All posts by Rod White

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

We need to hang on to our joy

A lot of us are bogged down right now.

If you are full of joy, maybe you can just skip this one. Conversely, if you are resisting getting into stuff and don’t feel like changing right now, maybe you can just skip this one.

Because this simple post is all about feeling bad about feeling bad and how that might change.

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When I was out to dinner with good friends the other night we were complaining about how we were feeling bad about how many people feel bad. (Three therapists at a table of four will put at least a sprinkle of empathy in your tacos!) I added, to all the reasons we were collecting about why people are feeling bad: Trump is stealing our joy. I don’t mean, “I hate Trump or the people who love him and will only feel better when they are defeated.” I mean he has been on the screen for over two years, every day, disrupting, dominating, bullying, confusing, sending immigrant children to prison, now furloughing a million people, soon to be found out for how the Russians were part of his election campaign (it would appear). He’s a joy stealer par excellence. And if you were already anxious before he took control and tried to get more control, now you are really anxious!

Not everyone at the table thought I knew what I was talking about and maybe you don’t either. But whether I am right or wrong, I will still need to hang on to my joy, won’t I? It is basic to my new-birthright. Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:20-22

Having joy does not mean turning off contrary feelings

Those words from Jesus could encourage you or they might just drive you Christian-crazy. What I mean is, many Christians turn off their minds and hearts in order to perfect a fake joy that is really just a masterful defense against their anxiety and depression. They take charge of their joy and try to do joy right so they won’t be doing something wrong which might send them to hell, or might uncover their secret sins and unhealthy habits. Let’s not go Christian crazy, but let’s have some hope for joy in troubled times.

I love proverbs, in general, and this one in particular helps right now:

A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22

This is one of those “factual” proverbs, that state the obvious we might forget. It simply says, if you are thankful and hopeful, the past does not clog up your feelings with regret and the future does not look so frightening; when you are depressed and anxious it feels like you are slowly dying from the inside out.

So it makes sense to hold on to our joy, tend it, even see it as a power that overcomes the woes of the world. The Bible gives repeated examples of receiving and using joy. Here are a few.

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If you can find out who made this, let me know.

Affirm joy exists for you

Here is the famous Nehemiah 8:10

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah called for a party to celebrate the building of the restored wall in Jerusalem. We should all make a note to self – “Do not have vacuous parties that don’t include a reason people can hang on to.” Parties breed joy. Nehemiah wanted people to affirm  the goodness of God and their own togetherness and love, as well as their accomplishment – all the things that bring people joy. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That is, joy the joy of knowing the love of God and receiving goodness from the Lord is the core of what makes us strong.

The word used here in Nehemiah for “strength” means “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold.” When we let go of our joy, we are vulnerable to the things that destroy us – our own weaknesses and sins and the bullies in the world. The joy of the Lord is my fortress. Don’t go crazy Christian and think God is all about keeping bad people and experiences away from you. But do affirm that if we have an impenetrable joy at the core of us, we have the strength to open ourselves to suffering and all sorts of “dangerous people” and take all sorts of “sacrificial” risks.

Remember past joy

Here is the wonderful Psalm 126 in its entirety:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

One good way to hang on to joy in troubled times is to remember past joys. The story we tell about our lives makes a difference. When anxious people cannot sleep, they have a difficult choice to learn. Instead of rehearsing their past failures and troubles, they need to search out the joys. Such searching is part of their strength.

Image result for paul joy in prisonUse your joy

When Paul was in prison instead of sailing for Spain, as he hoped he would, this is how he began his letter to his first church plant in Europe:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:3-6

Joy lives in us and we live in the expression of God’s joy. Creation is an enactment of the Lord’s generous love. Joy is the creative exuberance that the world reveals around every corner. Evolutionists don’t quite know, according to their theory, why animals prefer beautiful mates. Paul would say all creation is made to love our generous, beautiful God. Animals know that instinctively. The world is, in itself, an expression of joyful generosity. Jesus has opened up our hearts to love God and love with Jesus; when we do it, we experience joy, deeply.

When Paul writes his letter, he is also using his joy and sees it as a way to send joy reverberating all the way from Rome to Philippi. Along with joy being a wonderful feeling, it is also something we do. Paul is praying with joy. He uses his joy as a shield against what would do him in. And he uses it as an offensive weapon, too. A shield can deflect a sword blow, but it was also used to knock an enemy down.

Peacemaking types may not like the idea that they do anything that remotely resembles violence. I think that kind of “empire-thinking” is a tempting luxury for people who imagine themselves above it all like that. Regular folks are having a day-to-day problem with forces that want to steal their lives. We must fight those forces, coming from the inside and out, with joy, among other things. Here are some examples:

I believe God loves me. (Pow!)
I believe God is actively loving me right now in this situation. (Crash!)
I believe God’s love will never fail. (Wham!)
I believe God will not withhold any good thing from me. (Smash!)
You could not possibly steal my Christ-given joy! (Flattened!)

I still kind of feel bad that I ever feel bad. (Come Lord Jesus!) But I also remember when I did not feel the joy of the Lord! You may have been there last week, you were so depressed and anxious, living in this Trump-dominated country.

It helps me get back into the reality of God’s love when I affirm what is my destiny, then I begin to see and recall how God has surprised me and gifted me with joy, then I really get rolling when I use my joy in the same generous spirit in which it was used to find me and rescue me.

My faith is eroding: One thing you can do right now.

Relevant Magazine

“I think I am losing my faith—and I don’t know what to do about it.” I wish people would say that more often; they mostly just feel it until the feeling pushes them over the edge. Blame it on Trump. Blame it on unreconciled relationships. Blame it on dumb churches and their leaders. Blame it on science. Blame it on yourself. The blaming does not really help the feelings. They still end up with an internal struggle that has big consequences whichever way it goes.

If you feel some of these things, you are not alone. All sorts of people, from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society are feeling it with you. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons now find the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet. Some are panicking, many are reverting to the defense systems they relied on as a child and trying to find other things to hope in.

The terrors that taught us as children don’t really go away. So when we get pushed to the edge it is terrifying. It is one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems people have put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things and still hold on to some confidence that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those assertions are all that remain of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.

But what do you do, when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that fragile bit of faith seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much to own? How do you keep going in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?

Encouragement for the eroding

These mysteries of faith can’t be “solved” in a blog post. They can’t be “solved” as if they were a “problem” at all, can they? Most people of faith need to move beyond faith that solves problems into faith that is more about love – and we all know that love causes the delicious problems of being human as much as it solves them. So I have just a few beginning things to say which I hope will encourage people who are in the thick of some spiritual trauma. All the linked blog posts scattered around the page might help, too.

You may be at a point where your loss of faith feels unsolvable. At that point, living in faith often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious.” Jesus followers can become desperate while they are reading the Bible, when they are praying, after they are done volunteering and when they are trying to believe in the middle of a church meeting. They may be as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity, confidence and comfort they once did.

I’ve met people who feel a barren, spiritual dryness. I often tell them that feeling is actually a sign of their faith, not merely their loss of it, since others, obviously, have already adapted to a barren spiritual landscape and feel it is normal. These dried-out people almost always feel burdened by a sense of failure – a secret feeling they dare not share or often dare not admit to themselves. They are grieving, feeling helpless about regaining what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to be easier. And they are often angry with God, too.

So what can you do right now?

If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience for you in the future.

Sticking with prayer, Bible study or church attendance might provide anchors for your faith until the storm passes—but they might not. You might like to try psychotherapy to see if there is something in the way of your growth you don’t know about, or to provide some heavy-duty support while you are growing – maybe you aren’t up for that.

Maybe the process should be more about what’s right in front of you, for now — about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your baby’s head.

Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that will have to be OK. Maybe that’s as close to proving God’s goodness as you can get. To simply live and to find gratitude in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is on the holiness spectrum. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment is a pathway back to the hope you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and your worn-out religion.

But maybe you shouldn’t worry about whether the gratitude gets you somewhere right now. We’re good at turning simple goodness into a means to an end – gratitude is not a result to achieve or another religious exercise to evaluate. Try receiving the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to you and surprise you. People have often found the beginning of a new season of faith there.

As you are working at finding a new center, keep noting when you feel guilty. Guilt is good for turning us from bad behavior, but it needs to be checked when it makes us feel like a worthless person. Talk back to that voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible and don’t worry about what you think people are saying about you. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will. Maybe most of all, don’t worry about God. God is big enough to handle your doubts, fears and failures and knows exactly what you’re going through and why believing is such a struggle right now.

You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around and to find joy in what is right beside you and all around you as your journey continues. If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be.

Suggested by John Pavlovitz

Most read posts in 2018

I think there are a lot of good writers out there these days. So I am grateful that you take the time to visit my blog. I gained a few subscribers this year, which was heartening, since I’d like to share what God gives me with whoever needs it.

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The next ten titles are my “top ten” for 2018

The Shape of Water: Enough already! – I react to the philosophy behind what was later named best picture.

The beginning of Joshua – My hope for my friend’s future.

Trump tempts Jesus-followers with the worst: revenge, lies, division – I consider our toxic political environment

A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends – Tim Geoffrion leads me to consider the Blenders, the Borrowers and the Inspired.

Give the baby a church, for Christ’s sake. – My parents did not know they were giving me an important gift when they gave me the church.

Trump is a lot like Nero, which brings me back to Paul. – My Greek pilgrimage helps me react to Jeff Sessions interpreting Romans 13

Resistance — Was it your fault or their struggle when they left the church? – Be careful with people in the church who are up against their resistance.

The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation – A Bible study summarized by Jesus: We are not excused from caring about what happens to our neighbor because of principle, profit or preference.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear – When I am alone, I am actually alone with God

Is it OK to use my work resources for the church or is that stealing? – We need to ask and answer good questions.

These five titles from previous years are among the most read in 2018, too.

Is God Going to Punish Me?

That feeling of obligation could be good for you (or bad)

12 Things spiritually wise people do not do.

Redux #3: Would God send Gandhi to hell? — redux

Frustration: 13 reasons people leave the church — and why you might be about to.

I feel the pressure. I receive your promise.

“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”

Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.

In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy.  She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.  She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).

Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.

My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.

Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.

I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!

We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.”   Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.

Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid.  The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.

I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:

  • I am your slave. Guide me.
  • I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
  • I have no one to trust but you. I will.
  • I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
  • Wow! Help! Thanks!

However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it.  We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.

You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.

Advent: Thank God for the Dayspring!

For me, Advent has a lot of layers (like my December wardrobe!). Maybe the layer I need the most is the personal one: the Advent of Jesus to me, Jesus coming to be incarnate in my little life.

The other day, after I woke up with some threatening congestion, I stumbled downstairs in the dark and finally made it to my chair to pray. I had been feeling what one of my friends called “a recession” for a couple of days –not quite a depression, and I was letting some of my anxieties get the best of me.

In the middle of all that unpleasant stuff, I had such a sweet, little experience of Advent, I thought I’d share it with you, in case you also feel like you are stumbling around in the dark on these darkest days of the year in what feels like a dark time of the world.

I was looking around my room and seized upon a flaw in one of the walls, lamenting that the contractor had done a poor job. Suddenly, it came upon me how wonderful it was to have this warm room in which to pray! It was a strangely instant turnaround. It felt like the Holy Spirit had whipped off the emotional bag that was over my head and showed me the joy that was in the very same room I had been criticizing! Just as suddenly, two Christmas carol lyrics leapt into my mind and I meditated on them for a long time.

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The first song centers on a quote from the John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, as he was prophesying over his child:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:76-79 (KJV)

The Dayspring visited me in the time of my impending seasonal affect disorder and lit up my darkness. My troubled way was guided into peace. So I am writing with this song in mind for me and for you

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel  [Sweet in Latin!]

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Like the hem of a garment

Another lyric quickly came to my mind, since my thoughts are  usually occupied by lyrics. It is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi, collected in the last book of the Old Testament. The old Christmas hymns come from writers steeped in the King James Bible, which is quite beautiful.

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 4:1-3 (KJV)

The Sun of righteousness rose in my room with healing in his wings. Like the hymn writer, Charles Wesley, I’m talking about Jesus. Malachi has a broader metaphor. His “Sun” is like God moving through the heavens, the fringes (or “wings”) of his long flowing garment spreading the blessings of life to farmers luxuriating in mild spring sunshine and gentle rains that restore parched ground and fatten starving calves. I woke up to the dawn and felt like singing with Hark the Herald Angels sing!

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings. [Brits!]

It is so good to have Advent again because I need the advent of Jesus in my shadeable little world.

I hope any dark clouds you are experiencing soon pass as the Dayspring drives them away. May the Sun of righteousness rise again where you are seated and convince you to reach out, touch the hem of his garment, and be healed.

Four suggestions for making leaders in 2019 (maybe yourself)

Good leaders are in short supply. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but they can tell you that. Our church has great leaders; I hope yours does, too. But to keep up with Jesus, we need to work with him to make more leaders in 2019. How do you think we are going to do with that?

Let’s dispel one misconception right at the start. When people talk about creating more leaders, a natural response is, “If everyone becomes a leader, who is left to follow?”  [Dean Martin asked a similar question]. It’s true, if everyone is fighting their way into the top position, the endless power struggle will create a terrible organization (and those exist). That would definitely be “too many leaders, not enough followers.” But in the church, I think we usually have the opposite problem. A lot of people give their ambition at the office and would rather someone else lead the church, even if they are the best one to do it! Plus, I think people really care about what Jesus says, and they would just rather quietly serve than deal with the issues that come with works of power at all.Related image

Anyway you look at it, Jesus was making leaders and He still is. He is the epitome of the great leader we would like to be. He is not against power; he exercises a miraculous amount of it! If you clicked the two links in the last paragraph, I think you’ll see, with me, that we are taught that leaders are always followers, but followers should be ready to lead when they are needed. Everyone has the power of the Spirit and we are responsible to use it humbly.

The best leaders are elevated followers who have learned by serving their master, Jesus. So let’s not worry about creating too many leaders. Jesus followers are not climbing over one another to be the leader of the church; they gave up such pursuits when they responded to the call to follow Jesus and live a new life. Let’s call out the leadership in one another in 2019 and find the faithful, available and teachable servants who can lead our cells, teams and further congregations and, as a result, lead the world out of the mess it is in.

Here are four suggestions for how to think about leading and how to apply what we know.

Leadership is a role, not right

Eurocentric people have been debating the “divine right” of the leader to rule for centuries. The revolutions in the 1700’s put an end to that for kings. But humanity just gave the “divine” part to “the people” who gave the elected parties the “right” to rule. Recent presidents take that right rather absolutely, don’t they? And if you work for a boss, you may feel their absolute authority acutely. Some corporations have a “god” upstairs somewhere who can deliver prosperity or poverty with a word. This situation is one we are used to so we think it is normal. So when people enter the alternative society of the church, they often assume the same thing is going to happen: there is some king or some secret cabal running things and not them. And plenty of church leaders see an opportunity to get their divine rule on and get carried away trying to be powerful. We could talk about this for a long time, and should.

For 2019, however, why don’t you help someone take the role of leader and help them with the weird power dynamics it creates? It will be challenging for them if people think the church leader is exercising a right or an identity. They will suddenly become this strange person — like one day Rachel was your buddy, now she’s the pastor and you need to treat her like some “thing” that is not like you anymore. Let’s keep our heads on straight; all our leaders are still like us. We give them a role to exercise in the church because they can do it and we need them. They are elevated in our structure and given power to act, but they still have the same kind of issues we do. Imagine yourself being a leader! Ouch! It is a joy to serve, but there are a lot of things people need to figure out on their way to being a good one.

Leadership is a duty not just a delight

Some leaders honestly feel about leading like Freddie Mercury felt about singing. When they can lead, they are in their sweet spot. Good for them! But I still think the most effective leaders in the church feel like they are answering a call, not considering whether they are following their bliss. The see the necessity, or the opportunity, or the emergency and they decide to act on behalf of the mission of Jesus to transform the world. They were not sitting by their Christmas tree one day scrolling through their Ipad and said, “I think I will lead the church. That would make me feel good.” Maybe someone has done that, but I have never met them yet. Most of the time, like when a cell multiplies, the most obvious person becomes the next leader. They may have never thought about leading a cell until it becomes obvious to everyone that they should be deployed.

I know I was pretty shocked when it became obvious that I was a pastor, way back when. That was NOT what I had in mind. But, to be honest, I had a lot of trash in mind that would certainly have been a lot worse, so I am delighted. It has been a lot of fun to follow Jesus in my role. So, in 2019, why don’t you be delighted in someone who is doing their duty? We can make it hard on someone or we can make it delightful to have such followers. Yes, they will do their duty wrong, but you will probably do your following wrong, too, won’t you? So we will need to work it out — and it is given to us to do that.

Leadership is a gift to you and from you

I am glad we are still talking about spiritual gifts in our church. Leadership is one of them, in several forms, when you look through the lists in the New Testament. The lists make it obvious that we don’t need as many leaders as we need other gifted people to make a whole church. There will always be many more followers than leaders at any given moment, even though any of us might be gifted to lead when it is necessary. The idea of spiritual gifts implies, however, that a few people are usually gifted to lead and we should honor the work of the Spirit in their lives. We also need to honor their difficulties, since each one of us has our own difficulties discerning and exercising our gifts. We have a hard enough time having confidence that the Spirit of God even cares enough about us to lead us! Most leaders feel like that, too.

So the leader gives the gifts of leading and we give them back the gift of following. It is all gift with us and God, just so Christians worked gift-giving into the Christmas celebration of God’s self-giving love in Jesus. So in 2019, why don’t we give our leaders, new and next, the gift of their leadership? Help them do their work; don’t make them beg, as if they were just dying to see if you would follow them. It is our responsibility to make good leaders. They have no more innate value than the rest of us Spirit-bearers. But they are crucial for our life together to work well. If they have the gifts, we want to receive them!

Contrition Set No. 8 (2008) — Anthony Smith Jr. (NYC/Bethlehem, PA)

It is your church, not theirs

Some members of our Leadership Team have been frustrated when our church did not work like their business or agency (or their ideal of how they work). They regularly experience hierarchical modes of leading where a boss (or HR policy) has the power to take away someone’s money and give them a bad resume. As a result, people show up on time and do what they are supposed to do. They wish they could fire some church people!

I tell them, quite often, since I had to learn it too, that the church is more on the family side of life, not the corporate — thank God! But that means people are more likely to act like they do in their families and the leaders are more like parents than bosses. This can be lovely, since we all could use some re-parenting and we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But it also means that people refuse to pick up their blocks, are rival siblings, and feel intense symbolic feelings about things the leader thought were minor. It is terribly easy to act like an infant instead of being elevated to parent! Like Paul had to convince people: we used to be children, but now we are heirs of the kingdom of God [Paul’s great Advent passage].

So, in 2019, why don’t we refuse to exercise the luxury of reacting like we are children while the only adults in the room are our overworked leaders? And, by the way, how about helping our own relatives with the holiday celebrations rather than showing up late with a six pack? If your mom doesn’t want you to do the dishes for her because you do them so poorly, how about doing them with her and finally learning what you missed while you were avoiding things? We’re the church. It is not the leader’s church, as if she is supposed to get you to clean your room as her vocation! We are all “heirs according to the promise.” If we don’t act like that, no leader can save us. They’ll probably burn out or move on and our community will deteriorate into something that barely looks like Jesus lives there at all.

The subject of making a leader is a bit more than this blog post can chew, I think. But I was looking into 2019, when the leadership of the United States is going to show more of its true colors. Who would want to be a leader in such a mess? Not me. But I was also looking at our resilient, intense church, and was downright excited about what we might become. I think we are uniquely gifted and well–situated to offering the alternative the region needs, as the church always is, especially now. If you are a leader in some way among us or wherever God has placed you, thanks and don’t give up! If you are making a leader and can be inspired to keep at it in 2019, thanks and don’t give up!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando — video version

Hey everyone. Here is a video version of this week’s blog. For links and such, consult the written format. Thanks for reading and listening!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando

I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away.  One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!

I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw).  This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.

The economy did not send people to Disney

My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”

The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!

But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding.  A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.

Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”

A solitary worker at an e-commerce company’s distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania. — Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.

“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games  ready for purchase by eager teenagers.

The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis

Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.

Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.

We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.

OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties.  But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.

What do YOU think? Is screen time damaging the kids?

I have been doing some thinking about technology again in prepration for the seminarians cohort meeting next Monday. We are inviting everyone to do some theology around the question: Should I buy the Playstation, Iphone, AI device for Christmas?

Image result for fortnite skins

Among the articles that stuck with me is one by Nellie Bowles in the NYTimes: A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. I have grandchildren. She alarmed me, since they love their screens and I love to give them what they want.

Being avoidant is not enough

She says, “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them. A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a region wide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.”

Christians have often been resistant when it comes to technological advances. Many of the people in our church, Circle of Hope, come from Mennonite stock and have relatives or acquaintances who are Amish. The Amish are still trying to keep progress stalled at the pre-industrial level! I admire their stubbornness. But the cool  Anabaptists I know are tired of legalistic ancestors and feel queasy about making too many rules that will stifle their own children like they were stifled. So the debate about information and communication technology gets them coming and going. They have an instinct for avoiding the temptations for the world, but they have no little revulsion for overdoing avoidance.

Sometimes I think they use their resistance to overdoing avoidance to avoid making decisions that might save their kids. They don’t want to be legalistic, so they don’t do anything to guide the family. So their poor, impressionable kids are rolled over by the tsunami of technology without much guidance, much less theology. So the wave consumes their imaginations and they adapt to the worldview stories that justify every new relationship with a machine that comes on the market.

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

The experts from Silicon valley are beginning to resist the technology onslaught for the sake of their children. Just listen to these quotes.

  • “Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”
  • Some of the people who built video programs are now horrified by how many places a child can now watch a video. Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”
  • Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
  • Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company said about screens, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
  • Those who have exposed their children to screens try to talk them out of addiction by explaining how the tech works. John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.'”

I think we all know by now that online platforms, especially the games, are designed to be addictive. That’s how the inventors profit, by keeping us engaged and selling us virtual products. In case you didn’t know that, it’s no secret

I did not write this post to solve the problems we are all confronting. But I do think we Jesus-followers have the perennial solutions:.

  • A view of who we are and who God is appropriately contradicts the narratives the world offers.
  • Dialogue, like this, and like our meeting to do theology, helps break the power of manipulative lies that hook us into a track we later regret.
  • Questioning the strategies of our spiritual ancestors and having the courage to resist and restore in our own ways allows us the space to make decisions that have some discernment.

We do not need to bend the knee to whatever powerful force comes beaming into family life demanding we organize around it. Like many tech experts, we’d better figure out just what we are going to do about the invasion very soon, since the powers are grooming our kids for future profiteering and shaping their brains and their loves as they do it.

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Following the Feast Maker God: Our way to hospitality

Image result for great supper harold copping
Parable of the Great Supper by Harold Copping (1863-1932)

In Luke 14, Jesus is tells a parable about God, the feast maker, and his servant, Jesus, looking for people to attend their great banquet. It is all prepared! It is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We need to resist our lame excuses and come to the banquet! What’s more, we must forgive ourselves for not inviting people to the feast and forgive them for not coming.

But before we apply all this revelation about who God is and who we must be, we need to come to the feast ourselves. There are good reasons we are not hospitable.

There are parts of us which have reasons not to come to the feast

Last week in Daily Prayer :: WIND, David Benner pointed out when we have surrendered to the love of the Great Feast Maker, we find the “courage to face unpleasant aspects of our inner selves…to face our fears as we soak in love.” The Lord’s words about a great feast are an invitation to bring all the lame, broken, and fearful parts of ourselves into the banquet of love being prepared for us. There is a place at the table reserved for each broken part. Before we can be risk being hospitable, we must allow the neglected parts of ourselves to enjoy the warmth of God’s love as they are honored with special treatment. Maybe you should read the parable again in that light.

Most of the time, I think , we read the parable and focus on those foolish people who won’t come to the feast. Once we realize that we also have reasons we don’t always respond to God’s invitations, much less offer invitations, we can understand that Jesus is looking at everyone’s troubled, left-out hearts. Some people are so left out they dread being included because it might not feel as good as they need and they would feel even worse, which they cannot tolerate. No party is going to solve their problem; they need to come to God’s feast. Others are just gods to themselves, making their own feast, so they don’t feel the need to come unless they can tell in advance it will benefit them. When we read the parable we may shake our heads at the responses to the invitation, but we’re looking in the mirror, too.

It is a good thing the host is caring for others

What about the host in the parable? My main reason for writing is to talk about being like God, the great host. In the parable, the host is hurt. Isn’t the parable full of a sad feeling we all know about? —“I gave a party and you did not come. I invited you in and you ignored me or avoided me. I wanted to love you and you did not want my love.” The guests in the parable are so callous! I hurt for God.

And I hurt from following God’s example. I have thrown a lot of parties, plus I was in charge of weekly Sunday meetings for years. There has been an awful lot of opportunity to feel rejected. But the feast is too important to let rejection get in the way of it. We need to attend it and we need to give it. It  is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We must forgive ourselves for not coming to the feast, and, even more challenging, we must repent of not inviting people to the feast and not forgiving them for not coming.

What the Bible shows is that God is a feast giving God. God’s heart is open and making a home for us. We don’t come to the party and what does God do? — opens up eternity in response. In the parable of the prodigal son and his brother, one chapter later in Luke, God is clearly shown as a host.  When the lost son arrives, the whole household jumps into action because the father is a feast giver and everyone is prepared to have one. It is what they do. Of course they have a calf fattening! They all know the master thinks, “No one should eat with the pigs and no one should isolate themselves in the field and sulk. We are going to have joy, make a place for joy and invite people into salvation.”

I have gone to many parties that were, essentially, do-it-yourself feasts. As is so typical of our era, many hosts don’t want to compel people to be anything they are not already, or ask them to do anything they don’t want to do, so we give parties that are not hosted. I come in and no one even acknowledges me. It hurts! Surely they know that I had to repent of my aloneness and my fear to come to their party! It is so selfish of the host to protect their own fear of rejection or offense by not noticing me coming in from my personal pig trough! In contrast, Jesus is in the streets finding needy people, and God is running down the road to meet prodigals. Every time someone comes in the room, whether it is the bit of heaven of our Sunday meeting or the Thanksgiving celebration this week, they are coming from somewhere broken and they need to be welcomed in. Whether they accept the fullness of Christ in our invitation or not, they must have a place at the table.

The center of our feast is the center of our lives

If we don’t compel people to come in and run down the path to greet them, our communion table is a joke. In the bread and cup, Jesus is up on the cross dying for the sins of the world, forgiving our terrible habits of the heart, compelling us to come into his father’s house, running after us, and opening up his heart and eternity. Whenever the church gathers, the essence of the meeting, as is the essence of our lives, is the feast. If there is no feast, is there any salvation? — aren’t I still alone, on the outside? — aren’t I still trying to get what I want without connecting, without the risk of love?

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Likewise, having enjoyed the bread and cup, am I actually one with Christ if I don’t turn to someone and share the forgiveness at the center of our meeting? Forgiveness is not an abstraction accomplished in some heavenly courtroom; it happens between a needy person and a forgiver. Jesus says we are forgiven when we forgive. We are at the feast when we give the feast.

It will always hurt to be hospitable. Maybe that’s why we often hesitate to take it on. The suffering love of Jesus hurts Jesus and it hurts us. I have been noting who did not attend my meetings and parties for forty years in public and in my own home; I think it is like God to be disappointed and delighted at the same time. Every party hurts and every party is the center of my deepest joy. There is nothing better than the Love Feast we just had. There is nothing better than the cell meeting Julie had last week where the women said something like, “A month ago I never wanted to go to church again and now I am going to host your cell.” Every one of them does not work and in every one of them the feast-making God is at work.

Moving the ball: The church as a team (video version)

Here  I am on my phone giving your the first part of my Monday blog on video.

The church is in a lot of contention these days. We need to break through and get down the field before  the buzzer sounds.

If you want to get into what my phone would not do, read the last post from Monday!

Moving the ball: The church as a team

Memories are like the Mouse King in Disney’s new Nutcracker. A lot of little memories often come together to form very powerful big ones. One of the advantages of being over 40, or so, is that you have enough little memories to shape big responses to the challenges of the day. At least that is what it felt like the other day when I was reminiscing about how I learned about “moving the ball.”

In high school I played football. I know I am not supposed to approve of football, since it is a concussion factory and intrinsically too violent for peacemaking types. But, looking back, I really enjoyed my youthful collaboration in body-crunching. Even more useful, I learned a lot from those days about how to be a team, not least of all because we were a terrible team – and sometimes failure is a great teacher.

The big, instructive memory I’m talking about is about a time we were actually winning, I think, and Ron Herman was especially psychopathic. Unlike Ron, I was a rather mild-mannered football player, which never pleased my ex-Marine coaches — but I was efficient, determined and could remember the plays, so I got to play first string. Ron Herman, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream — a weightlifting, maniacal ball of energy at linebacker. I am not sure what happened to me; I think I got clipped after the whistle. Regardless, I became the center of a brawl on the field and was not faring well in the fight. I was having some kind of dazed reaction to a much bigger lineman who was coming at me. Then, from out of nowhere, Ron came at the brute like a smart bomb and took the guy out – laid him flat and then ran around him with his fists up like Rocky. My memory plays the impact in slow motion and I still enjoy seeing the enemy fall. (Sorry Jesus, but that’s the truth).

That moment contains a lesson about being a team I have not forgotten. It is: Some team mates are just better. Ron was a LOT better at football than I was. He had the strength and attitude and gleeful malice to be a force on the field. We needed him. I was scared of him off the field, but I was glad to have him on my side, watching over me (for some reason) on the field. Unlike him, I had a hard time just completing my small assignment on a given play, but Ron was seeing and wandering the whole field, improvising actions that would move the ball.

We are a big team

Memories of football came up because I was discussing Circle of Hope with a partner and we needed a good metaphor. Football worked. For one thing, like in football we, as a church, feel the urge to make a lot of “touchdowns” and we are disappointed when we don’t. Even more important, we are a big “team,” made up of many smaller teams, which contain many marginally clever individuals, for the most part — though we do have our Ron Hermans, thank God!. You see how well the analogy works? Church works a lot like a football team, if it works at all. How we perfect being a team is our greatest asset. But it is always our greatest challenge, too.

I learned a lot about being a team by being part of a terrible football team. I have learned a lot more by being part of the miraculous Circle of Hope. Who we are and what we do is so unique, so great, that we yearn for about a 1000 more people to join in the cause — seriously, that’s the touchdown we’re shooting for. If our congregations all expanded to their optimum size and we added a 1000 more people that would make us about .03% of the metro population — not really that much to shoot for, right? It will take good team work from our pastors and leadership team at the center, and good team work clear to far reaches of our constituency to “win” that “game.” We’ll have to move the ball.

At this point, I have enough memories stored up to think I can say three big things about how to move the ball that direction. Actually I guess I have already mentioned two. Maybe they are all pretty obvious. But here goes. To be a good team that makes it to the goal:

Keep the ball moving

When the Eagles don’t convert their third down and get a new set of downs, you can hear a palpable groan ripple through the stadium (like last night!). The other day a caller into sports radio said, “I just want a couple of players who can move the ball.” I yelled back at the radio (which I sometimes do), “And what else would you want?” Momentum is obviously the key to getting somewhere.

In high school football and the church, confidence is the key. As a church, we need enough people who think working with Jesus is just the best and only thing worth doing in order to keep our team rolling. In high school, our bench was full of anxious guys who weren’t so sure they wanted the coach to put them in. They got enough stuff out of just wearing the uniform, but they weren’t sure they were quite up to playing. The guard who played next to me, on the other hand,  was well known for having the dirtiest uniform on the team after a game. Those kind of players keep their cell multiplying, the money coming in, the events excellent, the ideas coming to fruit. And if things aren’t moving, they can feel it and do something about it.

Admire the great players

Being a good team does not mean everyone is the same or what they do has the same value or weight. It means everyone is valued for what they bring right now with the hope that they will get to be better and better players. Regardless of whether you are good or not, we need whatever you have at the moment to make a good team. When Eddie Velasquez walked around school after a game, I wouldn’t even talk to him when I was a freshman. I had just watched him break through the line and run for a touchdown, moving like the wind, as far as I was concerned. I admired him so much I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me.

Now that I look back, I regret how seldom our really great “players” in the church get the admiration they deserve. They are so humble and Christians are so shockingly stingy with their praise (lest someone lose their humility under the pressure of their affirmation, I guess) that we tend to nurture the mediocre and hamstring the creative. I don’t think our church has the worst case of that disease, by any means, but sometimes we hitch thoroughbreds to plows just because they will plow, when they should fly.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got

We did not succeed much as a football team, so our task was more about making something from nothing, like feeding 5000 with a few loaves and two fish. I admit I often felt successful if I did not make a complete fool of myself while my dad trained his binoculars on me. Now that I look back, I think that hanging in there, even when you don’t feel like you are that great, is a lot more OK than I thought it was then. As it turns out, even an hour of bad football is a decent training session. It was preparing me for the long haul of following Jesus as a member of the body of Christ. Churches full of inadequate, even terrible Christians have been moving the ball for centuries, now. That’s the huge way we are NOT like a football team.

When the ex-Marines were getting our team into shape. They wanted us to run a six minute mile in our equipment. Needless to say, the tackles regularly failed to achieve that goal. Don Lancet, for one, was always last. He was just too fat and out of shape. But he was big. So when he got in the game, just falling in front of people often proved effective. Our quarterback was short and indecisive. But he was afraid to fail and managed to make plays out of his messes. Our fleet running back was sent to jail, so the coaches platooned the second, third and fourth stringers. It does not matter how we get there. It matters that we keep moving and use all the gifts we’ve  received to make the biggest difference we can make together.

Keep your eyes on the first down which leads to the goal

It is depressing when you are an ineffective team on your own 30 yard line looking way down field at the goal post. There are going to be Ron Hermans who have a vision for winning the game – admire them as they are yelling at you to play harder! (And wake up and play harder!) Thank God for the leaders, because most of us will have to rely on their vision, since we are doing well just to line up and run the next play.

Most of us will content ourselves with gaining the most yards we can on the way to a first down. A touchdown may feel like a lot to ask. I think that is OK. Because, over time, the little things count even more than the big plays for the vast majority of us. Yard by yard, we move the ball. The body of Christ is also like the Mouse King — a compilation of all our small efforts in service to our profound memories of grace and the promises they speak to us. We’re all about a long obedience in the same direction, not just memorable video clips of the best plays.

I think my varsity team won two games in two seasons. But the real value of the experience was not lost on me. I think I even have my letterman’s sweater stored someplace. I never really qualified as a jock, but I was proud that I was successful enough to letter. I was part of the team – that terrible team. At this point, the terrible is not as important as being a part. My usually critical parents were delighted to see me out there in uniform doing something. I kind of blew off their admiration when I was a teenager. But now that I look back, like in so many things, I can see why those 40somethings were happy I would have a few memories to mull over.

When we tell people they should leave behind their precious memories of church and move into the future, we don’t mean that their former churches were all bad or that they should not remember them. As  you can see, even if their churches were terrible, I think they could learn a lot from them. What our proverb means is that we need to deliberately grow from our past experiences, not sit in them the rest of our lives like my poor friend Phil, who never once got his uniform dirty the whole season. The coach knew he just wasn’t going to play.

At the end of this list, it seems like most of my ideas kind of run together; they are even a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s the nature of team sports and the nature of being a community in mission – everything kind of works together. It is not so important to define and understand how all the parts work, or even to individually excel at our part. It is more important to get up for each play, all of us doing it again with all we’ve got, and advance the ball as far as we can before the buzzer sounds. That keeps us in contention. And there is a lot with which to contend, isn’t there?

Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – video version

Here is a video version of Monday’s blog post.

The Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water

One of the best things we have ever tried is the Way of Jesus site where we collect resources for people developing faith from their first steps to their maturity.

The Way of Jesus follows a faith development model which reflects the wonderful contributions of Piaget, Erickson and Kohlberg to our understanding of how humans naturally develop.  There is a spiritual development process that moves along with our biological and psychological growth. We are all on a wonder-filled journey at our own pace. This reality has only become more interesting as I have aged and I have been eager to find the right metaphors in order to teach it. A few years ago we decided that the the ancient symbols of  Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water encapsulate, in an organic way, the stages of spiritual development.

A lot is made of the stages of human, biological/psychological development, but less is made of the spiritual development that accompanies those stages. James Fowler did some great work in the 1980’s to apply Piaget’s, Erickson’s and others’ work to spiritual development. These days, the hard edges of these geniuses’ definitions are being softened. Feminist thinkers and non-western thinkers add the sense that life is more like a spiral than a straight line. I can go with them. Janet Hagberg’s works (especially one of my favorites: Real Power) make these stages applicable to people leading in everyday life.  I have gone with her, ever since I first saw her present her (then new) ideas for the first time.

As a result of learning how to soften and broaden the stages of spiritual development, I am fond of relating to people according to  all their stages of development at the same time. We still have the baby, the toddler, the elementary kid, and especially the adolescent and early twentysomething in us. That’s why we might yell, “Stop being such a baby!” even as we all have the first senses of being fully comfortable in the ocean of grace in which we’re swimming. That latter fact is why we might say, “That baby’s  just a little old man!” We need to keep growing, but it does not serve us to despise where we are, despise the past, or fear the future. All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose in Jesus Christ.

A brief look at the stages

The stages of faith have  become common thinking among us, as a church. A version of this chart below is part of our Children’s Plan.

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Stage 0/1: The rise of imagination

Earth — infants, toddlers, preschool

Young children have a changing, growing and dynamic faith. It’s marked by the rise of imagination. A young child does not have the kind of logic and language that makes possible or necessary the questioning of their perceptions or fantasies. Their minds are “religiously pregnant,” you might say. It is striking how many times experiences and images from before a child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on their life of faith, both positive and negative.

How we love God and others will be colored by how we attached to our parents or other significant caregivers. I know that one of my images for God is my Grandmother coming clear from another town with broth for me when I was imprisoned in my room in the dark, sick with measles. She spooned the broth into my mouth and I can still remember the tenderness and wonder. It still seems quite supernatural.

Stage Two: Making meaning

Earth — school age

Elementary school children usually like stories and tend to be preoccupied with rules (especially those they violating). They are developing ways to make sense of the world and deal with it. They can criticize and evaluate their previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. They take symbols and myths pretty much at face value, though they may be touched or moved by them at a deeper level.  The faith of a few people remains at this level all their lives.

I have often told the story of my personal miracle at this stage that basically sold me on faith in God. For others, this is the Sunday School era where they learn the ways of God and their church. How a church tells their stories: as rules and principles or as loving relationship may color a child’s understanding the rest of her life. Jesus has often been reduced to a story or a set of rules and you can see arrested development in the ways of many churches.

People stuck in stage one or two, the “earth” stage, are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. They are the “You’ll go to hell Christians.” If they do end up maturing to the next stage in adulthood, it often occurs in a very dramatic way. Our “Way of Jesus” metaphor acknowledges that a person’s natural faith development may be like a child’s until they meet Jesus in their twenties or fifties. Not only do we reach stages of life which begin with baby steps, some of us take first steps of faith when we are older.

Stage Three: Forming identity

Wind — adolescence

This stage typically begins around age 12 or 13. It’s marked by what Piaget calls formal “operational thinking” which means we now can think and feel about our own thoughts and feelings or “mentalize.”

Now is the time when a person forms a sense of identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. They pull together their  valued images and convictions and think of themselves as themselves, albeit insecurely.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is how teenagers often compose images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship in which I’m known deeply and valued.

I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find who I can be. That’s why my youth director was so valuable. My parents were not so sure about my identity as a Christian; they were much more interested in raising a capitalist. But my youth director affirmed the stirrings of the Spirit in me and encouraged my differentiation.

People can get stuck in this stage, too. They probably rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and their leaders and get extremely upset when these are called into question once they are set. A good example is how upset Catholics have been since the abuse scandals surfaced a decade ago. In 2007 they were 24% of the population, in 2016 they we 18% — that’s 20 million people!

At any of the stages from two on you can find adults whose faith is best described by one of them. Stage Three, thus, the Wind stage when we take first steps in the Spirit, can be a final adult destination. Many people, in churches and out, can be best described by faith that essentially took form when they were teenagers. So you can see how Circle of Hope is a new narrative for many people. For some, it literally hurts to be with us were seem so out of order. We tell them to leave their precious memories of church, but that teen faith is still strong. Some people are too afraid, or stubborn like a teenager, and can’t betray it.

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Stage Four: Reflective Faith

Fire — early adulthood

Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which a person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships and principles that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world view that defined them. For many of us: You move to Philadelphia and see what happens.

We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and begin to reflect upon the water. Perhaps it feels like out of the frying pan and into the fire. In therapy this stage often means looking at your “script” and acting outside of it, making a choice. In marriage, it may mean getting out of the power struggle, uniting to beat our relational habits, and writing the new, loving narrative we choose. I often admire my clients’ rebellion against the narrative or structure that has throttled their development. Jesus was super mad at the Pharisees for doing the throttling – he wanted to kindle a fire.

This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside “the box” and realizing there are other “boxes.” They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people sometimes think the Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when, in reality, they have  moved forward. The stage four people may think they have lost their faith, when they have just grown up.  Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay that way permanently. Some throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of their changes.

I think my holy dissatisfaction turned to holy differentiation. But it wasn’t without some strange days. At this stage I kind of blasted out of a very safe cocoon in my mid thirties. Ultimately, the process led me to Philadelphia and the fun I have been having ever since.

Many people don’t complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. They come up against “the wall” and don’t get farther. We may be forced over the wall when we lose a job or a marriage or our childhood faith. Sometimes people stay on an endless loop of the questions that inhibit their next steps. There is often a lot of concern about “Where do I stop and you begin? Where does the group I can belong to with conviction and authenticity end and other groups begin?” We want to fit authentically where we are, according to who we’ve become. It is not easy to find such a place. We realize we’ll have to build it.

Stage Five: Connective Faith

Fire — middle adulthood

Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond, some people undergo a change to a more conjunctive faith, which is “adult” faith. What Stage Four worked so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and affiliation, Stage Five makes more permeable and porous. As we move into this stage, we begin to recognize that our unconscious is relative and deep, likewise the universe is huge. We become comfortable with the fact that much of our behavior is shaped by dimensions of self and God into which we are just dipping our toes. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God’s mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity. We are more likely than before to love God for who God is rather than for who we are.

Stage Five is also a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious — into those myths, taboos and standards we took in with our mother’s milk which have powerfully shaped our behavior and reactions. We’re ready and able to re-examine those, which means we’re ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in a blessed tension. You can see that, paradoxically, ones needs a lot of water to sustain this fire.

Stage Six: Embraced and Embracing Faith

Water — adulthood

We all have this faith planted in us like a mustard seed. Whether we get to some idealized maturity, we have all known what the water stage is all about since we were babies. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which we radically live as though the Kingdom of God were already a fact, since it is. We experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now our center becomes our participation in God, our ultimate reality. We’re at home in the creation, in that great commonwealth of being in Christ.

One the one hand, we experience people at this stage as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating, sometimes even subversive in their freedom. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life, or Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. James Fowler loved Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. We collect these great examples of people who demonstrate how to swim freely in grace in our Celebrating our Transhistorical Body blog.

These are Jesus followers who, in a sense, have loosened the hold their self has on them for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they become vibrant and powerful selves. They have a quality of relevant irrelevance. They have lost their lives and found them. Their “subversiveness” makes our compromises show up as what they are.

God be with you in your development!

If you got through all of this, I hope it affirmed where you are right now and inspired you to hope in your future. We are all growing. In a couple of months, I will be sixty-five, when our society provides an arbitrary line over which I can cross and become “old.” On the one hand, I already feel increasing, blue-ish freedom. On the other hand, I feel like a baby toddling into the unknown, wondering if my mother is looking at me as I run toward the street.  It is the transitions that get us. We can feel them as exciting baby steps or struggle with them as the end of something beautiful. Development can be scary or it can be the beautiful way we deepen our faith.

I hope this very brief rendition of a subject so many have explained so well helps you see where you are and where you want to go — there is a path, even if you can’t really see it right now. You are not alone or odd. There is hope for all of us.

I also gave this to you to lift up the idea that you are carrying all your selves from the past. They complete, inform, and undergird who you are becoming. They are not bad; they are part of you. Their pains and possibilities are still yours; I think you need to care for those many selves and love them and take them with you into your bright future.

A few resources:

  • Wikipeidia: James W. Fowler
  • Faith Development at Twenty Years: pdf (scholarly)
  • Spiritual Development link (makes Fowler’s theory more inclusive)
  • Janet Hagberg’s website.

The Love Feast: A big splash of goodness in a flood of evil — video version

Hey friends. Here is a video version of Monday’s post. If you want to get into the links and other references, check out the written form.