The Youth Climate Strike happened last Thursday. Many Philly high school students walked out of class to make a point. I was with them at noon at the new Love Park. Others came later, after school, to be part of a global day of action coordinated by teens to get adults to combat climate change. Here are Politico’s pictures from around the world.
The movement was sparked by 16-year- old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, whose nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (!) was recently leaked. @GretaThunberg tweeted “Tomorrow we school strike for the climate in 1769 places in 112 countries around the world. And counting.” Here is her Wikipedia page — rest assured, my friend, you still exist if you do not have one yet.
The high school people made it work
Sabirah Mahmud is a lead organizer for Philadelphia Youth Climate Strike. She experienced the effects of climate change first hand when she visited the relatives in Bangladesh and got caught in a flood.
We had our own Gretas and a few Garths leading Philly’s strike. Sixteen-year-old Sabirah Mahmud was the lead organizer of the local demonstration. She’s a sophomore at Academy at Palumbo High school (along with Zach Sensenig).
Mahmud says she wants to go to medical school and travel the world, but last October’s United Nations report on climate change makes her wonder if she’ll ever get the chance. Catastrophic floods and fires could become commonplace in 12 years, among other terrible things, according to the report — that was the mantra at the protest: TWELVE YEARS! The teens can’t wait and the planet can’t wait until today’s students are old enough to vote, let alone run for Congress. The world needs to take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution by 2030 NOW!
It is commonly thought by 2040, the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in 2012. Coal demand is expected to grow 0.6 percent every year between now and then. Last year was especially bad for carbon pollution: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million (for the first time in millions of years). Meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them (according to Foreign Policy).
The speakers said they’d heard from older people in power that radical plans like the Green New Deal would wreck the economy. (Here Vox explains the GND). The younger people countered, often fairly hysterically, “If you’re not planning for a future with climate change, what future are you even planning for?” As we were meeting, they got everyone to text government officials to demand their action and support for radical change. They also called on the City to turn down plans to expand a Philadelphia Gas Works plant in South Philadelphia to produce liquified natural gas.
In Wellington New Zealand, one student’s handmade sign read, “Climate change is worse than Voldemort.” In Sydney, Australia, a banner read, “The oceans are rising, so are we.” (according to Euronews).
They are not alone. The Sunrise Movement was represented at our protest. They are the same people who orchestrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ appearance during their occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office. I must say, as a person who has always loved high school students, I am thrilled to be led by them in this effort. This is one old person they are not up against.
But they are certainly up against some OLD people! The Sunrise Movement also filmed their meeting with Dianne Feinstein, 85, who has been a Senator since I was 38 (she is worth about $94 million dollars BTW). Her dismissive response to young, but assertive, Magdalena went viral and hundreds of thousands of people have watched it. She responded to the passion of her visitors by debating the specifics of the resolution they were pushing and showing contempt for their audacity in thinking they had something to offer her wizened self. Twenty-nine-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal resolution met with the same reception from old people in the House, only it was from Steny Hoyer (79) and Nancy Pelosi (78).
These officials are just too old to be leading during this perilous time and they just won’t stop — Trump (72) may face off with Biden (76) or Sanders (77)! The kids are afraid these old people are going to move as slow as old people do, doing what they’ve always done, fighting their old battles while Philadelphia neighborhoods are flooded and poor people keep getting asthma from unchecked pollution. In the coming 2020 elections 21 of 33 Senators up for a vote will be 65 or older. Euronews quoted a 15-year-old who was striking saying, “If we don’t do something, it’ll be our lives affected, not the 60-year-old politicians! We need action.”
Some people are springing into action. I ran into Daoud Steele, who has been part of South Broad meetings in the past. He wondered if we might rent space at 1125 S. Broad for meetings of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Last November that group came to prominence when it organized the largest civil disobedience protest seen in the UK for decades, which culminated in the occupation and closure of five bridges in central London. Since then it has grown rapidly and XR branches have sprung up in more than 35 countries.
Deep Green Resistance [DGR] is an even more aggressive organization. It is largely based on the book of the same name by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen (2011). Their principles start where the environmental movement leaves off, claiming that industrial civilization is incompatible with life. Technology can’t fix it, and shopping—no matter how green—won’t stop it. To save this planet, we need a serious resistance movement that can bring down the industrial economy.
I doubt the Lord was that thrilled with all the anger, threats and lust for power shouted into the mic. Conversely, I suspect he was sad over how many teenagers could come to an event dedicated to saving their lives and stand in little groups chatting and ignoring the whole thing. But he has never let normal human reactions keep him down or make him hopeless.
I think Jesus was happy to see young people doing what young people should do. He was pretty young, himself, when he was instructing his elders in Judaism, undermining the authority of the temple, and turning the other cheek to Rome — which has confounded the powerful and heartened the meek ever since.
I think he was delighted to have people in the United States waking up and doing something. The U.S. is the second largest CO2 polluter in the World, and the first per capita. Daoud and I wondered if the country were entering a cancer-like process in which we were now accepting we had the disease and could have a public grief process and maybe be healed. Meanwhile, the president tweeted on January 28
“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? [sic] Please come back fast, we need you!” (Here is the Daily Show response).
So there are obstacles. One sign said, “You can’t comb over climate change.” Yet people in power are certainly trying to do so — as in Andrew Wheeler of the EPA. But hope matters. That’s why we stick together as a Circle of Hope.
That brings up the final thing Jesus probably liked about the climate strike: the kids circled up. They threw off being autonomous, DIY, self-reliant/lonely people in front of their screens, got out into the air on a great, spring-like day, and tried to love each other, love the planet and have a common purpose. They had a lot of the trappings of the church! They just needed a Savior who wasn’t their cause or themselves. But that will come.
I was wandering back from Center City this afternoon and walked into the surprising green horde descending on various bars and frats from the colleges in University City for St. Patrick’s Day Eve. One young woman shouted drunkenly into her phone as I passed, “Why did you call at 4? Everything started at noon!” As I told my Instagram crew, I began to feel a bit naïve when I saw a sign on the door near 30th St. that said this bar was a stop for the “Erin Express.” Then I got to Drexel and saw the bus! (below) That was right after I began noticing what the green T-shirts said. One young woman’s was “Let’s get fucked up!” One young man’s was “Shake your shamrocks.”
So I had to put at least a tiny antidote into the sea of Irish nationalism and Patrick desecration in my neighborhood. I offer you a version of a message I delivered after my wonderful pilgrimage to Ireland and beyond over ten years ago now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Light a fire!
Patrick on the Hill of Tara
When we were in Dublin that summer, we took a very interesting history walk, lead by a young college woman studying history at the famous Trinity College. We learned, among other things that “Dub-lin” means “black-pool” in some Viking language, the Vikings being among the many people who have oppressed the Irish, not to diminish the oppression of the British, which our guide made sure we heard about. Being oppressed was the story the guide had to tell over and over, and she seemed to have sort of a chip on her shoulder about it.
She also seemed to have a special interest in educating the Americans in her group, since there are more Irish people in the U.S. than in Ireland, but nobody seems to know anything about them. Elementary school children are filled with nonsense about the Irish: they find leprechauns, they chase pots of gold, they find three-leaf clovers, they are superstitious, they dance jigs and they tell tall tales (well, that last one is probably true). The advanced kids know that they often march in parades around March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day you have to wear green or you might get pinched. The first St. Patrick’s Day parades weren’t in Ireland, they were in the U.S. to demonstrate Irish political power. The first one in Philly was in 1771.
My guide did not take kindly to the fact that Irish people are more known for drinking Guinness and eating Lucky Charms cereal than for James Joyce or even the real St. Patrick. She sneered at Americans, well known for living off the candy of sound bites and sixty second ads rather than chewing on the complexity of a long narrative.
So that means my subject might be a little challenging if you are an American. It is a long narrative. It is much easier to pile into Fado or Plough and the Stars and have a drinking party on St. Patrick’s Day than to understand the 4th century believer called Patrick. More fundamental to my purpose, it is easier to have a thin veneer of Christianity, a little fragrance of faith — a spritz, than to follow Jesus like Patrick.
What I have to say concerns the story of Jesus getting to the Irish people and changing the course of their history. It is a great story. But the reason I want to tell parts of it is that it has a lot to say about how the history of each of us and how our present day can and should change, as well.
Like my Dublin guide seemed disappointed in her patrons, I think quite a few of us feel a little disappointed when we give people a tour of our faith. We think people have the wrong impression of us Christians, like my guide thought people misunderstood the Irish. We feel kind of oppressed by how people think and how they don’t care to understand us or Jesus. If you sometimes feel like you are surrounded by resistant oppressors, then Patrick’s story may give you some encouragement and instruction. He kind of came from nowhere, was something of a nobody, but he faced up to the powers of his day and he made a big difference.
Patrick is the slave who came back to convert his masters
One of the most phenomenal things about Patrick that most elementary school students are not taught is that he was a slave who came back to convert his masters.
Patrick was born on the west coast of what is now Scotland or Wales. He was probably the son of an old Roman-connected aristocratic family who were nominally Christian. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to serve one of the many kings controlling sections of Ireland, probably in the north around what is now County Mayo. Patrick worked as a herdsman for six years.
Fortunately, we have a couple of things Patrick wrote; and he writes that his faith grew in captivity. He began to pray the prayers he had learned as a child many times a day. One day he had a vision and heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home. Later on he heard that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship. The ship apparently went to France, first, where Patrick studied to be a pastor. After various adventures, he returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.
Patrick recounts that he had another vision many years after returning home:
“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
He decided to go back to Ireland and give his life to bring Jesus to his former masters. This is an important thing to note: the revelation of Jesus comes with Patrick from out of nowhere; it comes from the slaves. This might encourage people like us who sometimes feel like the opposition to Jesus is strong and our message has no power. I think Patrick should be especially encouraging to people who work in the cubicles, and feel enslaved to the bosses. Your hiddenness is OK. If there is any fire where the powers that be don’t expect it to be, it will be noticed, eventually.
By the time Patrick died, thousands of people had been baptized and Ireland was on its way to being a predominantly Christian place. Even today it is among the most faith-driven places in Europe, which has, by-and-large, gone post-Christian.
Patrick-like people can’t stay hidden under a sea of Guinness
We have to appreciate the hiddenness of the truth about Jesus. Jesus himself only expected people to hear who had ears to hear. He did not work hard to get world fame or more hits on his website. God came as a baby to a poor family. John says that Jesus was not even recognized by his own countrymen who were looking for the Messiah! Patrick went back to Ireland with this same sense of humility. He seemed to think, “The message is hidden in the creation and I will reveal it. But at the same time, I am also a creature, so it may be hidden in me.” Paul writes about it this way:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”—
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
Patrick had spent his formative years out on a hill in Ireland. When he walked back in to the village to tell people about Jesus, he didn’t come in a motorcade. He probably had leaves in his hair from sleeping out in the woods and may have looked like some kind of Ent. Like other Celts, he had a strong sense of God’s presence in creation — he met God there and relied on God there. The Druid religion had an ancient history, drawing on the study that built Stonehenge and manipulated spirits. Rather than bringing something no one had ever considered before, Patrick brought a definition that people needed for what God is doing in the world. The wisdom was hidden and he was telling people where it is.
In our era, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s, the rulers of the age are seeking truth in striking ways – in particle colliders and in market regulation. But, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s age, they continue to crucify the Lord of glory. It is given to us to tell the story of Jesus and demonstrate his presence with us.
Patrick-like people build a fire
Gwen and I were on our pilgrimage and following a path that would take us to the holy sites associated with some of the notable figures of Celtic Christianity. The first big stop was the Hill of Tara. Just to be honest, this was our first big day of traveling around in a car, keeping to the LEFT, and my driving about put Gwen over the edge. By the time we got back to Dublin and were eating Indian food, I thought she might take the skewer from her kabob and kill me. But it is all part of the journey.
I’d always wanted to stand on Tara and look across to Slane. Both Tara and Slane were central sites of the Druid cult. A year after Patrick arrived, the high king, King Laoghaire (leheera), was holding the annual assembly on Tara. Patrick wanted to convert the king, at best, but at least he wanted permission to travel and to do his missionary work among the kingdoms. He wasn’t getting a hearing so he decided to participate in the assembly. The king’s magicians had warned King Laoghaire that he needed to do something about Patrick or his message would overturn the established order. They were right. The king didn’t do anything and the order began to be overturned on Easter in the year 433.
Once a year all the nobility and shamans came to Tara to light the fire. The idea was that everyone else was supposed to douse their home fire and it would be relit from this one, central fire. It so happened that this ritual coincided with the Easter that year. On Holy Saturday, Patrick lit his own fire on Slane, across the valley from Tara but in plain site. The point was clear. The true light that enlightens everyone had come into the world of Erin.
King Laoghire was incensed. He sent some men to bring him Patrick dead or alive. Patrick was already headed toward the king. When the king’s men got to the spot where Patrick was, however, all they saw were a few deer. Or, as Paul might say, their unbelief had blinded them. The story goes on to tell of a miracle-working power encounter between Patrick and the court magicians which eventually got Patrick permission to work out his mission.
It is a great story and a great deal of it is probably even factual. But the truth of the story is a little deeper than the facts, which is true of the Bible and true of the whole story of the spread of faith in Jesus. Patrick’s audacity did not just come from his courage. It came from a sense that it is inevitable that Jesus will be seen. He is hidden, not absent. The fire on Slane just made the obvious more obvious.
Likewise, the story of Patrick and his band being disguised from their killers as deer, is another example of being hidden. You might not see them, or they might even be hidden from you, but that does not mean you won’t be meeting up with their faith in your own backyard. The Celtic church Patrick founded believed that creation bore the imprint of God so deeply that all you had to do was scratch the surface and you would find Jesus. Like God came to earth in Jesus, the earth reached out to welcome him; creation and the Creator were made for each other. So taking back Tara for Jesus was less a shift in political power and more an unleashing of nature to retake what had been corrupted.
Patrick’s Jesus is still hidden today
On the hill of Tara today is a relatively recent church building. The building is no longer used as a church, since the whole site has become a secularized national park. There is a statue of Patrick, of course, but there is also something else going on that surprised us.
Gwen and I decided to pay two euros from my sabbatical grant (God bless the Lily Foundation!) to take in the program in the church. It is our habit to go into church buildings and soak in the quiet and pray, whenever we come across an open one. So we went into this little building and had the place mostly to ourselves. We were there near the end of the day, since we got lost getting there, of course. A busload of Japanese tourists had just left. So we were soaking up some quiet in a very beautiful interior when the guide came in to say the presentation was about to begin.
We had the strangest experience! We had not noticed that they had installed blackout shutters to roll down over the stained glass. They flipped a switch and the room came to life, mechanically, until we had been plunged into the dark. A video presentation began about the ancient burial and ritual mound of Tara. The church had been de-churched, the hill had been un-Patricked and the government was sponsoring a recovery of Gaelic history by speculating on how the mysterious burial mound had been used. There was no mention of Christians at all, even though they had sanctified the mound for 1700 years.
The blinds came down and we Jesus-followers were re-hidden! If you go across the valley to the hill of Slane, where Patrick lit his fire, there is an even bigger tourist site devoted that much larger mound. I felt oppressed. I had just been communing with Jesus, remembering the work of Patrick, when the church was taken over by pagans celebrating human sacrifice and sun worship on the hill of Tara
I kind of felt sorry for Patrick, still on the hill, but surrounded by people replanting ignorance where he had shed light. What’s more, the M3 motorway is about to plow through he Tara valley so when you look at Slane you’ll see a freeway.
I felt sorry for us, too, since we are increasingly surrounded by people committed to putting Jesus in a museum along with all the other belief systems they are sampling. We’re also surrounded by the freeways and global warming of their dominant faith in unbridled economics disconnected from earth and God.
By the end of Lent, maybe we’ll know who Jesus really is
Patrick looks a bit forlorn up there in the painting, doesn’t he? He’s up on his hill praying for Ireland. But at the same time, I think he is looking like he is in touch with earth and sky. He is in a thin place where he is making a connection with God. Alone, vulnerable, hidden, misunderstood, opposed. But at peace and bringing something to his moment.
The Celts had a great appreciation of verses like “the rocks will cry out if you don’t praise God.” They knew that the truth had been hidden in the earth from ages past. Even the Druids with their ghastly rituals on Tara knew something of the wisdom planted in creation. Jesus revealed it in full. Jesus revealed the ignorance and rebellion of humans and the goodness and plan of God. Patrick and others were followers who revealed it as they followed Him. It didn’t matter if they had their own power, God had the power.
Jesus himself, like this scripture shows, came to the hill of Jerusalem like pilgrims had for centuries to celebrate the Passover, now at the end of our Lent. Many people recognized him and honored him. To most he was hidden. He was opposed by the powers that be who put down their shades.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. — Luke 19:37-42
It is sad how Jesus remains hidden to so many. It is sad how the shades are coming down to hide even what has been known. Jesus weeps over our darkness. But at the same time, faith will keep springing up. Even the stones could reveal the truth about God redeeming us through Jesus! I suspect one may be talking to someone right now on some hill as they look out over their city.
You may seem hidden as a believer where you live. Circle of Hope may seem like a hidden little church. It may seem foolish, going out to do some small act of goodness to reveal Jesus. What you say may seem pitiful. What you bring may seem very weak. Don’t despair and don’t stop. God repeatedly prefers to reveal his glory in the pitiful, hidden things placed in his hands.
“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:
The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love
It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.
They make Lent sound so easy
Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding in the other.
If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.
While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim. They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.
Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder
Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.
No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?
I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.
Some days of this Lent WILL be easier
I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.
Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”
As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”
Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.
I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.
I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.
Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.
That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.
The perfect movie for Lent
This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.
The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building. On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.
The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit. Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.
One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.
Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.
Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.
Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear. In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!
But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.
I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.
If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.
People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.
The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.
What is shame?
Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!
Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]
We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.
What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?
Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.
The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.
If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.
It is what we do about shame that matters
The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?
We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!
Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.
The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.
Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook: “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.
The second half of life
What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.
The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel. We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.
Signs of the “mid-life crisis”
As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.
however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:
Desiring to quit a good job.
Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
Irritability or unexpected anger.
Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.
Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.
At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8
There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively
A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of Biblical events I love so much.
After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.
In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.
Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.
Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.
When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.
Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17
The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox: “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.
Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.
Maybe you missed it, as you (and probably your children) were discussing Jeff Bezos’ private parts and the amazing scandals piling up in Virginia. Nevertheless, this past week the House of Representatives held its first hearing on gun violence in eight years.
The testimony at the hearing centered on a bill that would make it harder for a person to buy a gun without a thorough background check. Supporters pointed out that right now it’s ridiculously easy to get lethal weapons from an unlicensed seller who is not going to check to see if said purchaser might have a record of violence, stalking or involuntary commitment for mental illness. That fact should surprise and appall us, but by this time it probably doesn’t. By now, your kids might think everyone has a gun and feel strange if you don’t!
Opponents of the bill clutched the Second Amendment and argued that the real reason we have so many deaths by gunfire is … well, take a guess at what they argued were the reasons: A) Guns, B) Bullets, C) Immigrants.
Answer: All the above.
Representative Matt Gaetz [more/biased info on him], a Florida Republican read a short list of people who had been shot by undocumented immigrants. Then he said, “I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. …Better background checks would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall, a barrier on the southern border may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” There are a lot of lawmakers prepared to say almost anything in their role as surrogates for the National Rifle Association. But it is still surprising that during this latest hearing the main gun advocate was from Florida.
On Valentine’s Day we’ll observe the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shootings in which one student with a gun took the lives of 17 people. We just passed the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of 5 people in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport, which occurred six months after 49 people were shot to death at a nightclub in Orlando. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that a young man walked into a bank in Sebring, Fla., pulled out a pistol, forced 5 women to lay on the ground and shot each one in the back of the head. All these atrocities happened in Congressman Gaetz’ state. All the gunmen were native-born Americans.
The House bill I mentioned is unlikely to even get brought up in the Senate if it passes the House. But in 2017 the House and Senate did get together to revoke an Obama-era regulation that had made it harder for mentally ill people to purchase a gun.
We have terrible gun problems in this country not just because firearms are all over the place, but also because of the careless, and often stupid attitude so many people have toward them. This includes the Congress. Their rejection of legislation of which the country overwhelmingly approves helps perpetuate the attitude that guns are a casual part of everyday life, like your wallet or socks — something you wear when you go out to buy a loaf of bread, leave laying around the house and treat in general with less care and discretion than a light bulb.
This is the kind of thinking that gives us endless mayhem involving violent, semi-deranged young men who just grab one of the family guns and mow down five people in a bar. Toddlers who shoot themselves when they stumble across a gun that Dad or Grandpa left sitting on the bed, or find a rifle in the back seat of the car and accidentally kill Mom while she’s pulling into the preschool parking lot. We hear stories like that every day. I don’t think it is all due to caravans of immigrants coming to the border.
With all this, is my child safe to have a playdate?
Thus, one of the parents on our parents list asked what everyone does to make sure their children are safe on play dates. How does one bring up the question about how the parents of your kid’s friends deal with their guns? It is amazing this question must be asked, but we live where we live. Here is the original question:
“I’m wondering how you navigate that awkward “do you have guns? Are they safely locked up?” question when you’re arranging a playdate, etc. for your kids? I feel like the easiest way to ask is just to put it out there with something like, “Hi, I’m _____. We’d love to have _____ over for a playdate. We don’t have any guns in the house. Do you?” Hopefully, they’ll then feel free to respond. Buuuuuut, what if they say yes? Do you allow your kids to play at people’s houses who own guns and say they’re secured? And if you don’t, then how do you tell them you don’t want your kid playing at their house?! I think playdates are great for our kids and great for meeting new people, but I can’t seem to figure this out given our current world. The end result for me is that I avoid setting anything up with people we don’t already know well, which feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing as I follow Jesus and try to “welcome the stranger.”
There was a lot more dialogue about this than there were answers on the parents list. But they were so useful, I decided to reprint them. No names are attached, of course. If you want to be on the parents list, you can be. (I also added a hyperlink for Eddie the Eagle and left out what I thought was extraneous). Here they are:
1) I include this gun question along with questions about food allergies, pets (one of my kids has been bitten twice!), car seats, and other safety things I cover when doing a first play date with a family. Every parent I’ve asked this question has thanked me for asking it.
As for what do when I learn there is an unsecured firearm in the house, I don’t allow my kids to play there without me with them and I keep my kid in eyesight. I’m happy to meet up elsewhere or host the kids at my house instead.
2) I ask about guns when I’m trying to find out a little bit about how a family feels secure in their houses. I ask about guns and pharmaceuticals (child proof caps?). I’ve only had one person push back (and not much) about my guns question. This may be because of where we live – not so many families are gun enthusiasts here in über-liberal West Philadelphia. Every family I’ve asked these types of questions of has thanked me for asking them as well.
I’m always prepared to discuss why I think gun locks and gun safes are necessary when I ask these questions but the conversation has only gone that far one time.
Personally, I’m okay with a family who keeps guns in their house if they’re secured properly — especially if they’re hunting rifles and such. Someone who keeps their guns in a safe understands that they’re machines for killing (people, game, whatever) and potentially incredibly dangerous. Someone who keeps their gun “hidden” in their house so they can get them quickly if necessary is not dealing with reality and their worldview includes what is, to me, an unacceptable level of risk for my kids playing in their house. There is probably a spectrum of people in between those examples but I’m really only okay with my kids playing in the houses of the folks on the first extreme. If I meet parents of kids my sons make friends with who are of the “I keep my guns hidden in my house” variety, I plan to say something along the lines of “We’d love to have _____ over to our house but we’re just not comfortable with firearms in the house that aren’t secured so [my kids] won’t be able to come over to _____’s house.” People who aren’t comfortable with that stance have their own stuff to work out — I’m okay with some tension between me and another parent if that helps keep my kids safer.
3) Our seminarian’s cohort, along with the pastors and the Leadership Team, wrote a teaching on guns and gun violence based on our discussion at our quarterly public meeting. It might be helpful for you as you consider this subject. You may have seen it before, but if not, you can find it on the Way of Jesus website here.
4) I hadn’t seen that summary from the cohort.It’s wonderful. This dialogue is making me think I might want to “struggle more” with this as our kids start to get into play dates at other kids homes. I honestly hadn’t thought of it, nor to ask about other hazards. Glad we are village parenting!
5) I think these are all good ideas to address the concern of kids, playdates and guns. To add another piece, talking to our kids about guns will be important, too. I grew up with a video called Eddie the Eagle [from the NRA}, which taught kids about gun safety. The whole thing is based around the question, what do you do if you see [find] a gun? And the answer, according to Eddie was: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult. I believe Eddie is still around as a friend of mine said they covered the topic, with Eddie the Eagle, at her son’s pre-school. This of course, isn’t going to address a philosophical or theological perspective with kids, but it does address the practical instance of encountering a gun, if for some reason it happens, even with the pre-playdate conversations.
6) I’m so glad that you brought up the importance of teaching our children about how to react in the presence of a firearm. Unfortunately, we have sensed the necessity of having this conversation with our kids from a very young age – three or four years old, I think (?). The first conversation may have happened after I witnessed a few kids playing with a handgun on my street. Also, when my dad was a child in the 1950s, his best friend was accidentally killed while playing with a loaded pistol. He often shares concerns about gun safety with our family.
We’ve tried to have this talk in a less-worrying way that focuses more on being prepared, similar to learning about how to react in case of a fire. I know, however, that some kids do worry about being shot, especially if they participate in school lockdown drills, see certain things in visual media, or have had the misfortune of being in the presence of gun violence. So… I think we also need to allow our children the space to express how they feel about all of this, and to practice good listening. That may also help us to discern how to be more proactive.
It is important to talk about everything with each other and our kids, isn’t it!
I suppose we’ll have to talk a lot if everyone is going to have their privates exposed and their guns strewn around their privacy. Here is one last word from Jesus that might be comforting in the face of this troubling era. I like it in The Voice translation: “I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order” (John 16:33).
Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) became the premier woman poet of her day in her mid-thirties. I love her for providing this stanza, which describes the season into which Jesus entered our time and place.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Jesus may not have been born in winter and he certainly was not born in England! But He definitely needs to be born every February in Pennsylvania. We are in the “bleak midwinter” right now. People are sick, pipes are freezing, cars are crashing and many of us are facing our yearly depression.
Around this time of year many people in the Northeast are sick of winter. We’re sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather. Winter gets old — fast. If you have brought out the yearly fantasy of moving to Florida with your relatives, we hear you.
In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as “seasonal affective disorder” (shortened to SAD, appropriately). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than the average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” beginning and ending at about the same times of the year. Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness. More recent studies suggest the whole idea is suspicious, but now we are used to idea and you may have diagnosed yourself, already.
Whether we have a major disorder on our hands or not, the bleak midwinter excites bleakness. Every time I look at Christian Rosetti’s picture (above), I don’t wonder why she could write such a descriptive SAD scene in just a few lines. She had a few drifts of permanent snow on her feelings, I think. So when the winter comes around and we get sick, grumpy and joke we have SAD it makes sense not to brush off our yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that we have to tough out on our own. It is always good to follow our feelings around a bit and see what they are up to.
There are ways to keep our mood and motivation steady throughout the year. If you’re the Mayo Clinic you’ll recommend that SAD sufferers try light therapy (replacing lost sunlight), psychotherapy, and/or medications. All might be useful, more likely if used together. If you (or your therapist) think you have SAD right now, or you are just grumpy and unmotivated, here are a couple of thoughts and some faith-based counsel that could help you figure out what to do next.
Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis
SAD is more about observing people than testing data. Recent studies that do plow through a lot of data can’t really find a seasonal increase in depression. If you feel depressed right now it may be more about how you are personally ordered rather than about being subject to a seasonal disorder, as if you caught SAD and need a chemical remedy. The seasons of the year often excite things in us that were going unnoticed. That’s normal life, not a disorder.
People experiencing feelings associated with SAD might want to get a couple of opinions before they treat their feelings with medicine. Even WebMD notes that “What we are observing is that Americans are increasingly viewing psychiatric medications as a solution for a wide range of social and interpersonal problems and for dealing with daily stress [and] general medical providers appear to be going along with this trend.” Depression has physical, psychological, social and spiritual components. Just taking a pill may make a difference, but might not solve the problem – and a drug-based-only solution might make things worse.
Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak
The winter is often the best time to lay low and listen to how the seasons teach us about our feelings and all they mean.
Winter is not a curse.
A lot of good things are happening to the earth and to us, when we are “depressed” In winter. An obvious, if underappreciated fact, is the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. Being fallow is good (Isaiah 55). Your depression might be a time for generating something new.
The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow. Seeds get ready to sprout. (Psalm 147). You may have a seed that’s been trying to sprout since childhood.
You may be moving into a new season. That is often depressing, but good. The Creator built mercy into winter, too. We can rely on that love (Job 38.22). We often need to keep reframing our sense of our situation when we feel God is not in the bleakness.
Winter is part of our growth process
Even though the seasons change every year, many of us still feel winter like a slap in the face every time. Then when we move to Cabo San Lucas to escape it, we miss it and complain that it is too hot. We’re like that.
We talk about the stages of our faith development (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) because we want to learn to move with natural elements that sin and death have made feel like enemies. The changing seasons are another set of unchanging realities that can teach love and truth. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter each show us God in unique ways, over and over, until we learn to move with them instead of resisting or dominating. The changing seasons demonstrate how God’s care never changes, despite our changing seasons of life (Malachi 3). Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3).
Winter will end.
I can hardly wait until this winter is over, I admit it. Winter is often a challenge for me. (But then it rains a lot in May. Summer can get humid. And Fall is full of allergens). The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting. Waiting is good.
We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8). We are waiting for the “winter” of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious “spring” of the resurrection. We comfort ourselves when we suffer with the promise that the age to come is not that far off. The day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, where pain, sickness, death, or tears will no longer kill us. We have hope for a new beginning.
This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life (Romans 5). Christians are waiters. So we can get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.
If you swallow the “spiritual pill” I just offered, will you be guaranteed a happy winter? Will changing your mind bring all your painful feelings to an immediate end? Maybe. But not inevitably.
In the bleak midwinter — waiting for the thaw that never seems certain, trying to see single-digit temperatures as a growth opportunity, fighting off the strong sense that it is all an example of how we are cursed — Jesus comes to bring us hope.
Thank God I am not in charge of the seasons, or responsible for saving myself from them! I think Christina Rosetti ended her poem very well and I need to keep singing it throughout every bleak day:
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
This year’s original songs nominated for an Oscar have an unsurprising theme: loss and longing. If they are not downright sad, they are about sad situations, sad lives and a deep longing we can all relate to.
Sad songs are more popular than happy ones and have greater staying power. I wish Pharrell’s Happy would last longer than Adele’s Hello, but I would not count on it.
In a sad world, sad songs can be addictive. So be careful; it is sad out there. Research suggests that sad music can play a role in emotional regulation — I think everyone knows the word “cathartic” by now; and everyone talks about “venting.” Music-evoked sadness helps us release emotional distress in a safe, beautiful way and provides some distance for reappraisal, and insight. Sometimes it gives us the chills, which feel good and soothe anxiety. Sad music teases out hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are also associated with mom’s cuddles and falling in love. So the aftermath of a sad song can be a period of feeling not so sad. Of course we’ll need a another dose very soon – at least most of us seem to. But we like going back for more.
Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy
Jesus followers, contrary to what some of their teachers taught in the last century [like this], are encouraged to be sad in a hopeful way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We have a safe place in Christ to grieve fearlessly, knowing that we are not in danger of the deadly despair we dread. When we are wearing our true selves, we can sorrow without defeat and experience sadness without hopelessness. We can aspire to true sorrow and true hope.
One reason Paul gives for this wonderful capacity is our knowledge that we grieve temporarily. We know our grief will come to an end. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Paul highlights that hope by pointing back in time and then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
This year’s songs are also acquainted with grief and longing for something else
The songs nominated for Best Original Song of 2018 are all longing for the hope Jesus instills in us (at least unconsciously). Take a look and see what you think.
All the Stars
Black Panther is a hopeful movie about a culture in hiding, its treasure masked by its contradictory camoflauge of poverty.
Kendrick Lamar and SZA sing a duet of the nominated song, All the Stars, during the credits. Here’s part of it:
Love, let’s talk about love. Is it anything and everything you hoped for? Or do the feeling haunt you? I know the feeling haunt you
This may be the night that my dreams might let me know: All the stars are closer, all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer…
How did it all go to feel good? You could live it all. If you feel bad better live your life We were runnin’ out of time.
I do not know everything Kendrick Lamar is getting at. But I can tell he is longing, like the movie, for respect. Even deeper, he is trying not to let love slip away, even though he would like to stop feeling the pain of missing it. Maybe even deeper than that, he would like the moment when he feels the stars are closer to be a regular occurrence — he misses God, too.
RBG is a bit of hagiography about the lawyer-turned-SCOTUS-member who worked valiantly to put women’s rights into law.
The song is called I’ll Fight. And RBG can pack a wallop for someone as notoriously diminutive as she is. Here is a bit:
When you feel you’re taking all that you can take And you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break And the tears are rivers running down your face, yeah When your faith is low and you’ve got no strength left When you think you’ve gone as far as you can get And you’re too run down to take another step
Oh I will take up the struggle Oh I know it’s a fight
So I’ll fight, fight that war for you I’ll fight, stand and defend you
Saints have often been stand-ins for the Savior. So it is appropriate that Jennifer Hudson, the church woman, steps up to sing a testimony: “I was low but you rescued me, I was defenseless and you were my strength.” It sounds like a psalm!
The song longs for that person who meets us when the tears are streaming down our face. Ultimately, I met that person in Jesus. But Jesus has a lot of friends. Every Jesus follower keeps growing in Jesus-like empathy and conviction; so sing it, Jennifer! And plenty of humans who don’t follow Jesus have goodness and courage built right in as the beloved creatures they are; so stay alive, Ruth!
The Place Where Lost Things Go
Above is the songwriter singing his version. If you want Emily Blunt, here she is.
Mary Poppins Returns is a great remake of the original. It should be given an award for daring! Emily Blunt should win prizes for letting herself be compared to the icon, Julie Andrews. Like so many Disney movies, the drama centers around the death of a parent. In this case, it is mom who is lost — thus, this stanza of The Place Where the Lost Things Go:
So when you need her touch And loving gaze Gone but not forgotten Is the perfect phrase Smiling from a star That she makes glow Trust she’s always there Watching as you grow Hiding in the place Where the lost things go
The theology of many movies teaches children that dead people are like stars that shine down on us from heaven. And if you don’t forget people they are still alive, at least in your heart. I have, indeed, imagined that loved ones I miss are still looking over me, and my memories of them comfort me, since I still miss them. So this is a sweet, if somewhat untrustworthy song.
God has been generally banished from the movies, but we still need a Savior (Black Panther, RBG, and Mary Poppins) and we still need and still long for a touch of love and mystery in our sadness (strength in blackness, strength in weak old age, and strength returning to Dad in his deep, deep sadness). I hope Jesus appreciates how religious these movies are! He is still needed!
I wasn’t much of a Gaga fan until this movie. As soon as I saw it, I forgave her for following Janet, JUDY and Barbra, she was just so talented! Plus, she writes evocative songs, like Shallow. Here’s a lot of it.
Tell me somethin’, girl Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more? Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?
I’m falling In all the good times I find myself Longin’ for change And in the bad times I fear myself
Tell me something, boy Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void? Or do you need more? Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
I’m falling In all the good times I find myself Longing for change And in the bad times I fear myself
I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in I’ll never meet the ground Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us We’re far from the shallow now
In just a few brief lines, this duet hits us where sadness meets fear: “Will I ever get to be who I feel I am? Is my longing doomed to go unmet?” I appreciate the clever image of crashing through the surface. It is on the other side of what seems to be the impenetrable surface that we find out we can’t be hurt like we feared quite so much.
For Lady Gaga, personally, the wall between men and women is broken down as the partners listen and empathize in this song. What’s more, the walls the misfits, like her, need to crash through is demonstrated for everyone needing to find courage.
I went back and listened to the words above as if Jesus were singing them, wherever that seemed right. It fit for me. I am blessed with people who crash through surfaces with me and for me. But when it comes to finding the place where they can’t hurt me, that comes with Jesus crashing into humanity and then crashing through death. My courage is too shallow to get where the song promises. Lady Gaga is worth about $300 million dollars — I know it does not buy her the great courage she has, but it surely helps. The rest of us probably need more.
When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a set of stories in which someone is going to die. It is a movie about death. The crack shooter, Buster Scruggs, sings the nominated song, When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, as he is ascending to heaven. Here’s much of it:
When they wrap my body In the thin linen sheet And they take my six ounce Pull the boots from my feet
Unsaddle my pony She’ll be itching to roam I’ll be halfway to heaven Under horsepower of my own
Yippee-ki-yi-yay When the roundup ends Yippee-ki-yi-yay And the campfire dims
Yippee-ki-yi-yay He shalt be saved When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings
The final one of the film shorts that make up the movie: “Mortal Remains,” is the only one in which the characters are already dead. They are only marginally aware of this reality. They remind me of the spirits in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (MUCH recommended, if you haven’t read it yet). This final parable pulls the rest of the stories together. It is the story of how three people who would normally not be in the same stagecoach together find their souls being harvested.
As dead people they try to put things together. Each is very sure of their own point of view as to what is happening. With a nod to why sad songs and stories about death move us so much, one of the harvesters notes that “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” Each person’s confirmation bias can’t save them; though different, each is just as dead as the other. It is a Coen Brothers parable. They seem to see a world full of swift repercussions, but one that is also random, in which the only certainty is death.
The humor that laces the Coen Brothers’ debate with the narcissism and nihilism of the postmodern era leaves room for love and hope, which their wacky characters often demonstrate. The whole, three-hour Oscar ceremony, complete with the often less-than-classic nominated songs it elevates, is a similar celebration. Beautiful, talented people celebrate, show honor, cry, praise people (and sometimes God), and showcase the best of humanity.
I feel for the attenders, all all gussied up for their stagecoach ride in the Dolby Theater, all with their longings, 80% of the nominees soon to experience loss. In many ways, as the nominated songs are performed, they will reveal their sadness and longing. Those beautiful people might experience that tingle we feel when something has broken through our surface and the Holy Spirit gets an opportunity to beckon us into eternity and our true selves.
The Vikings series is one of the most Christian shows on television. The whole thing is about Norse religion/culture bumping up against the Christian church/state in Wessex, among other territories, and vice versa.
As a result, in Vikingsthis season, Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha have a religious problem. Lagetha is not interested in deserting her gods, but the supposedly-celibate priest, Heahmund, falls in love with her when he is taken captive to Kattegat (actually filmed in Ireland on a lake owned by the Guiness family). The deposed queen falls in love back. Before a crucial battle, Heahmund has a vision of hell and renounces his illicit connection to his pagan queen. Spoiler alert, he is killed (above). But his last words are “Lagetha.”
Good TV, right?
Religion tackles questions about time
Obviously lust, greed, war, etc. etc, are also big, religious problems everyone ought to be having in Vikings, and they do. But I want to talk about time.
Lagetha and Heahmund are both getting up there in years (especially for the 9th century!). Heahmund has a young new king with ideas that will be new for a generation, as it turns out. Lagetha has step-children who have become Christians and farmers, while her oldest son is ready to leave for mayhem-yet-to-be-determined. Times are changing and time is short. So what do we do with our time? Should Heahmund hang on to this surprising love he relishes and forsake eternity? Should Lagetha try to regain her youth and take back Kattegat? Is Valhalla a good enough reason to risk death today? Is Jesus really on our side forever and is that promise enough to die preserving a place where he is Lord? I love this show.
I wish we would ask questions with similar passion and not merely watch others ask them. And we often do ask them. Actually, it is hard not to ask, since time is running out and we are not getting any younger (well, especially not me).
I had a question about time early on in my faith when I ran into a job description in the annual report of the Baptist church: Flower Arranger. A woman’s whole job was to make sure there were flowers on the communion table under the pulpit each week. Her job made me indignant! I thought it was a waste of money and time to be concerned about furniture and aesthetics when people were dying of hunger! (I still pretty much feel that way). But I am a little softer now, realizing that some people are suited for arranging flowers; plus, gratuitous beauty looks more like God than most things; and the simplicity of wasting time on something one can do with a pure heart of grace is sweet.
She must have asked, when she heard I was asking questions, “Is what I do with my time of any value? Do I have time for this? Am I wasting my time?”
We are all asking that, along with Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha. It is a strange place we find ourselves, as time-bound creatures. We have been made for the age to come, as well as this one. We have a taste for eternity, no matter how much science tries to convince us we are just material. Our day to day life, and its brevity, leads us to think about our own time contracting and stretching simultaneously. And so many things in our experience seem to have leaked over from eternity, it is hard not to believe there is another dimension we only see as though looking through frosted glass. Is time short or long?
So busy, ambitious people, in particular, have trouble on both sides of the question. Do I have enough time to give the church a lot of time? If I am responsible for my time, that is a tough question. If I have all the time in eternity, isn’t that a great gift that I dare not waste?
I am going more for questions than answers today. But here are two Bible verses on both sides of the main question that help us figure things out.
Make the most of your time
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:15-16
This is Paul with his second-tier thinking. He’s very practical about what people taking first steps to follow Jesus should know. He says, “You can easily see people wasting their days as if their hours did not mean anything. As long as the sun shines, there is a chance for transformation. Time is about changing the world, not spending it on whatever makes you feel something in the moment.”
I have taken his words very seriously since I first memorized them way back when. Sometimes I think I was TOO serious and missed some flower arranging.
The time you have is a gift.
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God — 1 Cor 3:21-23…. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8.
I learned this section later in life, when Paul’s first-tier, deeper thinking starts seeming reasonable. He’s saying, “Surely you do not believe what you know or have achieved as of today is the raw material of meaning? It is all a gift! You already have all the time in the world and in eternity. There is no scarcity, as if time were something you could hoard away and should protect with all the power you could acquire.”
The other day I took a day off and ended up watching an episode of Vikings in my robe about 10 am. At times I felt like the second hand might be watching me! But I let myself waste the time it took for my imagination to wander. Come to think of it, the ministry of the Baptists grew and the flowers were also arranged!
Unwise people in this evil day want to steal our time. At best, they commodify it and buy it from us for work as if that makes any eternal sense. We need to fight them and make the most of our time, carefully living as the body of Christ — with all the hard work that requires in a hostile era.
But we probably won’t make the most of our time unless unless we have a deep sense that the beginning and end of our time is the gift of God — and every act we do, whether we judge it large or small, is made good by the touch of the Spirit, reaching into our time with love and truth. If we are open to receiving everything from the hand of God in Jesus Christ, we receive eternal life. That’s the place we start to answer all our other questions about how to use, or spend, or waste our time. Having a receptive heart is a crucial place to start when planting the church, or the process just seems like it demands a lot of time, as if it were a scarce commodity.
Poor Bishop Heahmund! He was right in the throes of deciding how he would spend his time when a Viking put a sword through his back. The show leaves me wondering if he ran out of time or just went to prepare for the age to come. Good question, History Channel!
If you are full of joy, maybe you can just skip this one. Conversely, if you are resisting getting into stuff and don’t feel like changing right now, maybe you can just skip this one.
Because this simple post is all about feeling bad about feeling bad and how that might change.
When I was out to dinner with good friends the other night we were complaining about how we were feeling bad about how many people feel bad. (Three therapists at a table of four will put at least a sprinkle of empathy in your tacos!) I added, to all the reasons we were collecting about why people are feeling bad: Trump is stealing our joy. I don’t mean, “I hate Trump or the people who love him and will only feel better when they are defeated.” I mean he has been on the screen for over two years, every day, disrupting, dominating, bullying, confusing, sending immigrant children to prison, now furloughing a million people, soon to be found out for how the Russians were part of his election campaign (it would appear). He’s a joy stealer par excellence. And if you were already anxious before he took control and tried to get more control, now you are really anxious!
Not everyone at the table thought I knew what I was talking about and maybe you don’t either. But whether I am right or wrong, I will still need to hang on to my joy, won’t I? It is basic to my new-birthright. Jesus says:
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:20-22
Having joy does not mean turning off contrary feelings
Those words from Jesus could encourage you or they might just drive you Christian-crazy. What I mean is, many Christians turn off their minds and hearts in order to perfect a fake joy that is really just a masterful defense against their anxiety and depression. They take charge of their joy and try to do joy right so they won’t be doing something wrong which might send them to hell, or might uncover their secret sins and unhealthy habits. Let’s not go Christian crazy, but let’s have some hope for joy in troubled times.
I love proverbs, in general, and this one in particular helps right now:
A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22
This is one of those “factual” proverbs, that state the obvious we might forget. It simply says, if you are thankful and hopeful, the past does not clog up your feelings with regret and the future does not look so frightening; when you are depressed and anxious it feels like you are slowly dying from the inside out.
So it makes sense to hold on to our joy, tend it, even see it as a power that overcomes the woes of the world. The Bible gives repeated examples of receiving and using joy. Here are a few.
Affirm joy exists for you
Here is the famous Nehemiah 8:10
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah called for a party to celebrate the building of the restored wall in Jerusalem. We should all make a note to self – “Do not have vacuous parties that don’t include a reason people can hang on to.” Parties breed joy. Nehemiah wanted people to affirm the goodness of God and their own togetherness and love, as well as their accomplishment – all the things that bring people joy. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That is, joy the joy of knowing the love of God and receiving goodness from the Lord is the core of what makes us strong.
The word used here in Nehemiah for “strength” means “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold.” When we let go of our joy, we are vulnerable to the things that destroy us – our own weaknesses and sins and the bullies in the world. The joy of the Lord is my fortress. Don’t go crazy Christian and think God is all about keeping bad people and experiences away from you. But do affirm that if we have an impenetrable joy at the core of us, we have the strength to open ourselves to suffering and all sorts of “dangerous people” and take all sorts of “sacrificial” risks.
Remember past joy
Here is the wonderful Psalm 126 in its entirety:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
One good way to hang on to joy in troubled times is to remember past joys. The story we tell about our lives makes a difference. When anxious people cannot sleep, they have a difficult choice to learn. Instead of rehearsing their past failures and troubles, they need to search out the joys. Such searching is part of their strength.
Use your joy
When Paul was in prison instead of sailing for Spain, as he hoped he would, this is how he began his letter to his first church plant in Europe:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:3-6
Joy lives in us and we live in the expression of God’s joy. Creation is an enactment of the Lord’s generous love. Joy is the creative exuberance that the world reveals around every corner. Evolutionists don’t quite know, according to their theory, why animals prefer beautiful mates. Paul would say all creation is made to love our generous, beautiful God. Animals know that instinctively. The world is, in itself, an expression of joyful generosity. Jesus has opened up our hearts to love God and love with Jesus; when we do it, we experience joy, deeply.
When Paul writes his letter, he is also using his joy and sees it as a way to send joy reverberating all the way from Rome to Philippi. Along with joy being a wonderful feeling, it is also something we do. Paul is praying with joy. He uses his joy as a shield against what would do him in. And he uses it as an offensive weapon, too. A shield can deflect a sword blow, but it was also used to knock an enemy down.
Peacemaking types may not like the idea that they do anything that remotely resembles violence. I think that kind of “empire-thinking” is a tempting luxury for people who imagine themselves above it all like that. Regular folks are having a day-to-day problem with forces that want to steal their lives. We must fight those forces, coming from the inside and out, with joy, among other things. Here are some examples:
I believe God loves me. (Pow!) I believe God is actively loving me right now in this situation. (Crash!) I believe God’s love will never fail. (Wham!) I believe God will not withhold any good thing from me. (Smash!) You could not possibly steal my Christ-given joy! (Flattened!)
I still kind of feel bad that I ever feel bad. (Come Lord Jesus!) But I also remember when I did not feel the joy of the Lord! You may have been there last week, you were so depressed and anxious, living in this Trump-dominated country.
It helps me get back into the reality of God’s love when I affirm what is my destiny, then I begin to see and recall how God has surprised me and gifted me with joy, then I really get rolling when I use my joy in the same generous spirit in which it was used to find me and rescue me.
“I think I am losing my faith—and I don’t know what to do about it.” I wish people would say that more often; they mostly just feel it until the feeling pushes them over the edge. Blame it on Trump. Blame it on unreconciled relationships. Blame it on dumb churches and their leaders. Blame it on science. Blame it on yourself. The blaming does not really help the feelings. They still end up with an internal struggle that has big consequences whichever way it goes.
If you feel some of these things, you are not alone. All sorts of people, from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society are feeling it with you. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons now find the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet. Some are panicking, many are reverting to the defense systems they relied on as a child and trying to find other things to hope in.
The terrors that taught us as children don’t really go away. So when we get pushed to the edge it is terrifying. It is one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems people have put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things and still hold on to some confidence that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those assertions are all that remain of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.
But what do you do, when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that fragile bit of faith seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much to own? How do you keep going in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?
Encouragement for the eroding
These mysteries of faith can’t be “solved” in a blog post. They can’t be “solved” as if they were a “problem” at all, can they? Most people of faith need to move beyond faith that solves problems into faith that is more about love – and we all know that love causes the delicious problems of being human as much as it solves them. So I have just a few beginning things to say which I hope will encourage people who are in the thick of some spiritual trauma. All the linked blog posts scattered around the page might help, too.
You may be at a point where your loss of faith feels unsolvable. At that point, living in faith often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious.” Jesus followers can become desperate while they are reading the Bible, when they are praying, after they are done volunteering and when they are trying to believe in the middle of a church meeting. They may be as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity, confidence and comfort they once did.
I’ve met people who feel a barren, spiritual dryness. I often tell them that feeling is actually a sign of their faith, not merely their loss of it, since others, obviously, have already adapted to a barren spiritual landscape and feel it is normal. These dried-out people almost always feel burdened by a sense of failure – a secret feeling they dare not share or often dare not admit to themselves. They are grieving, feeling helpless about regaining what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to be easier. And they are often angry with God, too.
So what can you do right now?
If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience for you in the future.
Sticking with prayer, Bible study or church attendance might provide anchors for your faith until the storm passes—but they might not. You might like to try psychotherapy to see if there is something in the way of your growth you don’t know about, or to provide some heavy-duty support while you are growing – maybe you aren’t up for that.
Maybe the process should be more about what’s right in front of you, for now — about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your baby’s head.
Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that will have to be OK. Maybe that’s as close to proving God’s goodness as you can get. To simply live and to find gratitude in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is on the holiness spectrum. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment isa pathway back to the hope you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and your worn-out religion.
But maybe you shouldn’t worry about whether the gratitude gets you somewhere right now. We’re good at turning simple goodness into a means to an end – gratitude is not a result to achieve or another religious exercise to evaluate. Try receiving the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to you and surprise you. People have often found the beginning of a new season of faith there.
As you are working at finding a new center, keep noting when you feel guilty. Guilt is good for turning us from bad behavior, but it needs to be checked when it makes us feel like a worthless person. Talk back to that voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible and don’t worry about what you think people are saying about you. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will. Maybe most of all, don’t worry about God. God is big enough to handle your doubts, fears and failures and knows exactly what you’re going through and why believing is such a struggle right now.
You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around and to find joy in what is right beside you and all around you as your journey continues. If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be.
I think there are a lot of good writers out there these days. So I am grateful that you take the time to visit my blog. I gained a few subscribers this year, which was heartening, since I’d like to share what God gives me with whoever needs it.
“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”
Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.
In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy. She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without. She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).
Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.
My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.
Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.
I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!
We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.” Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.
Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid. The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.
I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:
I am your slave. Guide me.
I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
I have no one to trust but you. I will.
I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
Wow! Help! Thanks!
However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it. We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.
You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.
For me, Advent has a lot of layers (like my December wardrobe!). Maybe the layer I need the most is the personal one: the Advent of Jesus to me, Jesus coming to be incarnate in my little life.
The other day, after I woke up with some threatening congestion, I stumbled downstairs in the dark and finally made it to my chair to pray. I had been feeling what one of my friends called “a recession” for a couple of days –not quite a depression, and I was letting some of my anxieties get the best of me.
In the middle of all that unpleasant stuff, I had such a sweet, little experience of Advent, I thought I’d share it with you, in case you also feel like you are stumbling around in the dark on these darkest days of the year in what feels like a dark time of the world.
I was looking around my room and seized upon a flaw in one of the walls, lamenting that the contractor had done a poor job. Suddenly, it came upon me how wonderful it was to have this warm room in which to pray! It was a strangely instant turnaround. It felt like the Holy Spirit had whipped off the emotional bag that was over my head and showed me the joy that was in the very same room I had been criticizing! Just as suddenly, two Christmas carol lyrics leapt into my mind and I meditated on them for a long time.
The first song centers on a quote from the John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, as he was prophesying over his child:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:76-79 (KJV)
The Dayspring visited me in the time of my impending seasonal affect disorder and lit up my darkness. My troubled way was guided into peace. So I am writing with this song in mind for me and for you
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Another lyric quickly came to my mind, since my thoughts are usually occupied by lyrics. It is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi, collected in the last book of the Old Testament. The old Christmas hymns come from writers steeped in the King James Bible, which is quite beautiful.
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 4:1-3 (KJV)
The Sun of righteousness rose in my room with healing in his wings. Like the hymn writer, Charles Wesley, I’m talking about Jesus. Malachi has a broader metaphor. His “Sun” is like God moving through the heavens, the fringes (or “wings”) of his long flowing garment spreading the blessings of life to farmers luxuriating in mild spring sunshine and gentle rains that restore parched ground and fatten starving calves. I woke up to the dawn and felt like singing with Hark the Herald Angels sing!
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings. [Brits!]
It is so good to have Advent again because I need the advent of Jesus in my shadeable little world.
I hope any dark clouds you are experiencing soon pass as the Dayspring drives them away. May the Sun of righteousness rise again where you are seated and convince you to reach out, touch the hem of his garment, and be healed.