In our lockdown anxiety: Get a new narrative from Psalm 91

The well known Psalm 91 seems to be placed in the Old Testament Book of Psalms to answer the last question of Psalm 90: “How long?” We all have that question these days, especially here in the beautiful Delaware River Watershed where the stay-at-home order is already getting to feel like a long time.

shelter narrative

Psalm 91 can be a great comfort if you read it with a Jesus lens. But if you are reading it like every line of the Bible is a principle from the textbook of God, it could trip you up. With a Jesus lens, the psalm reminds us that our afflictions are temporary and every light in the darkness illumines our everlasting life. But read as a set of principles, it could be very discouraging, since most of the promises it lists are not likely to be specifically fulfilled for you and your loved ones any time soon in any verifiable way. Taking the theme of the poem seriously, the psalm reveals God, the Father of Jesus and the parent of us all, to be good, attentive and active on our behalf. As a result, we have something on which to build an anxiety-unraveling narrative.

The Jesus lens

Here is a summary of what Psalm 91 leads us to believe.

It starts and ends with truths that lead us into fullness. The thematic word is “shelter.” As you shelter-in-place, God is your shelter — that sums it up for now. God is your shadow in the desert. God is your hiding place from what attacks you. God is your fortress in the battle, and more. If you can’t do the poetry, now would be a good time to learn.

Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt you. Even though trouble and affliction come upon you, those bad things shall come to good. There may be grief right now as far as the quarantine goes, but there is joy in the eternal now of our heart-to-heart relationship with God. These are all the longed-for and debated promises Jesus-followers spend a lifetime grasping and grappling. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul teaches that the experiences of Israel with God “happened to them as an example,” and the stories about them “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The risen Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus considered the book of Psalms to be ultimately about him.

Those who rightly know God, will set their love on him. In hope, they will call on her. In response, God’s promise is to deliver his loved ones out of trouble, and in the meantime be with them in trouble. We move through life in partnership with God for our given time. A person may die young, yet be satisfied with living. A wicked person will not be satisfied even with long life. In due time our conflict ends and we are done forever with trouble, sin, and temptation.

the inner narrative

Under the thumb of principles

The problem with this psalm, especially for anxious people who are looking for that out-of-reach security they crave, is piled up in the middle. In that part the poet gives an extravagant description of what God will do for us in hard times – like when the nation is stricken with a virus.

It says she will do things like give us courage when “pestilence…stalks the darkness or destruction lays waste at noon.” It says “A thousand may fall at your side”…but no “plague” will “come near your tent.” Like the devil quoted to Jesus, it says angels will bear you up so you won’t even stub your toe.

I think most people know these are not verifiable principles to apply to the present plague. Even the good doctors are dying! So many say God is a fraud when Christians claim such statements are inerrant – and often pretend they are completely true, even when they are sick!

On the one hand, no one knows just how much God is personally sustaining us or angels are caring for us. I can’t measure God’s care but I shamelessly rely on it. All my hope is built on the love and truth demonstrated in Jesus.

On the other hand, like Jesus told the devil, we must not test God to see if we are being cared for according to our standards, tempt God to see if she fails us, prove God as if he were a theorem. The devil went for the obvious proof, “Show that you are loved by God by demonstrating God’s care as you throw yourself off this pinnacle.” How many of us dive off our mountain of anxiety, daily, and are daily disappointed at God’s lack of response! Jesus comes back with the deeper scripture, the more-personal and less-principle Deuteronomy 6:16. That verse recalls the Israelites arguing with Moses about water, as if the Lord had not provided for them every step of the way. Don’t keep testing God as if water couldn’t come out of a rock any moment, as if you weren’t thankful for the gift of life — and an eternal one, at that!

We might not be able to fix it

Anxious, controlling people want facts they can rely on, since they feel stuck in the middle of a mess they are consigned to fix. Americans, especially, might be effectively chastened, for once, by the present crisis and decide they aren’t the light of the world after all. We don’t live in the shelter of what we build for ourselves — at least not for long.

Psalm 91 shines a light on God, our shelter, from beginning to end. It starts

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

In Robert Alter’s more literal and immediate translation:

He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
…..in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night. –
I say of the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
…..my God in whom I trust.”

It is a basic anxiety-reliever to adopt a preferred narrative and keep rehearsing it until one’s mind can conform to it. This post is like exposure therapy for people locked in principles that damn them or deprive them of a faith they can’t live up to or believe in.

This small part of Ps. 91 could be a new mantra to replace the rehearsal of fears that dominates one’s inner dialogue. In these verses, the names of God could provide a budding reassurance that might flower in the midst of trouble.

Where do I live? In the shelter of the Most High. The Hebrew word Elyon suggests a supreme monarch, one who is elevated above all things. It is first used in Genesis 14:18, describing Abraham’s encounter with the priest/king Melchizedek, “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek gives us a picture of Christ in several ways (Heb. 7), Jesus the king and priest who did not fit the principles. Our shelter is greater than the umbrellas of our understanding.

How are my needs met? By the Almighty. The Hebrew word Shaddai primarily suggests a  powerful God who is strong beyond our imagination and is more than capable to supply our every need. This is the God who parted the sea and moves in all creation. In the all-sufficient name of Shaddai, there is no need that cannot be met, and no circumstance that won’t, ultimately, be overcome. My physical needs lead me to spiritual needs which, when addressed, help me sort out my physical needs.

Who knows me and still loves me? It is the LORD. This personal name for God was considered so sacred in Judaism the original pronunciation is uncertain, only that it contained the letters YHWH (JHVH in Latin).  It has been translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, and more often as the LORD (in all caps). This represents a relatable God who calls Moses from the burning bush and wants all of us to know her love. Every joy and fear in our hearts is important to the Lord. In Jesus, we see just what a friend we have. God calls my name and it is joy to respond. It is good to have the hairs of one’s head numbered, even if I feel my scalp itching.

Who can I trust? My God. The Hebrew word Elohim appears at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is technically a plural word. The creator is one, yet plural (Father, Son, Spirit). The God we trust is the same God who creates all things, the first and the last, the God who is forever faithful to his creation. The creation is infected, but it is good. My first reaction may not always be trust, but I can get to a deeper place where I meet the author and protector of my faith.

God’s ways are higher than our ways, yet we can love her as a friend. God is unsearchable yet so very near to us. In His shelter, we find strength, comfort, and rest for our souls. If you are anxious, that assurance might seem like nice poetry meant for someone else. I hope this little piece shows ways to deconstruct such an unhelpful narrative in your inner dialogue and strengthens a new narrative informed and empowered by God’s Spirit, alive in you in perilous times.

The lost moleskin

I had a new moleskin in which to write poetry. I have lost it in the chaos of my house as we get ready to move. The reality inspired my psalm today.

I had turned a poetic page
to pencil in a new moleskin:
…..one free of lines,
…..one more expansive and new,
…..one now completely out of view.

I wander my boxed-up world
unpacking what now can’t transport:
…..a book I never read,
…..a folder rarely needed,
…..a move now fully impeded.

Yet here we sit in disheveled mess –
quarantine, lockdown, stay-at-home test.
And you resolutely show your face:
the smallest touch,
the sweetest look,
the ease of much,
the weird Facebook.
In all the church
now all online
the birds on perch
sing all the time.
And there is joy in our messy place.

My moleskin will rise in time,
A witness to what can’t be seen —
…..an order like the dawn,
…..one more expansive and new,
…..one now completely out of view —
by me, not You.

Don’t let the change horse get away

We’re weeks away from things that may not happen till who knows when –.
…..the coronavirus contributions to life make former anxieties seem odd.
Somehow, it seems like it is a new world and all we can do is change –
…..like Covid-19 is a means to reorient us like Peter meeting Sapphira:
the old order of greed and lies generating control and oppression
…..meets the new order of “You all manifestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”

So it seems like a good time to change,
…..since that horse has left the barn.
Chase it down and ride it.

Seeing a disease as a blessing may not be welcomed without a fight –
…..even among  you friends who are kindly used to me, and still love me.
But somehow we were consigned to a locked room for self examination,
…..and I can’t bear the thought of watching the entire Netflix catalogue.
Instead, I am face to face with the traits with which I was bored anyway,
…..And your voice seems clear, “You manifestly don’t need to be as you were before.”

So it seems like a good time to change
…..in ways that did not seem likely.
It’s a post-Covid world.

Let there be peace on earth.
…..May the disease teach us all the lessons people are learning, like me.
But let it begin with me.

It is always risky to look at the past and be inspired to leave it
…..because the past contains all those reasons you never change.
And it is risky to write a psalm that implies one is changing by the end of it,
…..since it could easily idealize a process that is more pea patch than lab.

Yet it seems like a good time to change
…..in ways that defy assessment –
with you on a wild ride.
…..May the disease teach me all the lessons people like me are learning
like your Spirit is moving.

 

Would you like to hear me read it?

Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment

Now that everything is shut down for us and the kids, the new reality may begin to sink in. They are missing that much-anticipated birthday party, the gymnastics meet and pajama day; plus the school is trying to turn home into school while mom and dad are trying to work in the next room.

Parents are getting mixed reactions from their kids that range from joy over extra time off to confusion and sadness over missing a canceled event — and often fear of the unknown.

Whether they’re forced to skip a musical performance, a tryout for a spring sport, a visit to their grandparents or a family vacation, simply telling children that disappointment is a part of life won’t cut it. In fact, just thinking about breaking the news may deepen anxiety in parents.

So how can parents help kids process their disappointment? Here is some advice from Jesus and some experts. (Annotating this article from the NY Times).

In Atlanta I saw families headed for Disney right before it was shut down.

Mom and Dad, check your own emotions.

Checking our emotions does not mean evaluating ourselves. Let’s sit down and feel with Jesus and get some encouragement about our value and future. Check in with Jesus and your emotions. The other night I asked our cell, “What encouragement would you give yourself?” Several people gave themselves an admonition to get it together, which did not sound too encouraging. A nonjudgmental look at ourselves would be more helpful — “How am I?” not “How am I bad?” We need our time with Jesus more than ever, so we can be reminded of our value and our future. Jesus is our peace.

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City says. “Fear can be contagious, so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially in front of their children. The good news is this also means that calm is contagious.” Jesus is our calm.

Be calm and honest

The government, the president in particular, were deceptive from the beginning about Covid-19. Senator Burr was selling off his holdings while helping to delay letting the public in on what he knew! Jesus is frank: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (Luke 6:46).

I’m not recommending having a house full of fury. But breaking down the situation into a child-sized narrative can help. Denying that something big is happening is dishonest. Trying to make things “normal” might create more anxiety than going with the abnormal flow. If we are not honest, the big unknown gets bigger and imaginations run wild with one’s own interpretation.

Gayle Cicero, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education says, “Regardless of a child’s age, honesty is the best approach.” But don’t throw out adult concepts children can’t handle. “Terms like ‘the right thing to do’ or ‘think about the elderly’ or ‘for the greater good’ are hard to grasp when, developmentally, kids are in a stage when their worldview centers around them, their family, and perhaps their neighborhood and friends.” That doesn’t mean we should dumb things down disrespectfully, but it does mean we may need to teach our kids what we are talking about when we say things like “trust God” or “even if I die, I will live again.” Our forced Sabbath would be a great time for a daily check in with the family to reinforce our common understanding, narrative and affection.

Image result for jesus compassion

Let everyone feel what they feel

Maybe you could ask the kids to illustrate the story you tell about Jesus feeling compassion for sick people, or the time he wept over the whole city of Jerusalem. Christianity first flourished among people who were disempowered and had little hope. Teens, in particular, may be facing all sorts of disillusionment, now that the society’s over-confident sense of power and control is falling apart. The pastors keep telling us our church was built for times like these. We have a place for and answers for the questions our feelings arouse.

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital says, “When breaking the news of cancellations, parents should focus on validating their children’s emotions, whether that is disappointment or fear or something in between. Kids often gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone. It may help for parents to say that a lot of kids are feeling the same way and even admit that they are a little worried, too. At the end of the day, the most important thing that parents can do is to send their kid the message that it’s OK for them to feel what they are feeling. These are the interactions that help a child feel seen.”

Naming your child’s emotion (for example, saying, “That must be so disappointing”) helps them begin to realize what they are feeling, said Leighanne Scheuermann, an educator based in Dallas. “In the long term, your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize the efforts you made to make the situation better for them.” The process of naming helps us all feel like we have choices we can make and feel like we are not completely helpless.

Learn about managing stress together

Many families in the U.S. are feeling the shock of not being in control. Their careful schedules are nonsense, their finances are shaky and their future is uncertain. In many ways this gives us all a new way to hear the Bible. The New Testament, in particular, is mainly written to people who were threatened by the authorities for following Jesus, and most of them were not that well off to begin with. 1 Peter, especially, takes on new layers of meaning, right from the beginning. (Try reading it every day for the rest of Lent):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Some believers turn this into “Don’t worry, be happy” and turn their faith into another defense against feeling or facing what they fear. I read it as encouragement to let our faith ground us when the whole earth is being shaken. If you talk this over with the kids, you may find they have more natural faith than you expected. They might not have been trusting God because they were trusting you as you trusted your own power!

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a psychologist and pediatric mental health specialist psychologist in Connecticut  says, “Disappointment can be linked to a feeling of loss of control in children. When you have to talk about canceled events that kids were looking forward to, think about it as a learning opportunity to manage disappointment. We often are so worried that our kids will get upset when we should be thinking: ‘What can my child learn here? Can they learn about managing stress and feeling upset?’”

It helps just to be a listening ear so your child can freely vent her frustration. It is tempting, as parents, to swoop in and wipe out disappointment. But, Dr. Cicero said, parents can actually get in the way of a child’s development when they do this. “Plus, there’s something so therapeutic about a person willing to hear you out and just be with you,” she added.

We will need more imagination than Netflix

I have been heartened by the amount of creativity and connectivity people have poured out this week. Some people have spent all their energy hunkering down and feeling shocked, of course. But others jumped right on it and shared their ideas and love.

Now we know the infectious atmosphere is apparently going to be around for a while. So we’ll eventually need to do something but watch TV. The other day one of our cell members got on our video text app and got us to sing encouraging songs to each other! That helped. Maybe you could have a family theme song for this new depth of Lent we are experiencing. Here is one from the deep Circle of Hope archive about waiting (Ps. 40): I waited for the Lord. (This is also good dance music for stuffed animals).

When a child’s emotions are really starting to disrupt his usual disposition or he seems stuck in a funk, it’s time for some creative direction from the parents. Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York says, “A fun technique to distract younger kids is a color game. Have your child choose a color and look around the room to point out everything he can see in that color. This can help a child break the worry spiral and calm the body and mind,” she said. A mother was playing “I spy” with her kids on my final subway ride.

Dr. Goodman says, “Once your child is in a good place emotionally, don’t make any promises about rescheduling events or making up for lost time.” Instead, focus on what you can do now for enjoyment or to support your community. For example, rather than the planned movie party with friends, maybe you can improvise and celebrate a birthday at a park by flying kites and riding bikes with children who are present on Facetime.

Scheuermann suggests if your child is upset about missing the chance to star in a play, ask if she wants to put on a play with the stuffed animals. Maybe you can Zoom with Grandma for her birthday or support a local business by having a cake sent to her. Maybe you can film the stuffed animal play and send it to Grandma! If a vacation has been canceled, have the kids create a poster board of activities they wanted to do on that trip. Essentially, find a way to modify the missed activity so it can be creatively executed at home.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says routine is crucial when tackling school closures, whether the teachers sent home a lesson plan or not. “Just by putting a routine in place can help alleviate stress for children and their parents. Create a homeschooling schedule and go over it every morning with your children and teens. Make sure to have consistency in your day-to-day and incorporate breaks, exercise and snack time.” Keep a physical copy of the schedule your child can look at, too. Watch out, of course, lest you interpret a child’s stress-induced resistance as a reason to get tough or give up. We can ease into it and build up our capacity. We’re facing enough losses, we don’t need to create more.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says research shows those with a positive outlook can manage stress better and actually live longer. So this is a time to help foster resilience in our children. “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do so.” Obviously, making a crisis into a long lesson on religion and human development is not likely to feel that great — and merely knowing lessons does not breed enough resilience. But taking our best shot at wisdom enacted in love will bring hope to the whole household.

The regions of the internet I inhabit were filled with good people inventing helpful things for their kids to experience. Part of my motivation for writing this was to stoke the fire of that creativity, hope and sharing. The Circle of Hope Parents Listserv, Facebook, and your neighborhood email list (better create one!) are all good places to keep sharing. I don’t think the government is going to do a great job at saving us (again!), and I don’t think we will do that great a job at saving ourselves. But I do think we can cooperate with our Savior and humbly receive (and wisely judge) input from experts as we navigate these uncertain waters. I don’t know a better way to get home.

Use the comments section here or the Parents List to share what you are feeling and learning!

The robin

robin and car

We drove our car with guilty stealth
Lest someone see us risk our health,
Risk the virus for a glimpse
Of children and their children.

By my son’s drive the robin stood
And unmoved stayed, although he could
See a tire tread head his way
With piercing eye and wisdom.

I thought that he would surely fly
Afraid, like me, someone  would die,
Escape the germy humans
With their faulty, big machines.

I spoke my awe with words quite kind
And asked him what he had in mind.
He chirped and looked me over
And then calmly hopped away.

Today I woke with sweaty palms
And birdsong singing springtime calm,
Singing peace on earth for all
God’s children and their children.

And here I stand before my tire,
A chirp, a song, a thought quite dire,
A choice to stand and listen
As the Lord produces dawn.

 

Maybe you’d like to hear me read it.

 

Love in the time of Covid-19

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning … to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera. ”
– Gabriel García MárquezLove in the Time of Cholera

So what is love in the time of Covid-19?

Marquez notes that we share physical love from the waist down, so there may be a lot of quarantine babies after CVS runs out of birth control.

But he also notes that there is spiritual love from the waist up. And that is what I will concentrate on since that’s what Jesus concentrates on.

Being in the middle of what must be the strangest social circumstance we have ever experienced will test us in many ways. But the biggest test is always to love. Joe Biden called us to a “war on the virus” last night in the debate, which justifies all sorts of ways for the authorities to “save us.” I hope they do. But even if they save us from the waist down, what will we be after our quarantine from the waist up?

I came back from my trip from the epicenter of Covid-19 infection in Seattle and shortly departed for a trip to the home of the CDC in Atlanta. At my conference down south the discomfort among the good Christians palpably rose until people started evacuating. The speaker called the attenders of the last plenary a “remnant.” I had intended to vacation a bit afterward, but the sites we had scheduled to visit began to close down. I found myself closing down.

And I began to wonder. Even if I wanted to care for people with Covid-19, would I be allowed? What if, like the storyteller in Marquez’ book, my love was not actualized at all and I had no choice but to keep it or lose it? Will the quarantine be like a cleansing, enriching fast, a refinement of love? Or will I spend all my time figuring out how to amuse myself so I can let go of the suffering of being locked up in the middle of death?

Resurrection in the time of Covid-19
John 20:11-18

Take some suggestions from Jesus

Last night a good number of people got into the virtual meeting the pastors gave us. I think the expressions of love in the comments were as moving as what our leaders offered. But the vast majority of us did not show up. So begins my wondering about how the love of God survives in the time of Covid-19. What would Jesus do to keep it alive?

He would come for us in love

He did that and he is still coming. Alive or dead, we will be with the Lord if we love Him. Likewise, we should come for others. People are going to isolate from the waist up, too. Don’t let them. Go to them. We certainly have enough ways to communicate these days! But if they don’t answer, you may have to dare to track them down in person.

He would risk his life to love

You know he would risk his toilet paper stash and would give people some bread. That’s a given. But people may get sick from Covid-19 and not receive decent healthcare. And they may be the people you don’t know that well, or who aren’t savvy enough to keep themselves safe. They may be people who did not follow the rules and are now facing the consequences. I hope this does not happen, and our huge, national wealth comes to the rescue. But we may need each other as the church and others may need us who can’t stand the church.

He would take time to love

People are calling this time of quarantine a great Sabbath. That is such a good idea! It would be a good time for making love, if that’s possible in your life. Much more, it would be a good time to be in love with God. I mean “in love” like in a territory, like in Pennsylvania or in New Jersey — at home in love, hunkered down in love not fear — forced to live in your home, which is the love of Jesus.

Maybe some of us will have more time away from the eyes of the boss to spend with God, meditating on how we might face the remote chance of dying and how we will be hearing about death for months. It would be a good time to not just watch Frozen 2 again (Disney’s Covid-19 gift to us, for a fee, on Disney Plus) but to watch our feelings and thoughts as we meditate about life and love and death and about whether we actually receive the promise that we will rise again.

After years of waiting and looking for love in all sorts of substandard places, the hero of Marquez’ book has his lover alone on a boat. They raise the yellow flag that means there is cholera on board and no one will let them come to port. They are condemned to be alone with their love. Marquez thinks love, itself, is the end of all good – worse points could be made. I think Love, himself, in Jesus is the end and beginning. And I wish you a quarantine deeply filled with that relationship as you travel through this time on your quarantined boat with your Lover, first, and then with all the others He has given you and leads you to love.

The climate crisis: It will take more than a good idea for the church to respond

In 1982 I was 28, Ronald Reagan was president and we hated Exxon. While we were doing theology the other night, I learned another reason why.

In 1982 Exxon confirmed the consensus among scientists about global heating with in-House climate models. The company chairman later mocked climate models as unreliable while he campaigned to stop global action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Exxon crisis
Exxon has juiced a lot of presidents.

The CEO of Exxon at the time was Lee Raymond (who was succeeded in 2005 by Rex Tillerson, recently Trump’s Secretary of State). Raymond was one of the most outspoken executives in the nation against regulation to confront the climate crisis. Speaking out against the Kyoto initiatives in a 1997 speech in China, he said that costly regulations and restrictions are a bad idea, especially when “their need has yet to be proven, their total impact undefined, and when nations are not prepared to act in concert.” He also questioned the science behind global warming and said the greenhouse effect comes in part from natural sources.

I suppose it is cliché to note that Jesus was sold out for 30 pieces of silver. Exxon sold us all out for $21 billion in earnings in 2018.

What should we do for the climate?

Although we were mainly learning to do theology together around a stimulating topic last Monday, we could not help but wonder what the church should do about the impending disaster — to a great degree foisted upon us by massive corporations who care more about immediate profits than the environment. The disaster may be stoppable or it may not be, but Jesus followers never rely on effectiveness before they express their goodness. So we couldn’t help but get practical.

As it turns out, we have lots of ideas about what to do. Jeremy Avellino gave us an overview of the issue and fellow members of the Watershed Discipleship Team began leaking their list of ways we can turn ourselves into a reputable alternative to carbon-spewing Americans.

For instance, Jeremy is an architect building homes that are more than sustainable, they can a actually hope to replenish the earth — so people can do that! Many of us can influence our workplaces to do good to the earth. We can influence the government to pass and enforce laws and rejoin international treaties. We can vote for the best leaders to deal with the crisis. Our friend Shane Claiborne reportedly uses Trip it to measure his carbon footprint since he travels so much.

Will the Bezos earth fund avert crisis?

More relevant, probably, is we could start or join boycotts of some of the greatest menaces to the planet. For instance, Jeff Bezos recently pledged $10 billion of his vast fortune to address climate change. The money, which will fund the “Bezos Earth Fund,” will then be granted to scientists, experts, and organizations working on various issues, both small and large. That’s not bad. But Amazon has been one of the slowest of the U.S. tech giants to go green, and its business, by its nature, is a pollutant.  In the face of giant corporations, we could boycott, buy local, or buy less.

Apart from what millions of individuals must do, we focused more on what the church can do. The Watershed Discipleship Team will unveil their suggestions for the church, soon. Maybe we should bring our own plates to the next feast after disposables are banned. Maybe we should contribute to the solar fund in order to transform our buildings into a benefit, not a drain on the planet — 40% of global heating issues stems from how we make and inhabit our buildings. From small things to large we could add up actions to make a difference. And even if we thought they did not make enough difference we would still be doing good just to do it, and that makes us different.

But will people do what we should do?

I’ve been on an environmental bandwagon since I first learned to hate Exxon. Nevertheless, people still keep “discovering” the evil being done to the planet — and they are in my own church! Why are most of us relatively ignorant and mildly engaged in one of the most disastrous possibilities ever to face humankind? And I will extend that question to include Judas again. How did he come to know the Savior face-to-face and then turn around and betray him so he would be killed? How could he collaborate with the evil powers? How can we?

I don’t think we are all bad. We should not underestimate just how hard it is to be an actual Jesus-follower in this era. We are fighting hard in our little slice of the Kingdom, but we are not winning the battle. People are more distracted, anxious and traumatized right now than they were last year. And they are not all learning to turn to Jesus, they are mostly turning inward and finding some small sense of security in curating a shelf full of attributes they choose to make up their shallow selves. If we want to do big things we’ll need to be deeper people. If we want to make a difference, we’ll need a community with a culture different from the world that protects Exxon’s capacity to kill us.

Here are three things a lot of us will need to do if we want to grow a big, influential group of Jesus-followers who make a big difference – and even if they don’t make a difference will still like doing the right thing.

who we are solves crisis

Get out of your pod

Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way present-day people imagine themselves as insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces.  More and more, we decorate the inside of our pods – our individuality and the identity group we choose. Philosophically, the buffered self is one result of living in a closed, physical universe, what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” Within that mental construct everything supposedly has a natural/scientific explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world.

If we don’t get out of this frame, we are not going to change the world. Jeremy called it the ocean we swim in, the warming, acidifying ocean. But when we try to breathe new ways, it feels like dying — and it is dying to our old selves.

Pay attention

Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity and personal implications. We were doing it rather well the other night as we did some theology. But it was not easy, and we hardly had the whole church doing it with us. More and more people live in a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners? [See the first half of Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble for further description, but skip his application].

As we were talking about what to do about the climate crisis, I felt a protest emerge.  Who are we going to get to do these things? Past models of discussing faith have almost all assumed a dialogue partner who is active, attentive, and aware of the costs of changing – a conversant whose world is thick, not thinned out by constant distraction. I thought we were talking out of that past model when we were getting practical. But people can’t even take the time to read and write emails! How are they going to apply a big, new thought?

As we move deeper into an age when people sleep with their phones, we can no longer make the assumption they can pay attention like they used to. Who is going to take themselves seriously enough to trust God and develop the depth to be a serious player in the climate crisis? We all need to do something together, but can we get six hundred people to all take out their headphones and listen to the proposal – much more effect it? If we go with love more than truth we will probably move more people. If our leaders create an environment where we can soak in what is good rather than just hear about it, we might end up with deeper people. But just producing a good idea might go nowhere.

Be a chosen one

All beliefs are a matter of argument, these days, and who wants to argue? Contested belief points us inward, rather than outward, in our search for some ground of being. If the external world appears to be an endless series of options, from deodorant brands to philosophies, our temptation is to withdraw to a safe, seemingly stable world – the inner world of ourselves. Our identity and our ability to choose its features becomes the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow Jesus, we may do so because of an inner conversation we have with ourselves (our buffered selves!) not with the living God or God’s people.

Our immersion in diversion and consumerism makes it easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs. It makes us less likely to devote time to contemplation. And it makes conversations about faith seem like more exercises in superficial identity formation. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us. As a result, religious labels—whether None, Baptist, or Buddhist—become not much more than a form of self-expression on the level of a favorite store, a college choice, or our musical preference.

All our proverbs and practices lead somewhere else than this sad look at humanity. We know an alternative way. But will we take it together? If we hope to form a lively response to the climate crisis we can’t just be against Jeff Bezos or for him, we need to be the chosen and beloved people of God, who have our own way through the troubles of the world and provide solutions and hope from our endless resources of grace.

The leader’s plow: C.S. Lewis seeds our imagination

As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!

Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”

plow up that surface

Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble  suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.

See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is what Christ warned us you could not do.  As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.  If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.

He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Mowers can become plowers

It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting”  blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”

All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.

I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated.  But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?

Tarot has been having a “moment” for a few years. I wandered into the moment when I watched an episode of something in which an old, dying woman read the cards for her new, young friend. It was a movie moment reflecting the present tarot moment — watching an old story using the old deck-full of stories to draw us into the drama of a life unfolding — and normalizing the latest emergence of this mystical method for finding guidance.

I hope this is where the tarot moment is leading. According to Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer, “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself…It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.” Hopefully, it is like a mirror that can lead to deeper reflection which opens up clogged or burned spiritual pathways so people can ultimately see Jesus for who he is.

8409
Paul and Silas in Philippi drive the devil out of a woman possessed of a spirit of divination — Pieter de With, ca. 1650

There are many Christians who are sure meeting Jesus is not what is going to happen if someone gets into tarot. The practice is associated with divination—unlocking the secrets of the future by occult, supernatural means. Divination is prohibited in the Bible, even when people in the Bible are doing it! Paul exorcised a woman used for divination!

Tarot cards were originally just a deck of cards, but some mystics, psychics, and occultists began to use the cards for divination. Many people still use them this way, and that is how they are popularly understood. You can meet diviners on YouTube. They promise to access spirit beings to find out things about one’s life or future. Usually, the practice of reading tarot cards starts with the questioner cutting the pack of cards or sometimes just touching it. The psychic or card reader then deals out some cards, face down, into a pattern, called a “spread,” on the table. As the cards are overturned, the psychic or reader constructs a narrative based on the cards’ meanings and their position on the table. The narrative has always placed heavy emphasis on fate and “hidden knowledge.” Jesus has a better way.

Image result for christian tarot deck
From Tarot de Marseille by N. Conver, 1760

Writing a new story

People are looking for a new story, their own story, in an age when making new stories from old ones is a primary industry – at least in the dying Western empire. So tarot is very intriguing, since each tarot card is a story in itself. The experience of a reading is like connecting one’s story to one in progress. And reflecting on or telling about the experience is an interesting story in itself.

There are so many apps for tarot! Using them results in many stories. One woman downloaded Galaxy Tarot and casually got to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. One day she was killing time before a phone interview for a job and flipped over the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them. “It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement. What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’” She went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work, but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”

The apps meet a need — and people will pay to have it addressed. The “metaphysical services” industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influences that create culture, according to Goop, #wellness.

Another woman said, “I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I ‘believe’ in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?”

Another said: “I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime. It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said tarot helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.” If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Some see it as empowering for traditionally disempowered Christian women. Which is why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards.

The Guardian notes the increased popularity of tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women.  People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”

A brief history of tarot

Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a card game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (slaves who became sultans) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations and figures of people you’d likely see in a Mardi Gras celebration..

Sometime between 1750 and 1800, French occultists reimagined the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests. For them, the cards combined multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong top note related to the Kabbalah. These decks were the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.

Image result for tarot cards origin

When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts (above). The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include the familiar cards: Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune often prominent.

The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much in the unlikely mystical origins as it is in the cards’ ability to wallop you with elemental symbols. Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The cards are crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. They elicit stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons,  RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones. Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater, has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle YA novels.

How does the church relate?

“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”

This truth does not mean people will use tarot in a mature way and not be drawn into harmful connections with spirits who hate them. But it does mean people can find ways of discernment in a myriad of ways. We (meaning Circle of Hope) affirm seekers of all kinds, coming from all the corners of the earth and have a wide view of how we each find the truth and our personal way along the Way.

“The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why”, says Amelia Tate. “My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet. “ She quotes an expert saying, “’Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,’ says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.”

People who feel they are alone in the world to find their way have an even more anxiety-provoking path ahead than everyone else.  If they are separated from family and the church, or the past in general, then practices that promise a spiritual moment and some mystical direction which don’t require too much thinking or relating can be very attractive. Jesus offers an immediate connection, too, but it is not as controllable as tarot can be. A connection with Jesus, though filled with wonderful moments, also requires an ongoing relationship with God and his people and a lifelong openness to spiritual growth and service. So it might seem very demanding, if immeasurably deeper. It is possible that people are drawn to divination because they never met a Jesus-follower who loves them and is not the stereotype they fear. Our cells have repeatedly been easygoing places to make relationships that undo their prejudice and make a difference.

Amelia Tate ended with, “Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.”

I can feel what Amelia is saying. And I can imagine how she would feel totally out of place anywhere she can imagine as Christian. I do not have a conclusion that can encompass everyone who is navigating the perilous seas of our time like she is. But I think a lot of them are alone on a raft of their own making. Our community, loving and accepting, is a safe place to explore their yearnings. A lot of people are permanently skeptical, or so they feel. Hopefully, our teaching maintains our dialogical  character and our love provides an invitation to imagine with us, not withdraw into suspicion.

For some, tarot is a comfort and a way to know themselves and their direction better. For most it is a moment, a stepping stone into what is their deepest and truest self. I think it would be better to skip it altogether, especially if you are prone to depression, anxiety or other illness – you’ll get a better “reading” from your therapist or cell group. What’s more, the practice could be dangerous, since it has been connected to divinization for centuries; delusions abide there, as well as spirits who are out to harm us. People have recovered from such entanglements, but it is probably best to avoid being entangled to begin with, since we all have a path laid out for us by Jesus.

I was surprised by how much is out there about this subject! Maybe the fad is already waning, since even I am aware of it. My exploration encouraged me nonetheless, since I uncovered many good-hearted people searching for love and meaning as well as many people trying to provide wisdom for starving people.  I don’t think the cards have easy or clear answers for them. But neither do I, as a Jesus follower. I tried to think of some “card” from the Bible for all the seekers I uncovered that might inform their search. I landed here:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).

The greatest truth and love are found in the Father’s lap. Life is not revealed in the cards. If you use them to meditate on your journey or to find direction, listen for the Spirit bearing witness that you are God’s beloved child with Jesus leading your way through whatever you face.

The end of history: 75 years after Auschwitz

Embedded videoRep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says:  “One thing that I love so much about mill — this new generation is the radical acceptance that I see from so many and they actually take time to read and understand our history, the history of the labor movement, civil rights, history of racial struggles, history of economics, history of the United States, history of colonialism.”

I know those people she loves. Many of them are members of Circle of Hope forming the next generation of the church. Many of those members go so far as to see themselves as “transhistorical.” They not only know the history of things, they are part of an eternal now with their ancestors in the faith (like the real Valentine). They keep making history with all those faithful people from the past. I love them at least as much as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does.

I think I feel about Circle of hope like Paul did about the church in Rome, planted as it was in the first century’s facsimile of a megalopolis:  “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Romans 1:8ff).

But what about those who have lost history?

However, I experienced a jarring collision between my Headspace trial and Jane Pauley on the DVR last night. It did not make me happy about the way history is going and being lost.

The Headspace app I spoke about in my speech last night taught me and many, many others to shut out the world and live in the present moment. The app provides a cartoon version of Buddhist practice for anxious millennials, especially. Their withdrawal reflects “the Buddhist way,” which includes this kind of teaching: “Buddhists reject identity by saying the self is empty Anatman. They reject reality because they do not believe in external reality. They reject presence because their goal is absence, absence of suffering.”

Buddhism is a pretty big tent, these days. But pop Bushism on apps fits right into the fearfulness that leads people to find ways to shut things out and just be in the moment, history included.

Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription "Work sets you free" after a wreath laying at the death wall at the memorial site of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020 (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription “Work sets you free” after a wreath laying at the death wall at the memorial site of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020 (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

When I got home from the meeting at West Tulpehocken, I sat down to watch the rest of CBS Sunday Morning. It spent a lot of time on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Here’s the best story.

The people who have spent their whole lives and millions of dollars preserving Auschwitz, so no one forgets what happened there, are frightened. As each remaining survivor dies, there is a bit more slippage in society’s grasp of the history. The CBS reporters lifted a paragraph out of the Wikipedia page about Millennials to make that point:

A February 2018 survey of 1,350 individuals found that 66% of the American millennials (and 41% of all U.S. adults) surveyed did not know what Auschwitz was,[226] while 41% incorrectly claimed that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust, and 22% said that they had never heard of the Holocaust.[227] Over 95% of American millennials were unaware that a portion of the Holocaust occurred in the Baltic states, which lost over 90% of their pre-war Jewish population, and 49% were not able to name a single Nazi concentration camp or ghetto in German-occupied Europe.[228][229] 

Meanwhile, reported hate crimes are on the rise (see this WP story about kids!).  The Brookings Institute collected data to show how Trump’s persistent racist and xenophobic rhetoric increases hate crimes. For instance:

Another study, based on data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw hate crime rates more than double compared to similar counties that did not host a rally.

It is disheartening to anyone who knows what Auschwitz is to think that world leaders can find followers willing to scapegoat despised people groups and unleash hate in their direction.

Don’t gasp, act

Maybe more people will “tsk” than gasp when they read about the sorry state of the world. Thank God Rep. Ocasio-Cortez can find hope in the good people rising up in her generation. I am encouraged by the people of our church who keep hope alive.

But I don’t think any of us should be surprised that people are so wicked. I have a B.A. in history and quite a few years of personal history, now. It would take quite an effort for me to overlook how people keep inventing new ways to express the same old evil. Evil is redundant. When i saw the evil portrayed in Parasite, my first response was, “This movie is so redundant!” It was almost like people who love Bong Joon-ho’s “fresh look” have forgotten the 1930’s, or 1880’s, or 1780’s or Nebuchadnezzar.  Bong hasn’t. One of his favorite movies is How Green Was My Valley, which is the same old story of cruel capitalists and their throwaway slaves.

Jesus-followers apply the same old hope to the same old wickedness and keep the possibilities of forever alive. We have to keep our ability to be appalled intact as Trump and Bloomberg corrupt the populace swimming in the mud of their mudslinging. The people least capable of enduring the same kind of evil that could build an Auschwitz are the ones who will commit more hate crimes and scare people enough to barricade themselves in their countries, homes or minds. I hope we are not afraid to face these poor people and save them. First we need  to make a real relationship with God, especially now that we really need one. And we need to let that love build us into a community of others who share it. From that authentic community, we need to act with all we’ve got, to answer every piece of hate with the power behind the love that transforms it. We need to gasp. Even more, we need to keep acting.

Oscars 2020 teach the virtue of being the best supporting

In SNL’s Weekend Update the guest commentators have traditionally stolen the show ever since Roseanne Roseannadanna. It was no different last Saturday when Chloe Fineman got us ready for the Oscars with her unhinged impressions.

The Oscars always have a lot to teach us Jesus followers

As Roseanne Roseannadanna might say, “You can always learn SOMEthin.” And the Oscar broadcast was full of lessons. The Cadillac commercials appealed to predators and the Rolex commercials disguised themselves as tenderhearted. I flipped to TCM when the breaks got too long and Judy Garland was hamming it up with Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band — later in the show Judy won another Oscar! It was a year for impressions. Janelle Monae lit up the stage as a queer, black, woman Mr. Rogers — then lit up the front row with her crystal gown.

My biggest lesson came from the first award given: for Best Supporting Actor. On the one hand, it resembled the presidential race: old men and Pete Butigieg, or rich people and the rest of us: Tom Hanks (63) worth $350 million, Anthony Hopkins (83) $160 million, Al Pacino (79) $165 million, Joe Pesci (77) only $50 million, and Brad Pitt (only 56) $300 million.

On the other hand, it was an amazing collection of great actors doing what they do. The first three did amazing impressions of famous people. Joe Pesci did not act like a crazy gangster. And Brad Pitt still looks like Achilles in middle age. There were lessons in all of that. You can always learn something.

Image result for best supporting actor 2020 nominees

We need good supporters to put on a good show

My favorite lesson came when I looked at the line-up for Best Supporting Actor and thought, “The lead actors might have been afraid to be upstaged by these guys.” Except for The Two Popes (which I recommend), I think they were all upstaged.

I think all these actors relished the juicy parts they got in relation to the players who got top billing. Like some of us noted during the Second Half of Life retreat last Saturday,  playing a great part for which we are well suited can be quite satisfying — maybe even more satisfying than trying to survive the leading roles we’ve been handed in the family or on the job. Brad Pitt had never won an Oscar for acting so this was a nice frosting on his cake. But Hanks won two in the 90’s, Hopkins has one, Pacino has one, Pesci has one, all from the 90’s. I think they were probably happy to get a juicy part whether it resulted in praise or not. Who else could have played Pope Benedict better than Anthony Hopkins?

One of the participants in the retreat reminisced at how he had sort of wandered into his starring roles that made him such a great supporter of the church. He had never followed the “best practices” career counselors pass out.  Instead, he had always taken positions that would allow him to stay planted in Philadelphia and stay connected to Circle of Hope. That worked out well for his career, contrary to what passes for common sense, and worked out very well for Circle of Hope. Just like a movie needs good supporting actors (and the 500+ people on the credits) to tell a good story, the church needs good supporters to show Jesus to the world.

We all need support and we should feel good about giving it.

When Eugene Peterson rendered Matthew 6 in The Message paraphrase of the Bible he used an acting metaphor:

The World Is Not a Stage

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Perhaps the old guys acting and running for president just can’t get off the stage. But it is at least possible that they have reached the age or maturity when they just like the craft for the craft itself and not the applause.  Jesus is calling us to let the inner connection with God sustain us no matter whether we are recognized for our prayerfulness, or not.

We will be rewarded for our often-unobserved, supporting roles. Like Paul teaches the Colossians:

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.

Paul may have been the “star” apostle who became immortalized in the Bible. but he would not have gotten very far without Barnabas. And Barnabas would never have been there for Paul if not for the unknown person who brought the good new of Jesus to Antioch. In the age to come, that unknown person might be rewarded with a greater chunk of our common inheritance than all of us. But just like Joe Pesci is probably not feeling too bad about his paltry $50 million fortune, we probably won’t regret our part of eternal glory we get to share after we play our supporting roles in the unfinished work of Jesus.

Can we feel good about our parts?

Some of us feel terrified we might be called upon to lead or to be too noticeably necessary. Some of us feel terrified we will end up looking useless or less-important than some shiny newcomer. We all have a lot to learn. But wouldn’t it be great if we all felt good about the parts we are given to play in the body of Christ? That wonder is certainly a place where we need a lot of supporting roles filled by players eager to do their best for the joy of the work.

We need good leaders and it is a blessing to have them. But we only need enough of them. We mostly need people in supporting roles: making and sharing the money like my career-blessed friend, figuring out how to put up the South Broad sign (eventually) and make Circle Kids viable (as was also happening yesterday). We need a lot of people who feel good about praying because praying is good and serving because our Master is good. Even the narcissists who end up getting Oscars are usually quick to point out that they would not be getting an award unless a whole dedicated team loved making movies. A church feels flat and proves useless unless it has a lot of people who just love Jesus and his people and can’t resist doing good whether anyone cares about whether they did it or not.

That kind of lesson is especially a good one for me, since I have just been given a supporting role to play. I doubt that I will ever feel like Al Pacino about it, but some people have suggested I might feel my way into some Mr. Rogers rather easily. Mostly, I am just glad I get to be in the process because I like giving my gifts for the work of God’s people in this crazy era. For Christ’s sake we need to get together and make a difference about climate change and the ongoing mass incarceration of African Americans — not to mention the ruin of the church under the thumb of Trump! Some people wonder if I miss my leading role. Sometimes I do — two months won’t undo 20 years.  But mostly I relish the juicy part I get to play supporting the wonders we continue to work. Circle of Hope is like a beautiful, odd woman in a shiny gown in the front row of the Kingdom — I find her irresistible.

Suffering on the southern border: Save us from MPP

January 29 marked the one-year anniversary of the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. The policy prevents asylum seekers from waiting for their hearings in safety in the United States and forces them to wait in locations across the border in Mexico where they face violence and extortion.

So last Wednesday, Gwen offered us a vigil to mark the injustice and give us an opportunity to meet the impossible with prayer. I want to keep that prayer going with this post. I know I have readers from all over the world, so let’s wrap the world in prayer with and for people desperate enough to flee their homes — and hopeful enough to run up against the borders of an uncaring, violent world.

One picture of the country’s unkindness keeps getting replayed in Mexico when detainees are released from U.S. detention without shoelaces.  They appear on the doorsteps of shelters where caregivers maintain stockpiles. One refugee reported, “They took away our shoelaces because so many people tried to hang themselves with them.” But the prison keepers did not give them back when they were released, thereby preventing laceless people from becoming targets for gangs and kidnapers.

no shoelaces at the border

Save us from MPPs

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The administration is using MPP (Ironically titled “migrant protection protocols”) in tandem with other illegal policies, including turn-backs and the third-country transit asylum ban, to subvert U.S. law. The result is effectively a near-ban on asylum. The Department of Homeland Security has forced more than 60,000 asylum seekers and other migrants to wait in Mexico under MPP.

We see you in the stranger, Lord

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

There are now at least 636 public reports of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.

Give us big enough hearts

This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.  (Matthew 22:38-40)

A recent study by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego found that one in four people affected by the MPP in Tijuana and Mexicali have been threatened with physical violence. The study did not include the extremely dangerous MPP return locations of Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, or Nuevo Laredo.

May we love as you love us

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.”   (Galatians 5:14)

Asylum seekers who miss MPP court hearings because of kidnappings are being ordered deported. A pregnant Salvadoran woman in a Laredo court told an immigration judge that her husband had gone missing in Mexico and couldn’t attend his hearing. The judge ordered him deported. A 9-year-old disabled girl and her mother missed their immigration court hearing while being held captive and raped. They were ordered removed by an immigration judge in San Diego.

Give us courage to see and act

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.   The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”      (Luke 10:36-37)

Only 4% of individuals subjected to the Remain in Mexico policy have lawyers. Less than 1% have won their cases. This inhumane situation and practices of the DHS violate U.S. asylum and immigration law and U.S. Refugee Protocol obligations.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling
Director Beto Ramos said CAME provides shelter, meals, clothing and emergency care for families waiting to be called for processing for asylum in Agua Prieta AZ

Show us the way beyond the border

In a global village it is overwhelming to see everyone as one’s neighbor. Our minds have trouble embracing them all. We let ourselves be complacent because we are not on a road, like the good Samaritan,  where we encounter all these suffering outcasts. At best they are a passing headline or picture for many of us.

We have limitations and we are not the saviors of the world. But Jesus can help us suffer with him. We can pray, like we are doing now. We can share resources. We can support those who are on the front lines of love for us — we are already connected to people  through our own Solidarity Beyond Borders Team and through our MCC partners.

We can pay attention and learn to sympathize through people who lead us in compassion. Our friend, Ron Byler, executive director of MCCUS, was on the southern border all last week and reported what he experienced on his Facebook page. He not only reveals how wicked the situation is, but also how many wonderful people are giving their lives to be light in that darkness.

We can keep turning into love, even when it is daunting. Often that means not turning away from the suffering, just as Jesus never turns away from ours.

Just listen: We hear love better than words

The book of Job in the Old Testament is the story of a man who lost almost everything – his children, his house, his possessions and his health. Early in the book, we read about three friends who came to support him. If you re-imagine the scene, it could be a small cell group, or a spiritual direction group or our pastors’ weekly meeting. Any one of us might be Job at a given time, and any one of us might be one of his friends struggling to help – and failing.

Before we get to the failing, notice what the friends did right. They were intentional. They went to some effort just to show up. They managed to sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, without saying a word (Job 2:13). Some commentators say they were just respectfully “sitting shiva” in mourning for Job’s loss. Others see those silent days as an amazing act of restraint that most of us would have interrupted in some way, like, “I know I shouldn’t be talking, but let me just say…” Regardless, these are good friends coming alongside their friend in his distress.

Job's friends listen
Job on his dung hill

Eliphaz: “Listen. Here is what I think”

Eliphaz was the first friend who spoke after the seven days. “If one ventures a word with you,” he said to Job, “will you be offended? / But who can keep from speaking?” He apparently had been given enough time to think and could no longer contain himself. He goes on to “comfort” Job with his observations, which he is sure will relieve his suffering.

  • As I have seen… (Job 4:8)
  • Now a word came…to me…(Job 4:12)
  • I have seen…(Job 5:3)
  • As for me, I would…(Job 5:8)

He capped it off with “See, we have searched this out, it is true / Hear, and know it for yourself” (Job 5:27). In other words, “Here is our message. Apply what we think to your situation.” Sounds a bit like a sermon, both formal and informal.

Last week I had a reason to talk to almost all our staff in the course of a few hours about a particular project I was concerned about. Maybe I was not looking like I was sitting on a dung-heap enough, but almost everyone spoke from their own experience to solve my problem and a couple actually argued about what I said before they even understood where I was coming from. There was much truth in what they told me, but their comments didn’t always speak to where I was at the time. It was an educational couple of hours, since I am often unrestrained myself, when among my intimates, and offer my perspective on someone else’s experience before it is asked or required. Listening long enough to respond well is quite an art form!

Bildad: “What did you do to deserve this?”

It is possible that Bildad blew any chance he had to be helpful as soon as he opened his mouth. “How long will you say such things? / Your words are a blustering wind” (Job 8:2). It is never great to be blamed for your problems. Bildad was sure that if Job shaped up, God would relent and reward him: “If you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself for you / and restore your rightful place” (Job 8:6).

Most of us probably don’t come right out and say such things, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we looked over someone’s sufferings and counted the many ways they are to blame for them. If only they hadn’t done something or would get busy and do something else, all would be well. We’re all set up for such a reaction, since most of us feel totally responsible to avoid pain and have all sorts of strategies to do just that. We apply our strategies, no matter what they cost us!

If we hope to actually listen to someone, we need to start with compassion, not judgment (and that includes listening to our own inner dialogue!). We must acknowledge both the pain and mystery of human suffering. And we must support people as they seek to believe there is some grace in the midst of their trouble. “My grace,” God said, ‘is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is so hard for anyone to hear that, we may need to sit a long time with them. We certainly don’t want to derail the process with condemnation – exercising ours or solidifying theirs.

In a group session I recall, a man was particularly angry and some members were becoming tired of him lashing out. He even criticized them for being uncaring while they were, in fact, caring for him at that very moment! He eventually talked about the disrespect he felt. He talked long enough to discover that he had always carried this feeling and it came from a deep, family-rooted place. His problems were not solved that day, but they were not heightened by getting blamed back when he blamed. He had friends who would listen.

Zophar: “Cheer up, I can tell you what God wants”

Job’s third friend continues on the track laid out by the others. He pontificates on the mysteries of God and then says if Job devotes himself to God he will soon forget his troubles: “Your life will be brighter than noonday; / its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:17). In other words, “I know what God is thinking, and I predict that if you think like me, things will improve.”

A long time ago, a great number of Christians gave up following Jesus for getting Christianity right. Part of the “rightness” was to never suffer, since, the logic goes, if you are suffering, you must not be right, or right with God. When I lived in the homeland of such “entire sanctification” thinking, I would greet my bishop with “How are you today?” And he would invariably say, “I’m on top of the world.” Now that I am as old as he was then, I find that even harder to believe, since he must have at least awakened with a few aches and pains. But he was living a Zophar life, denying his troubles and presenting a faithful life brighter than noonday.

Once we were in a meeting together and I did not resist questioning this theology, since I could not get Jesus, the Suffering Servant, out of my mind. One fellow pastor was quite upset at my lack of orthodoxy. As I kept arguing my point (probably not too gently) he got angrier and louder. I finally said, “You are angry, aren’t you?” He got my point, but I did not get his friendship. Arguing someone out of their spiritual bypass rarely works. Like God, we need to stick with them in their suffering, supporting the, and perhaps finding a way to challenge them, until they get over their impossible task of being on top of the world.

Circle up to listen

Just listen!

Job finally got fed up with his friends. “All of you are worthless physicians. / If you would only keep silent, / that would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5) In chapter 21 he says, “Listen carefully to my words; / let this be the consolation you give me.”

Don’t we all feel like this quite often? We will ask when we need answers. Most of us will ask when we want help. But before we get to either of those places, we mostly want someone to listen to us. Being heard, even more, understood, is like a balm for our wounds. Listening breeds trust and intimacy.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I had a spiritual director who was not quite my father’s age, but he was old enough to feel parental. He listened to a lot of my father issues. I can still remember the few times he offered some advice on how I could address them. But I was never ready to take his advice and it would not have been good to do so; I knew that. But mostly he listened; even more, he was just there as a fatherly figure who cared about me. His listening presence was what I really needed.

“Just listen! When you’re tired of listening, listen deeper.” At least that is what I need to keep telling myself. I make the mistakes of all of Job’s friends, even when I feel like Job himself! We all have a lot to learn about grace, and how the silent attentiveness of God is the basis of most of the healing we need. God is best known in love, the words can come later.

Show up for your kids: Let go of your “helicopter God”

In a recent article for the NY Times Parenting section, Daniel Siegel, along with Tina Payne Bryson,  uncannily explored the gospel again. I’ve read Siegel’s books, seen him speak, and have often been surprised by how I resonate with his spiritual wavelength.

This time he is taking some loving swipes at how parents, especially people of means, are raising their children. The picture I lifted from the article shows the problem clearly, I think. He asks us to:

Take a moment and fast forward in your mind to a day in the future when your child, now an adult, looks back and talks about whether she felt truly seen and embraced by you. Maybe she’s talking to a spouse, a friend or a therapist — someone with whom she can be totally, brutally honest. Perhaps she’s saying, “My mom, she wasn’t perfect, but I always knew she loved me just as I was.” Or, “My dad really got me, and he was always in my corner, even when I did something wrong.” Would your child say something like that? Or would she end up talking about how her parents always wanted her to be something she wasn’t, or didn’t take the time to really understand her, or wanted her to act in ways that weren’t authentic in order to play a particular role in the family or come across a certain way?

Francesco Ciccolella, NY Times

The power of showing up

Of course, Siegel is going to say something brilliant that makes you wonder how you could have ever parented without him. For the most part, he thinks he can explain everything and make it all work reasonably well, even in territories as complex as the brain and your family system. But in this case, I think he is asking the right question,

Do our kids feel seen by us? Do they feel truly seen for who they are — not for who we’d like them to be, and not filtered through our own fears or desires?

I think the answer is probably, generally, “No.” And I doubt that when Siegel was thirty-two, and trucking kids to little league games and such, he was asking the right questions, either. Now that he is sixty-two, he has better questions than “How in the world are we going to get through this week?” Or “How are my children going to survive their next twenty years?”

He is trying to help us all with his new book, The Power of Showing Up. The main point is something you may already know:

Showing up means bringing your whole being — your attention and awareness — into this moment with your child. When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child right now….The idea is to approach parenting being present and aware in your interactions with your child — and to make repairs when that doesn’t happen.

As usual, I think he has a great idea. But, as usual, I think it would be even better if he had Jesus to make it happen.

Where does one get the power to show up?

The power of showing up is great if you have the power to show up. Doesn’t it seem a bit grandiose to suggest in a parenting section article that people should simply change their mind and show up? — they should bring their whole being — their attention and awareness — into this moment? Buddhists have suggested that philosophy for centuries and some great people have practiced it well. But most of us are having trouble with our “whole being,” not to mention “attention” and “awareness.”

His advice has a lot of merit, in my opinion. But he does not give a lot of help with where to find the power to follow his advice unless you happen to have it already. Helicopter parents may communicate a lot of their anxiety to their child because they feel powerless, not because they intend to exercise a lot of power. I think the reason most people hyper-parent is their fear of doing a bad job. Many people in the United States are driven by the fear of missing out or failing and they don’t want their kids to miss out or fail. They are hyper-responsible, since they believe whatever life is, it is up to them to get it and live it. Their world is a competition for scarce resources and everyone needs to be their best self to get what they need or want. Siegel has deeper things to say than that, but I think even he would say that is a realistic assessment of what drives people.

Those fears drive Christians too. A hyper-responsible worldview may drive you when you are parenting, even if you don’t admit it. You may want to believe that trusting God is a live option for your child, but, in fact, and in the schedule, life is all about preparing them to succeed in the world as it is, according to the stranglehold the “economy” has on most of us.

Our view of God matters when we parent

To be honest, most Christians have a “helicopter” God who is the main example for their helicopter parenting. For many, God is the hyper-parent who does not see them for who they are, but sees them for who they ought to be (and who they have never been). As a result, Siegel’s book will just add more pressure to “show up” properly. You may already know about this demand to “show up” and have not fulfilled it yet, either.

The power to show up will be a result of trusting God the Parent who showed up in Jesus and continues to show up Spirit to spirit. I’m not sure how much Siegel’s reparative idea will help unless parents are Parented by the God revealed in Jesus. We love because God first loved us, not just because we had a good idea and implemented it well.

Our view of God, our Parent: Father/Son/Holy Spirit in a loving family system, Jesus as our pioneering older brother, makes all the difference in the world when it comes to showing up. We show up for our children and have the spiritual and emotional depth they need because we experience God showing up for us in Jesus. If we show up as weak examples of God showing up, we still know that God will, personally, show up — and that is a lot better than whatever I might provide.

Image result for ron reagan atheist

Last week many of my friends were talking about Ron Reagan. The old atheist advertisements from the Freedom from Religion Foundation were rerunning during the Democratic Party debate. He notably signed off in them by saying he is not afraid of burning in hell.

His view of God is faulty. He got the message that God is the ultimate helicopter parent scrutinizing people and weighing how well they have matched up to the ideal set before them – an ideal of which they are well aware yet to which they are still not conforming. The people I talked to knew what he was talking about, since many of them have that God, or know people who do. I think Siegel has a similar “god” when he is giving his good advice.

It is hard to make sure your children feel safe, seen, soothed and secure, as Siegel advises unless you feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. I, personally, see no hope for myself feeling or offering those vital experiences to anyone unless I have a constant relationship with God who saves me, sees me, soothes me, and makes me feel secure in a world which constantly demands more of me than I have. So that is where I am starting again today, giving over to trusting my trustworthy Savior, rather than mostly trying to get good enough so I can trust myself. Then I can hope to show up.

We’re an alternative to slaveholder religion

Image result for meghan and harry

Those attractive, young British Royals who had that great wedding, Harry and Meghan, are figuring out a way to do their duty but get their child out of racist England. Many people are appalled at their “cheek,” and ashamed of them for not “keeping a stiff upper lip” in the face of daily assaults on their “mixed” marriage. Systemic racism is a poison with a long half-life.

The English invented the slave trade, it is said, but it was left to their descendants, the Americans, to perfect its form. The “Founding Fathers” wrote it into their precious Constitution and the country’s original sin still permeates everything that goes on, no matter how often it is revealed and rebuked. The Founders may have had their problems with slavery, but their compromises sealed the sin into the future.

Slaveholder religion

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (@wilsonhartgrove) tweeted on Jan 4: Trump didn’t preach Jesus at #EvangelicalsForTrump; he preached #SlaveholderReligion.

  1. God has given me power.
  2. Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
  3. When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.

I have not been able to get that well-phrased summary out of my mind. It is like a new memory verse for me. Only the Bible is the slaveholder’s Bible, which has as its goal protecting an economy that is based on slavery. “Slavery for the good of all” could be its motto.

Wilson-Hartgrove has been touring and teaching from his book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. He was in Dallas at a Red Letter Revival doing a good job of challenging the racism at the heart of evangelicalism [report]. He says throughout American history, two versions of Christianity have competed for the loyalty of believers—slaveholder religion and the freedom church. He began to realize that dualism when he was appointed a Senate page by Strom Thurmond and discovered the Senator’s ardent opposition to all Civil Rights Acts.  At a key point in his life, Wilson-Hartgrove then encountered William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. “He began to teach me about a black-led, faith-rooted freedom struggle.”

He learned how slaveholders and their allies used the Bible to support their arguments in favor of slavery and of an economic system dependent upon slave labor. Some evangelicals might still use the Bible to justify the kind of capitalism people take as elemental to faith in the U.S. But most people don’t think it needs justifying, it just is. And they are thankful when the 1% exercise their power to create jobs.

Wilson-Hartgrove also learned about “the freedom church that was born on the edge of the plantations.” Meeting in brush arbors for worship, African-American slaves identified with biblical stories about how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and liberated them from exile in Babylon. “There has always been a struggle between slaveholder religion and the freedom church,” he said.

The freedom church was not invented in the United States, of course. It is a struggle repeated in every generation of the church. As we have often taught in Circle of Hope, after the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted the church, the “freedom church” people had to constantly confront the domination system his successors and imitators determined to institute:

  1. God has given me power.
  2. Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
  3. When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.

Kissing the Pope’s ring or bowing before the God-anointed sovereign with absolute power were among the things they resisted. My heroes, Francis of Assisi and the Anabaptists heard the gospel just like the American slaves did. Many others took great risks to be their true selves in Christ.

Racism (and all the other oppressions that intersect with it) is a spiritual problem that requires “soul work” to solve, Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Deep healing is needed. To be segregated from our neighbors by racial divisions and economic inequities makes it harder to know God. But as we listen to one another, we draw closer to one another and closer to God.”

Image result for for freedom christ has set us free fine art
Free Bird by cristi b

Staying a freedom church

In a few days, Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WIND will begin our annual time to pray in light of one of our distinctives as a church: Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel. In a profoundly angry and divided region we are attempting to be the next generation of the church who holds out the light as a freedom church.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

When Paul wrote that he certainly had physical bondage in mind, as his letter to Philemon demonstrates. In that brief letter he tells a slaveholder it is incumbent on him to receive his slave as “no longer a slave” in Christ, which would certainly imply owning him no longer, since they had a common master. Likewise, we must all be, regardless of identity, vigilant on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to the evil instincts of the oppressors in the United States, who are backed by the world’s largest arsenal, the largest economy and a government devoted to the preservation of themselves as the heads of it all.

But, Like Wilson-Hartgrove would agree, Paul mostly had the spiritual problem in mind when he wrote the Galatians from prison under arrest by the great Empire of his time.  He knew that people are used to the slavery of sin and death and need a daily reminder to throw it off and not take it on again. Jesus the Christ has set us free. No matter if society imprisons us, it can’t take away that freedom. If it abuses us or even kills us we stand firm in the freedom of eternity. [I can’t get enough of this topic].

Paul’s teaching is bold because he also knows we are afraid. I am afraid to write this piece, since people who are desperate for freedom will critique my convictions, in some small or big way, and criticize my lack of appropriate action, or just use the power of the pen to condemn me for being who I am in the eyes of the evil world. I also fear the slaveholders who block my way to freedom every day with their controlling laws, oppressive capitalism for the rich, and immoral politics and policies. Among those slaveholders are the evangelical leaders who consign their flocks to follow Trump for political and economic power, both full of spurious promises, who have divided up the church and made people ashamed to be or become Christians.

Nevertheless, once again, at the beginning of the year, I am moved to hold on to my freedom and resist the yoke. This blog post is a small expression of my resistance. Community in Christ is possible. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Faith, hope and love are not dead. Our little outpost is just part of the outpouring of the Spirit pushing against the barricades of the evil powers. We are not the only alternative to those forces, but we are certainly an amazing one. If we die trying to be that alternative, that will be a good death.