaction. We might fight reality by judging a situation, saying “It should or shouldn’t be this way,” or “That’s not fair!” or “Why me?!” Fighting reality only creates suffering. DBT people say, “Pain is inevitable in life; suffering is optional.”

The idea we can choose our way out of suffering is where we see how much Buddhism impacts DBT. It leans toward shutting down the desires and leading us to find a place of nothingness where “should” or “want” is irrelevant. For disordered people, this ability is priceless — and most of us could use a dose.

But we do not need to adopt the core premise of Buddhism to make us of skills that help us pay attention to our reactions so we can manage to make the choices we prefer. I think all the Bible verses I quoted are teaching variations on that theme, among other things. We have to learn new skills to be new people in Christ. The big difference, as Kreeft pointed out, is always about how we see where we started, where God is in the process, and whether we actually think the joy and suffering we are experiencing only have the meaning we assign them in the moment, no meaning at all, or are doorways to eternity.

Jesus and Me at the Climate Strike Protest

The Youth Climate Strike happened last Thursday. Many Philly high school students walked out of class to make a point. I was with them at noon at the new Love Park. Others came later, after school, to be part of a global day of action coordinated by teens to get adults to combat climate change. Here are Politico’s pictures from around the world.

The movement was sparked by 16-year- old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, whose nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (!) was recently leaked. @GretaThunberg tweeted “Tomorrow we school strike for the climate in 1769 places in 112 countries around the world. And counting.”  Here is  her Wikipedia page — rest assured, my friend, you still exist if you do not have one yet.

The high school people made it work

Image result for Sabirah MahmudSabirah Mahmud is a lead organizer for Philadelphia Youth Climate Strike. She experienced the effects of climate change first hand when she visited the relatives in Bangladesh and got caught in a flood.

We had our own Gretas and a few Garths leading Philly’s strike. Sixteen-year-old Sabirah Mahmud was the lead organizer of the local demonstration. She’s a sophomore at Academy at Palumbo High school  (along with Zach Sensenig).

Mahmud says she wants to go to medical school and travel the world, but last October’s United Nations report on climate change makes her wonder if she’ll ever get the chance. Catastrophic floods and fires could become commonplace in 12 years, among other terrible things, according to the report — that was the mantra at the protest: TWELVE YEARS! The teens can’t wait and the planet can’t wait until today’s students are old enough to vote, let alone run for Congress. The world needs to take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution by 2030 NOW!

It is commonly thought by 2040, the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in 2012. Coal demand is expected to grow 0.6 percent every year between now and then. Last year was especially bad for carbon pollution: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million (for the first time in millions of years). Meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them (according to Foreign Policy).

The speakers said they’d heard from older people in power that radical plans like the Green New Deal would wreck the economy. (Here Vox explains the GND). The younger people countered, often fairly hysterically, “If you’re not planning for a future with climate change, what future are you even planning for?” As we were meeting, they got everyone to text government officials to demand their action and support for radical change. They also called on the City to turn down plans to expand a Philadelphia Gas Works plant in South Philadelphia to produce liquified natural gas.

In Wellington New Zealand, one student’s handmade sign read, “Climate change is worse than Voldemort.” In Sydney, Australia, a banner read, “The oceans are rising, so are we.” (according to Euronews).

I appreciated the comb over jab in the hand-made sign.

More and more people are being mobilized.

During our go around at the Good Business Oversight Team meeting last Thursday morning, Greg said his favorite compassion team was the Watershed Discipleship Team, who have a rather large vision they are whittling down to some actionable goals for saving our ecosystem.

They are not alone. The Sunrise Movement was represented at our protest. They are the same people who orchestrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ appearance during their occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office. I must say, as a person who has always loved high school students, I am thrilled to be led by them in this effort. This is one old person they are not up against.

But they are certainly up against some OLD people! The Sunrise Movement also filmed their meeting with Dianne Feinstein, 85, who has been a Senator since I was 38 (she is worth about $94 million dollars BTW). Her dismissive response to young, but assertive, Magdalena went viral and hundreds of thousands of people have watched it. She responded to the passion of her visitors by debating the specifics of the resolution they were pushing and showing contempt for their audacity in thinking they had something to offer her wizened self. Twenty-nine-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal resolution met with the same reception from old people in the House, only it was from Steny Hoyer (79) and Nancy Pelosi (78).

These officials are just too old to be leading during this perilous time and they just won’t stop — Trump (72) may face off with Biden (76) or Sanders (77)! The kids are afraid these old people are going to move as slow as old people do, doing what they’ve always done, fighting their old battles while Philadelphia neighborhoods are flooded and poor people keep getting asthma from unchecked pollution. In the coming 2020 elections 21 of 33 Senators up for a vote will be 65 or older. Euronews quoted a 15-year-old who was striking saying, “If we don’t do something, it’ll be our lives affected, not the 60-year-old politicians! We need action.”

XR Philly with their easily- understood message.

Some people are springing into action. I ran into Daoud Steele, who has been part of South Broad meetings in the past. He wondered if we might rent space at 1125 S. Broad for meetings of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Last November that group came to prominence when it organized the largest civil disobedience protest seen in the UK for decades, which culminated in the occupation and closure of five bridges in central London. Since then it has grown rapidly and XR branches have sprung up in more than 35 countries.

Deep Green Resistance [DGR] is an even more aggressive organization. It is largely based on the book of the same name by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen (2011). Their principles start where the environmental movement leaves off, claiming that industrial civilization is incompatible with life. Technology can’t fix it, and shopping—no matter how green—won’t stop it. To save this planet, we need a serious resistance movement that can bring down the industrial economy.

What did you think, Jesus?

I think Jesus was into the climate strike.  I’ve written about what I think God thinks and feels about the desecration of the planet before: The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation.

I doubt the Lord was that thrilled with all the anger, threats and lust for power shouted into the mic. Conversely, I suspect he was sad over how many teenagers could come to an event dedicated to saving their lives and stand in little groups chatting and ignoring the whole thing. But he has never let normal human reactions keep him down or make him hopeless.

I think Jesus was happy to see young people doing what young people should do. He was pretty young, himself, when he was instructing his elders in Judaism, undermining the authority of the temple, and turning the other cheek to Rome — which has confounded the powerful and heartened the meek ever since.

I think he was delighted to have people in the United States waking up and doing something. The U.S. is the second largest CO2 polluter in the World, and the first per capita. Daoud and I wondered if the country were entering a cancer-like process in which we were now accepting we had the disease and could have a public grief process and maybe be healed.  Meanwhile, the president tweeted on January 28

“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? [sic] Please come back fast, we need you!” (Here is the Daily Show response).

So there are obstacles.  One sign said, “You can’t comb over climate change.” Yet people in power are certainly trying to do so — as in Andrew Wheeler of the EPA. But hope matters. That’s why we stick together as a Circle of Hope.

That brings up the final thing Jesus probably liked about the climate strike: the kids circled up. They threw off being autonomous, DIY, self-reliant/lonely people in front of their screens, got out into the air on a great, spring-like day, and tried to love each other, love the planet and have a common purpose. They had a lot of the trappings of the church! They just needed a Savior who wasn’t their cause or themselves. But that will come.

Patrick on the Hill of Tara: And hidden under the Guinness in my neighborhood

I was wandering back from Center City this afternoon and walked into the surprising green horde descending on various bars and frats from the colleges in University City for St. Patrick’s Day Eve. One young woman shouted drunkenly into her phone as I passed, “Why did you call at 4? Everything started at noon!” As I told my Instagram crew, I began to feel a bit naïve when I saw a sign on the door near 30th St. that said this bar was a stop for the “Erin Express.” Then I got to Drexel and saw the bus! (below) That was right after I began noticing what the green T-shirts said. One young woman’s was “Let’s get fucked up!” One young man’s was “Shake your shamrocks.”

So I had to put at least a tiny antidote into the sea of Irish nationalism and Patrick desecration in my neighborhood. I offer you a version of a message I delivered after my wonderful pilgrimage to Ireland and beyond over ten years ago now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Light a fire!

Patrick on the Hill of Tara                                                             

When we were in Dublin that summer, we took a very interesting history walk, lead by a young college woman studying history at the famous Trinity College. We learned, among other things that “Dub-lin” means “black-pool” in some Viking language, the Vikings being among the many people who have oppressed the Irish, not to diminish the oppression of the British, which our guide made sure we heard about. Being oppressed was the story the guide had to tell over and over, and she seemed to have sort of a chip on her shoulder about it.

She also seemed to have a special interest in educating the Americans in her group, since there are more Irish people in the U.S. than in Ireland, but nobody seems to know anything about them. Elementary school children are filled with nonsense about the Irish: they find leprechauns, they chase pots of gold, they find three-leaf clovers, they are superstitious, they dance jigs and they tell tall tales (well, that last one is probably true). The advanced kids know that they often march in parades around March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day you have to wear green or you might get pinched. The first St. Patrick’s Day parades weren’t in Ireland, they were in the U.S. to demonstrate Irish political power. The first one in Philly was in 1771.

My guide did not take kindly to the fact that Irish people are more known for drinking Guinness and eating Lucky Charms cereal than for James Joyce or even the real St. Patrick. She sneered at Americans, well known for living off the candy of sound bites and sixty second ads rather than chewing on the complexity of a long narrative.

So that means my subject might be a little challenging if you are an American. It is a long narrative. It is much easier to pile into Fado or Plough and the Stars and have a drinking party on St. Patrick’s Day than to understand the 4th century believer called Patrick. More fundamental to my purpose, it is easier to have a thin veneer of Christianity, a little fragrance of faith — a spritz, than to follow Jesus like Patrick.

What I have to say concerns the story of Jesus getting to the Irish people and changing the course of their history. It is a great story. But the reason I want to tell parts of it is that it has a lot to say about how the history of each of us and how our present day can and should change, as well.

Like my Dublin guide seemed disappointed in her patrons, I think quite a few of us feel a little disappointed when we give people a tour of our faith. We think people have the wrong impression of us Christians, like my guide thought people misunderstood the Irish. We feel kind of oppressed by how people think and how they don’t care to understand us or Jesus. If you sometimes feel like you are surrounded by resistant oppressors, then Patrick’s story may give you some encouragement and instruction. He kind of came from nowhere, was something of a nobody, but he faced up to the powers of his day and he made a big difference.

Patrick is the slave who came back to convert his masters

One of the most phenomenal things about Patrick that most elementary school students are not taught is that he was a slave who came back to convert his masters.

Patrick was born on the west coast of what is now Scotland or Wales. He was probably the son of an old Roman-connected aristocratic family who were nominally Christian. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to serve one of the many kings controlling sections of Ireland, probably in the north around what is now County Mayo.  Patrick worked as a herdsman for six years.

Fortunately, we have a couple of things Patrick wrote; and he writes that his faith grew in captivity. He began to pray the prayers he had learned as a child many times a day. One day he had a vision and heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home. Later on he heard that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship. The ship apparently went to France, first, where Patrick studied to be a pastor. After various adventures, he returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.

Patrick recounts that he had another vision many years after returning home:

“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

He decided to go back to Ireland and give his life to bring Jesus to his former masters. This is an important thing to note: the revelation of Jesus comes with Patrick from out of nowhere; it comes from the slaves. This might encourage people like us who sometimes feel like the opposition to Jesus is strong and our message has no power. I think Patrick should be especially encouraging to people who work in the cubicles, and feel enslaved to the bosses. Your hiddenness is OK.  If there is any fire where the powers that be don’t expect it to be, it will be noticed, eventually.

By the time Patrick died, thousands of people had been baptized and Ireland was on its way to being a predominantly Christian place. Even today it is among the most faith-driven places in Europe, which has, by-and-large, gone post-Christian.

Patrick-like people can’t stay hidden under a sea of Guinness

We have to appreciate the hiddenness of the truth about Jesus. Jesus himself only expected people to hear who had ears to hear. He did not work hard to get world fame or more hits on his website.  God came as a baby to a poor family. John says that Jesus was not even recognized by his own countrymen who were looking for the Messiah! Patrick went back to Ireland with this same sense of humility. He seemed to think, “The message is hidden in the creation and I will reveal it. But at the same time, I am also a creature, so it may be hidden in me.” Paul writes about it this way:

 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

     “No eye has seen,
       no ear has heard,
     no mind has conceived
       what God has prepared for those who love him”—

but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

Patrick had spent his formative years out on a hill in Ireland. When he walked back in to the village to tell people about Jesus, he didn’t come in a motorcade. He probably had leaves in his hair from sleeping out in the woods and may have looked like some kind of Ent. Like other Celts, he had a strong sense of God’s presence in creation — he met God there and relied on God there. The Druid religion had an ancient history, drawing on the study that built Stonehenge and manipulated spirits. Rather than bringing something no one had ever considered before, Patrick brought a definition that people needed for what God is doing in the world. The wisdom was hidden and he was telling people where it is.

In our era, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s, the rulers of the age are seeking truth in striking ways – in particle colliders and in market regulation. But, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s age, they continue to crucify the Lord of glory. It is given to us to tell the story of Jesus and demonstrate his presence with us.

Fire on present-day Slane

Patrick-like people build a fire

Gwen and I were on our pilgrimage and following a path that would take us to the holy sites associated with some of the notable figures of Celtic Christianity. The first big stop was the Hill of Tara.  Just to be honest, this was our first big day of traveling around in a car, keeping to the LEFT, and my driving about put Gwen over the edge. By the time we got back to Dublin and were eating Indian food, I thought she might take the skewer from her kabob and  kill me. But it is all part of the journey.

I’d always wanted to stand on Tara and look across to Slane. Both Tara and Slane were central sites of the Druid cult. A year after Patrick arrived, the high king, King Laoghaire  (leheera), was holding the annual assembly on Tara. Patrick wanted to convert the king, at best, but at least he wanted permission to travel and to do his missionary work among the kingdoms. He wasn’t getting a hearing so he decided to participate in the assembly. The king’s magicians had warned King Laoghaire  that he needed to do something about Patrick or his message would overturn the established order. They were right. The king didn’t do anything and the order began to be overturned on Easter in  the year 433.

Once a year all the nobility and shamans came to Tara to light the fire. The idea was that everyone else was supposed to douse their home fire and it would be relit from this one, central fire. It so happened that this ritual coincided with the Easter that year. On Holy Saturday, Patrick lit his own fire on Slane, across the valley from Tara but in plain site. The point was clear. The true light that enlightens everyone had come into the world of Erin.

King Laoghire was incensed. He sent some men to bring him Patrick dead or alive. Patrick was already headed toward the king. When the king’s men got to the spot where Patrick was, however, all they saw were a few deer. Or, as Paul might say, their unbelief had blinded them. The story goes on to tell of a miracle-working power encounter between Patrick and the court magicians which eventually got Patrick permission to work out his mission.

It is a great story and a great deal of it is probably even factual. But the truth of the story is a little deeper than the facts, which is true of the Bible and true of the whole story of the spread of faith in Jesus. Patrick’s audacity did not just come from his courage. It came from a sense that it is inevitable that Jesus will be seen. He is hidden, not absent. The fire on Slane just made the obvious more obvious.

Likewise, the story of Patrick and his band being disguised from their killers as deer, is another example of being hidden. You might not see them, or they might even be hidden from you, but that does not mean you won’t be meeting up with their faith in your own backyard. The Celtic church Patrick founded believed that creation bore the imprint of God so deeply that all you had to do was scratch the surface and you would find Jesus. Like God came to earth in Jesus, the earth reached out to welcome him; creation and the Creator were made for each other. So taking back Tara for Jesus was less a shift in political power and more an unleashing of nature to retake what had been corrupted.

Patrick’s Jesus is still hidden today

On the hill of Tara today is a relatively recent church building. The building is no longer used as a church, since the whole site has become a secularized national park. There is a statue of Patrick, of course, but there is also something else going on that surprised us.

Gwen and I decided to pay two euros from my sabbatical grant (God bless the Lily Foundation!) to take in the program in the church. It is our habit to go into church buildings and soak in the quiet and pray, whenever we come across an open one.  So we went into this little building and had the place mostly to ourselves. We were there near the end of the day, since we got lost getting there, of course. A busload of Japanese tourists had just left. So we were soaking up some quiet in a very beautiful interior when the guide came in to say the presentation was about to begin.

We had the strangest experience! We had not noticed that they had installed blackout shutters to roll down over the stained glass. They flipped a switch and the room came to life, mechanically, until we had been plunged into the dark. A video presentation began about the ancient burial and ritual mound of Tara. The church had been de-churched, the hill had been un-Patricked and the government was sponsoring a recovery of Gaelic history by speculating on how the mysterious burial mound had been used. There was no mention of Christians at all, even though they had sanctified the mound for 1700 years.

The blinds came down and we Jesus-followers were re-hidden! If you go across the valley to the hill of Slane, where Patrick lit his fire, there is an even bigger tourist site devoted that much larger mound. I felt oppressed. I had just been communing with Jesus, remembering the work of Patrick, when the church was taken over by pagans celebrating human sacrifice and sun worship on the hill of Tara

I kind of felt sorry for Patrick, still on the hill, but surrounded by people replanting ignorance where he had shed light. What’s more, the M3 motorway is about to plow through he Tara valley so when you look at Slane you’ll see a freeway.

I felt sorry for us, too, since we are increasingly surrounded by people committed to putting Jesus in a museum along with all the other belief systems they are sampling. We’re also surrounded by the freeways and global warming of their dominant faith in unbridled economics disconnected from earth and God.

By the end of Lent, maybe we’ll know who Jesus really is

Patrick looks a bit forlorn up there in the painting, doesn’t he? He’s up on his hill praying for Ireland. But at the same time, I think he is looking like he is in touch with earth and sky. He is in a thin place where he is making a connection with God.  Alone, vulnerable, hidden, misunderstood, opposed. But at peace and bringing something to his moment.

The Celts had a great appreciation of verses like “the rocks will cry out if you don’t praise God.” They knew that the truth had been hidden in the earth from ages past. Even the Druids with their ghastly rituals on Tara knew something of the wisdom planted in creation. Jesus revealed it in full. Jesus revealed the ignorance and rebellion of humans and the goodness and plan of God. Patrick and others were followers who revealed it as they followed Him. It didn’t matter if they had their own power, God had the power.

Jesus himself, like this scripture shows, came to the hill of Jerusalem like pilgrims had for centuries to celebrate the Passover, now at the end of our Lent. Many people recognized him and honored him. To most he was hidden. He was opposed by the powers that be who put down their shades.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.Luke 19:37-42

It is sad how Jesus remains hidden to so many. It is sad how the shades are coming down to hide even what has been known. Jesus weeps over our darkness. But at the same time, faith will keep springing up. Even the stones could reveal the truth about God redeeming us through Jesus! I suspect one may be talking to someone right now on some hill as they look out over their city.

You may seem hidden as a believer where you live. Circle of Hope may seem like a hidden little church. It may seem foolish, going out to do some small act of goodness to reveal Jesus. What you say may seem pitiful. What you bring may seem very weak. Don’t despair and don’t stop. God repeatedly prefers to reveal his glory in the pitiful, hidden things placed in his hands.

(Want to hear this material? Here is the speech.)

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

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St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

Shame: What we can do about it.

soul of shame

People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.

The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.

What is shame?

Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!

Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]

We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.

Image result for tenth station
Stations of the Cross at St. Paul’s on the Green Episcopal Church, Norwalk, CT, Tenth Station by Gwyneth Leech

What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?

Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.

The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples  from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.

If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.

It is what we do about shame that matters

The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?

We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the  opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!

Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.

See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today 

Read his book: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson {recently added to Pastors Goodreads]