Category Archives: Spiritual Discipline

Integration: The work of harmony in the Spirit

When Hallowood Institute holds its first seminar at the end of the month, participants will experience a top-notch teaching on the signature topic of the institute: integration. The presenters are primarily interested in the sweet spot pulsing between psychology and Christianity.

The more specific topic for the session: “spiritual bypass,” is all about how Christians unwittingly use their faith as part of their psychological defense system instead of experiencing it as transforming. Many Jesus followers experience internal rigidity or chaos, but not a life-giving faith. Psychotherapists help such people integrate their many selves and the kaleidoscope of stimulation they encounter every day into a sweet harmony — within themselves, with God and others.

Integration is the key to well-being

Dan Siegel calls “integration” the “key mechanism beneath both the absence of illness and the presence of well-being. Integration – the linkage of differentiated elements of a system – illuminates a direct pathway toward health” [Mindsight review]. Siegel is not a Christian, as far as I know, but he travels with them. His definition of integration resembles the key scripture on which we focused last month as we explored spiritual gifts:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

Paul could have said, “The Lord integrates the many unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit for the good of individuals, the body and those they touch.” Siegel describes the natural properties in the brain, body and society that allow for integration; Paul names the integrating force beyond our natural capacity: the Holy Spirit. We are all in need of the integration that leads to health. Our linkages are restored and maintained by the presence of Jesus.

The rigidity and chaos we witness in the lives of our friends and loved ones is disintegration: the incapacity to “keep it together” characterized by the automatic thoughts behind “that thing you do” and the divisive reactions of “going it alone.” The people in “Choir! Choir! Choir! have a nice approach to fighting the disintegration that characterizes urban life all over the world.

When we sing together, we are integrating

Siegel’s example of how integration happens, or not, is an activity we experience every week as the church: singing. The work of a choir transforms individuals into an integrated whole and helps people find a deeper integration within themselves. Here’s what he does at his seminars:

1) He asks brave volunteers to come up on the stage and form a choir. He gives them a pitch and asks them to make a uniform sound. After 30 seconds he hold up his hands and stops them. Because once you’ve got the pitch, singing it gets old fast.

2) Then he asks the choir to cover their ears so they can’t hear one another and then individually launch into whatever song they’d like to sing. The audience laughs as they start, but after a minute they want him to stop them, so he does. The sound is kind of irritating.

3) Finally, he asks the singers to sing a song most of them know, however they are moved. It is always amazing how this pick-up choir finds a song: Row-Row-Row, or maybe Oh Susannah, and more than half the time Amazing Grace.  Once the melody is established, individual voices emerge providing harmony above or below the tune, playing off one another, “moving intuitively toward a crescendo before the final notes.” The faces of the choir and audience light up as a palpable sense of vitality fills the room.

As the choir sings, everyone is “experiencing integration at its acoustic best.” Each member of the choir has his or her unique voice, while at the same time they are linked together in a complex and harmonious whole. The balance between differentiated voices on the one hand and their linkage on the other is the embodiment of integration.

Coming to harmony takes at least a weekly effort

Siegel’s first two exercises expose disintegration. The single note humming is unchanging and rigid – in a short time it is dull and boring. The initial risk and excitement of volunteering gives way to the monotony of the task. The singers are linked, but they can’t express their individuality. Without moving toward integration, systems move away from complexity and harmony into rigidity. One-note faith that is all principle and routine and one-note religion that is all about the group and never the individual is not only boring, it can be deadly.

When the singers close their ears and sing whatever comes to mind, there is cacophony. Such chaos tends to create anxiety and distress in the listeners. Now the choir has no linkage, only differentiation. When integration is blocked this way we also move away from complexity and harmony into chaos. Go-your-own-way faith that is only personal and private and go-your-own-way religion that is all about the individual and never the group is not only anxiety-provoking, it can be deadly.

Siegel proves with brain science and psychiatric practice what Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians. My mind, brain/body, and relationships are meant to be integrated in a harmonious whole. Paul says, in his extended teaching on spiritual gifts (chapter 12-14), he prays with his spirit and prays with his mind — and he does it all in caring relationships with other Spirit-moved people. He is cooperating with his transformation with his whole being; as a result he is made whole and he breeds wholeness.

Likewise, the body of Christ, as a whole, has a sense of mind, brain/body and relationships that draws us into harmony. To the Philippians Paul writes, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Then individuals who are like Jesus will form a body that looks like Jesus and the world will see the light and love of God walking around and inviting them into relationship. The very nature of the church should breed harmony in the world, not division.

a picture of integration
Steve A. Prince and friends, Prayer Works, 2019. A collaborative drawing completed at the 2019 CIVA conference at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Just like it takes a conscious effort to bring a choir of strangers into harmony, it takes regular practice to be a harmonious church living in love, able to worship together without fear or shame. We work on it every week in our Sunday meetings. Some people enter the room and feel bored by some rigidity they see or are overwhelmed with the chaos of meeting so many different kinds of people. It will take some time and some kindness to help them leave their disintegration behind and enter into the Spirit with us. Singing together is a big help.

Maybe it takes even more conscious effort to be the pick-up choir on the stage, bringing the whole “audience” of the world into a “palpable sense of vitality.” When we worship, or just meet in Jesus’ name anytime, we should be conscious of volunteering to create harmony. It is not just for ourselves, but for the world we love that we seek out that sweet spot of integration, where the Holy Spirit brings us into harmony in ourselves — our minds, spirits and bodies aware and cooperating with truth and love, and where the Holy Spirit brings us into harmony with others — our mind, spirit and body in Christ revealing the way of Jesus for people hungering for transformation.

Rather than just thinking about it, why don’t you put on the headphones and be a part of the choir right now? On our first album we specialized in real people doing what we do when we sing. One prayer kept appearing as the album went on, and each time it arrived it carried a call for integration at the heart of it: “Lord, bring your peace to this broken place of hurt and pain. Restore it with Your power and grace.” When we use that song, the leader calls us together from wherever we come from into a common tune on behalf of the world. Spend a minute to practice. It takes quite a bit of effort to get out of rigidity or chaos and into harmony. [Restore us, oh Lord!]

Adult prayer: Two invitations that might be hard to see  

I have had a great time lately, learning about how people pray – or don’t pray.

It seems like a lot of people have experienced their childhood faith wearing out, but they have not succeeded in growing into something new. Maybe they replaced developing their relationship with God in prayer with mindfulness, which is an anxiety-reducing knock-off. Maybe they replaced following Jesus, whose example of true humanity is suffused with prayer, by following the wisdom and moral principles of Jesus without the presence of the Holy Spirit, since they were not feeling the presence.

Image result for now I lay me down to sleep plate
I talked about my own childhood prayer journey a bit last night at Frankford Ave — and people talked about theirs and more.

There are many books written about these questions and troubles [Pastors’ Goodreads], but many discouraged people did not find the time or have the motivation to develop their understanding and practice of prayer, so they just stopped. Now, in Jude’s colorful term, they are “clouds without rainwater.” Jude is upset that such people keep the desert landscape dry, even though they should have water. They upset me, too, but I prefer to see them as clouds who have the potential to rain, if they are ever filled with living water as Jesus-following clouds are designed to be.

Unkept promises?

In the troubling era of our lives when faith needs to grow beyond its childhood and adolescence, I think people often miss a couple of basic steps of development.

If you’re troubled, your struggle might be with Bible passages like this one:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

(Like I said, great books are written about these things. Maybe you should make the whole year about reading a book about prayer every month.)

When some people read this particular part of the New Testament, it causes them to test out prayer quite materially, since the Lord appears to promise a material answer, especially with the line “everyone who asks receives.” This can be proved false quite quickly when someone does not recover from cancer or one does not get into the college they want or someone can’t find a suitable mate. The fact that it is has been miraculously proven true for centuries, now, is not satisfying if one feels their test did not “work.” When one’s scientific experiment proves the theory of prayer unrepeatable, it makes a lot of people think they might be doing something that is just not valid — “It’s not working for me.”

Many people seem to miss the point of the teaching: the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Prayer is an entry into a much deeper territory than manipulating the material world with a satisfying sense of power.

I sometimes think Harry Potter’s magic, however well-intended, makes people without wands distressed. Prayer is not like magic, it is relating to the living God at the invitation of Jesus Christ. Getting beyond the distressing loss of the magic of childhood (obviously some people hang on as long as possible) is a key problem with faith we need to solve. Prayer is the solution. We will always need to approach God as child-to-parent, but Jesus is calling us to get into our adulthood and learn to deal with the deeper things of God and ourselves.

Sometimes even disney asks the right questions;

Given my recent exploration with people, I feel like offering two important steps that might help you get a new start with prayer if you’ve basically given up on it.

Come to prayer loved

The Lord’s teaching above implies what John says in his letter.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)

One of the big childhood issues that prayer brings up is fear of not being loved — “Am I really alone?” The answer of God in Jesus is, “No you are not alone, you are loved enough to find and rescue. I would die for you.”  If God needs to prove her love for you every day to satisfy your nagging fear, you are more like a child of your parents or a child of this age than a child of God.

Don’t come to prayer covetous

The comparisons the Lord makes in the teaching above are mirrored in what James says in his letter:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

We think of our desires as expressions of our needs. But, most of the time, they are about wanting what we see or perceive others having that we don’t. It would be great if competition were a pure quest for the best, but it is usually an attempt to be better than someone else, or better than the self I am.

Such covetousness reinforces the shame we feel about being ourselves. So prayer can end up a terrifying process of asking the questions: “Am I wanted? Do I matter?” I often feel sorry for Jesus, God trying so hard to undo our shame: “Of course I want you just as you are as i show up in this moment. I made you to matter and you matter to me.” We have trouble hearing that from anyone, more more from God.  We are so well defended against the dreaded answers we expect to our questions, we may learn to avoid prayer too. If you come to prayer out of covetousness instead of trust, the experience could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy about how ineffectual prayer is.

Jesus demonstrated how a human prays and connects with God. Thank you, Jesus! And he taught his first disciples, and all the rest of the disciples like us, about how to pray. People did receive that Holy Spirit as the great gift of connection Jesus unleashed and such people having been teaching us more about prayer ever since. Prayer is such a great reinforcement of our togetherness with God, such a great way to become open to our value as we pray in all the forms we are given; it is the basic way we relate to God. And it is amazing how often I receive the “fish” I crave, too.

This small post hardly solves your problems, if you feel disappointed with prayer. It brings up more questions than it answers, I’m sure. But I hope it gives you an idea for exploring  two basic steps you might just be discovering and opens up new avenues of learning you might have missed so far. You are not alone and you do matter. And you are part of a circle of hope, or could be, who would love to struggle with you as you grow into your adult faith.

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

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

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

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

A freedom far too easily pleased

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freely joining the stigmatized

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

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

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

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

Freedom the world cannot supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejection: The prophet’s dilemma

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

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

The disappointed prophets lament like Jeremiah:

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

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

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

Only I might translate:

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

So what’s a prophet to do?

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

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

So what do we do when our prophecy is rejected?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophets speak for the Ruler, not the rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might get tired of being rejected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Image result for david brooks second mountain

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.

Image result for cedric kyle first reformed
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.