Category Archives: Spiritual Discipline

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

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

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

 

Kevin and King O’Toole’s goose

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

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

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

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

Image result for brother juniper pig
From Rossellini’s movie The Little Flowers (1950)

Juniper and the pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the goose and the pig

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

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

How to pray: The joys of walking

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

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

Praying with my body

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

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

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

The joy of walking

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

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

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

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

My walking experience in Assisi

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beffroi in Tournai (now Belgium).

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

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

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

Subverting the first sprouts of capitalism

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

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

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

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

There are many good examples for our rebellion

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

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

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

Francis and Jesus will erode your control fantasies for good

    Jesus spoke to Francis from this cross.

Preaching to the birds was miraculous, not cute

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

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

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

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

Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies

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

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

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

At the scene of subsequent Pentecosts

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

Rome

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

Montecassino

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

Padua

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

Philadelphia

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Spring is glorious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullough writes in his revealing introduction:

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

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

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

What do Christians’ do in response to all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell the truth

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

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

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

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

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

Build an alternative community

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

Paul teaches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

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Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

Sisi, Bibi, Barr, and Obama: Deliver us from our distress

My loved ones and I were spontaneously constructing our own Psalm 107 as the news forced its way into our consciousness today. I know many of you are tuned out; the daily process of deception and destruction is hard to watch. So you might be distressed I am bothering you with “political stuff.” But I have to remind you, the 1% and their minions in government have taken the power in their hands and we are slowly being bled of our money and morals in the U.S..

Yet we persist. We are a circle of hope and we did not expect the government or the wealthy to save us – at least those of us who have been reading the Bible.

So we moved with Psalm 107’s refrain today in our litany of despair and frustration. We thought of each other and took heart as we joined in:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

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Click for Al Jazeera

Sisi

My friend Jonny was up in arms. According to a report released by Egypt’s presidency, the meeting today with President Sisi was Trump’s sixth since 2016, reportedly more than any other leader.  “Human rights groups have accused the Egyptian regime of carrying out widespread and systematic torture of political prisoners, silencing dissidents and using death sentences to settle scores. Sisi’s government has vehemently denied the allegations.” [CNN]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Bibi

My wife and I sat down at dinner after watching Israeli elections returns for five minutes and said, “I’m not sure we are doing enough for those dear Palestinians we met when our delegation visited.” Trump advocates a permanent annexation of the Golan Heights, moves the embassy to Jerusalem, and essentially meddles in the Israeli election by campaigning for Netanyahu. Bibi essentially calls for a one state, Jewish nation which Haaretz calls apartheid in the making. Even the Wall Street Journal sees problems [WSJ].

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Barr

Meanwhile, Attorney  General Barr went to Congress and would not answer some fairly straightforward question. People ranted. [Rantt]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Obama blamed again

As part of his Sisi press conference, Trump again blamed Obama for inventing the policy of separating children at the border and putting them in cages, while he righteously stopped the policy.

Maybe you think NPR is a fake news outlet. But here is what they immediately said about Trump’s remarks:

“Trump’s false claim that child separations were carried out by the Obama administration has been frequently refuted.

‘The Obama administration did not do that, no. We did not separate children from their parents,’ former Obama domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz told NPR in May 2018. ‘This is a new decision, a policy decision put in place by the attorney general,’ which Muñoz said ‘puts us in league with the most brutal regimes in the world’s history.’

It was then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions who instituted the ‘zero tolerance’ policy at the Southern border in April 2018, which resulted in children being separated from their parents who were taken into custody for criminal prosecution.”

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

I sat at dinner and lamented how I had seen a collection of mind-boggling leaders in my day. Maybe I have been one at times, myself. I was tempted to despair, especially since I know so many young people in the grip of the insanity (and I paid a lot more taxes on less income due to Paul Ryan’s tax give way “reform”).

But then I looked over at my dear wife, noticed the good food on my table in my nice house, recalled the wonderful note Howard put on our Coordinating Group’s check-in this morning, remembered how lovely it was to be with Rachel earlier in the day, admired the courage of one of my clients, enjoyed the unexpected public love from one of my friends – the wonders piled up as I gave thanks for Gwen’s signature brussel sprouts.

I can say with confidence:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

Be at rest. God is with us, and with the world through us. Miracles are happening every day.

Exploring DBT skills with Jesus: Ever thought you’re an idiot? Read this

At the CAPS International Conference, Marcus Rodriguez treated our workshop to an entertaining, enlightening and encouraging gallop through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, focusing on “radical acceptance” – one of the many skills DBT uses. This therapy is under the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) umbrella. It was originally created to help with borderline personality disorder. Now it is used to help with a variety of other conditions. It is a very organized way to teach people to change when their behavior is damaging relationships and even threatening to destroy them.

DBT teaches clients four sets of behavioral skills under the headings: mindfulness; distress tolerance; interpersonal effectiveness; and emotion regulation. But, whether we are ill or not, as Marcus demonstrated, we can all benefit from adapting and incorporating the skills into our lives.

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Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not

For some people, applying DBT skills might seem sketchy, since many of the skills are straight from the Buddhist playbook. You might know that I’ve suggested elsewhere how Christians can be friends with Buddhists. But appreciating the strengths of Buddhist or DBT philosophy doesn’t mean we overlook the core elements that could undermine our faith in the name of reducing our suffering. There isn’t much in any psychotherapy models which a Jesus follower wouldn’t need to adapt.

DBT represents some of the real differences between Jesus and Buddha. The Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine).” The Christ said, “Follow me.” The Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” The Christ said, “I am the light of the world.” Yet contrary to the original intentions of both, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.

Peter Kreeft sums up the differences nicely. He says, “On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible. For where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. He wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Buddha “solves” the problem of pain by practicing spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the ego, self, soul or I-image of God in humanity.” No Christians using DBT think they are doing this, I suspect. But the modality comes from that playbook.

It is easy to say that many Christians are better Buddhists than they are Jesus followers, since they practice law-keeping designed to squash their desires before they result in sin, often at the cost of their soul. They kill their souls in order to not face the shame of needing new life. It would be better if they followed the Buddha’s example and sat under a tree until they were enlightened – that is, enlightened in the way Paul hopes: that

“the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18).

In that same hope, I offer three DBT skills that everyone could practice that will increase our capacity to gain a spirit of wisdom instead of rolling around in our unquestioned behaviors that lead to sin and ruptured relationships.

Mindfulness

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. – Philippians 4:8

“Mindfulness” has a lot of definitions. For Marcus, it begins with stepping back from your normal thinking pattern and noting how you are enacting the pattern. That’s also known as mentalizing. Other teachers say mindfulness means living one’s life more in the present moment, instead of allowing oneself to be hijacked by the past and the future.

Marcus instructed us to bring to mind a situation about which we felt deeply, but which was not changing and not likely to change because of something we could do to change it. We closed our eyes, or stared at a focal point, breathed in and then breathed out the sentence we had constructed to describe the situation. We were told to simply note the fact when our minds wandered, thank ourselves for noticing, and return to our practice.

Our teacher was helping us to get a feel for how we could step back and look at automatic behaviors we need to change using this crucial DBT skill. For instance, if you’re entangled in your thoughts, you might think/feel: “Susan is really nice. She’s such a great person. I wish I were more like her. I should ask her if she wants to go for coffee sometime. I’d like to get to know her better.” Being mindful, you get some space to reduce the extraneous thoughts and observe, “There’s a thought that Susan is such a nice person.”

We would all like to pause, check in, identify our emotions and consciously make healthy decisions. Try it. It might surprise you just how little you are thinking and feeling about what you are actually thinking and feeling. This mindfulness is a lot like what Paul is suggesting to the Philippians, isn’t it?

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Reality Acceptance

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. – Romans 15:5-7

This skill focuses on accepting our daily experiences and working to accept the more painful events that have happened. Marcus had many colorful examples about how fighting reality only heightens our suffering, like, “Beating up your pillow all night does nothing but make the bed sweaty.” He had a ready excuse to practice this skill during our workshop, since he needed a projector and was not provided one. That reality frustrated and embarrassed him. He said, “Instead of telling myself, ‘My life sucks’ I have to remind myself ‘It is what it is. I will get through it. Breathe.’”

This spirit of acceptance is what Paul recommends to the Romans as they face the divisions in their church. But it also applies to accepting the divisions we feel in ourselves. DBT requires a hard won discipline of living in whatever is materially real in the moment, free from desires and guilt. For Jesus followers, a grateful acceptance of being accepted by Jesus is required, but the results are similar, I think. Our faith is constantly accepting that God is with us in Jesus, and accepting that controlling our desire to control cannot really save us — although it is great cooperation with the One who can!

Nonjudgmental Stance

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

Marcus was concerned that we learn the difference between a judgment and a fact. Negative judgments tend to boost our emotional pain. So when we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, we should pay attention to what judgment we are making or we will just make things worse. “I hate Philadelphia because it rains so much” is different from “I had hoped it would not rain today.”  “My partner is an idiot,” is different from: “I worked another long day and when I got home my partner asked me what I was making for dinner. I am angry about this and disappointed he’s not making an effort to help.”

Being less judgmental doesn’t eliminate our pain, but it might take it from an 8 to a 5. If we practice the “radical acceptance” Marcus was teaching us, we might move the needle from 5 to 3. Radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what happened, or approving, excusing, absolving, allowing, resigning, or wallowing in suffering. Radical acceptance simply means we acknowledge the facts of our lives without judgment. We often fight reality instead, which only intensifies our emotional reaction. We might fight reality by judging a situation, saying “It should or shouldn’t be this way,” or “That’s not fair!” or “Why me?!” Fighting reality only creates suffering. DBT people say, “Pain is inevitable in life; suffering is optional.”

The idea we can choose our way out of suffering is where we see how much Buddhism impacts DBT. It leans toward shutting down the desires and leading us to find a place of nothingness where “should” or “want” is irrelevant. For disordered people, this ability is priceless — and most of us could use a dose.

But we do not need to adopt the core premise of Buddhism to make us of skills that help us pay attention to our reactions so we can manage to make the choices we prefer. I think all the Bible verses I quoted are teaching variations on that theme, among other things. We have to learn new skills to be new people in Christ. The big difference, as Kreeft pointed out, is always about how we see where we started, where God is in the process, and whether we actually think the joy and suffering we are experiencing only have the meaning we assign them in the moment, no meaning at all, or are doorways to eternity.

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

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St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

Shame: What we can do about it.

soul of shame

People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.

The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.

What is shame?

Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!

Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]

We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.

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Stations of the Cross at St. Paul’s on the Green Episcopal Church, Norwalk, CT, Tenth Station by Gwyneth Leech

What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?

Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.

The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples  from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.

If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.

It is what we do about shame that matters

The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?

We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the  opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!

Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.

See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today 

Read his book: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson {recently added to Pastors Goodreads]

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

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Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.

Depression season: Hope for the bleak, SAD midwinter

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) became the premier woman poet of her day in her mid-thirties. I love her for providing this stanza, which describes the season into which Jesus entered our time and place.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Jesus may not have been born in winter and he certainly was not born in England! But He definitely needs to be born every February in Pennsylvania. We are in the “bleak midwinter” right now. People are sick, pipes are freezing, cars are crashing and many of us are facing our yearly depression.

Around this time of year many people in the Northeast are sick of winter.  We’re sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather.  Winter gets old — fast. If you have brought out the yearly fantasy of moving to Florida with your relatives, we hear you.

In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as “seasonal affective disorder” (shortened to SAD, appropriately). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than the average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” beginning and ending at about the same times of the year.  Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness. More recent studies suggest the whole idea is suspicious, but now we are used to idea and you may have diagnosed yourself, already.

Whether we have a major disorder on our hands or not, the bleak midwinter excites bleakness. Every time I look at Christian Rosetti’s picture (above), I don’t wonder why she could write such a descriptive SAD scene in just a few lines. She had a few drifts of permanent snow on her feelings, I think. So when the winter comes around and we get sick, grumpy and joke we have SAD it makes sense not to brush off our yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that we have to tough out on our own.  It is always good to follow our feelings around a bit and see what they are up to.

There are ways to keep our mood and motivation steady throughout the year. If you’re the Mayo Clinic you’ll recommend that SAD sufferers try light therapy (replacing lost sunlight), psychotherapy, and/or medications. All might be useful, more likely if used together. If you (or your therapist) think you have SAD right now, or you are just grumpy and unmotivated, here are a couple of thoughts and some faith-based counsel that could help you figure out what to do next.

Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis

SAD is more about observing people than testing data. Recent studies that do plow through a lot of data can’t really find a seasonal increase in depression. If you feel depressed right now it may be more about how you are personally ordered rather than about being subject to a seasonal disorder, as if you caught SAD and need a chemical remedy. The seasons of the year often excite things in us that were going unnoticed. That’s normal life, not a disorder.

People experiencing feelings associated with SAD might want to get a couple of opinions before they treat their feelings with medicine. Even WebMD notes that “What we are observing is that Americans are increasingly viewing psychiatric medications as a solution for a wide range of social and interpersonal problems and for dealing with daily stress [and] general medical providers appear to be going along with this trend.” Depression has physical, psychological, social and spiritual components. Just taking a pill may make a difference, but might not solve the problem – and a drug-based-only solution might make things worse.

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Here is a seasonal disorder.

Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak

The winter is often the best time to lay low and listen to how the seasons teach us about our feelings and all they mean.

  1. Winter is not a curse.

A lot of good things are happening to the earth and to us, when we are “depressed”  In winter. An obvious, if underappreciated fact, is the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. Being fallow is good (Isaiah 55). Your depression might be a time for generating something new.

The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow.  Seeds get ready to sprout. (Psalm 147).  You may have a seed that’s been trying to sprout since childhood.

You may be moving into a new season. That is often depressing, but good. The Creator built mercy into winter, too. We can rely on that love (Job 38.22). We often need to keep reframing our sense of our situation when we feel God is not in the bleakness.

  1. Winter is part of our growth process

Even though the seasons change every year, many of us still feel winter like a slap in the face every time. Then when we move to Cabo San Lucas to escape it, we miss it and complain that it is too hot. We’re like that.

We talk about the stages of our faith development (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) because we want to learn to move with natural elements that sin and death have made feel like enemies. The changing seasons are another set of unchanging realities that can teach love and truth. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter each show us God in unique ways, over and over, until we learn to move with them instead of resisting or dominating. The changing seasons demonstrate how God’s care never changes, despite our changing seasons of life (Malachi 3). Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3).

  1. Winter will end. 

I can hardly wait until this winter is over, I admit it. Winter is often a challenge for me. (But then it rains a lot in May. Summer can get humid. And Fall is full of allergens). The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting.  Waiting is good.

We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8).  We are waiting for the “winter” of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious “spring” of the resurrection.  We comfort ourselves when we suffer with the promise that the age to come is not that far off. The day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, where pain, sickness, death, or tears will no longer kill us.  We have hope for a new beginning.

This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life (Romans 5).  Christians are waiters.  So we can  get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.

If you swallow the “spiritual pill” I just offered, will you be guaranteed a happy winter? Will changing your mind bring all your painful feelings to an immediate end?  Maybe. But not inevitably.

In the bleak midwinter — waiting for the thaw that never seems certain, trying to see single-digit temperatures as a growth opportunity, fighting off the strong sense that it is all an example of how we are cursed — Jesus comes to bring us hope.

Thank God I am not in charge of the seasons, or responsible for saving myself from them! I think Christina Rosetti ended her poem very well and I need to keep singing it throughout every bleak day:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

How much time is there?: Does that question make a difference?

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

The Vikings series is one of the most Christian shows on television. The whole thing is about Norse religion/culture bumping up against the  Christian church/state in Wessex, among other territories, and vice versa.

As a result, in Vikings this season, Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha have a religious problem. Lagetha is not interested in deserting her gods, but the supposedly-celibate priest, Heahmund, falls in love with her when he is taken captive to Kattegat (actually filmed in Ireland on a lake owned by the Guiness family).  The deposed queen falls in love back.  Before a crucial battle, Heahmund has a vision of hell and renounces his illicit connection to his pagan queen. Spoiler alert, he is killed (above).  But his last words are “Lagetha.”

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

Obviously lust, greed, war, etc. etc, are also big, religious problems everyone ought to be having in Vikings, and they do. But I want to talk about time.

Lagetha and Heahmund are both getting up there in years (especially for the 9th century!). Heahmund has a young new king with ideas that will be new for a generation, as it turns out. Lagetha has step-children who have become Christians and farmers, while her oldest son is ready to leave for mayhem-yet-to-be-determined. Times are changing and time is short. So what do we do with our time? Should Heahmund hang on to this surprising love he relishes and forsake eternity? Should Lagetha try to regain her youth and take back Kattegat? Is Valhalla a good enough reason to risk death today? Is Jesus really on our side forever and is that promise enough to die preserving a place where he is Lord? I love this show.

I wish we would ask questions with similar passion and not merely watch others ask them. And we often do ask them. Actually, it is hard not to ask, since time is running out and we are not getting any younger (well, especially not me).

I had a question about time early on in my faith when I ran into a job description in the annual report of the Baptist church: Flower Arranger. A woman’s whole job was to make sure there were flowers on the communion table under the pulpit each week. Her job made me indignant! I thought it was a waste of money and time to be concerned about furniture and aesthetics when people were dying of hunger! (I still pretty much feel that way). But I am a little softer now, realizing that some people are suited for arranging flowers; plus, gratuitous beauty looks more like God than most things; and the simplicity of wasting time on something one can do with a pure heart of grace is sweet.

She must have asked, when she heard I was asking questions, “Is what I do with my time of any value? Do I have time for this? Am I wasting my time?”

We are all asking that, along with Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha. It is a strange place we find ourselves, as time-bound creatures. We have been made for the age to come, as well as this one. We have a taste for eternity, no matter how much science tries to convince us we are just material.  Our day to day life, and its brevity, leads us to think about our own time contracting and stretching simultaneously. And so many things in our experience seem to have leaked over from eternity, it is hard not to believe there is another dimension we only see as though looking through frosted glass. Is time short or long?

So busy, ambitious people, in particular, have trouble on both sides of the question.  Do I have enough time to give the church a lot of time? If I am responsible for my time, that is a tough question. If I have all the time in eternity, isn’t that a great gift that I dare not waste?

A flower arranger takes her time

I am going more for questions than answers today. But here are two Bible verses on both sides of the main question that help us figure things out.

Make the most of your time

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:15-16

This is Paul with his second-tier thinking. He’s very practical about what people taking first steps to follow Jesus should know. He says, “You can easily see people wasting their days as if their hours did not mean anything. As long as the sun shines, there is a chance for transformation. Time is about changing the world, not spending it on whatever makes you feel something in the moment.”

I have taken his words very seriously since I first memorized them way back when. Sometimes I think I was TOO serious and missed some flower arranging.

The time you have is a gift.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God — 1 Cor 3:21-23…. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!  — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8.

I learned this section later in life, when Paul’s first-tier, deeper thinking starts seeming reasonable.  He’s saying, “Surely you do not believe what you know or have achieved as of today is the raw material of meaning? It is all a gift! You already have all the time in the world and in eternity. There is no scarcity, as if time were something you could hoard away and should protect with all the power you could acquire.

The other day I took a day off and ended up watching an episode of Vikings in my robe about 10 am. At times I felt like the second hand might be watching me! But I let myself waste the time it took for my imagination to wander. Come to think of it, the ministry of the Baptists grew and the flowers were also arranged!

Unwise people in this evil day want to steal our time. At best, they commodify it and buy it from us for work as if that makes any eternal sense. We need to fight them and make the most of our time, carefully living as the body of Christ — with all the hard work that requires in a hostile era.

But we probably won’t make the most of our time unless unless we have a deep sense that the beginning and end of our time is the gift of God — and every act we do, whether we judge it large or small, is made good by the touch of the Spirit, reaching into our time with love and truth. If we are open to receiving everything from the hand of God in Jesus Christ, we receive eternal life. That’s the place we start to answer all our other questions about how to use, or spend, or waste our time. Having a receptive heart is a crucial place to start when planting the church, or the process just seems like it demands a lot of time, as if it were a scarce commodity.

Poor Bishop Heahmund! He was right in the throes of deciding how he would spend his time when a Viking put a sword through his back. The show leaves me wondering if he ran out of time or just went to prepare for the age to come. Good question, History Channel!