David Brooks again: How Paul’s “two tiers” apply to social action

Black Lives Matter surges in public approval (chart) - CSMonitor.com
From CS Monitor article. Click pic to see it.

We are thrilled with the possibilities of police reform and a new (hopefully effective) awareness of the scourge of racism. The chart above is thrilling to a guy like me who has been waiting for the tipping point for a long time. May all our years of work bear fruit.

Our excitement tempts us to live on the “second tier” of life in Christ,  the practical, relational interchange with the world around us — especially when our hope for change is activated. As a result, we can miss the deeper, “first tier” of relating to God in a transcendent and transformative way. Since so many people have thrown God out of reality, it is tempting to relate to them according to the worldview for which they are fighting, rather than joining with them in social action as our true selves in Christ.

Paul and the first church definitely did social action. The first churches, though they were a tiny, sometimes persecuted minority within the Roman Empire, started a movement that eventually overran it. Much of the church’s favorable reputation grew out of their alternativity: how they shared, how they loved, and how they managed to accept people of all classes and backgrounds into a dynamic whole.

But I don’t they were doing “social action” in the way most of us think of it. Paul does not have an idea of “social” or “action” in the way we do. For one thing, he did not know about the conceptual frameworks of the Enlightenment that spawned Hobbes and Rousseau arguing about the essence of the social contract and the state of nature without God. And I don’t think he had any democratic sense of his rights or responsibility to influence society as a whole.

Paul’s idea of social action, like all his ideas, started with his faith in Jesus. His motivation came from the Holy Spirit. His hope came from his trust that he lived “in Christ” which defined his present and guaranteed his future. He certainly does not have a theory of social action under which his faith is subsumed. I don’t think he ever imagined reforming the Roman Empire. His only power resides in the apparently powerless love of Jesus.

As Circle of Hope, we are sometimes unclear about the source of our action when we operate according to a sense of society donated by European rationalists and all their followers since their heyday. We sometimes start in tier two, even forget tier one altogether, when we relate to others and try to make a difference in the world. I think we should be more serious about our faith and about the revelation in the Bible whether it seems to “work well” or not. We should hold on to Jesus and revelation whether people label it as unacceptable speech or not. What Paul has going works a lot better than what we usually do. And what he builds will last a lot longer than the results of the latest power struggle.

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Click for a Pew Research article

The two tiers of our present social action

Our doing Theology team is still mulling over the rich dialogue we had about our approach to the coming election, so you’ll probably hear more about that before long. Until then, my mind has been drawn toward mulling over a previous dialogue we shared about Paul’s two-tiered outlook, as you can see by what I just said. In case you haven’t heard about this piece of theology, we reported on it and saved the material at the Way of Jesus site.

David Brooks, of all people (my strange new “friend” from the conservatives), got me thinking about how we are engaging in the present transformation of the police, in particular. He wrote another interesting piece in the New York Times last week. In it, he crystallizes a view of the social justice “religion” that is quite alluring to many of us. You can see it all over our mapping material this year, and also see people questioning it. Brooks says one of the five crises the U.S. is facing right now is:

“Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.”

I don’t feel like I need to agree with David Brooks’ reduction or not. But I can accept his sound bite of a viewpoint and listen to it. He might be on to something.

In tier two, I think Jesus followers are out on the street demanding  real reform of the oppressive institutions that have grown up since Ronald Reagan, an end to half-measures regarding systemic racism, and economic justice that rightsizes the rich and their corporations. But I hope we all come to that social action from tier one, where we know Jesus is the way to the real revolution and know these power struggles are not the deepest response we have to what torments humanity. We come to society with the humility not to impose the latest ideological purity but to trust God in others to bring things to right.

Many people in the church have been damaged by powerful teachers handing down provisional solutions to sinful conditions as if they were mandates from God (like women needing to wear head coverings, or the Bible coming to a final form in 1611, or priests needing to be celibate, or America being a haven for righteousness – the list goes on). They make tier two into tier one. In the ultimate example of that grab for power, the church lost the miraculous influence it had in the beginning by taking over the rights and structure of the Roman Empire.

I want to be part of the church where it is not an outpost of the Empire, where it does not reference the Empire when it thinks of itself – for it or against it as if the nation or society is the ultimate context. Being free of that world would be authentic tier one living. To be free like that requires a preoccupation with listening to God and others. One thing I always love about our mapping process is how it brings up the need for discernment as a way of life. We need to listen to the voice of our Savior like sheep listening for their shepherd so we can find our way through perilous times and foment transformation along the way. Such discernment comes to us in many ways, not least of all in the voices of our partners in Christ, both present and gone before, so it is readily available.

The discernment we gain as we make our map, rarely gets boiled down to an ideology or something that seems simple. Love for God has an eternal “open end” to it. Love for others has a provisional sense of creating what is best together. So our listening is never shallow enough to merely win an argument or take power in the establishment. Besides, the resurrection of Jesus won the argument and “Who’s in power?” wasn’t the question, it was already a given.

Dahleen Glanton: White people, you are the problem

While we were collecting input for the church’s mapping process in one of my cells last week, we got to talking about racism. We noted everyone who showed up was of the dominant “race.” And though we were all firmly committed to stomping out the sin of racism, we all remembered times when we did not do what we could do to do the stomping personally.

Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune

We had to admit we could not fully escape accusations like the ones Dahleen Glanton piled up in the Chicago Tribune on May 31. Here’s part of what she said:

“White people don’t like watching hardcore racism…. And while the stories make their way through the news cycle, you and your friends lament how awful racism is.

Then before you know it, your drive-by rage is over.

You conclude that the terrible incident doesn’t affect you directly. So you drift back into oblivion, convinced there’s nothing you can do about racist cops or the racist society that breeds them.

But you are wrong. White people, you are the problem.

Regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries. And you are the only ones who can stop it…

Too many white people are satisfied doing nothing to bring about substantive change…. You should talk among yourselves and figure it out. In the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, you managed to put a man on the moon. You could make the same commitment to stomping out racism….

Racists are counting on you to continue doing nothing. They are certain that before long, you will return to your blissful state of denial, where racism is somebody else’s problem. And you will not disappoint them.

Racists know some of you better than you know yourselves.”

We do know ourselves and each other rather well in our cell. So we don’t shy away from confessing. Last week we had to admit that doing the “little things “ when it comes to the big thing of racism makes more of a difference than we wish. We had to confess how easy it is not to get into it with people who threaten us or just disturb us with their racist behavior.

Philly police stood by as men with baseball bats ‘protected’ Fishtown. Some residents were assaulted and threatened.
Inquirer June 2 — Philly police stood by as men with baseball bats ‘protected’ Fishtown.

One of us started us off with a story. One time a man was getting raccoons out of our friend’s house. He asked the man what he did with the animals after he caught them. The man said he took them to a black neighborhood and let them go. Our friend confessed he did not confront him.

Another of us told the story about his neighbor in Fishtown. He had a nice relationship with the old man. A few weeks ago the man challenged him to get his bat and join him in protecting Fishtown, assuming he would go along. Our cell mate told his neighbor he was “not that way” and the man went ahead without him. The neighbor has not spoken to him since. We prodded our friend to follow up.

Another of us talked about his daughter spending her first year away at college. She realized her Philadelphia experience, including African American history education, was unique among her peers who lived segregated/sheltered lives (and who have trouble relating to aggrieved people of color).  As he reflects on his privilege and considers how to be a better ally, he is learning from his kids.

I personally went way back to my birth family, which was run by a genuine racist from Oklahoma. My father would have thought Tulsa was a huge city even in his day. He was born out on the panhandle a year after the massacre. My memory is that I never let one of his racist remarks go unprotested. I even wrote a short story in the seventh grade about the variety of names he had to slur every race and ethnicity under the sun. But the fact is, I only periodically had the courage to protest. In fact, the whole family codependently turned his hate speech into a joke, an odd trait of our otherwise useful breadwinner. My antiracism eventually became something others in the family would not confront. But I certainly know what it is like to take a pass because I can.

Like Dahleen Glanton says, we so-called “white people,” who can protest being lumped into a race because we have the privilege associated with that race, should talk among ourselves and figure stuff out. Christians, in particular, have an even deeper responsibility to risk what it takes to overcome evil with good, so we need to learn how to have a good dialogue, not just an argument. Even if the workman mocks us, if the neighbor cuts us off, if the school chums label us, or if the family is disrupted, we need to trust God and risk following Jesus, who not only loves everyone, but transforms them into his own likeness.

Racists are counting on people like me doing nothing – at least nothing that costs me too much, nothing that will cause conflict, nothing that will take too much energy. They are certain that before long, the streets will return to the homeostasis of the dominant culture and racism only be a problem the next time it explodes out of the fragile box of denial and apathy in which it is vainly kept.

Right now our church is having an appropriate eruption of righteous anger along with much of the rest of the United States. We’ll see what happens. Some angry people will run over others until their anger subsides. Some resistant people will cut others off and retain their privilege to let it all be about somebody else. We might get divided and need to regroup. People could lose their faith because influential people follow politics and not Jesus. Regardless, “white” people stuck in the U.S. need to figure this out, or die trying — especially people who say they follow Jesus.

Cornel West: We’ve got a love the world can’t take away

Anderson Cooper tears up over Cornel West's speech on Floyd family ...

Cornel West often inspires me. He is a man with prophetic imagination and he doesn’t mind speaking Jesus into the Jesus-resisting box of American media. The other day I tuned into a segment he made with Anderson Cooper on CNN. I was so encouraged by it, I decided to make a transcript for you.

I hope you will catch the Jesus West appreciates in the George Floyd funeral. I hope you will applaud the wonderful example of Floyd’s extended family and their church as they resolutely follow Jesus and choose love like the black church has done so well throughout its difficult history. I hope you will note the alternativity West highlights and suggests as the way to the future.

Circle of Hope has been agreeing with him since its inception. But West may say our thoughts spontaneously better than we say them after a lot of thought!

Here’s the interview:

Cooper: [At the funeral of George Floyd] what was going through your mind and heart?

West: It was a heavy day my brother, and yet I was buoyed up. Because I saw in the hearts and minds and souls, not just of the Floyd Family, but of the church, of the music, the preaching, a love. Not one reference to hatred or revenge, it was all about love and justice. It’s in the great tradition of the best of black people, a people who have been hated chronically, systemically, for 400 years but have taught the world so much about love and how to love. You saw John Coltrane’s Love Supreme in that church service. You saw the love of the children in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You saw Mama, Raisin in the Sun, a Lorraine Hansberry.

White people ought to give black people a standing ovation that after 400 years of being terrorized we refuse to create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. After 400 years of being traumatized, we want to dish out healers. That’s Frederick Douglass, that’s Martin King, that’s Curtis Mayfield, that’s Fanny Lou Hamer. What is it about these black people, so thoroughly subjugated but want freedom for everybody? That’s a grand gift to the whole world, right at the bowels at the center of an American Empire that has enslaved, Jim Crowed, Jane Crowed, lynched them, still dishing out these love warriors.

That’s what I saw in the Floyd Family and I was buoyed up. It reminded me of the West family; it reminded me of Irene and Cliff and Cynthia and Sharol. That’s where we come from: Shiloh Baptist Church. You can put us down but you are not going to put us down in such a way that we are going to hate you because you become the point of reference. No, we are going to put a smile on Larcenia’s face. That’s his Mama. That’s where he is right now. He’s lying right next to Sister Larcenia, whose way of engaging the world was embracing it with all of the love.

Now I’m not saying we don’t have black thugs and gangsters. I’m talking about the best of our tradition. Because brother, brother, brother, if we had created a black version of the Ku Klux Klan there’d been a civil war every generation with terrorist cells in every hood. And that’s what Brother Trump needs to understand because it looks like he’s trying to push us to the race war. But the good news is if there was a race war, we’ve got a whole lot of white brothers and sisters on our side now. That makes a big difference. And we’ve got black folk and red folk and indigenous people and Asians and so forth. This is a matter of integrity and honesty, a matter of justice and love. They kept it on the high ground. That was a beautiful thing.

But I did break, though, brother, when I saw those brothers marching in, like the ushers in Shiloh Baptist Church and pick up that coffin and go and walk out. My daughter was there. Couldn’t take it man. I’ve been at this for over fifty years. And yet I got to bounce back. And I will bounce back. Because we’ve got a love the world can’t take away. The world, white supremacy may make being black a crime. But we refuse to get in the gutter. We’re going to go down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali in the name of love and justice. We’re doing it for brother Wyatt, we’re doing it for my daughter, we’re doing it for the Asians, we’re doing it for the whole world because that’s the only hope of the world. And that kind of love is always tragic-comic and cruciform. You’ve got to get ready to get crucified with that kind of love, and yet you’ve got to keep dishing it out generation after generation after generation.

The Floyd Family lifted up that spiritual moral banner in the midst of a moment when we’ve got all these lies and crimes, be it Pentagon, or Wall Street, or White House, or even congress itself. We know they don’t represent the best of this country. It’s just that the best of this country right now seems to be so powerless. But in the streets of our nation we see this multiracial, multicultural, multigender, different sexual orientations, different religions – Jewish brothers and sisters holding up the Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Catholics holding up Dorothy Day, the Protestants holding up William Coffin and Lydia Maria Child and the agnostics and the others holding up the Norman Thomases and the Edward Saids and others. That was my mixed wrestling with what I saw today, my brother. And I think we’ve got hope in the form of motion but we’ve got to get ready for the backlash. Got to get ready for the neo-Fascist clampdown. Because it’s coming. It is coming.

Cooper: yeah. I’ve had the, um. I’ve got to say your…I’ve never had the honor of taking one of your classes. But, uh, I feel like I’m a student of yours. And I learn lessons every time you speak. And, um [sigh] I just think it’s [breaks down]

West: No. We’re in it together brother. And the beautiful thing about tears: Socrates never cries, but Jeremiah does and so does Jesus. We cries because we care; we’re concerned. It’s not about political correctness. It’s not about self-righteousness. We cry because we are not numb on the inside. We don’t have a chilliness of soul and a coldness of mind and heart. We cry because we connect. But then we must have a vision that includes all of us and we must have an analysis of power that’s honest. In terms of the greed especially at the top, in terms of the hatred running amok, in terms of the corruption – not just White House and congress, it’s in too many churches, too many mosques, too many synagogues, too many universities, too many civic associations and then the greed in us. You and I talk about this all the time, right? The gangster in us. Because we’re wrestling with this day, by saying that’s why we need each other brother.

Cooper: You know, you said something…I follow you when you aren’t on my program, I follow you wherever you go and I read what you have to say. And you said something a couple of days ago on somebody else’s program. You said, “Can we hold on to integrity, honesty and decency?” and it seems to me, as you’ve said, that there are a lot of people who have remained silent and have just been watching this. And as you said, there’s going to be a backlash and that’s something to be prepared for. Because I think there are a lot of people just waiting on the sidelines, waiting to kind of to start to chip away at this and cause doubt and divide people. But I think that is so important that at its core, this is about integrity. and honesty and decency and fortitude and courage which are two other things you’ve spoken a lot about.

West: Absolutely, especially the fortitude and courage. We must have the integrity, honesty and decency — not purity, no one of us is pure or pristine, we all have our spots and our wrinkles as it were. But it’s the courage and the fortitude. That’s what’s necessary, the backbone. We don’t need lukewarm folk, we don’t need summer soldiers. We need all seasoned love warriors. That’s the tradition that we saw represented in that church at the spiritual level. And my dear Brother Sharpton, I love Sharpton, we come out of the same black church tradition, and we fight all the time, but we come together and so forth. He was powerful.

But I always want to connect the police power and the police crimes with the Wall Street power and the Wall Street crimes. We live in a culture in which people feel as if they can do and say anything and get away with it with no accountability, no answerability, and no responsibility. We saw on Wall Street in terms of all that insider trading, market manipulation and fraudulent activity and predatory lending. How many people went to jail? Zero. Trump will say anything, do anything, thinks he will get away with it. Pentagon can drop drones on precious folk in Yemen, Pakistan and others and think they can get away with it. We have to have accountability. Our politician will seemingly tell us anything in front of our faces and we know what’s going on behind closed doors with their tie to big money. Just be honest. That’s what integrity is.

Malcolm X used to say, “Sincerity is my only credentials.”  That’s why we love Malcolm. We did not always agree with Malcolm. But he said what he meant and he meant what he said. You see what I mean? That’s what we need. We need that in our lives. We need that in our communities. We need that in our civilization. And we need that as a critique of the worst of the American empire, the worst of American white supremacy, the worst of American predatory capitalism, the worst of American patriarchy and the worst of American homophobic and transphobic, any ideology that loses sight of the humanity of folk. I don’t care if they’re Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Jewish or whatever, it’s got to be all the way down. You know, the English word human comes from the Latin word humando which mean burial. And that’s what we saw today. We saw the humanity. Because they were ascribing significance to this precious person made in the image of God whose body was now undergoing extinction and his soul ascending.

I am buoyed up, as well, by the thought of all the good people I know personally who are waking up, changing their minds, and changing their behavior. I am buoyed up by our church, full of people eager to make a difference and foment transformation. I am buoyed up by the thought the evils of the American way of life might have a collective knee on their necks, even while I prepare for the backlash – like Trump trying to go to Tulsa on Juneteenth. Lord help us join the Floyds and their church and demonstrate an alternative, an example of which we have the best of the black church to thank.

Andres the refugee: Lessons in powerlessness from Honduras

Way back in the 90’s I took my first MCC immersion trip to El Salvador and Honduras. It was before cell phones worked well, so I had one scratchy phone call to Gwen in two weeks – that was a first. I remember the trip as my baptism by fire into the reality of white supremacy and empire thinking. This week that memory has seemed important.

When our group took off for San Salvador, I thought I was a rather “with it,” comparatively-activist kind of guy. I wanted to go to El Salvador before the war was over. I was already upset that the U.S. was complicit in all sorts of evil deeds and had hidden a titanic military base at Soto Cano. I felt a lot of love for people in Central America, especially since I came from Southern California where Spanish speakers were childhood friends. I soon found out I was less with it and loving than I thought, but that’s how I started.

We talked to Army officials, U.S. Embassy reps, church leaders, activists, and MCC workers. We met Jon Sobrino, were forced off our bus by eighteen-year-old soldiers with automatic weapons, and took a ride out into the far reaches of Honduras, almost to Nicaragua, where a village had waited up into the night under the one, public lightbulb to greet us. It was a very educational trip. But the most lasting memory has to be of Andres.

Mesa Grande Refugee Camp — Wikipedia/Linda Hess Miller

My upending memory of Andres

I admit that this incident is one of those that may have a lot more meaning than the facts deserve. I was having an “aha” moment, so who knows what really happened? We were in a refugee camp in Honduras for Salvadorans who had been driven out of their homes by the war. They expected to be gone until the soldiers passed on, but that never happened. Many years later they were still stuck in a strange limbo. Some had come as children, literally naked. One person who had fled with nothing but the clothes on his back was Andres. In his imprisonment, he had become a Christian and the catechist for the camp. We were meeting him because he was one of the leading people who should be seeing a group of well-dressed “dignitaries” from the United States.

He was very kind and very hospitable. We sat in his house made of cast-off scraps of wood. I still remember being fascinated as I watched chickens walking in and out of the walls. This sweet, godly, respectable man kept enlightening me as they pecked about. We might as well had come from the moon, as far as Andres was concerned. He had never been to San Salvador, the capital, from which we had just driven. I think I asked him if he ever wanted to own a car. He said he had not considered that, since he had never been in one. (That is one of my memories that makes me wonder if this really happened. Did he actually say that? You’ve never been in a car?). The longer I got to be with Andres, the more I loved him. My preconceptions about him began to fade into the background the more he talked – preconceptions like, “Surely he would want a car” and, “Surely he would like to go to the capitol city”). He was happy with his house and honored to be the catechist. Unlike all his visitors from the U.S. that day, he was content. He did not have big ideas about how to make everything better, and made me a bit ashamed of myself for cluttering up his honest, simple life with my expensive sandals.

Eventually, we were finished with our overwhelming two weeks and sitting in room in Tegucigalpa for the final debrief. At that point in my life I was especially not a crier. But when it came time for me to share, I uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I feel so helpless,” is what I remember saying. Maybe I was just feeling, “I can’t do anything.” I had come to Central America equipped with health, energy and assurance that I could be a part of something great. I would end the war, figure out rural poverty and go back to the U.S. equipped to organize great things to resettle refugees and effect reconciliation. Instead, I was sitting beside the road in Teguci-whatever crying out to Jesus. When He called to me, I told him I wanted to see. The scales of my “imperial gaze” were not removed, as of yet, but I certainly felt blind.

A few, certainly not all, of the lessons I need to learn

As we were in the middle of the always-overdue crisis over racism and police brutality in the United States last week (white supremacy, imperialism, militarism, inequality, etc. etc.), my mind turned to Andres and the things he began to teach me about being powerless and changing things, way back when.

1) People get along fine without western culture

I had never seen just how huge my list of assumptions about reality actually were until that trip. I thought I was a Christian – and I had been in trouble for how radical I was! But the Bible looked a lot more like Andres than like me. Whenever invisible people become visible to the rulers, it is always disturbing. Andres still disturbs me. I never really knew I was a ruler until I sat on a three-legged stool he made out of firewood in his house and realized he was getting along fine without me and my late-capitalist culture, or whatever it is that’s happening.

2) Not everyone wants to trade community for commodities

How in the world can one be so wise and content with a chicken walking through one’s walls? I could not keep my eyes off that chicken! Later that day another refugee family invited several of us to dinner. We shared a soup featuring their one potato as they happily watched us eat it. We investigated to see just how coerced they were to do this, but we were assured they really thought it would be a hoot to entertain us. Is it more amazing that we were flabbergasted or that they shared their potato? Even as a Christian, I am still tempted to have an economic answer for everything.

3) “Poor” people often have ways to get along in the shadow of the monsters that rule them just fine and don’t need instruction from the monsters when they finally deign to see them.

The world has always been full of monsters. Jesus announced their doom when he rose from the dead after they killed him. I was so full of power, I really wanted to fight those monsters. But after that debrief, I began to think that witnessing to their doom by embracing resurrection in their shadow was my best hope at having a life in a world where Bill Barr is Attorney General. Ever since, I keep trying to find a way to live an alternative in Christ in the shadow of the doomed monsters. They are passing away, after all, and what they thought was the Lord’s powerlessness will upend them forever. Plus, even they need a place to which to escape after they have killed and raped and despoiled the earth. I sat with Andres and felt like I deserved to die from my complicity with the monster from the north, but his gentle ignorance of my political plight and deep wisdom of our common spiritual future comforted and directed me.

4) Fighting it out for justice as if it amounted to percentages of a limited pie doesn’t make sense unless you want the pie.

We’ve been having the endless argument again this week after the looters smashed up corporate windows and messed up too many small businesspeople, too. “Thou shalt not steal” vs. “It’s not stealing; it’s just a bit of reparations for what was stolen.” Everyone is stealing, as usual, because in our society we live in a capitalist box. It seems to me that God is knocking on the box like (decidedly white, admittedly) Jesus in the famous painting, standing at the door. Behold, if there is not a better life than succeeding in the capitalist free-for-all, the vortex of injustice, that’s sad. Andres couldn’t have cared less about my car. How did he get so happy without a car? How did he seem so wise without knowing about my 401K? How could he know anything if he was not prepared to fight off the monster lurking in Soto Cano?

I take heart that the protests seemed to get free of the violence this weekend and turn into the morality that is uniting people around the world. But economic inequality is not going away any time soon, if ever. I’m glad I’ve met people all over the world, who don’t follow that inequality around, but follow Jesus instead.

5) There is an alternative that Anabaptists like to talk about but rarely find in North America.

I am happy we talk about the Third Way, and we (I mainly know about Circle of Hope) represent an alternative in a lot of ways. But we spend an awful lot of time sorting out the first and second ways, or whatever binary the media loves to amplify. I admit, I love to fire up my computer and read all the news every day. I might spend more time on that than time in meditation most days! I know an awful lot about the awful Trump, tromping across the street to run humanity-loving Episcopalians off their own porch. I suspect Andres never had a computer.  He missed the endless arguing; he missed the moralizing about moralizing, fury about fury and, exclusion over excluding. Maybe I am over-idealizing him, but I remember him as being strangely at peace. I not only want that peace, I want to make it.

I know I am making “points” as I go along telling these little stories. I’m not trying to tidy up my experience or yours – not really. It’s more of a confession. If you are a so-called white person, you probably have some of your own confession to make. So I am not trying to whitesplain anything, just trying to learn old lessons better. My lessons are not final and it would not be surprising if they aren’t the ones you want or need to hear. So let’s be friends. I just thought I’d tell you about a good man in the middle of nowhere who was driven out of his home and ended up in a refugee camp. He learned faith and it made him remarkable to me. Maybe he had an easier situation in which to learn faith at that point than we have in the belly of this beast – good for him. But maybe we can do it, too, instead of biting and devouring one another in reflection of the monster.

I think MCC made a decent investment by baptizing me. I certainly became better friends with the refugees of the world and with a lot of other people I probably would have continued to otherize. We are so preoccupied with stealing in the U.S., the country has ended up with a lot of stuff. When we ship it off to people with one potato periodically, I feel like some justice is done. Even better, when we get to know them and figure out our whole way of looking at things may not have much of a Jesus lens, love gets a chance to bloom. Then I feel we might be able to see a little bit.

Take on the mantle: Jesus is robing us for what’s next

SNARKITECTURE GUFRAM BROKEN MIRROR NOAH KALINA 04_edit.jpg
Broken Mirror (2017) by Gufram and Snarkitecture.

The pandemic makes everything more clear. As Pentecost promises, the old men and the rest of us are dreaming dreams. Daughters and sons are prophesying and seeing visions.

The unraveling United States is spawning a new social order which I pray is more just as we ponder and protest George Floyd, smothered before our eyes by powers cloaked with impunity while the unimpeachable president eggs them on. Even deeper, the church, denuded of its meetings and routines by the virus, is forced to look at itself in the mirror, naked, and consider whether it will pick up the radical mantle required in the next era.

I’ve been pondering the metaphor of “taking on the mantle” for quite a while, since our church decided I should bestow mine on our pastor team in an incremental and deliberate way. Even more, I have been watching clients and friends struggling to feel comfortable in the spiritual and psychological clothes they are wearing in this tumultuous time when we rightly suspect we will never get back to whatever “normal” was.

It seems strange to me that I just recently noticed how the Bible regularly records people using the symbol of the mantle/cloak/robe to mark the life-change a person is making. In the Bible, taking on the mantle marks the special character or gifts someone is called to offer in a time of trouble. Now is that time.

Pictures of taking on the mantle

You may have these pictures of being enrobed from the Bible already collected in your mind, but I think they bear repeating – at least I’m trying to feel them like a tongue of fire wrapping me in possibility.

In Genesis 37 we meet Joseph at seventeen, the same age I experienced my crisis of faith. His father, Jacob/Israel, loved him “more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a coat of many colors.” This robe caused Joseph lots of trouble. I can relate. The “coat” my Father gave me in Christ, has also caused me trouble, along with joy like Joseph’s as I was also called to feed people in our famished world.

In 1 Kings 19 right after Elijah defeats Jezebel’s prophets and hears the voice of God up on the mountain, he receives a vision to anoint his successor. It says he “found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.” These wild prophets wore a distinctive cloak of animal skins, which John the Baptist adopted later on. They both struggled with terrible leaders and did their best to keep the knowledge of God alive among people under pressure. Someone may have tapped you to do more than plow; maybe it was God.

Edouard De Jans - The return of the prodigal son by Edouard De Jans
The return of the prodigal son (1878) by Edouard De Jans

Then in Luke 15 Jesus uses the symbol, as well. When the prodigal son returns home, what does his father do? “The father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him.” I feel delighted, if also unworthy, to wear my robe. I consistently meet people who can’t put it on, or who chafe in the false robe they wear, or who long for the parental experience of the Lord’s parable to cleanse their blocked or stunted feelings like fire.

I would never pretend to systematize these Bible readings into a principle of mantle-receiving or pretend I know all they mean. But I do feel them, and I think we can wear our new clothes in Christ with some confidence. Today I feel like I’d better make sure I’m receiving my robe and wearing my mantle.

Put on the new self

The New Testament is full of the image of being clothed with newness. Paul calls us to remember we are clothed with Christ. Our new relationship with God is like being born naked into the world again and given the mantle of our mentor, Jesus — a distinctive robe that communicates how much our Father loves us. Paul shows many facets of this gem of truth but I’ll just mention two.

Clothed with new creation.  Paul teaches, “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” ( 2 Cor. 5:4). This is a great reading for Pentecost, since the whole scene of Acts 2 is a picture of the disciples being swallowed up by life.

As the powers force people into the arms of virus in order to protect the interests of the corporations, I think the whole world may be finally fed up with facing the ravenous exploitation that comes with the materialist worldview they’ve been sold.  We’re all like Jesus now, in that the powers would auction off our clothes if they could find a way to get them off us. People can’t escape the sense there is a “heavenly dwelling,” or at least can’t overlook how the present is terribly flawed. So we are yearning, like Paul, for the new creation. [Ever watch the The Robe? Victor Mature helped show it to me].

The New Self Is Truthful - Ephesians 4:25-27Clothed with a new character. The story of Pentecost continues in Acts 2 and the whole book, to show that once touched by fire, the new church immediately expresses their new life with new behavior. Paul sums up the change like this in Ephesians 4: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” We always hear a challenging voice somewhere inside us saying, “So what are you going to do?”

These days the challenge is even more urgent. For many people, this year is the first time they have experienced real danger in their lives. Previously, it has been easier to live behind the walls of the American Empire. This uncertainty has caused them to see how many people have experienced trouble every day their whole lives. As a result, more people are reading the Bible as more than moral guidelines they could apply to their situation. They see it for what it really is: a guidebook for being an alternative to the evil and madness. As Paul tells the Romans, who live in the belly of the Roman Empire beast, “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

So what do we have to do to wear a Jesus “mantle?”

Given what we face right now, knowing it is too large to look at it specifically and too unknown to make unchangeable plans, what do we do to take up the mantle and live into our new selves? In Christ we are a new creation and live according to a renewing character.  If we want to live out this new life, what do we have to do? I don’t know for sure, when it comes to you, but here is what I have been thinking.

Take it on. —  New life in Christ does not just happen to us, we take it on like a coat, we receive it as a gift, we conform to it like a person shipwrecked on a foreign shore adopts the local language. The disciples were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The day of Pentecost did “happen” — but they had to wear the newness. Joseph had this knack as a teen; maybe you did too. Even after he infuriated his brothers with his dreams and was thrown into a pit, he kept at it the rest of his life.

Nothing in the Christian life is singular, so we need to take on this character as the church, too. The body of Christ is not happening without us, but we are not happening without it, either. I think my appreciation for us sometimes blinds me to what Jesus is really calling us to be. For instance, I just said it “takes all of us” to be the church. But I know I’m talking to a small fraction of us right now and most people manage to never “take on” Circle of Hope and our unique calling in a meaningful way. Imagine how lively we will be when we all take on the mantle — we’re amazing as the fractional picture we are!

Take the time. – This daunting world seems like an even more urgent project right now than it always is. But, to be honest, I am who I am, with a limited amount of goodness to express. What’s more, I  rarely know just what to do in a given day; I need to listen to God and others — and that takes time.  I’m an organism who decides, not a decision that gets expressed organically. Elisha had the authority, but it took time for people to accept it. After he hit the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak and parted it, people took notice. But even then, it is surprising how much resistance he got. Don’t give up.

Nothing happens instantly in the church, either. We’ve taken a long time to build who we are at this point. We tried to build in flexibility so we would be ready for anything that came along; and I think we are facing what came along pretty well. But we’re always frustrating someone because we are not yet all we ought to be. Perhaps they see the future so well, they have trouble relating to people who aren’t there yet. Sometimes it feels like we really shouldn’t take the time to “sit around” waiting for something to grow. But I think the message is that we really don’t have another option.

Trust your spiritual instincts. — The prodigal son famously came to his senses. We assume the dutiful son in the story eventually did too, but Jesus leaves that as an open question for his listeners: “Are you going to come to your senses and join the party?” For most of us, the answer is, “Yes. I’m feeling bad, but I definitely want to come.”

Right now, I think we are wondering who we are going to be and what we are going to do next as individuals and as the church. That is, we are wondering if we are just waiting to get back to normal or if this is our chance to trust our best thoughts and desires. Almost every day when I pray, the temptation to wait until it is all over presents itself. Am I going to put on my new self and live, or am I just going to wait until it doesn’t seem so necessary to do that?

Some things have been reinforced for me that I think should be characteristic of us as a church if we are going to offer an alternative to this uncertain and frustrated world. My spiritual instincts keep telling me, in spite of my resistance, to

  • Embrace first and trust God to bless the best I have to give as well as trust God to work out the worst that can happen. I want to fearlessly love.
  • Jump in and figure out how to do it rather than getting all the ducks in a row before proceeding. Actually ducks instinctively get in line because they automatically follow their mother’s voice. I want to stop asking so many questions as if I deserve an answer.  I know enough to get started.
  • Be frank instead of doubting every word until caution eliminates creativity. I want to ask for forgiveness rather than avoid needing to ask because I avoid trusting people. I can’t control  all the troubles I imagine. We need more truth and less fear.
  • Live with a Jesus-lens instead of being whatever you are against. The world needs to live in Christ as a result of Jesus living in the world. Following Jesus is always a self-giving, creative act, not an argument about what right living means.

I’m trying to trust what I hear just like the first disciples had to wake up the day after Pentecost and live new lives. Will these kind of character traits lead us to wear the radical mantle needed in this era? I hate to wait and see, but I will have to do that. And I imagine I could write more tomorrow after I learn what God and you teach me next.

Change is possible: And worship can loosen stuck memories

Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.

At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic.  They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.

According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.

What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]

If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!

We need mismatching experiences for deep change

It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”

What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman (sermon) — Saint John's

You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.

John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.

Our worship can be a transforming environment

I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!

Temple (anatomy) (PSF).svg
All too often true of our worship experience

Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network  centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]

 I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.

Worthy of every song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for You

The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.

“I am naming your traits.
I live for you.
That’s me.”

That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.

The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:

Open up my eyes in wonder
And show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me

This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing

“I open my eyes in wonder
and see who you are.
I am filled with your heart
and see the fields white for harvest.”

Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:

And I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation

So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,

“I am building my life on your love;
I feel its firm foundation.”

The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.

I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.

I matter: The terrible, wonderful I AM

do i matterI have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”

We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”

Those messages need to be countered:

  1. You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
  2. You don’t matter because you are better.
  3. You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.

You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.

It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.

You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.

You matter because you ARE.

The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.

When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.”  That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.

I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.

Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.

I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”

Feeling the truth about me

We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.

But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”

How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.

I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.

We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”

1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.

2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.

Float Therapy for Anxiety, Stress and Sleep - Milwaukee Therapist ...

3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace. Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.

I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

A  dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

Ask and Guess Culture

The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.

Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.

Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.

An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.

I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury  recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.

The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful

The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.

  • Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
  • Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
  • Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we  attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?

I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.

Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!

I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s  day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!

You in my mother: A psalm for Mother’s Day

50th Anniversary song

When I call you “Mother,” Lord,
I don’t often think of my mother.
She seems to have kept her spirit locked away.
At least she never revealed it to me:
Rebellious, willful, resigned to being bad,
Bravely sailing on her own path with her sailor.

I should take another look
And find you in her nature and love.
I seem to have missed you as I turned away
And left her wondering where my faith took me:
Rebellious, willful, resigned to go new ways,
Bravely sailing on my own path with my Sailor.

But You were in my own backyard
As well as in the endless dawn —
In her laughter, optimism and perpetual pluck,
In her courage and friendships and hospitality,
In her wonder, curiosity and righteous fury:
Making a cake, talking to the dog,
Loving a game, having a chat,
Keeping the peace, playing a prank.

You found me on my mother’s path
And I met you in my mother’s fashion —
In all the playful ways you have turned to me,
In the way I see you finding me funny:
Rebellious, willful, we resist the ways of the world,
Bravely sailing on everyone’s path to fullness.

I don’t know Mom’s destination.
But I have seen your destination in her,
And mine.
And I give thanks.

Zoom is terrible: If you hate it, you have good reasons

zoom-privacy
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

We had another nice Zoom gathering as our cell last week. When we began to pray, a person finally said it: “I hate Zoom!” He might have said “Zoom sucks!” or “Zoom is terrible!” I can’t remember. But I’ve heard exasperated people say those things too, lately. What do you say about Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, etc.?

You are probably saying something by this time, or just wandering away from the screen in an irritated daze. Scientists know why we are irritated and it might help if we did too. Whatever we find out, or not, we Jesus followers have the stuff to adapt and thrive, since we have plenty of life beyond the screen.

Our cell was talking about how great we thought our pastors were doing with our online meetings. But one of our members noted that even though she liked experiencing the meetings together as a family, her nine-year-old no longer wanted to be in the room when Sunday night came around. Watching the screen just reminded him of how much he wanted to be with his friends. Then my wife chimed in with how irritated our four-year-old granddaughter is by Nana on the screen. She refuses to participate in online meetings, too. The gist of what she said is, “I just want to hug you and if I can’t then I don’t want to see you.” Zoom is terrible and the children know it. So maybe we don’t need the scientists to confirm what our inner child already knows.

Zoom life has issues

In March the global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we  all miss (see this NYTimes article). Most of us have had our faces arranged in a grid by now like the old game show “Hollywood Squares.” (And you may be the Paul Lynde or Whoopi Goldberg of the group — thanks). I know people who have attended virtual happy hours and birthday parties. Many of us have been learning in virtual classrooms and holding virtual business meetings for a long time. Now I am even doing virtual psychotherapy and your doctor is doing telemedicine.

But even the kids are reporting that something is not right – especially with Zoom. Along with security issues, psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists all say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making us feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (even more than we already felt). We might be better off just talking on the phone — no facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input on the phone might even heighten our sensitivity to what’s being said. This could be why Verizon and AT&T report average daily increases of as much as 78 percent in voice-only calls since the start of the pandemic, as well as an increase in the length of these calls.

The problem is the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble the subtle social cues we rely on to connect. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.

I use a computer to write, research and communicate for hours a day. I have my laptop screen open and a bigger screen attached to it. If you put me on a Zoom call I am even more distractable. It is very tempting to complete a project, fill in a chart or look up youtube videos that correlate with what is being said while people are talking. If I am on a zoom call for more than an hour, the deterioration tends to escalate. This is consistent with research on interpreters at the United Nations who report similar feelings of burnout, fogginess and alienation when translating proceedings via video feed. Studies on video psychotherapy indicate that both therapists and their clients also often feel fatigued, disaffected and uncomfortable with their process. I haven’t read all the studies, but I have listened to my comrades describe the disease. If you want to really communicate with someone in a meaningful way, video can be vexing.

Photographs by Guillaume Duchenne in 1862. Through electric stimulation, he determined which muscles were responsible for different facial expressions.

Here’s the main problem

Human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.

All those glitches, sound problems, and background clatter mess with our perception and wreak havoc on our ability to mirror. Without realizing it, all of us engage in facial mimicry whenever we encounter another person. It’s a constant, almost synchronous, interplay. To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connection. When we can’t do it seamlessly, as we can’t in video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and, thus, predict what they will do.

“Our brains are prediction generators, and when there are delays or the facial expressions are frozen or out of sync, as happens on Zoom and Skype, we perceive it as a prediction error that needs to be fixed,” says Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in affective response. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work because aspects of our predictions are not being confirmed and that can get exhausting.”

Video chats have also been shown to inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. We noted this at our cell meeting the other night. It is funny to see someone point at you, even though their screen may be arranged in a different pattern than yours. Unless you know people well before they get on the screen, they may seem uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty. Zoom might, ultimately, be undercutting the trust system we use it to maintain.

The whole online thing wears out fast. We meet up with family and friends, but many of us secretly find the interactions terribly unsatisfying. Some people feel like the box that lights up around us when we speak is like an interrogation lamp switched on. The conversation can default to drivel because people don’t want to take risks in a Zoom environment. The delay in people’s feedback or the awkward cross talking make some people feel it would not be rewarding to share a good story anyway.

Will Zoom kill all the relationships it touches?

There has never been a tool that couldn’t prove dangerous. Martial arts weapons all have a history as a farm tool. I would likely hurt myself with nunchucks, so it would not be surprising if I didn’t know what to do with Zoom, as well. We will have to think about what we are doing and practice to do it well. At the same time, we’ll have to admit the limited utility of the tool and use it for what it is worth, not assume it can do everything we might need. Zoom, and things on screens in general, have such powerful machines in back of them, we often feel helpless and just go along with wherever they drive us. But we need to drive them and get somewhere with their limited utility.

As our cell considered how our church was doing during the lockdown, we had a lot of positive feelings to share. But it wasn’t long before we shared how tired of screens we have become in a few weeks time. We miss the random connections we can make in our meetings, where even a glance across the room restores connection. We were concerned about fragile and isolated people who don’t or can’t even Zoom. We’re hungry and we know they are too.

I have made several new relationships with clients in the teletherapy era. They are not so bad. Spiritual direction can also  occur via Zoom. My cells have actually been deep and one of them has been dramatically easier to gather via the screen. In one meeting last week, we had a deep conversation about forgiveness. In the other, we could talk about how we deal with anger. So we can make great use of the Zoom tool, even if it is an irritating tool. In my sophomore summer during high school I got a job that mainly used a scythe to cut weeds around bomb depositories. The scythe is also an irritating tool. But it needed to be used in an environment where stray sparks might be dangerous.  I like Zoom when it is the best tool I have — in the same way I can relish a peanut butter sandwich when I am starving.

Right now I am starving for our rich community life. Zoom, and other vehicles, help us sustain that life in an uncertain time. If you are walking away from the screen because you are irritated, we can all understand that. But it would be great if you could recognize your irritation for what it is and press beyond it to connect in whatever measly fashion we can. We need each other. And we need to use this time to not only sustain our community in Christ but to build the next one that can thrive in whatever mess we wake up to when the present nightmare is over.

Listen to dreams: They might show the way out of this mess

dreams.
“The Way Home” by Shaun Tan (2011) – click for background

I woke up with a vivid dream Saturday morning after a good night’s sleep away from the troubles of the rehab project that has made me a vagabond for the last few weeks. As it turns out, many other people have been dreaming more lately, too — having “coronavirus dreams” now that the stay-at-home has given them more time to get some rest. It’s possible that whole communities or even societies may wake up to something new after we’ve processed what is happening to us during this strange time. I hope it is like waking up to healing and new possibilities.

My dream was full of symbolism and used situations reminiscent of my binge-watch of Sanditon. My memory of the dream begins with saying goodbye to a young protégé as she hops on the bus. I’m worried about her. But she is looking to her future and so interested in what is happening on the bus she doesn’t even wave goodbye.

I go on to my own train, standing in line to go underground. I realize I am in the wrong line and need to run across the street to go the other direction. As I go down the stairs, I have to ask a young man behind me to keep his social distance. I say I will get my mask out and wear it. Then I realize I do not have it because I do not have my briefcase.

I go up to street level and vainly look around until I see a briefcase across the street where I had been in line. There is a collection of them there, but none are mine. Now I am afraid I will not be able to get home, since my briefcase is the “command center.” But then I realize I took my wallet out and it is in my back pocket. At that point I realize I did not even bring my other bag with my clothes. I feel better after I comfort myself with the thought that I won’t need anything in the bags, since it was all worn out and I was intending to replace it, anyway.

My unconscious needs a long sleep to help me process my confused feelings about the period of change I am in! I’d like to be home. In my case, it is my actual new home that is not habitable yet. But it is also a new home for my next life, to which I am traveling. Dreams about going home are often the signs of spiritual development going on. We are built with a longing for Home that keeps reminding us we are on a journey through time. At this point on the journey, I am saying goodbye to attractive parts of me. I am negotiating with ignorant parts of me. I am dealing with anxious parts of me. I am comforted by the sense that I am carrying the most important part of me as I move into what is next. What’s more, I already feel I can let go of much of what I am losing.

Oprah
Chainsaw sculpture of Oprah. (click for background)

Oprah with a chainsaw

That heading is part of the title of Alfred Lubran’s article from the April 23, 2020 Inquirer.

In a person’s dream, Oprah Winfrey deploys a squad of bruisers into the streets to scare up an audience for her show. Her studio is a giant warehouse transformed into a hospital, with mattresses placed six feet apart. Opening the program with upbeat patter, Oprah offers a special surprise: She revs up a chainsaw and cuts off the heads of everyone in the audience.

The Oprah dream was one Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher from Harvard Med School, collected by surveying 2,000 people throughout the world regarding Covid-19 since March 23. It reflects how we are living now: the feeling of being imprisoned that derives from being quarantined; the fear that something unspeakably bad is happening; the endlessly uttered admonishment to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else. I had a few of those themes in my dream, too!

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Even though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains. “COVID-19 is worrying our dreaming mind like our waking mind,” Barrett says. “Dreaming is thinking, only in a different state. It’s more emotional, less linear.” Our unconscious process is not censored for logic or appropriateness in the same way our conscious process is.

Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician from Media, had a virus-linked dream not long ago set in the Conshohocken IKEA, a favorite spot her family visited for hours on Saturdays.

In her dream, the store was closing, and she suddenly realized no one was wearing a mask or standing six feet apart. “It was strange because I was concerned, yet I was so happy to be there,” she said. “It felt nice to be among people again.”

A couple of elements didn’t add up in Mark Berman’s dream, either. A South Philadelphia graphic designer, he has a fear of heights.

Yet, in his subconscious, he was hiking along a snowy cliff — and smiling. Suddenly, he fell, but he caught hold of a ledge that saved his life. Soon enough, Berman found himself harnessed, first being yanked upward, then learning how to climb on his own. He accelerated as he ascended the cliff, which turned into the balconies at the Academy of Music. “A voice in my head was saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘Just pull yourself up.’ ”

More sleeping means more dreaming

What Barrett is learning from her survey is that people are recalling more dreams than they ever have, and that the dreams seem more emotionally charged. Because many of us are sheltering in place and not working, we sleep longer. The longer sleep means more dreams and more memories of them. Dreams are loaded into sleep later in the night. We dream every 90 minutes when we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM period of dreaming lengthens the more hours we sleep. So, if we sleep eight hours, the last REM period (the sixth or seventh overall in the night) is the longest, and can last for 30 minutes. “Typically,” Barrett said, “our last REM is when we have the most vivid dreams. The longer we sleep, the more intensively we’re catching up on our dreams.”

In her survey, people had either literal dreams that depicted precise aspects of the virus, or metaphorical ones that reflected the panic and chaos people are experiencing. She heard from dreamers who saw themselves get infected, then become unable to breathe. They sought medical help but couldn’t make it to the hospital. The biggest cluster of metaphoric dreams was about bugs, Barrett said: writhing worms, advancing cockroaches, grasshoppers chomping with vampire fangs. “We use the word bug to describe an unseen sickness,” Barrett said. That’s likely why we dream of them attacking.

By far the worst dreams Barrett discovered were endured by health-care professionals: “They were full-on, classic trauma nightmares.” Doctors and nurses were unable to slide tubes down patients’ throats. Ventilators choked to a halt. Injections became impossible as every needle broke. In some cases, patients turned into zombies who attacked anyone with a face mask. Other virus victims had to be chained to beds to keep them from killing neighbors. Doctors felt huge guilt in their dreams, as though they’d infected patients.

In one of the worst images, Barrett said, an Italian physician trying to get a better angle to intubate a patient stood on the hospital bed and lost his balance. He fell out the window, grabbing the patient who plunged with him. On the street, the doctor emerged without a scratch, but the patient had been beheaded.

“Healthcare givers’ dreams look as bad as a wartime population’s,” Barrett said. “They were uniformly horrible, and there was not a single mastery dream among them where they helped the patient live.” It is no wonder that many healthcare workers are already imagining a time “after the war” when they can get out of uniform for good!

The gift of dreams

Dreams can feel horrible or wonderful, or both in the course of a few minutes. It helps to discuss them. Parents will help their children if they take the time to listen. Instead of dismissing “bad” dreams or saying, “Don’t pay attention to them,” it is better to share them. Sharing in a safe place can defang them, if needed. The more we talk about our dreams, the better we understand them and the better we can deal with the stress they often represent.

In the Bible, as you probably know, dreams are often the place where people are given prophetic words or direction in the middle of distressing situations. Think of Joseph in prison (waking up, above) or Joseph and the holy family about to be hunted by Herod. Sometimes people wonder why no one seems to get these spiritually-supercharged dreams anymore. For one thing, they do get them. For another, Deirdre Barrett might remind us, people don’t sleep like they used to sleep. Their mindspace has been colonized by Dreamworks.

Lately, our pastors have been dreaming about who we are as the church in the new era that may follow the lockdown. These six distressing weeks, and counting, have also provided some space to dream as a whole community. As in my dream, I think we are seeing what we have that is most important. The pastor team and our other leaders and staff have been gelling in new ways and seeing the future in new ways. Our businesses got clobbered and will re-emerge in new ways. I hope the whole society feels chastened and comes back with a new look at reality after we see what callous capitalism has done to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, and we see what our incompetent and strangely uncaring leaders are really doing in Washington, while the local and state leaders come through for us.

Maybe you are not privileged to start dreaming positive dreams yet. Your dreams may be more filled with trauma than with a bright future. I can certainly understand that. I hope you are finding a place to talk them over in your cell, your family, or with your pastor or therapist. The final end of the virus nightmare is uncertain, but that end will surely come.

If you feel unsuccessful at turning into a new mindset or dealing with your anxiety you can still have moments when you join in the community’s dreams. There is something new forming among us (maybe even in the whole country). I don’t think anyone is left out of it. Even if parts of us seem to be going in all sorts of directions and the cityscape of our insides is full of threats, the message to me was that the riches I need are still in my back pocket. We’ll make it home if we stay on the way of Jesus.

In this world you will suffer: The Lord’s unloved promise

Each personal defense system was built to avoid or alleviate suffering inflicted by our family and then inflicted by the world, as soon as we stepped into it. When I called my contractor the other day, his kids were sheltering in place in the background and beating one another up. He said, “They hit each other one minute and love on each other the next until you can’t tell the difference.” One of them had just come up to say, even though dad was on the phone, “But Dad, he hit me!”  We feel powerless to defend ourselves against our suffering but spend most of our time trying to access enough power to stop it and get through to love. Something or someone is always supposed to be fixing the injustices and afflictions of the world so we can get loved.

Or so we think. My friend’s dad got drunk every week for who knows why. It would seem it was because he felt bad about his life and had found a way to get relief. But his sons experienced his relief as terror, since he often came home angry. Their lives were uncertain when the thing they needed to feel most was certainty. Now that they are older, they struggle with anxiety, since everything feels uncertain and they feel left alone to get it under control.

Or so they think. The pandemic threatens to push them over the edge. As they are hypervigilant to avoid the disease, feelings from their deep memories are triggered. They’re trying to keep off or clean off the latest manifestation of the dis-ease they have faced their whole lives!

I Have Overcome The World" | Efisio Cross - YouTube
Click for “I Have Overcome The World” by Efisio Cross

How do I feel OK with suffering?

Now that these friends are Christians, it seems even more evident that God should be taking care of them and helping them to avoid suffering. God should be that something or someone who is supposed to be fixing the injustice of the world. The logic seems clear, “If God loves me, shouldn’t he be a better father and spare me this pain?” Sounds good to me.

But Jesus plainly says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I don’t think he meant to speak only to his first disciples when he said that, either. He meant to speak to you and me, too.

People want peace in the middle of their mess and they can’t get it. One of the reasons is because they have always been certain that their brother should stop hitting them! (And he should!) But he probably won’t. And the 1% probably won’t stop trying to make the economic depression we are headed into be anything less than as profitable as possible for them, either!  There will be trouble. And there you go. Do you say, “But I don’t like trouble; trouble triggers my deepest fears; is Jesus going to save me or not?”

The Greek word thlipsin is translated a number of synonymous ways in John 16:33: trouble, tribulation, trials and sorrows, suffering, oppression, distress, and affliction. We can’t go one day without feeling these things. I called to cancel Direct TV – it was trouble; I forgot my mask when I went out; the contractors broke a ceiling fixture in the hall; the microwave fell off the wall and broke the stove; I hurt my back – and that was just one day! Then there is the perennial stuff: my friend was going to call and they forgot, my mother won’t speak to me, my father lost his memory – and I lost my job when they made us all shelter in place and then the unemployment compensation system crashed.

“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says, “be en-couraged, be filled with courage.” Other translations say, “Take heart, cheer up, be brave, have confidence,” because, Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Well, that is the problem! People believe Jesus when he says that but they don’t always feel it.

There are a lot of reasons we don’t get the peace

Most of the reasons we don’t get the peace Jesus promises have to do with how we see things. Jesus makes statements like the famous line above to his disciples because they fundamentally have to change their view of the world.

  1. We have to admit the world is a problem every day.
  2. We have to accept the world, including myself, is not a problem I am condemned to fix (or not) every day.
  3. We must come to feel mysterious, beautiful and loving forces beyond our control and even understanding are at work on our behalf. We we can trust Jesus to bring things to right.

How you see yourself, others and God starts out as part of the problem. But Jesus says, “Cheer up! You are going to overcome with me!”

Changing my point of view is all there is to getting peace? No. But if the “eyes of your heart are dark, how great the darkness!” If we follow around the anxieties of our unen-couraged selves and overlay them with habits of control or aggression or despair, we are going to prove impervious to peace. Saying it is God’s fault my brother hit me, or making sure my Dad knows it is not my fault, or just accepting being hit won’t end up in peace. We have to live the new life that comes with overcoming the old:

  1. Don’t rely on the passing away world,
  2. Bring what you have to the dying world and let your truth and love bear whatever fruit in bears
  3. Don’t just see, but trust the goodness of God Jesus has won for you.

Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné – Iconic Photos

Part of the big trouble we will always have in the world is not getting moved along by the trouble — getting used to trouble instead of suffering it. We’ve got to respond to Jesus when he is teaching us, not just know about his teaching. We need to overcome with him. In his memoir Albert Schweitzer recounted hiring doctors for his hospital in the jungle of Gabon. He said he never hired anyone who thought he was doing something grand and heroic. He knew the only doctors who would last were those who thought what they were doing was as ordinary and necessary as doing the dishes: “There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering.” He heard what Jesus was saying. The Lord’s own suffering overcomes the world, not just his resistance to it and surely not his resentment of it.

We need to train for peace

We may not suffer with Jesus because we can smell hardship a mile away. But to get peace  we will need to train ourselves to change our views and our habits to match the way to peace that leads through suffering. Sticking with Jesus in peace is not a spontaneous flowering of good character or the fruit of excellence, it is doing what we are trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship but in those whose training embraced hardship and taught them to overcome it. Gwen and I have been doing some reminiscing this week as our house is sold and our stuff is moved. The house itself taught us to overcome, since it was a constant problem to master. But, even more, it represents an era in which we both took on the suffering and trained to be our true selves. Gwen’s quest is represented  by her education for psychotherapy and my quest is represented in spearheading the planting of Circle of Hope. Facing the troubles has been a sweet suffering all along the way, and it has been accompanied by an ever-deeper peace.

Some people are happy this moment in history, marked by coronavirus, may launch a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. It may exorcise the tide of “safetyism,” which has gone overboard. The grandiose people of the empire float on their high tide thinking they can control their destiny and prevent anything that can go wrong. They are either in denial and a menace to others, or deep in guilt and a menace to themselves. The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.

That’s a big part of what Jesus was saying when he said, “Be of good cheer!” You are OK whether there is trouble or not! On the one hand, you have strength beyond yourself to create goodness out of rubble. Even more, on the other hand, Jesus is a living promise that your suffering is not useless, even if it is just reminding you that you need to be saved. Like the Lord’s suffering resulted in new life wherever he walked and resurrection after he died, so will ours.

That piece of logic might not help you feel peace even if it works wonders for me. One of my friends texted me: “If I can learn to trust an uncertain promise from the Lord I might just be saved.” I replied, “Yes. You may come to know another certainty that is free of the former manacles. You’re on the way.” At this point in my life, I don’t think it would be great if Jesus prevented all my suffering. I don’t blame God for the uncertainty of every day. Even at my age, I am looking forward to the unpredictability of what will happen next in love. I will have trouble, but it is trouble that is being redeemed, and then the fullness of overcoming!

Lockdown grief and joy

We’ve been packing up our house for quite a while. Now we are at the last moment before the move this week. So that was disorienting enough!

Then Covid-19 stole the best together-times of the year: the sunrise meeting for Resurrection Sunday and the parties afterward. Gwen and I usually have a party. I was sad enough about moving and missing things until family and friends started telling us how much they were missing things with me! So on the most joyous day of the year, I was sad, too.

Angie sent over a video that made me cry for joy and tear up for sadness because a flash mob was praising God in the mall but we can’t do that together right now.

So that’s how it is this year. The lockdown finally got to me on Easter. But it feels kind of fresh, too. On Good Friday, I wrote the poem that follows. I thought I’d put it out there again, now that I know even better how we all have a bittersweet taste in our mouths: sweet from Easter candy and bitter from Easter coronavirus. Things may never be the same for us this year, because of joy or because of sadness, but Jesus will be our joy and ever with us in our sadness.

On Friday, my thoughts turned to the terror and ecstasy of birth. I’ve got a feeling we are all being cleansed in a way by this strange, communal experience of “social distancing” and the threat of catching the virus.  I know I feel like something new is being born. It made me think of another notable birth I experienced.

My wife was as big as a barn.
Her water broke with a flood
and the twins rode the river.

The birthing room was a bedlam:
our household peeking in,
a class walking through gaping.

Crazy, wondrous — jolt after jolt.
The first twin came out blue,
The next surfed out, tubing it.

Grief — surrounded on the table.
Joy — held by a slimy ankle.
I was suspended between.

The blue baby pinked up enough,
the flying one tucked up next.
And the birth-threatened love lived.

All was well again.

Awake at 3, the night bird sang;
I’m awake to listen.
And then the siren sounded.

The song of love met the tragic:
a tulip pushes up,
a loved one moves through the veil.

Our grief is budding out this year
like an unknown blossom
in a dystopic garden.

Our birthing room is a bedlam:
Peeking, pushing, pinking.
We are suspended between.

All will be well again.

Anxious children: Help for the long days of the stay-at-home

4 ways to help your anxious kid
Nan Lee in the NY Times

Now the quarantine seems like it has gone on too long, and April 30 may not be the end of it! People with jobs are longing for them. People without jobs might be getting more anxious all the time. And the children don’t know what to make of it all. People even report disoriented pets who have trouble finding their own space with everyone home all the time!

Hopefully last night’s soothing music and meditation helped.

The breath prayer in today’s Daily Prayer has many applications: (inhale) Cause me to see (exhale) beyond the cross. We are definitely getting better acquainted, every day, with the “cross” and more of us are literally facing death in our relationship circles. Resurrection may seem like a long way away and it might seem silly to mention it. But hanging on to the life we were given and the life we’ll be getting is the core of health.

People are saying lots of good things that Jesus followers can use to help their families cope. Here’s a bit of advice adapted from the New York Times.

Build on the foundations you have

What the parents bring to this situation is what the children will get. Doing fun things and having a creative, consistent schedule is important. But the most important thing is you, the parent, and you all, the marriage, and everyone, the relationships beaming in on the screen and nurtured in the imaginations.

“The most important thing is for children to have caring adults that they’re engaged with.,” — Sherrie Westin (president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street)

Long-term studies on children in England found that kids who were separated from their parents during World War II (to keep them safe from bombings in London) were more likely to have insecure attachment styles and lower levels of psychological well-being decades later, compared with those who stayed with their parents, even while being bombed.

Children who are prone to anxiety may find this period especially challenging. But all the experts emphasize that stable routine and simple affection make a lot of difference. Even in the healthiest families, “You’re probably going to see increased tantrumschallenges with sleep or behavioral issues as folks acclimate to a new normal for a while,” said Dr. Rahil Briggs (Psy.D., national director of Zero to Three’s HealthySteps program). But, we need to “trust in the foundation we’ve built with our children,” she said. “It will help us to ride this out.”

Dandelion and orchid

You are probably familiar with the “dandelion and orchid” metaphor to describe children. It was developed by Dr. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher. labels are always dangerous, but they can help us consider how to love our child as they are and not according to who they should be. The theory says the vast majority of children are “dandelions” — meaning they are pretty resilient and able to deal with stress as it comes. So worrying about them too much might actually diminish their resilience and make them overly dependent on you. The balance takes discernment, so we might need to help each other see how we parent.

Dr. Boyce estimates about 20 percent of children are “orchids.” As he described them on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2019, “the orchid child is the child who shows great sensitivity and susceptibility to both bad and good environments.” They may be more sensitive because of a combination of biological and environmental reasons. No one really knows why we turn out how we do, everyone needs the Savior.

If you are caring for an orchid (and some of them are fully grown and you married them!) he or she may be struggling more than usual right now, with all of the changes this pandemic has wrought on their daily life. Plus they are watching inspiring dandelion stories on TV all the time. Dr. Boyce’s research shows that orchids thrive on regular routines — routines that have had to be rejiggered considerably in the past month or two.

Help for the orchids that helps dandelions, too

Experts have some common sense ideas to help your anxious children right now. Though these methods are geared toward orchids, they can work on your upset dandelions as well (and maybe your mate!).

 Label what’s happening. Just acknowledging the recent changes to your children’s lives can feel validating. With young kids, you can keep an ongoing list of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Brainstorm this list verbally with your kids — for example, “You used to go to a school building, that has changed, but you still have Mommy tucking you in every night, that’s the same.” By doing so, it will make them feel less alone in their feelings, because they’ll know they’re not the only one noticing that things aren’t the way they used to be.

When we were zooming with the grandchildren the other day. I wondered how Paul was doing with all these changes. Not only did his day-to-day get disrupted, he actually moved to a new apartment in the middle of it all! That is a lot for a six-year-old to feel. I thought he seemed a little tired and it took a while for his ebullient self to emerge. Seeing his grandparents (with whom he had been living) and being with his cousins was good tonic. Dad needs to help him label it all.

 Resolve your own anxiety. This is ongoing, good advice. It needs to be said again because  parents’ anxiety can make kids feel unsettled.

“Our kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents.” — Abi Gewirtz (Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the forthcoming book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids)

If you are showing your anxiety it leaches into your relationships. The Times put together 10 tips for easing your anxiety, but our church has tons more in Daily Prayer: WIND and WATER every day and all through the Way of Jesus. Plus you can call up you cell leader or pastor and avail yourself of Circle Counseling. We don’t need to go it alone.

Teach children to meditate. Basic mindfulness techniques can be learned at a young age. Progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and then release individual groups of muscles — can be helpful for anxious kids. The University of Washington has a progressive muscle-relaxing script just for little ones that you can read to your children. Here is a YouTube video that does the same.

Some people have been actively including their children in the Holy Week offerings, including the breath prayers. If they don’t get the prayers intellectually, they can probably get the breathing physically. Learning how to consciously breathe deep is helpful in itself. Having Jesus with you as you do is much better. Try teaching them, “I am loved…by God and my family.”

Create a schedule with pictures. Predictability is very important for anxious children. One way to soothe kids who don’t read yet is to make a schedule that has images depicting the routine of the day. Really detailed schedules are not necessary or even helpful. We’re all overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about making some elaborate plan that would be impossible to execute.

The schedule can be as simple as, here are four things we do every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, cuddles. You can add in special events like walking the dog, watching another episode, playing a game, Zooming with Papa (A must! He’s feeling stuff too!). We want to have a simple life. Here is our chance, for a bit. It is OK to slow it down.

We’ve been doing a good job at sharing our good ideas (leave some comments here of on the Parents List). But now the quarantine is losing its novelty and our first bursts of enthusiasm are growing thin. Now is when we develop that great patience God has with us all as we make our way through our natural lives.  Faith, hope and love make it through the fire and into the age to come. Providing an environment for those core characteristics to develop, in the middle of a pandemic, when anxiety is rising, is something we can all do as we keep turning toward Jesus and His people.

Jesus enters the holy quarantine

I fired my contractors last week. They delayed the project three months and did not spend my payments according to the agreement. Even though the rehab is not done, we have to move (in the middle of a pandemic!), to make way for movement of movers pushing our buyers into our house.

happy quarantine

So last night we said goodbye to grandmother’s table which has been such a good friend to our family and to community-building. And so I woke up early this morning worrying about how to cancel the insurance and get rid of the last loads of accumulated stuff before the new owners arrive. You can imagine the mess, I am sure.

Remembering

I could barely remember what day it was last week. So it took me a minute to remember it was Palm Sunday, as I prayed yesterday. Once I remembered, it took me a minute to be there with Jesus. I said, “You are entering my Jerusalem and I am tempted to ignore you.” Then a wave of “remembrance” washed over me and I was present once again.

I did not mean I was completely ignoring Jesus. I know Jesus is with me, and even the turmoil of my prolonged transition this year has deepened my faith and gratitude. What I meant was, “I am as preoccupied as I imagine most of Jerusalem was when the Messiah made a symbolic entry into town, duly recognized as King by a minority, soon to go through his own mysterious transition through death into life to make a way for us all.”

As I continued to meditate, I had a few nice minutes thinking of someone other than myself and my distress.

Weeping

weeping over quarantine

I wondered what it would be like for Jesus to enter New York or Washington DC. The New York Times said of Trump’s latest briefing, “The president veered from grim warnings to baseless assurances in a single news conference as he predicted a surging death toll in what may be ‘the toughest week’ of the coronavirus pandemic.” On Palm Sunday, there were 1.2 million known cases, with 65.000 deaths attributed. China and Iran minimized statistics; the U.S. government dithered about how to proceed while New York continued to be clobbered.

Surely Jesus must be weeping over cities where people are stuck navigating this storm without any of his resources.

Counting

I ventured out with my mask firmly in place to borrow a truck from a loving friend so I could transport materials my contractor stored at his house. My friend’s kids were quarantined and stir crazy. His oldest had managed to string a pulley system between the neighbors and her upstairs window. I wondered what it would be like for Jesus to enter into that household and neighborhood. I know I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention. His phone did not work. His doorbell did not work. I finally had to interrupt the transport of cookies between third floors to get the keys. It is hard to disrupt total disruption

Surely Jesus is looked beyond the palm wavers and counted the hairs on the heads of all the shop owners along the way who were glad for a crowd because the wife and kids needed sandals. He also noticed the harried wife and her kids, one still nursing. Surely Jesus sees the sick or anxious people staring with little hope as another preoccupied parade goes by and they are left in the dust with their distress.

Intending

Syrian kids about to go to quarantine
A former school in Syria, inhabited by displaced families, being disinfected. (AFP or licensors)

My mind often turns to Syria. It turned as I prayed on Palm Sunday. What would it be like for Jesus to enter there, where Covid-19 has just taken its first victim? We can only hope the worst does not occur. The war has left more than half of the country’s hospitals non-functional. There is a lack of drinking water, food, and medicine, and a shortage in healthcare personnel. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in overcrowded camps in unhygienic conditions, where it is impossible to think of washing hands to fight the spread of infection, according to the Vatican. Now the borders are closed. The humanitarian crisis had left the screens of the West before the pandemic began — so interest has dried up. The churches are shut down and agencies giving aid are severely hampered.

The big plan in the Lord’s mind as he rode on his donkey may not have been so clear in detail as it was crystal clear in intent. The Syrians are not left out of eternal life. But what if you did not have enough water for your children to wash their hands more than once a day or so? There has never been Purell on the shelves there. I can’t imagine. But I can imagine the miracle it would take to penetrate that trouble.

In my small distress, the Lord penetrated my trouble. And I decided not to feel guilty for how small a trouble it is, relatively. I decided not to push my feelings down, bad and blessed, because they seem silly compared to what others face. Perhaps I am a turkey vulture, not a sparrow, but the Lord still sees me fall. If my life could have been less of a mess with better choices, the Lord is still looking for eye contact. If I can’t even imagine  what it is like for people much worse off than I am, the Lord can still imagine how worth His life is to resurrect me and fill my quarantine with hope.