My freedom is an act of soul, not a feature of my condition

After I presented to the BIC’s Theological Study Group in May on our approach to “church discipline,” the convener’s first words in response were, “That was unconventional.”

I was still reflecting on my surprise at that response when I was in Assisi. There I refreshed my understanding of Francis’ radical response to the call of Lady Poverty and his identification with the marginalized. Now that’s unconventional! Like I wrote before, he was presciently rebelling against the beginnings of the exploitative capitalism Americans confuse with “freedom” these days.

It was depressing for Francis to realize the economy of Italy and the church was devoted to war and profit, and violence was always waiting to keep the powerless in line. As he went to the war front in Egypt and resisted writing a stifling agreement about his community for the church bureaucracy, he experienced his own powerlessness and it transformed him. He experienced what Paul was describing when he said his freedom made him a slave to all. And he was doing what Jesus did when he not only took on humanity, but put himself in the place of a slave – a devalued person who can be killed with impunity.

A freedom far too easily pleased

Last week’s further revelation for me was an insightfully written piece of history in the NYT Magazine: In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.It describes the conventions of the U.S. economy and the church which normally colludes with it. When we see how the legacy of slavery still has us in slavery, it calls for a lot more than unconventionality!

I have persistently railed against the corporate and now “gig” economy as basically elements of a slave economy. But I mostly reacted instinctively. This article provides an interesting back up argument for what I see all around me. In the U.S. we are subject to the premier example of “low-road” capitalism and so many of us think it is better, even God’s will meant to provide us the freedom of individual choice. I won’t paste in the whole article, but this gives you the feeling for what Francis was rebelling about:

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. …

A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.

Women and children in a cotton field in the 1860s. J. H. Aylsworth, via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This not only created a starkly uneven playing field, dividing workers from themselves; it also made “all nonslavery appear as freedom,” as the economic historian Stanley Engerman has written [example]. Witnessing the horrors of slavery drilled into poor white workers that things could be worse. So they generally accepted their lot, and American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter. It was a freedom far too easily pleased….

If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.

Freely joining the stigmatized

As Francis was limping off into his solitude after being essentially defeated by the entrenched ways of European culture, his defeat was already becoming his glory. It was well-known that he hid the marks of Jesus that began to appear and bleed on his body. The last thing he wanted was to become the object of a curial investigation or a commodity to be consumed by vacationers to Assisi. He quickly became those after he died, but he wanted to die in freedom.

“The five wounds that Francis bore were a body sermon which proclaimed two things: Frist, his abiding desire to stay on the side of the people who went about their whole lives with various stigmas – beggars, criminals, or lepers; second, Francis’ body revealed how much he himself has been injured and humiliated against his will, branded a loser in his contest with the powerful, and clearly conscious of his impotence” (in The Last Christian by Adolf Holl).

It was in this terrible condition that Francis  found himself free. He was finally like Jesus at the last Supper giving himself as food to the community in utter, fearless openness, free of the defenses and demands that run our days and make our societies.

In Assisi I saw some splendorous and kitschy crucifixes that belied the wounds of Francis and the the Lord. We’re not so open to freedom. When we see the poor we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I pondered the paper cut of a forgivable slight while Francis received the spiritual slash of the spear.

Freedom the world cannot supply

I pondered the “cut” I felt at the study group, not only because it was thoughtless (and easily excused), but mainly because it was a tiny cost I paid for being “unconventional.” Francis was slavishly following the example of Paul who imitated Jesus by being unconventional for the sake of the salvation of sinners and freedom from death. My marks of suffering with Jesus are probably enough, but they can seem tiny in comparison.

Houston’s pitching staff, which includes Wade Miley, Joe Smith, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, benefits greatly from the work of the team’s analytics department.
Astros pitchers

We’re kind of surprised we suffer at all. Even though Jesus dies for us, and tells us we will be persecuted if we do not conform to the world, we still think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  If we work too hard at anything, we think, “This better be worth it!” When we suffer for something or suffer against something we think we’re extraordinary don’t we?

But suffering for or suffering against are probably too weak as ideas if we want to understand what Jesus and the Bible writers teach. The fighting against or for something will be unconventional for most of us, but they aren’t at the heart of things. Francis was not just a great rebel; his extreme obedience was not the point of his life!  he was just trying to follow Jesus with all his heart and that was trouble enough.

Right now, the Houston Astros are riding high on the back of a clubhouse motto:  Be the best version of the best player you can be. I imagine a few of them are Christians and this fits right into their faith. We could put it up as a motto for our cell: This is a place where you can become the best version of the true self you are called to become. That will cause enough trouble.

And suffering enough trouble is important. Can the poet compose without rebellion? Is there any truth without radical obedience? Like Jesus, my freedom, my poetry and obedience, is an act of heart, soul, mind and strength, in league with the development of my true self and the restoration of creation. My freedom is not a condition monitored by the police. America is not the land of my opportunity.

I am not a slave by birth but by rebirth. Some of us think our present condition of servitude is just our lot, to be rebelled against or obeyed — welcome to the ways of the world.  Jesus, Paul, and Francis all know better. They are free to live in the Spirit. The world doesn’t generally like them, but the self-giving love of being among the marginalized tastes like joy.

Is Circle of Hope too political?

The man was not a big fan of the church to begin with, but that’s another story. When he walked back into a meeting not long ago after a prolonged absence, he was immediately hit with an impassioned speaker calling us to prayer about a burning issue. I can’t remember which issue. It could have been caged children or climate change, the heroin scourge or income disparity, or the continued marginalization of Philadelphia school children.  In our church it would be surprising if something like that were not a part of the meeting; it’s part of our liturgy. After all, our proverb says: We are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.

He left the meeting angry and pretty much decided not to come again. When the pastor asked him about it, he asked her back, “Why is Circle of Hope so political?”

Circle of Hope protesting at the DNC

The question has been asked many times before and never by someone who was lost in wonder. So let’s ask it again. Is Circle of Hope too political? If you’re part of another rendition of the church (I know this gets read in India periodically), you can ask it about your own church: “Why are we, or are we not, so political?”

First, about the word

The word “political” has two general meanings. The first one is not what the man was worried about, but it might have been what the church was doing. The word political can simply name something  relevant to politics — it has political origins, implications, or effects.

To politicize something in this sense means to make it a topic of politics and public concern, that’s all. It does not necessarily belong to a party or even a “side.” It is just an issue we share. President Obama’s former science advisor John P. Holdren used the term this way when he noted, “Science is already politicized (even if many scientists themselves resist admitting it),” because decisions about public funding for science are “made through a political process.”

But the word political also has a second meaning that links it directly to political activity. People use the word this way when talking about “political competition” or “political protest,” or when saying a previously routine matter “has become very political.” If something is political in this sense, it is about moving the people toward one’s desired ends, or just thwarting one’s competitor, usually with politics understood as the pursuit of power.

To politicize something in this sense thus often has a pejorative meaning, suggesting unsavory methods and a lack of principle. In debates over climate change, vaccines, and similar issues, critics of mainstream science often claim it has been politicized in this sense. Bob Walker, for example, a former congressman and campaign adviser to Donald Trump, recently said that “Climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.”

Sometimes we are too political

It is the second sense of the word that my friend walked out on. In the cutthroat political atmosphere of the U.S., many people are sick of everything being political. Someone struggles with their identity and they enter a political competition in which one needs to choose a side before they can figure out which side they might be on if there were even a reason to have sides! Very few people think children separated from their parents and sent to unknown places is a good thing, but once it gets to be a political struggle among the authorities it is hard to remember what we agree about.

I have walked out on a few of our presentations myself, at least in my heart. When someone comes before the group assuming we all agree and then implies that everyone on another side of their issue is in league with the devil (and they often mean the Republicans!) that’s too much for me. We’re often as bad as the politicians who seem to be playing a blood sport instead of serving the common good. Such people actually think if they don’t play politics well, nothing will get done. Maybe they are right about the Senate, but they are not right about the kingdom of God. I don’t need to cite a Bible verse; you all know that the ways of the world are not the way of Jesus.

We’ve done ample theology about the holiness of one’s cup.

No one played politics like that less than Jesus. That has to be a main reason the government killed him. He violated all their rules while being perfectly innocent before them! At the end, he was the forgiving victim of their power struggle and then rose from the dead to show how powerless it really was. So if we are throwing out Jesus to engage in society’s  power struggle in the name of Jesus (since we need to play politics well to get the will of God done), I’d say we are WAY too political. If our politics-become-holiness damns people with whom Jesus is not finished, we are WAY too political.

Everything, in a sense, is political

The first sense of the word is less understood these days, it seems, at least among Christians. On the one hand, many blindly accept that politics means a competition for who wins. More commonly, on the other hand, they think being involved in politics is dirty, so they just avoid the whole thing. Their solution to being overly involved and responsible is to be avoidant and irresponsible. “The church should not be involved in politics,” is what they say. Since we are the church, I suppose that implies a strangely divided heart  — part of us involved in “church,” but the rest of us allowed to be involved in politics.

There is not much that is not political if we are all in this together. The word came into common use from the title of Aristotle’s book meaning “affairs of the cities” or “of the people.” Whatever rises to the attention of the people is politicized. For instance, in U.S.  society, people are debating whether Flint’s tainted water is a political football, or just something everyone should be concerned about. Should refugee families (or just anyone trying to cross the border) go through ten years of arguing and anxiety among the powers that be or should they be cared for in a respectful way? Should politicians use science to scare people or to help people? Americans don’t know the answers to those questions, as a people, but they are political questions for everyone.

In this first, major sense of the word, Jesus was wildly political. The Romans knew he was a rival king, questioning the legitimacy of their power. The religious leaders knew he was a rival rabbi, teaching things that upended the status quo and questioning the foundations of their retributive law and scapegoating system. Greedy, sexually immoral, unreconciled, uncaring, godless people all found their conditions raised up into public view as Jesus taught, healed and saved — all in the public eye, for the most part, raising the issue of a right relationship with God, revealing our utter need for grace. Nothing was privatized, nothing was hidden, nothing was only secular or sacred.

If anything, our church is not political enough!

Don’t get me wrong, if “political” is just more insensitive “holiness” that angrily draws lines and damns the other side motivated by a worldly lust for power that’s not from the Lord. We might as well be Democrats instead of Christians, who will never have the forgiving victim, Jesus, at the center of their platform.

But if, as Jesus followers, we persistently raise the questions that need to be answered by the people in this era, I think we are in step with the Lord. For the most part, we don’t shy away from boldly raising the questions, even if someone walks into our meeting and judges us according to their unloving (or maybe just unconsidered) standard.

Our compassion teams often bring up what needs to be brought up while never having a meeting. Do we need to be slaves to debt? Do black lives matter? Can we stop mass incarceration of people of color and the poor while the 1% are unaccountable? Can we find ways to share? Can at least the Christians hold hands across the borders? Can we proactively make the peace we all want rather than the war that never achieves it?  Can we live in harmony with our watershed? Can we feel the land and farm it even in the city? Can doing business do good? Do children and the suffering have to live on the margins? And more. I think they do politics well. they bring things up with their actions, not just their tweets. That’s a lot like Jesus.

Like I said, I think most everything Jesus did was purposely “political” in the first sense of the word.  For one final example, one of the most overtly political things he did was go into the Temple and reclaim it as a house of prayer. The people who dominated the temple questioned his politics.

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:18-9.

At his trial his accusers said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

The accusers were talking about the central political symbol of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish people and Jesus was talking about himself. The presence of God needed to become a political issue. As it turns out, the accusers were unwittingly right, His death destroyed the old order and his resurrection created the new. That’s good politics. We dare not be pushed off the scene by fear or disdain, when we look at others or they look at us. Jesus came for us all and people need to see that. Jesus can transform our politics, starting with his church, and people need to hope that.

Lessons for the church from the Narcissist in Chief

Could it be that “it takes a village” of narcissists to get a president who appears to have NPD?

I was up in arms (again) when Trump went to Dayton/Toledo and then El Paso and managed to make the story about himself and how he was treated. The HuffPost France made a disapproving video about it:

The news media is in awe of how he can do these heartless things and get away with it. But he’s the master a making sure nothing can get to him. They no longer try to be polite, “Can’t he see he is a jerk?” But I think people miss the big point of the narcissist psychological defense. The whole point of narcissism is not seeing and NOT feeling.  I think that is why he so often talks about himself in the third person. He is talking about the persona he has so carefully cultured to get affirmation and other comforts his true person has no hope of receiving.

Narcissism is a village issue

But we all have this overlay of narcissism – the constant scanning the horizon for anything that can pierce our armor and point out how empty we have made ourselves and how underneath it all we fear our intolerable shame. When we get pushed towards that shame we erupt with blame to get the attention back out on the “other” and how they are or should be responding to the persona that has swallowed our personhood. {We’ve talked about this before].

I say “we” even though many of us aren’t organized that way because the whole country seems a bit like a narcissist food fight. The people on screens that dominate our days are all performing an image or are themselves images scorning someone else. No one seems to have an alternative.

There isn’t an alternative jumping up into view because so many of the people running the “show” which is the United States are working out a narcissistic wound. I think all of us experience the overlay in one way or another, since we are all schooled to present a persona that can be hired and can avoid offending people. It’s the way we learn to get affirmation in a rather heartless world. As we know, as Trump has often said, if we do not succeed, we are losers.

Narcissism comes to the Sunday meeting

Long before the country spawned Trump, the influence of the narcissistic wound we all carry was developing (or undeveloping) the church. The church is under attack by your narcissism, too.

There are a few signs of it:

  • Can’t stand to be wrong or wronged?
  • Can’t repent and don’t like hearing about it?
  • Find reading the daily prayer threatening or boring or for “others?”
  • Suspicious of most people in the church? Isolated?
  • Can’t build something, only assess what you are being provided? or what’s missing?
  • Looking for affirmation all day? Angry when it feels denied to you?

Obviously, you don’t need to be pulled by narcissism to act and feel these ways. But, as painful and unlikely as it might be, it would be good to recognize that you are being pulled around by it, if you are, and not just righter or more wronged than everyone else.

Image result for narcissism in the church
Could be the scorning persona and the unloved child

The U.S. is pretty much a unique place. The whole country seems to feel entitled to rule the world on the basis of its exceptional nature. Presently the president heaps daily scorn on someone who’s not “us”: shithole nations, invading brown people, Chinese cheaters, silly Europeans. A retaliatory barrage of scorn comes right back on Donald Trump and his “base.”

The U.S. stands alone behind its arsenal, untouchable, with an increasing array of sophisticated ways to scan the horizon for enemies that would expose its shame. Even citizens eager to expose the shame so we might get over it rarely expect telling the truth will do anything but make the nation more exceptional and able to live up to the idealizations of the founding fathers.

I’ve been working on this malady in myself and with clients for many years now. It is not easy to even see, much less make choices about. It is hard to sympathize with a narcissist, even oneself. They feel guilty that they can’t keep up the maintenance on their persona, but they are usually determined to try harder when they fail. They get super angry when their expectations are not met, especially if you are close to them, or in their family (or church). It is the missing closeness that sets them off, even though the lack of it is buried under layers of self-protection.

The church is a lot more than a bunch of narcissists, of course. But when Paul says our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against the powers, it makes sense to identify those powers. I’m suggesting one of them is this repeated narcissistic wound, the interactions with people who should care for us that keep resulting in messages of devaluation and indifference. If you already have the wound, it would not be surprising to get close to someone in the church and get a feeling of shame triggered. When you do, it would be great if you took a minute with God and remembered whose child you are. Take a look at Jesus and remember who was worth dying for. Get in touch with the Spirit and get a dose of empathy to spread around; we’ve all got a lot to work through.

Don’t lose heart: People are more than numbers on a mass shooting scorecard

we do not lose heart. West Philly dawn
Dawn in West Philly!

I think this is the verse which everyone who hopes young white men will stop killing people is recalling today:

“Therefore we do not lose heart.
Though outwardly we are wasting away,
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”
(2 Cor. 4:16).

During my whole life, which is comparatively long, by now, this has been a go-to verse for the many “lost causes” that go with following Jesus:

  • police killing black people, and, in general, any citizen they are sworn to protect [guns and gun laws];
  • atomic weapons in the hands of Trumps or Putins or ayatollahs, the absurdity of war in general;
  • do gooders around the world tagged as “subversive” and tormented or murdered, lack of caring and sharing in general;
  • evangelism in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian era, generally because the Christians are in the service of oppression, for reasons I have yet to fathom.

You get the idea.

The news reality TV put the death of people on the screen as if they were marks on a mass shooting scorecard, comparing the last murders to the previous, zoning in on Beto O’Rourke crying while they waited for Trump’s tweet.

The Dems blame Trump’s rhetoric for encouraging El Paso (can anyone dispute that?); the White House “pushes back” and blames the “sickness” of the shooter (can anyone dispute that?). Why those two things don’t go together, I have no idea. Surely no one on the street thinks sick people are not the first to be destroyed when the leaders are terrible and fighting with each other. Families disintegrate for the very same reasons, and dead churches litter the landscape because people thought being “right” was better than being reconciled (back to 2 Corinthians).

Don’t lose heart. Act.

Our old friend, Sarah Withrow King, reposted a Facebook entry Sunday from a Philadelphia activist now in Nashville. Her friend is trying to stay in the game, even though it is discouraging to think the country will continue to handout AK47s to anyone who wants one. Here is an excerpt I think will encourage you and maybe keep you motivated to hang on to Jesus and take action:

There was a massacre in El Paso yesterday and a terrifyingly similar attack in Dayton. The El Paso shooter was a white supremacist who posted a manifesto about hating immigrants and the Dayton shooter was also a young white male.

Yesterday when I briefly saw news of a shooting before going to bed, before much was known about it or who the shooter was or the motivations, I saw a comment on the New York Times article: someone wrote, “I don’t think it’s been even a week since the last one. I stopped crying after Parkland.” Something pierced my heart, knowing that my biggest fears are coming true: more and more collective numbness to mass shootings, and likely numbness to mass terrorist attacks by white supremacists.

I remember giving myself some guidance after a major attack a couple years ago. Here’s what I wrote to myself, which I’m repeating for my own benefit and anyone’s this morning:

    1. Feel the enormity. Whatever that feeling is.
    2. Look to people who have been doing work on the ground in the community for years, to those who live and work and are organized there, for cues on action in solidarity (psych: not Democratic hopefuls or others will expect to swoop in as heroes)
    3. Connect to those around you – emotionally, strategically. Remember you’re not alone.
    4. Respond. It’ll be messy and imperfect. Say what you want to say and do what you feel you need to do. …

So repeat it in your heart, and let tears come whether that’s this morning or later or at 3AM: There was a massacre in El Paso yesterday. 20 people are dead. The shooter was a white supremacist who posted a manifesto about hating immigrants. This is real and this is my world. — Margaret Anne Ernst  (Her blog)

As I am sure most of you think, making Facebook posts and blog posts have limited value in the face of daily disasters (like Greenland losing an amazing amount of ice in the most recent European heat wave!).  Although the myth of the echo chamber has been widely debunked, for whatever reason people are not listening to one another, much less promoting healing and creative dialogue. I think one reason many don’t listen is probably “the medium is the message.” You don’t think I am quite real as you read this, and I agree. I am much wilder and unpredictable in person, also a lot more caring, angry, irrational, wise and weird than I am here. We need the face to face.

We must make face to face happen

We no longer live in villages, generally, and spend hours online. The El Paso shooter said he spent eight hours a day there. Face to face is hard to come by. And if you are going for it, like we are in our church (and like restorative justice people are as they upend mass incarceration — listen to On the Media’s Repairing Justice: How to Fix the Internet), then you might get tired. Love can be hard. You’re swimming against the current. The need to keep making real relationships can be discouraging.

But everyday I think something like: “I hope young white men will stop killing people,” and “I hope anxious Congolese people will not kill their doctors,” and “I hope corrupt Ukrainians will not sell out their fellow-citizens,”  and “I hope Moscow Mitch will start legislating for the common good.” I can’t help it. I hope  we will settle down and talk to our children and listen. I hope we will look at our own anxiety and trust God. And I hope we will strategize how to get together when we see our own neighbors. Most of all, I hope we will build a church – the true alternative to the madness, when it is not itself, mad.

Make it a go-to with me in this potentially numbing week: “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Putting our faith in action will always be hard. But Jesus will always be with us every step of the way.

Rejection: The prophet’s dilemma

Image result for trump paper towels
Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Rican hurricane survivors.

We certainly have a lot of disappointed prophets in the U.S. these days, don’t we?! They told us exactly what would happen if Trump got elected and they were exactly right. He lies. He incarcerates children. He threatens to do something, doesn’t do it, and then says he did it and people believe him. His yet-to-be-uncovered corruption is like an iceberg ready to sink your Titanic. He’s a racist. It goes on.

The disappointed prophets lament like Jeremiah:

So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips. — Jeremiah 7

Jeremiah 7 is a good read, period. I especially like this line when I read it like an exasperated South Philly native:

“The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven.”

Only I might translate:

“The children watch their phones. The parents go to work. And someone orders Amazon Fresh to make money for the kings of capitalism.”

So what’s a prophet to do?

I’m a disappointed prophet, too. But at least I did not think Hillary was going to save the world or Barack had done so. The Democrats are well on their way to offering some other 70-year-old to lead us like some doddering Robert Mueller supposedly dispensing justice.

I feel sorry for all these old people trying to keep up. They are all older than me! And I had to text Rachel last week to get the name of someone I had known for 30 years because I was about to see them and my old brain could not bring it up fast enough! I’m disappointing enough and Joe Biden is 76! (Mark my words).

So what do we do when our prophecy is rejected?

Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.

File:Bartolomé Carducho - Death of St Francis - WGA04207.jpg
Death of St. Francis — Bartolomeo Carducci (1593). National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

A good example, at least for me these days, is what happened with the prophecy of the disappointed Francis and Clare of Assisi. Both of them had a dream that their splendid revelation about simplicity, community and love was so basic to the way of Jesus no further improvements were needed. They went about their passionate lives and communities sprung up all over Europe in imitation of them. People hungered to be connected with something authentic, serious and joyful.

But soon both Clare and Francis were pressed for a “rule”

  • That’s a rule like all the other orders of monastics (which they didn’t really think they were).
  • That’s a rule like the ones priests lived by under Canon Law (priests they never wanted to be).
  • That’s a rule according to the best practices of the experts (to whom they didn’t really feel like relating).

People listening for God heard their prophecy anyway, despite all the distractions.

Prophets speak for the Ruler, not the rules

Clare ended up suffering under a rule imposed on her little community in San Damiano based on the Benedictine Rule, which isn’t a bad rule, it just wasn’t what she had in mind after God called her. If she had wanted to be a Benedictine nun, there were plenty of opportunities.

They made Francis write a rule. The first one was a couple of pages long and was mostly quotes from the Bible. The final one, right before he went off to die, was a little more expansive, but was still more a story that a ruling doc.

Really, NOT having a rule was the point! A prophet speaks from God, they are not interested in refining some thought from the past or applying the best thinking of the present bureaucracy.

Right after Francis died, the new “order” whisked his body into hiding lest Perugia steal it. In an amazingly short time the new leader of the new order, Elias, had a basilica built to house the saint’s bones and all sorts of other intriguing things I recently saw – even Francis’ raggedy brown robe. Ironically, though unintentionally, the basilica attendants made sure I was wearing long enough pants when I entered the church and a priest told me to take off my “Italia” ball cap before I got a peek at it preserved under glass like a treasure. Francis could not have predicted my experience, or that of his robe, either.

The pope codified all the papal bulls regarding the Franciscans so they had a little handbook for how not to get out of control. They got in line. Soon St. Bonaventure had systematized the thoughts and sanitized all the stories.

Governing bodies rarely trust God and others like Francis did — a prophet always thinks something like that. For example, the last oracle of Jeremiah is:

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
and the nations weary themselves only for fire.

You might get tired of being rejected

Jeremiah is exhausted, but he is right. I’m not sure the point of saying that is, “Exhaust yourself because you are right” or “Your exhaustion with all these people makes you SO holy.” But if you don’t ignore the prophetic Spirit of  God incarnate in Jesus and rampant in the body of Christ, you will very likely get tired of being rejected. Because people will keep making cupcakes for the queen of heaven and the nations will keep wearying themselves only for fire. They’ll wreck the heavens and unleash fire on the earth. We need a savior.

Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.

Our Savior has no interest in the end of time, as far as we will ever know. The Lord is going to keep us prophesying until it is time. There is no sense imagining when that time is; we just need to keep telling the truth and living the love.

As far as the church goes, the whole enterprise is a prophetic expression of truth and love. The more we exercise our gifts, including some concentrated bomblets of prophecy, the more people get a chance to turn, be freed from the dying nonsense of the world, and be connected to the Giver of All Good Gifts.

People without Jesus know about those gifts, and people who follow Jesus know even more, now that eternity is opened up to them. Looking into eternity and sometimes speaking things that come directly from it is a joy in itself. Being a prophet is innately encouraging, it is just all that rejection that’s tough.

Francis may have died a bit disappointed in his forties, but his legacy lives on and his prophecy is revered while those who despoiled his beautiful dream are reviled.  The despoilers did not listen, but they could not destroy the truth, nonetheless. If they don’t listen to you or respect the church of Jesus Christ, nothing is new – except the prophecy of course, which always feels like it just came right off the delivery truck from the Kingdom of God.

Code switching: All us weird people need community

When I was in my early teens in California, the Vietnam War was raging and the country was dividing up. Our living room was divided, too. My father was disturbed that Aretha Franklin was playing on the radio, not to mention those haircut-challenged Beatles. And periodically, KWOW, the little country music radio station whose tower was about a mile away across the soon-to-be-tract-homed fields outside our front window, would invade the AM airwaves with something like Marty Robbins singing “Ain’t I right?” — written to warn the nation about Freedom Riders deluding Southerners. It is safe to say the U.S. has been a mess throughout my lifetime when it comes to peace and love, and most of the other things that feed our souls. We still really need each other and we can’t get together.

Code switching as a survival tool

I learned some mild code switching in my diverse and diversifying environment before I found out how important the skill was to people who did not fit into artificial norms. I was friends with the “hard guys” whose relatives exclusively spoke Spanish. I could hang with the jocks.  And I knew how to stay out of trouble with my redneck relatives. I was integrating my living room. At the same time, I also discovered Jesus and began to learn how He transcends all the competing cultures and identities vying for affirmation and power. He has a surprising knack for getting people together who just do not belong together as far as the world is concerned. He provides each of us access to a common  “code” that is a rock for us in a stormy cultural sea.

Code switching never seems to work that well, anyway. Sociologists filled up volumes talking about “alienation” until Jimmy Carter got himself fired for admitting to the national “malaise” in a TV speech. But the the lack of further honesty did not mean people felt any less left out of society and even out of connection with their own bodies. People are no more confident now than when Carter pointed out they weren’t. Sociologists have filled up even more pages about all sorts of oppressions and separations right down to assessing the commonplace indignities called microaggressions, which communicate slights and insults toward one’s supposed category.

So my personal history has been on a parallel track with people bearing the fruit of their obsession with the microaggressions they experience. The closest I got to this in my young, privileged days was feeling weird that my name is “Rodney.” People seemed to think it was odd. I never met another Rodney face to face until I arrived in PA and two were in my congregation. In California, I only knew about Rodney Allen Rippy and my dad didn’t much approve of him, either. We all think we are weird. We need community desperately so we don’t get carried away with our alienation. I even needed some Rodneys. 

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

The other day Bethany told our Coordinating Group an interesting story about moving from alienation to community. A conversation with a new co-worker turned out to be a loving meeting of the weirds. She said I could relay it to you:

I had a really interesting conversation with a coworker yesterday that I think you all should know about. My colleague asked me about an idea that he had, he wanted to teach a workshop on “code switching” to our predominantly Black and queer residents. I was typing an email as he was talking to me and I immediately stopped in my tracks. Lol. I explained to him that for me, I hear code switching as a way of asking people of color but especially Black people to assimilate to concepts of “respectability” in speech. I added that “code switching” is really a symptom of systemic racism (I try not to use the language of white supremacy a lot because that can be really off putting but… I really wanted to say that it’s a symptom of white supremacy). He went on to say that as a queer man, he views code switching as a means of safety and survival. 

We continued talking and even really got emotional as we talked about our identities with one another. I confessed that I never feel Black enough for other Black women (I was home-schooled, I grew up in the suburbs, my name is Bethany… lol) and because of systemic racism, I will also never truly be understood or accepted by White people either. He said that he never feels gay enough for gay men and that gay men don’t take him seriously. And, he never feels straight enough for straight people either. A few moments later, we simultaneously said “it’s exhausting.” 

I’m telling you this story because I was so grateful to connect with such a beautiful stranger so deeply and to even be able to tear up with one another. But, I’m also super grateful to belong with all of you. Even with our differences of experiences, lifestyles, etc., because we belong to Jesus and that serves as the crux of our foundation, I feel like we also belong to each other. I’m grateful for that.

Have you all read this article about community care? I think it unintentionally describes our Circle of Hope and our cell movement. Check it out.

Weird, code-switching people need community

The article Bethany mentioned is Self-care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive. As I read it, I said to myself, “Can this really be a thing?” Listen to this revelation:

The term community care is known in social movements and in the nonprofit world but has yet to move into mainstream culture. The concept shouldn’t be that hard to translate: Community care is basically any care provided by a single individual to benefit other people in their life. This can take the form of protests, for which community care is best known, but also simple, interpersonal acts of compassion.” 

Sociologists are now filling up pages with thoughts about how caring for someone other than yourself needs to “move into mainstream culture?!” 

I suppose I should not be surprised. The task of “mainstream culture” during my lifetime has been to promise everyone individual freedom in service to the ultimate, capitalist strategy to divide and conquer, right down to our conflicted senses of who we are as persons. I’m with Bethany. I’m glad that I have an alternative to that exhausting daily onslaught. I spent a good chunk of my adulthood trying to be a part of the alternative — a whole counterculture called Circle of Hope that not only holds on to community care, but has the spiritual power to offer it as a gift to the hollowed out U.S. society. 

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

My quest to be part of the Lord’s alternative was furthered when I recently came upon Pamela Lightsey, a queer theologian who articulately describes her resistance to being labelled according to her sexual identity. She’s all right with fighting her way out of the individual box in which society has tried to trap her, but she is not accepting the box as truth. She is larger than popular dichotomies. She insists on being considered a whole person and certainly not considered according to what she does or does not do in the bed. I am happy that the LGBTQ community has grown this resistance to all the labels of the hypermodern era, by which I think they may have been most damaged by the powers seeking to define and dominate everything.

Now we have this rambunctious new term in political and academic contexts: “queer.” It is a term that calls into question the stability of identity based on sexual orientation. In this sense, “queer” is a critique of the tendency to organize political or theoretical questions around sexual orientation per se. To “queer” becomes a way to denaturalize categories such as “lesbian” and “gay” (not to mention “straight” and “heterosexual”), revealing them as socially and historically constructed identities that have often worked to establish and police the line between the “normal” and the “abnormal.” It is unlikely to stop its denaturalizing project with those categories.

Like Bethany, I am glad I have a place to have a dialogue of alternativity with trustworthy people who not only love me, they serve my best interests. I like living in a place where my main concern is not code switching in a vain attempt to make myself presentable, if not safe. The church is a good place from which to care. After a lifetime of being weird and then being made to feel weird as a means to keep me fearing the next punch coming my way, I am glad to be weird together with a group, in Christ, who, by nature, doesn’t conform to the identities over which the world obsesses. We all have a new self in Christ connected to all the other redeemed selves by the Spirit of God. 

Goose and pig stories: The opposite of what the domination system demands

I flew to Italy on St. Kevin’s Day this year (June 3). He is another in a long line of “saints” who have shown me the beauty of doing the opposite of what the domination system demands. For more about the “domination system,” here is a summary of Walter Wink.

Victor Ambrus King O'Toole and his Goose from Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs First published 1892, this edition published 1970

 

Kevin and King O’Toole’s goose

Kevin lived through the entire 500’s in Ireland, it appears [see this old post for more]. But, of course, people were less concerned with scientific precision at that point, so who knows exactly what happened. His legacy is still happening, and most people you know named Kevin are, ultimately, named after him. He wandered off into the mountains south of what was not yet Dublin and found a remote cave, an old bronze age tomb, overlooking the upper lake of the beautiful valley of Glendalough. There he entered his hermitage to be with God and his beloved creatures.

However, people found Kevin and wanted to be near him. The story goes he decided to establish a monastery. But the pagan King O’Toole of Glendalough would not allow it. Here we go.

As the story continues, it happened that the king had a much beloved pet goose, which was now quite old. As time passed, the goose became so weak it was unable to fly. The king was very upset, for he loved the goose very much. Hearing of Kevin’s sanctity and power, the pagan king sent for him, and asked that he make the beloved goose young. Kevin asked for a payment of whatever land the goose would fly over. As the goose could no longer take flight, O’Toole agreed. When Kevin touched the bird, it grew young, and flew over the entire valley of Glendalough, and on that site the monastery was established, as well as a settlement that was famous for a 1000 years after Kevin died, the ruins of which can still be visited.

However it happened, the aristocrat, Kevin, having given up all he owned and the prerogatives of his class, made a deal with the domination system on his radical new terms, which included miracle and audacity.

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From Rossellini’s movie The Little Flowers (1950)

Juniper and the pig

Francis of Assisi rediscovered the joy of returning to Caesar what he thinks belongs to him, things like a dying goose, touched with the glory of God. So often the “render to Caesar” account is used to justify the division of the world into sacred and secular and paying one’s taxes on time. But Jesus isn’t even carrying a denarius with which to make his point. And when the system kills him, he makes his point big time with his resurrection.

Francis and the other children of the budding middle class of in Assisi whose parents were inventing capitalism got the point. It scared people mightily when the returning crusader, Benardo de Quintivalle sold off his extensive estate and gave it all away. The bishop of Assisi told Francis, “Your life seems hard to me; it must be burdensome not to have any earthly possession.” Francis answered, “My Lord, if we wanted to possess anything, then we would also need arms to defend ourselves. That is how all the quarrels and conflicts get started, and they are obstacles to love. For this reason we can possess nothing.” He did not convince the bishop and the church has been presiding over battles and blessing big business ever since. Lately some evangelicals have even embraced the godless Trump with just such power in mind.

Like Kevin, Francis brazenly confronted people with their excess by begging for it. Others gave him his hermitage site on Mt. Subasio, where I had this revelation. Others donated the little chapel in the woods of Porziuncola that became Franciscan headquarters.

The story of Brother Juniper and the pig demonstrates a mentality that flourished among the brothers of Francis before the domination system tamed them all again.  This is how it goes.

One of the brothers was sick and Juniper asked him what he might like to eat to make him feel better. The man answered, “A pig’s foot.” So Juniper went over to a herd fattening on acorns nearby and cut the leg off a pig. He cooked it up and served it to the man as he joyfully told the story of his attack.

The swineherds who had witnessed the deed, furiously marched up to Francis and insulted their settlement as a bunch of thieves. Francis apologized, saying he knew nothing of the incident they reported. Vowing revenge the men headed for Assisi.

This was a serious matter. The good name of the brothers would be finished. So Francis found Juniper and casually asked him if he had cut off the foot of a pig recently. “Si, naturalmente.” With satisfaction he told him all about his charitable deed. Francis was not so satisfied. He said, “Go find the man, throw yourself at his feet, and promise complete restoration.”  Juniper was astounded that someone would get excited about his good deed. “I’ll give the man satisfaction, “he said, “but I can’t understand the fuss over a pig. It belongs to God, anyway, not to the man, and may as well be put to good use.”

When Juniper caught up with the incensed owner, he tried to make him understand how he came to cut off the pig’s foot. He was full of zeal and enthusiasm and acted as if he had done the man a great service. The man flew into a rage. But Juniper just persisted in trying to be heard. He finally threw himself around the man’s neck, kissed him and assured him him he had done it all out of love. Then he asked for the rest of the pig.

This audacity resulted in the miracle. Juniper’s simplicity and sincerity were so credible the man’s assumptions began to crumble. With tears in his eyes, he confessed he had done the brothers wrong. He went and got the maimed pig, slaughtered it, roasted it, and with great emotion carried it to the brother’s table to make up for the injustice he had done them.

Follow the goose and the pig

As opponents try to undo the deceptions and corruption of the Trump regime, they often say, “Follow the money.” That’s exactly what Kevin and Francis, and their many followers, refused to do. They were more likely to follow the goose and the pig, to rely on the Spirit and the work of love rather than stay on the treadmill of acquisition and self-defense – the rule of law, some call it. In Kevin’s day, the Roman Empire was caput. 600 years later in Francis’ day, feudal economics was coming to an end. In our day the American empire, as we’ve known it, and the Enlightenment experiment in general, may be coming to an end. We’ll see. But what is a Jesus follower to do?

The point of goose and pig stories in every era is that God has ways that do not depend on capitalism or power. Jesus demonstrated that in full. His followers have always found ways to make their own demonstration again and again. The formation and constant reinvention of Circle of Hope is a miracle story of people finding more than they bargained for and sharing their pigs in great quantities. We’ve asked and received. Maybe we are afraid sometimes to squat the king’s land or ask for the owner’s pig, to rely on the miracle and act out of love. But many times we aren’t afraid, too.

How to pray: The joys of walking

A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.

Richard Gere as King David (1985) dancing before the ark (2 Sam 6)

Praying with my body

I was reading  a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.

But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.

But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”

The joy of walking

I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.

Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.

When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.

walking the brick road assisi to santa maria degli angeli
Strada Mattonatta, the ancient pilgrim road

My walking experience in Assisi

This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.

I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.

I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.

Knowing that I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.

So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.

You may need a good rebellion from your parents: For sure from Big Brother

The beffroi in Tournai (now Belgium).

Church bells have been ringing since the 7th century to mark the hours for prayer, day by day. In 1188, the leaders of Tournai, Belgium, got permission from the king to build the first belfry designed to use for town business — like calling assemblies and warning of invasion. Before long, like I found out down the road in Bruges, the church and town had a competition for who had the highest tower. If you look at Philadelphia, it is easy to see who won that contest around here. We got our annual shooing at the Comcast Center during Holy Week, as a few of us dared to to bring up Jesus at the foot of the master’s tower.

By 1309, Milan had installed the first mechanical clock in the basilica to chime the secular hours of the day so we could all conform to a machine and get to work on time. So the modern age began. In 1863, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels to say, “The entire theory of the production of uniform movement was guided by the clock.” What’s more, the clock represented the essence of science: precision. Societal change followed the mechanical clock like a landslide, burying the holy seasons of the church year. Soon the civic year started on January 1 and everyone had a standard calendar. Now the clock’s descendants  define our days — ATMs dispense our money and phones tell us when to get up.

Giotto, c. 1297, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Subverting the first sprouts of capitalism

All this change began in the century of Francis of Assisi. Part of his great inspiration and genius started with instinctively refusing to go along with any of it, starting with his own father. It is hard to follow one’s heavenly father unless you turn from the earthly one — especially if the earthly one is enthusiastically contributing to the town’s bell tower! Bernardo di Quintavalle and Chiara Offreduccio were right in step with Francis, all of them feeling disquiet about what was going on. Capitalism was being born; and they weren’t having it. When the first Franciscans did the opposite of the new capitalists their parents were becoming, they felt joy. They gave away instead of hoarded, they served instead of paying as little as possible to their servants, they looked toward getting less than getting more, they shared instead of competing. They suffered, but they felt a kind of joy they had only dreamed of.

After Francis “stole” a bolt of cloth to pay for repairs he felt commanded to make at the church in San Damiano, he came out of hiding a month later to face the consequences. That’s when he gave back everything he had from his father, including his name, and walked out of Assisi naked. His father cursed him every time he saw him from then on. When Francis went to town, he asked a beggar to go with him. Should his father see him and curse him, the beggar made the sign of the cross over him to provide a fatherly blessing. People thought he was nuts.

On my retreat in Assisi, I realized I had rejected my father’s capitalist dreams for me at about the same age Francis did. He said he would no longer pay for my room and board if I did not get back on course to becoming a lawyer. Instead, I threw it all away to build the church. My father did not curse me, but he certainly thought I was a fool. I felt inexpressible freedom.

Francis was a fool. And even though he is still loved by millions, the Comcast Tower looms over us. Capitalism and science have transformed the world and we are afraid to raise our children to be actual Jesus-followers because it is like sending them into the wilderness. Who will marry a Christian? How will they get food? Will they be happy if they feel guilty for having a Cuisinart while thousands of Africans are about to starve to death this week? If they don’t line up with Eurocentric supremacy, will they be rejected and impoverished?  Don’t they need to get the best schooling so they can keep up with the process of death-defying nanotechnology?

There are many good examples for our rebellion

What do you think? Have you ever rebelled against your parents, who are very likely ancestors of the first capitalists who called Francis (and maybe you) a fool? Jesus needed to rebel against his family, and they wanted to follow God! It says, “The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:20-21). Much more do we need to rebel against a society that follows Mammon, evaluating every minute as to its profit or loss.

We have many good examples of how to rebel. I think Francis of Assisi is still a great example. But you could just visit Jess and Josh Mints for a lesson on urban farming over in Kensington. Or look at our thrift store directors: Martha Grace for our Circle Thrift stores and Christina Saritsoglou for Philly AIDS Thrift, who work for lower than normal wages to serve their cause. Talk to any number of the social workers and teachers among us. Or investigate the community houses like the Simple Way. Get to know the foster parents. Get to know the Debt Annihilation Team. Befriend an MCC worker. Imagine what it is like to be your pastor working for a relatively low wage, trusting the body to take care of his or her family. These are all rebellious choices against capitalist ancestors. Every time you create community in your cell, use the Share Board and create a Common Fund, you are also creating an alternative.

Your phone might have been beeping your next obligation to Big Brother while you were reading this. We are being watched over by a huge web of technology. But every beep is another opportunity to do the opposite, in some joyful, subversive way in order to freely follow Jesus!

Cumbersome is good for us: Love is not easy

The church makes decisions and plans in any number of ways. We decided making decisions as a community was crucial in an age where individualism kills the soul, loneliness is epidemic and people really need to see the church in action not hear about it in theory. So our mutual mapping process is central to our calling as a church. It is much more radical and important than we seem to think!

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A moment in our weeks-long mapping process.

If we are used to the risky work of participating in mutual discernment, our prayer might be, “Oh Lord, that is a lot of time and energy!” But if we are mapping like it is a new beginning, here in our eternal now, then the process teases out all its inherent joys:

  • It includes the most recent partner, so a living body is strengthened and grows. I want to live in one.
  • It listens to the latest and greatest word from the Lord, so the soul of our group is fed and energized. I love it when you can feel that happening!
  • It teaches us the lessons of love that only serious public dialogue can do, so it makes us real in a world of fake. Nothing makes me feel more relevant.
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Porziuncola. Scene of a lot of Franciscan mapping, now surrounded by its pilgrim reception hall.

Resistance to the work of love has killed some of the best churches

One of the things I learned in Assisi is how the church bureaucrats stole the heart of the early Franciscan way of “mapping.” Francis called Pentecost gatherings and many of the brothers showed up to have a creative , disorganized, Spirit-led, and often-miraculous time of seeing what God was doing and feeling out what should happen next. It all happened at the navel of the Franciscan world: Porziuncola.

As soon as Francis was too weak to exercise his tremendous weight over the process, as a living “saint,” the Pope-led hierarchy of the church made the brotherhood into an “ordo” (that’s Latin for “order, rank, class”) according to canon law. The order people folded the radical Francis right back into everything he had resisted and made the Franciscans like the other monastic orders he never wanted to join.

Francis never saw a need for a rule or much of a map, but he sure managed to make an impact! He mostly relied on the presence of Jesus and the simple, but profound, style of teaching he picked up from the Bible. His own teaching style was like a living parable that he often explained in proverbial fashion.

In any organization, the “ordo” people have a point and I have reluctantly served it in order to build something for Jesus in this VERY organized United States. But the parable and proverb people have a deeper point, and I hope we never lose track of it. Or, I could say, I hope we never have it stolen from us by people who think they are doing us a favor by conforming us to the prevailing ways of the world.

Practicing discernment is harder, but more important, than interpreting law

Every subsequent Pentecost is going to be followed by “ordo people” talking over the future with “proverb people.” It happened in the early church. It happens among us every year as we map, and that is good for us.

For instance, our pastor, Ben, made a list of things he heard at the recent discernment meeting concerning our next Map. One of the things on the list popped out at me: The proverbs are cumbersome.”

Since I was probably in Padua when that critique was offered, I have no first-hand knowledge of the context. But I have my suspicions, since I have heard similar things since forever. Similar thoughts have been popping up ever since economic efficiency and Enlightenment/scientific thinking created a pulpit and tried to make Jesus preach from it. I texted Ben a smiley face and cheerfully said, “Perhaps your 10:30 meeting should become a drive-thru!”  That would be less cumbersome than relating, after all.

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Innovation from Upland, CA, my old stomping grounds.

My point was, proverbs of every kind are supposed to be “cumbersome!” — in a good way. Maybe the biggest reason they persist in being hard to handle is because we should slow down and mentalize! — they force us to do that.  Don’t you think we should resist assessing whether information is taking 30 seconds more to receive than it should?

The proverbs we have collected so far as part of our Map aren’t “information,” anyway. They are invitations to keep talking, to slow down and listen to God and each other. They are the best little parables we could come up with to express the sense of our discernment about who we are called to be. They are more than the traditional value statements ordos/organizations put in their business plans.  They are proverbs like the ones in the Bible, such as, “Love  your  enemies  and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-5). There’s cumbersome for you!

Here are a few reasons hanging in there with “cumbersome” is good for us.

Cumbersome fights the desire to control the data and feel powerful.

A proverb is designed to be open-ended. One open end faces God, who is going to supply meaning daily (like “daily bread,” right?). The other end is open to the Body of Christ, where ongoing dialogue brings the best discernment to the moment (if we have a “common spirit” as Paul hopes). Chewing on a proverb with others is part of being appropriately out of control. It is another way Jesus heals us from the wounds of data biting us in the butt all day.

Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.

It is a difficult world; we can’t afford to be spiritually shallow!

I used to “fight” with a much-loved covenant member who really wanted a Wiki for our teaching, which he thought was splendid. I told him, “I, and others in the Body, are personally much better than a Wiki, which is why you want a Wiki!” But we gave him and other “ordo” people the Way of Jesus site, which will one day have a better table of contents so people can take less time exploring and access what they are looking for.

But, I have to say, wandering around the foothills of the Kingdom of God, taking time, listening, having our normality challenged is SO much better than seeking God according to what we already know in a fashion we already understand. We don’t know anything like we are known, Paul says.

Cumbersome assumes we need help.

I hope we keep resisting well-meaning people who think it is an outrage, or a shame, if they need someone’s help. Collecting stories, parables and proverbs like the early church and first Franciscans is how we form life in Christ together. Proverbs call together a circle of people who add their personal angles to and applications of a big truth. “What is it?” and “Who am I?” are not the only questions! “Who is God? To what is Jesus calling? Who are WE?” are basic questions for forming new life in Christ.

Goodness is not found alone. It usually comes in a way that seems cumbersome to our normality. Solitude always leads to love. And love leads to goodness —  both for us and for others. Love of and for others, naturally leads to cumbersome mapping,  and irreducible proverbs in the 1200’s and in the 2000’s. I’m glad Jesus is getting us and our brothers and sisters all over the world to risk the miracle of tangible, practical, cumbersome love in an age when it is hard to find.

Francis and Jesus will erode your control fantasies for good

    Jesus spoke to Francis from this cross.

Preaching to the birds was miraculous, not cute

A few years after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) had been quickly canonized (1228), the learned Franciscans who took over the order were already distributing an “authorized” and sanitized biography of him penned by St. Bonaventure. He and his cronies ordered Brother Leo’s collection of stories destroyed (1266). Many of the brothers did not follow the order. When you read the stories his friends told, they present a man who should not have been sentimentalized inThomas Celano’s Little Flowers and turned into a birdbath  or turned into a soulless moral lesson by Bonaventure.

I’m here in Assisi, which is a lovely, spit-shined shrine to Italy’s patron saint. There is plenty or birdbath Francis to be found in the stores lining the pilgrim ways. There is plenty of Bonaventure’s classier Francis  as well . A street sweeper is rumbling outside my window as I write, making sure the dirty 1200’s and Francis’ Lady Poverty loving beggars are not allowed in the city for too long.

Yet Francis and his Jesus do manage to leak through the well-managed 21st century. I met Jesus again on the original San Damiano cross (above) yesterday in Clare’s church. A replica of the one that spoke to Francis is outside the city at the little church where Francis received his life changing call. I heard the message again and, of course, put it on Instagram: “Go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is fallen into ruin.”

Statue of Francis and his war horse ready to give up their armor at the entry to the Basilica.

Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies

I first witnessed the scene of Francis’ revelation in Brother Sun Sister Moon, the 70s version of the uncontrollable story . I religiously watch it every October 4. From my first steps of adult faith I felt moved to do my part in the rebuilding. I think we are doing OK, so far. But the church is a bigger wreck than ever in the U.S., preoccupied with sex, trying to control how people deal with reproduction instead of meeting and demonstrating the Alternative: the half-naked Jesus on the cross, speaking more outrageous sermons from his new “mount.” The church not only generally despises voluntary poverty, it persecutes people who don’t get in bed with capitalists and support the huge military it takes to prevent any hint of mutuality. But we keep building.

Yesterday morning, as I began my retreat in earnest, I wondered how many stories from the early days of the Lord’s movement in me, or in Circle of Hope, I have suppressed. Now I have Bonaventure-like credentials, and the financial ability to spit-shine my environment —or at least to buy some more illusion of control, do I present a more socially acceptable version of me and of us? As I wrote that line a chorus of church bells began to ring, announcing 7:30am. My attention was turned to the chorus of birds celebrating  a beautiful Umbrian day.

I suspect the Lord will be able to disrupt me, and you, no matter how many ways we find to subdue his impact. Later at mass at San Damiano, a butterfly flew through the window and fluttered over the priests just as we sang the Gloria. It was not only a fitting tribute to Franco Zeffirelli (RIP), but to the Lord, who asks us to stop trying to control nature and join him in it, tending it together for glory, not just using it for pleasure or profit.

At the scene of subsequent Pentecosts

I’m checking in from my trip in Italy. On Pentecost Sunday yesterday  I took some time to appreciate the places on my pilgrim route where the Spirit touched another person or generation with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit just like happened that first time, reported in Acts 2.

Rome

We stopped by “Paul outside the walls,” the site where Paul was allegedly crucified by Nero. This completed last year’s pilgrimage to Greece. Paul had an unlikely “pentecost” that day on the way to Damascus.  I’ve been surprised many times by how the Spirit finds me, too.

Montecassino

We made the climb to the top of the famous hill near Naples where Benedict of Nursia planted the monastery that would influence Europe for good for a thousand years and still inspires pilgrims like me. Being welcomed into these islands of faith and learning provided “pentecosts” for thousands of seekers in desperate times, beginning in the 600’s.

Padua

Up in Veneto during the 1200’s, Anthony of Padua helped Francis of Assisi train the many new community members their revival movement was attracting. At his shrine we saw his famous tongue, preserved as a memory of his remarkable speaking career and his ongoing influence.  On a Saturday, one worship time after another was packed!

Philadelphia

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Spring is glorious

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Meanwhile our instagrams told of all sorts of moving experiences on Pentecost weekend — from the splash party in the Northwest to blue skies over South Jersey, from intimate times around the piano to the Comfort Retreat. We have bits of Paul, Benedict and Anthony in us. We experience, demonstrate and teach all the “pentecosts” in our own way. It was amazing then and God with us is amazing now. I can’t help but think God will meet us and continue to use us in desperate times. I’m inspired by the past but probably more by our present together.

Ownership proverbs: More evidence that Jesus is risen

Image result for You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.

I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”  

How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape.  When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?

Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors

New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:

  • “Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
  • “Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
  • “Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.

Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.

We’re having trouble even associating!

It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!

The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published  Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution.  But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations

Image result for bowling alone

Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.

I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?

It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?

That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.

It is great to give our time for the owners

Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].

Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it:  “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.

Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!

Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is  still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”

Jesus owns his life
For These Sheep I Lay Down My Life — Eugene Higgins (1874-1958)

It is better to give our lives because we own them

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  — Matthew 20:28

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8

The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.

This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).

Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.

In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need  to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.

“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”

Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:

  • The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
  •  We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
  •  Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.

In Palestine: It is good to be a child caring for children

Image result for uncle bobbie's

Donovan and I shared a pleasant hour at Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown last week. As we were winding down, he brought up how Marc Lamont Hill, the founder of the restaurant, had been fired from his commentator role at CNN for using an “anti-Semitic” phrase in a speech he gave to the United Nations. He called for equal rights for Palestinians “from the river to the Sea.”

When we were in Palestine, I met so many West Bank residents and Israelis who think such rights are crucial for the future health of both Jews and Palestinians, I thought it was a settled part of the ongoing argument about what is next. But in the polarized atmosphere of the United States, Hill’s remarks were immediately characterized as a call for the eradication of Israel! As you can hear in the Al Jazeera report on the incident, most people thought he was just talking about all Palestinians — those who live in Israel or the West Bank, achieving rights equal to Israelis. Others saw the phrase as a line straight from the Hamas playbook.

Donovan and I had wandered into the minefield of Israeli fragility and aggression in our own country, where 27 states have already enacted legislation that targets anti-Israeli boycotts designed to pressure Israel for justice, and where federal legislation against the boycotts is pending. What’s more, the Christians seem to have chosen the side of the Jews (who they identify with the state of Israel) for once. Pat Robertson summed up the radical Evangelical theology that produces super-supporters of Israel who think their support is a matter of Bible-following holiness. That’s as far as I will wander into that.

I just want to pay attention to Palestinian children

I bring up Marc Lamont Hill stepping on one of the landmines spread around the perimeter of public opinion to protect Israel because we were discussing the explosion he experienced right after I had outlined the following exhortation. I would like us to pay attention to Palestinian children and the ongoing injustice Israel perpetrates as they  protect their nation’s right to exist, violate international law, illegally settle the West Bank, operate a police state and divide up the territory they occupy with an apartheid-like system. I would be speaking hysterically if I had not briefly experienced everything on that list in person — a giant wall always in the background snaking along various borders.

I don’t think Jesus followers need to gain the world’s power in order to effect perfect justice. Jesus will bring everything to right in the end. Besides, striving to be on the top so we can help people at the bottom seems to be the exact opposite of the Lord’s strategy. Like Jesus, i think we should accompany those at the bottom, identify with them and see the world through their eyes. We work for peace and justice from that vantage point.

So that brings me to the children of Palestine. MCC distributed an infographic about their situation. Here is part of it.

They have trauma stories

Jarrah, an 18-year-old Palestinian man, was 15 when he was arrested by Israeli soldiers. He says, “I used to go out with my friends to parties, but now when I reach the end of the street I remember what happened. And I come back. There is no feeling of safety.” The children are traumatized by the occupation and the constant threat of random Israeli arrest. Many of the Palestinians live in territory under military control, which does not have the same civil law structure as other places.

Each year Israel detains and prosecutes 500-700 Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Human rights organizations have documented the systematic mistreatment and abuse of these children, including torture, blindfolding and lack of access to legal counsel. These practices run counter to basic norms and protections within juvenile justice systems. (Like the U.S. government emulates Israel’s wall, it also mistreats detained children).

Obaida Akram Jawabra was detained and is afraid he will end up in prison again. One reason he is afraid is because to get to school he needs to cross Route 60. That highway is controlled by the Israeli military. Here is his story.

Here is another story from Al Jazeera about a sixteen-year-old who’s arrest was caught on video and went viral.

It is good to be a child caring for children

On April 30, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) introduced a bill, H.R. 2407, to prohibit U.S. taxpayer funds from supporting the military detention of children in any country, including Israel. This important bill builds on similar legislation that was introduced in the last session of Congress. Do you know how to encourage your representative to sign on as a co-sponsor?

Jesus welcomed and blessed children, saying “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). We are called to care for the most vulnerable among us, including children. I would add that we are to BE the most vulnerable, just like Jesus emptied himself to become one with us in our sin and brokenness. That may always seem like a counterintuitive strategy to us. But the road to transformation is always a step toward the “least of these” as one of the poor, in fact or in spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullough writes in his revealing introduction:

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

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

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

What do Christians’ do in response to all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell the truth

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

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

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

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

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

Build an alternative community

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

Paul teaches:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

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

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

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

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

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