Category Archives: Life as the Church

Do you feel like you got “canceled” with Jesus?

Former President Barack Obama made a rare foray into the cultural conversation this week, objecting to the prevalence of “call-out culture” and “wokeness” during the Obama Foundation summit on Tuesday. (NYTimes article). A lot of people noticed what he said, so I even noticed. It made me wonder how many times people have “canceled” me (and maybe even our church) without me even knowing about it.

The not so new holiness

Our pastors were also talking about being “canceled” last week. The new holiness of “social justice warriors” (who, in many circles, are so familiar they are referenced with just the initials “SJW”) is not uncommon among us. I think there are many cell conversations in which people are damned by pronouncements with which SJWs assume everyone agrees. Likewise, there are many conversations in which SJWs are sorely disappointed by people they thought were their allies but who don’t meet the tests of their ideals.

I am sympathetic to the process it takes to bring people to a living, provisional, compromised but common direction to which people arrive from many starting points. It can be difficult to get there, but it is honorable to not give up. I think we can rely on the fact that the children of God are usually making a good point at some level when they dare to speak. We might need to look for it, but it is there. Even when I don’t agree with them all the way, I can still understand why what they say makes sense according to their understanding, as limited or as prejudiced as that understanding might be. We’ve got to keep listening and trusting Jesus in the process of loving — just like I heard Sly and the Family Stone singing in the supermarket the other day as I looked for dry milk: “We’ve got to live together!” [Great video, BTW]

The SJWs, whether they throw stones from outside or inside the church don’t often do the work of transformation very much, like Obama notes. They are better at pointing out sins, which is rather easy, than fomenting reconciliation, which is notably difficult. Their righteousness reminds me of the scapegoating of the Jews (and humanity in general), the shunning of the Amish, and re-educating of the Maoists. All those practices have the intention of saving the group from impurity and dissolution. They often succeed in protecting those in power or elevating new movements into power. But I think Jesus has a deeper way.

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All SJWs are not alike

I know my teaching on all sorts of topics has been too tepid for many SJWs – I suspect I’ve been canceled and didn’t even know it. It is ironic that while I was being too tepid for some, I was scalding people who saw me as a raving SJW!  I think I’ve been canceled from that side, too. All the while, as far as I was concerned, I was just trying to stick with Jesus.

More prevalent, I think is how many times Circle of Hope has been canceled for falling on the wrong side of some issue.  This week one of the pastors was sent some screenshots of someone taking down our reputation as a “radical” church because we did not meet the standards set by the SJWs on a certain issue. One of our defenders got on the Facebook dialogue and made a lengthy defense of us, which was heartening.

Part of what he said speaks to the reality of being canceled and the unfinished business that is often behind the cut-off.

I am a person that felt deeply wounded in my relationship with a few of the leaders of COH, and there was a break in those relationships and I disrupted my family and hauled them across the country as a result. Hindsight being what it is, I know now that the wounding I felt was already there and had been since childhood; it was merely “triggered” by the sequence of events that occurred in my relationship with COH’s leaders at the time. Once triggered, I lashed out rather than having the hard conversations that needed to be had in order to discern this and then repair the damage that I-not-they had done. Instead of doing that, as I said, I ran away. But right up until the very end there was a willingness on their part to do this reconciling work with me. And while I try not to have many regrets in life, nearly every damn day I regret not sticking around to do that work, mostly selfishly, for my own sake. I suspect that growth which took over a decade to finally confront the need for and the lack of which caused other broken relationships in the meantime, might have occurred much sooner if I had stuck around and done my part.

Being canceled hurts. I am not totally familiar with how it is happening on social media. But I do know how it feels face to face when the face disappears. We are broken, so we break things. We are so afraid of being more broken that people who threaten to break us make us lash out or flee. We’re so broken we would break Jesus, who predicts that very thing when he hands us his broken body and insists we eat it and remember him scapegoated with our sins on the cross.

But we are also reconcilable and repairable. We carry the seeds of our own resurrection which Jesus waters with his own blood as he hands us the cup and insists that we drink it, even if we are afraid and have done terrible things. He calls us to drink deeply, even if we find it hard to believe that someone will love us. Jesus knows what it is like to be canceled by people who should have loved him better. Even if we are the company of the canceled  in Christ, that community promises a brighter future than the perpetual condemnation of the righteous.

Collective, Covenant and Community in the age of Trump

Our beloved neighbors in our little Pocono community had to move and were replaced by an interesting new clan who are making quite an impact. In some ways, these new neighbors represent what is happening in a lot of places where people are devoted to taking care of themselves instead of building common structures that take care of everyone. Any assumptions I may have about what it means to be a “we” should not be taken for granted anymore.

In our little lakefront community, an extended family, including 95 year old grandpa who still drives, moved into the association but did not want to follow many of the rules – at least they don’t so far. I’m not sure they even read any of them before they signed the deed. So our board has the dreadful responsibility of enforcing some restrictions on them. They put up an above-ground pool, which is forbidden. They blare karaoke into the late-night peace of the forest. They claimed they were going to paint their house purple and that would meet the forest-colored aesthetic required, since there are purple flowers native to PA. Several board members are wondering to what extent they will be dealing with the matriarch’s “crazy” and “bitch” tattooed on opposite arms.

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I think I have a similar disquiet when I notice the sign in the subway that tells riders (primarily males) “It’s rude dude!” when they don’t offer their seat. Does SEPTA really expect people who are rude to be moved by a blanket shaming from some anonymous source of authority? Aren’t they already sealed in a cloud of headphone noise and going it alone? I suspect my neighbors up the hill stopped listening a long time ago, as well, and might feel any seat they manage to get needs to be kept, not shared.

An article in the NY Times [link], which is undoubtedly no source of inspiration for my Pocono community or my subway companions, had an article about rural Arkansas and why it was likely to stick with Trump which highlights the challenges of making covenants, building community and even considering something “collective” these days. It all came down to whether the county should fund a library.

[P]eople here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor…

That was the crux of the issue — people didn’t want to pay for something they didn’t think they would use. I suspect that many residents are willing to pay for some institutions they see as necessary, like the sheriff’s department, but libraries, symbols of public education and public discourse, are more easily sacrificed…

Economic appeals are not going to sway any Trump voters, who view anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people, with disdain, even if it ultimately helps them, too. And Trump voters are carrying the day here in Van Buren County. They see Mr. Trump’s slashing of the national safety net and withdrawal from the international stage as necessities — these things reflect their own impulse writ large.

For Jesus followers, the “impulse writ large” is always the big picture they care about. We would like our impulses to correlate with the new law written by the Spirit on our hearts. That desire connects us to the whole world Jesus loves. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, we can certainly do that ourselves, but he did come to save it. If you’re following the master who loves the whole world, individually and collectively, you’ll need to figure out where you fit in that picture. You certainly won’t be able to do it without a real time relationship with Jesus, and if you enter that relationship, it will relate you to all the others who share it.

Clinton AK. Audra Melton for the NY Times

Covenant is an antidote

The NY Times thinks people who live in cities in the Northeast are much more enlightened than rural people in Arkansas (and the poconos) who vote for Trump. But I am not so sure. Just try to build a church on the sharing of people who make a covenant together to be it and people begin to look quite similar. In an age of perceived scarcity and self-reliance, it is hard to rely on people sharing their lives and resources. Many people tend to see their contributions to our common fund as another tax required by an institution they don’t completely trust or which pays for services they don’t personally need. Just because they follow Jesus does not immediately mean they have taken out their headphones and offered the Lord a seat on their conveyance, public or otherwise. He’s not with them in the Uber, as they get the cheapest ride no matter what it costs the driver. He’s not on their bike with them as they dodge the potholes the city cannot afford to repair, maybe because half the new developments got a tax abatement. They might not even get up for Him on the El.

I’m not really shaming everyone, I hope. I’m not a sign on a subway train anonymously telling rude people they are rude. I’m not a government official enforcing mysterious laws that eat away at our minimal disposable income. I’m just trying to deal with how “conservative” even the supposedly “liberal” people are when it comes to sharing life together. In an age when even rich people feign scarcity, the first thing to exit the budget is often sharing.

Unlike so many other churches, ours decided the ultimate goal for each disciple was to be a person who could live in a covenant of love as a responsible, joyful member of the alternative community Jesus empowers: the body of Christ.  That seemed crazy enough to be miraculous and so worthy of Jesus when we started, but covenanting seems to be getting harder all the time. I wonder if our pastors are tempted to downplay it, or even scrap the idea, since it cuts out a lot of people who don’t trust like they used to. Donald Trump makes us feel like everyone must at least be on the spectrum of untrustworthiness somewhere. People beg us for money to feed their substance addictions as soon as we get on the sidewalk and the governments seem addicted to spending money in secret for which we get no direct benefit. We’re hit up coming and going, even while our bosses and landlords squeeze as much they can for as little in return as they can get away with. When the church says there is not enough money, even the covenant members, who ARE the church feel justly suspicious.

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Extra points if you can sport me in this picture of the conference at the Meeting House in Oakville ON.

Can we even talk about being a “collective?”

Last week I spent a couple of days in Toronto by invitation of the Jesus Collective. The “Jesus Collective aspires to unite, equip and amplify a Jesus-centered, third way movement” of the church in our changing era. People from all over the world are fed up with the potholes in their antiquated institutions and are getting back to the basics of being Jesus followers. They are becoming what Jesus Collective often describes as “Anabaptish,” just like Circle of Hope. They read the Bible and their contexts through a Jesus lens, which often makes them at odds with traditional and systematic approaches from the past, while also making them much more effective in relating to people who trust the church (and God!) about as much as they trust anything else.

As I experienced the meetings and made new relationships, I developed a nagging doubt. Can anyone even tolerate the idea of being a “collective” these days? Conservative people will feel their pockets are about to be picked and liberal people won’t tolerate being connected to someone who is not on the same page with their justice issues. People collecting themselves around Jesus and the basic truths and experiences every follower can share seems quite radical in this era. I wonder if people will do it.

After all, we have been this “new” Jesus collective, writ small, in Philadelphia for a couple of decades now. So we have some experience with the problems. And while we are wildly more successful than I hoped when we got started, there is no doubt that, post 9/11, the next generation is pretty suspicious about “collectives.” They feel scarcity and they feel condemned to go it alone for the most part. I’m not even sure they feel like they are “going it alone,” most of the time, because they have always been surviving a perilous journey with little more than their own resources to rely on. Many people can barely attach to another person successfully, to love and be loved, much less can they imagine building a collective. Creating a Jesus-centered community requires some things that are generally in short supply these days: the agency to create not just survive, the ability to trust in Jesus despite the horrors church leaders have perpetrated, the capacity to center on something (marriage, locale, vocation included), and the audacity to hope for the fruit from long-term laboring to build a countercultural community in the world.

I immediately signed up to help build the Jesus Collective. My new friend, Matt Miles, said he left his finance job to lead the formation of this new organization because he could not imagine a better place to serve in this time. While I couldn’t help looking at all the problems associated with birthing something so hopeful in the world, I had to agree with him. The fact is, the worse the world gets, the more Jesus becomes our Savior. When we are prosperous and feeling good, it is easy to give God a high five and move on with our self-controlled lives. When the world-as-we-know-it and the church-as-it-has-been seem to be sinking, many will jump ship. But in such times, there have always been large numbers of Jesus followers, who listen to the Holy Spirit moving wherever there is an opening for new life (just like dear Francis of Assisi who we celebrated last Friday). They band together to represent Jesus coming alongside everyone with ears to hear and hearts to follow. We are on that edge in Philadelphia and it looks like the path we have been following is becoming more obvious to people all over the world. I want to move with them.

The Lord among us organizes us, not the program.

The Lord among us is the organizing force, not the program.

The pastors finished their reading of Pete Enn’s book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. They loved it. But one of them had to note that the Bible leads to a right-now experience of the Holy Spirit and discernment, not mere wisdom. 

I visited a church on my travels last week and a similar sentiment kept rising to the surface among my friends. They want to be led by the Spirit, not just their pastor or tradition.  Keeping the program running has value, but it is hard to do if the reason for doing so has become sketchy. A theology built on principles without Presence is hard to sustain.

Likewise, Hallowood Institute’s first offering on “spiritual bypass” last Saturday highlighted the tendency of Christians to find a work around when it comes to their deep healing and the difficulty of relating to God by keeping faith “in their head,” citing principles and following the program rather than opening up to the fullness of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Programming is too easy

“Programming” can often be the hideout for spiritual cowards. Everyone who ever came up with a structured, even bureaucratic way to serve Jesus was NOT bad, of course. But “programming” CAN be the big temptation for people with big ideas who don’t want to bear the suffering of being personally responsible for them — that is, responsive to the Spirit, not just the manual. The main reason I cast such blanket aspersions (apart from needing to remind myself) is that I think people often put on blinders and lose sight of Jesus (even stop listening to the somewhat-rational Paul) when they commit to their program.

Why does it so often seem like making “programming” basic to following is a good idea to Christians? Why send an email rather than making the phone call? Why make an event rather than a relationship, etc.?

I’m not suggesting that scheduling things, making a plan to serve some felt need, or having a curriculum to follow, etc., etc. is always bad. Circle of Hope is a very well-planned enterprise! I’m protesting how we fill up every spare moment with an event designed to do what normal human relationships and organic connections can and should do. I’m protesting fulfilling the letter of the program’s law, rather than following the Spirit behind its genius.

Just because we went to school and got trained to create a programs to do what we should do personally and as a body doesn’t mean we should do that! Just because we train to be “experts” in charge of “things” before we love someone doesn’t mean we should exercise that training. And the big thing is: just because we don’t trust people and don’t trust the Holy Spirit, alive among us, doesn’t mean we should keep doing things designed to keep people in line and teach them what they, in our estimation, probably don’t know and keep them moving in the right direction we suspect they can’t figure out.

Is it a who or a what on which my hope stands?

I guess since we broke out into this song one night at our cell, it makes me afraid that people might rewrite it, now that we among the Circle of Hope have buildings and big ideas to fill them. Some prophetic people rewrote it to make my point:

My hope is built on oughts and rules
On principles and schedules.
Like counter-service is my grace —
A drop to each receding face.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All others rest on sinking sand
I dare not grasp one sinking hand.

When we came up with the idea for Circle of Hope, we installed the simple thought that we wanted life to be simple. So we have two meetings a week: the cell and the public meeting. We think almost everything we need to “program” can fit into those meetings somehow. Extraordinary people may have extraordinary things to do, of course. So we wanted to leave a lot of time in the week to do them. What we didn’t want to see is the church filling up everyone’s calendar with obligatory things to do – as if the church were happening in the daily programs happening in our buildings. Daily things might happen, but it isn’t like you are supposed to be doing them to get with the program.

I think we are, basically, like this. The leaders are called to a “daily” kind of obligation to who we are and what we do that requires their time. Thank God for them! But most of us are free-range Christians. The problem is, preserving a habitat for free-range Christians is hard to do. As we get more capable, it is tempting to get real organized and programmed. We have some nice corrals all over the region, now, and it is tempting to herd everyone in all week and ride them, train them to jump over fake fences like show horses and such.

What is the basic thing Christians do?

Brave Christians love people face to face. Responsible Christians make teams. Paul says in Romans 13: Owe no one any thing, but to love one another: for one that loves another has fulfilled the law. Programming, at its worst, takes the one another out of the loving. The program does the loving. Love often gets mediated by the program. The “thing” is supposed to communicate – thus, I either don’t communicate or don’t have to. The event touches, the performances move — so I either can or do stay separate.

Not all programming is bad, of course, but you can see the temptation. It seems to me that Jesus is pretty much the anti-program. He is God coming into the moment and upending the control-system that violates his personal rule. I was going off on this subject the other day and someone quoted 1 Cor. 14:33 to me: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”  They were telling me how God had ordained hierarchy and propriety and we dare not deviate. I think he had a point. But Christianity easily dies when men (in particular) order it according to their understanding and don’t think Jesus can do that himself. We are tempted to organize all those others rather than becoming one with them, suffering with them and for them. It is very easy to stand back and perversely admire a very tidy “love.”

It is the Lord among the “one another” who is the organizing force, not the program. If the life of Christ is pulsing among us, we’ll need to structure its expression. But if we just structure the idea of a pulse and expect it to fill with life, we may end up quite empty, and exhausted from all that effort, to boot.

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Lessons for the church from the Narcissist in Chief

Could it be that “it takes a village” of narcissists to get a president who appears to have NPD?

I was up in arms (again) when Trump went to Dayton/Toledo and then El Paso and managed to make the story about himself and how he was treated. The HuffPost France made a disapproving video about it:

The news media is in awe of how he can do these heartless things and get away with it. But he’s the master a making sure nothing can get to him. They no longer try to be polite, “Can’t he see he is a jerk?” But I think people miss the big point of the narcissist psychological defense. The whole point of narcissism is not seeing and NOT feeling.  I think that is why he so often talks about himself in the third person. He is talking about the persona he has so carefully cultured to get affirmation and other comforts his true person has no hope of receiving.

Narcissism is a village issue

But we all have this overlay of narcissism – the constant scanning the horizon for anything that can pierce our armor and point out how empty we have made ourselves and how underneath it all we fear our intolerable shame. When we get pushed towards that shame we erupt with blame to get the attention back out on the “other” and how they are or should be responding to the persona that has swallowed our personhood. {We’ve talked about this before].

I say “we” even though many of us aren’t organized that way because the whole country seems a bit like a narcissist food fight. The people on screens that dominate our days are all performing an image or are themselves images scorning someone else. No one seems to have an alternative.

There isn’t an alternative jumping up into view because so many of the people running the “show” which is the United States are working out a narcissistic wound. I think all of us experience the overlay in one way or another, since we are all schooled to present a persona that can be hired and can avoid offending people. It’s the way we learn to get affirmation in a rather heartless world. As we know, as Trump has often said, if we do not succeed, we are losers.

Narcissism comes to the Sunday meeting

Long before the country spawned Trump, the influence of the narcissistic wound we all carry was developing (or undeveloping) the church. The church is under attack by your narcissism, too.

There are a few signs of it:

  • Can’t stand to be wrong or wronged?
  • Can’t repent and don’t like hearing about it?
  • Find reading the daily prayer threatening or boring or for “others?”
  • Suspicious of most people in the church? Isolated?
  • Can’t build something, only assess what you are being provided? or what’s missing?
  • Looking for affirmation all day? Angry when it feels denied to you?

Obviously, you don’t need to be pulled by narcissism to act and feel these ways. But, as painful and unlikely as it might be, it would be good to recognize that you are being pulled around by it, if you are, and not just righter or more wronged than everyone else.

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Could be the scorning persona and the unloved child

The U.S. is pretty much a unique place. The whole country seems to feel entitled to rule the world on the basis of its exceptional nature. Presently the president heaps daily scorn on someone who’s not “us”: shithole nations, invading brown people, Chinese cheaters, silly Europeans. A retaliatory barrage of scorn comes right back on Donald Trump and his “base.”

The U.S. stands alone behind its arsenal, untouchable, with an increasing array of sophisticated ways to scan the horizon for enemies that would expose its shame. Even citizens eager to expose the shame so we might get over it rarely expect telling the truth will do anything but make the nation more exceptional and able to live up to the idealizations of the founding fathers.

I’ve been working on this malady in myself and with clients for many years now. It is not easy to even see, much less make choices about. It is hard to sympathize with a narcissist, even oneself. They feel guilty that they can’t keep up the maintenance on their persona, but they are usually determined to try harder when they fail. They get super angry when their expectations are not met, especially if you are close to them, or in their family (or church). It is the missing closeness that sets them off, even though the lack of it is buried under layers of self-protection.

The church is a lot more than a bunch of narcissists, of course. But when Paul says our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against the powers, it makes sense to identify those powers. I’m suggesting one of them is this repeated narcissistic wound, the interactions with people who should care for us that keep resulting in messages of devaluation and indifference. If you already have the wound, it would not be surprising to get close to someone in the church and get a feeling of shame triggered. When you do, it would be great if you took a minute with God and remembered whose child you are. Take a look at Jesus and remember who was worth dying for. Get in touch with the Spirit and get a dose of empathy to spread around; we’ve all got a lot to work through.

Code switching: All us weird people need community

When I was in my early teens in California, the Vietnam War was raging and the country was dividing up. Our living room was divided, too. My father was disturbed that Aretha Franklin was playing on the radio, not to mention those haircut-challenged Beatles. And periodically, KWOW, the little country music radio station whose tower was about a mile away across the soon-to-be-tract-homed fields outside our front window, would invade the AM airwaves with something like Marty Robbins singing “Ain’t I right?” — written to warn the nation about Freedom Riders deluding Southerners. It is safe to say the U.S. has been a mess throughout my lifetime when it comes to peace and love, and most of the other things that feed our souls. We still really need each other and we can’t get together.

Code switching as a survival tool

I learned some mild code switching in my diverse and diversifying environment before I found out how important the skill was to people who did not fit into artificial norms. I was friends with the “hard guys” whose relatives exclusively spoke Spanish. I could hang with the jocks.  And I knew how to stay out of trouble with my redneck relatives. I was integrating my living room. At the same time, I also discovered Jesus and began to learn how He transcends all the competing cultures and identities vying for affirmation and power. He has a surprising knack for getting people together who just do not belong together as far as the world is concerned. He provides each of us access to a common  “code” that is a rock for us in a stormy cultural sea.

Code switching never seems to work that well, anyway. Sociologists filled up volumes talking about “alienation” until Jimmy Carter got himself fired for admitting to the national “malaise” in a TV speech. But the the lack of further honesty did not mean people felt any less left out of society and even out of connection with their own bodies. People are no more confident now than when Carter pointed out they weren’t. Sociologists have filled up even more pages about all sorts of oppressions and separations right down to assessing the commonplace indignities called microaggressions, which communicate slights and insults toward one’s supposed category.

So my personal history has been on a parallel track with people bearing the fruit of their obsession with the microaggressions they experience. The closest I got to this in my young, privileged days was feeling weird that my name is “Rodney.” People seemed to think it was odd. I never met another Rodney face to face until I arrived in PA and two were in my congregation. In California, I only knew about Rodney Allen Rippy and my dad didn’t much approve of him, either. We all think we are weird. We need community desperately so we don’t get carried away with our alienation. I even needed some Rodneys. 

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

The other day Bethany told our Coordinating Group an interesting story about moving from alienation to community. A conversation with a new co-worker turned out to be a loving meeting of the weirds. She said I could relay it to you:

I had a really interesting conversation with a coworker yesterday that I think you all should know about. My colleague asked me about an idea that he had, he wanted to teach a workshop on “code switching” to our predominantly Black and queer residents. I was typing an email as he was talking to me and I immediately stopped in my tracks. Lol. I explained to him that for me, I hear code switching as a way of asking people of color but especially Black people to assimilate to concepts of “respectability” in speech. I added that “code switching” is really a symptom of systemic racism (I try not to use the language of white supremacy a lot because that can be really off putting but… I really wanted to say that it’s a symptom of white supremacy). He went on to say that as a queer man, he views code switching as a means of safety and survival. 

We continued talking and even really got emotional as we talked about our identities with one another. I confessed that I never feel Black enough for other Black women (I was home-schooled, I grew up in the suburbs, my name is Bethany… lol) and because of systemic racism, I will also never truly be understood or accepted by White people either. He said that he never feels gay enough for gay men and that gay men don’t take him seriously. And, he never feels straight enough for straight people either. A few moments later, we simultaneously said “it’s exhausting.” 

I’m telling you this story because I was so grateful to connect with such a beautiful stranger so deeply and to even be able to tear up with one another. But, I’m also super grateful to belong with all of you. Even with our differences of experiences, lifestyles, etc., because we belong to Jesus and that serves as the crux of our foundation, I feel like we also belong to each other. I’m grateful for that.

Have you all read this article about community care? I think it unintentionally describes our Circle of Hope and our cell movement. Check it out.

Weird, code-switching people need community

The article Bethany mentioned is Self-care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive. As I read it, I said to myself, “Can this really be a thing?” Listen to this revelation:

The term community care is known in social movements and in the nonprofit world but has yet to move into mainstream culture. The concept shouldn’t be that hard to translate: Community care is basically any care provided by a single individual to benefit other people in their life. This can take the form of protests, for which community care is best known, but also simple, interpersonal acts of compassion.” 

Sociologists are now filling up pages with thoughts about how caring for someone other than yourself needs to “move into mainstream culture?!” 

I suppose I should not be surprised. The task of “mainstream culture” during my lifetime has been to promise everyone individual freedom in service to the ultimate, capitalist strategy to divide and conquer, right down to our conflicted senses of who we are as persons. I’m with Bethany. I’m glad that I have an alternative to that exhausting daily onslaught. I spent a good chunk of my adulthood trying to be a part of the alternative — a whole counterculture called Circle of Hope that not only holds on to community care, but has the spiritual power to offer it as a gift to the hollowed out U.S. society. 

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

My quest to be part of the Lord’s alternative was furthered when I recently came upon Pamela Lightsey, a queer theologian who articulately describes her resistance to being labelled according to her sexual identity. She’s all right with fighting her way out of the individual box in which society has tried to trap her, but she is not accepting the box as truth. She is larger than popular dichotomies. She insists on being considered a whole person and certainly not considered according to what she does or does not do in the bed. I am happy that the LGBTQ community has grown this resistance to all the labels of the hypermodern era, by which I think they may have been most damaged by the powers seeking to define and dominate everything.

Now we have this rambunctious new term in political and academic contexts: “queer.” It is a term that calls into question the stability of identity based on sexual orientation. In this sense, “queer” is a critique of the tendency to organize political or theoretical questions around sexual orientation per se. To “queer” becomes a way to denaturalize categories such as “lesbian” and “gay” (not to mention “straight” and “heterosexual”), revealing them as socially and historically constructed identities that have often worked to establish and police the line between the “normal” and the “abnormal.” It is unlikely to stop its denaturalizing project with those categories.

Like Bethany, I am glad I have a place to have a dialogue of alternativity with trustworthy people who not only love me, they serve my best interests. I like living in a place where my main concern is not code switching in a vain attempt to make myself presentable, if not safe. The church is a good place from which to care. After a lifetime of being weird and then being made to feel weird as a means to keep me fearing the next punch coming my way, I am glad to be weird together with a group, in Christ, who, by nature, doesn’t conform to the identities over which the world obsesses. We all have a new self in Christ connected to all the other redeemed selves by the Spirit of God. 

Cumbersome is good for us: Love is not easy

The church makes decisions and plans in any number of ways. We decided making decisions as a community was crucial in an age where individualism kills the soul, loneliness is epidemic and people really need to see the church in action not hear about it in theory. So our mutual mapping process is central to our calling as a church. It is much more radical and important than we seem to think!

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A moment in our weeks-long mapping process.

If we are used to the risky work of participating in mutual discernment, our prayer might be, “Oh Lord, that is a lot of time and energy!” But if we are mapping like it is a new beginning, here in our eternal now, then the process teases out all its inherent joys:

  • It includes the most recent partner, so a living body is strengthened and grows. I want to live in one.
  • It listens to the latest and greatest word from the Lord, so the soul of our group is fed and energized. I love it when you can feel that happening!
  • It teaches us the lessons of love that only serious public dialogue can do, so it makes us real in a world of fake. Nothing makes me feel more relevant.
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Porziuncola. Scene of a lot of Franciscan mapping, now surrounded by its pilgrim reception hall.

Resistance to the work of love has killed some of the best churches

One of the things I learned in Assisi is how the church bureaucrats stole the heart of the early Franciscan way of “mapping.” Francis called Pentecost gatherings and many of the brothers showed up to have a creative , disorganized, Spirit-led, and often-miraculous time of seeing what God was doing and feeling out what should happen next. It all happened at the navel of the Franciscan world: Porziuncola.

As soon as Francis was too weak to exercise his tremendous weight over the process, as a living “saint,” the Pope-led hierarchy of the church made the brotherhood into an “ordo” (that’s Latin for “order, rank, class”) according to canon law. The order people folded the radical Francis right back into everything he had resisted and made the Franciscans like the other monastic orders he never wanted to join.

Francis never saw a need for a rule or much of a map, but he sure managed to make an impact! He mostly relied on the presence of Jesus and the simple, but profound, style of teaching he picked up from the Bible. His own teaching style was like a living parable that he often explained in proverbial fashion.

In any organization, the “ordo” people have a point and I have reluctantly served it in order to build something for Jesus in this VERY organized United States. But the parable and proverb people have a deeper point, and I hope we never lose track of it. Or, I could say, I hope we never have it stolen from us by people who think they are doing us a favor by conforming us to the prevailing ways of the world.

Practicing discernment is harder, but more important, than interpreting law

Every subsequent Pentecost is going to be followed by “ordo people” talking over the future with “proverb people.” It happened in the early church. It happens among us every year as we map, and that is good for us.

For instance, our pastor, Ben, made a list of things he heard at the recent discernment meeting concerning our next Map. One of the things on the list popped out at me: The proverbs are cumbersome.”

Since I was probably in Padua when that critique was offered, I have no first-hand knowledge of the context. But I have my suspicions, since I have heard similar things since forever. Similar thoughts have been popping up ever since economic efficiency and Enlightenment/scientific thinking created a pulpit and tried to make Jesus preach from it. I texted Ben a smiley face and cheerfully said, “Perhaps your 10:30 meeting should become a drive-thru!”  That would be less cumbersome than relating, after all.

Image result for drive thru church
Innovation from Upland, CA, my old stomping grounds.

My point was, proverbs of every kind are supposed to be “cumbersome!” — in a good way. Maybe the biggest reason they persist in being hard to handle is because we should slow down and mentalize! — they force us to do that.  Don’t you think we should resist assessing whether information is taking 30 seconds more to receive than it should?

The proverbs we have collected so far as part of our Map aren’t “information,” anyway. They are invitations to keep talking, to slow down and listen to God and each other. They are the best little parables we could come up with to express the sense of our discernment about who we are called to be. They are more than the traditional value statements ordos/organizations put in their business plans.  They are proverbs like the ones in the Bible, such as, “Love  your  enemies  and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-5). There’s cumbersome for you!

Here are a few reasons hanging in there with “cumbersome” is good for us.

Cumbersome fights the desire to control the data and feel powerful.

A proverb is designed to be open-ended. One open end faces God, who is going to supply meaning daily (like “daily bread,” right?). The other end is open to the Body of Christ, where ongoing dialogue brings the best discernment to the moment (if we have a “common spirit” as Paul hopes). Chewing on a proverb with others is part of being appropriately out of control. It is another way Jesus heals us from the wounds of data biting us in the butt all day.

Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.

It is a difficult world; we can’t afford to be spiritually shallow!

I used to “fight” with a much-loved covenant member who really wanted a Wiki for our teaching, which he thought was splendid. I told him, “I, and others in the Body, are personally much better than a Wiki, which is why you want a Wiki!” But we gave him and other “ordo” people the Way of Jesus site, which will one day have a better table of contents so people can take less time exploring and access what they are looking for.

But, I have to say, wandering around the foothills of the Kingdom of God, taking time, listening, having our normality challenged is SO much better than seeking God according to what we already know in a fashion we already understand. We don’t know anything like we are known, Paul says.

Cumbersome assumes we need help.

I hope we keep resisting well-meaning people who think it is an outrage, or a shame, if they need someone’s help. Collecting stories, parables and proverbs like the early church and first Franciscans is how we form life in Christ together. Proverbs call together a circle of people who add their personal angles to and applications of a big truth. “What is it?” and “Who am I?” are not the only questions! “Who is God? To what is Jesus calling? Who are WE?” are basic questions for forming new life in Christ.

Goodness is not found alone. It usually comes in a way that seems cumbersome to our normality. Solitude always leads to love. And love leads to goodness —  both for us and for others. Love of and for others, naturally leads to cumbersome mapping,  and irreducible proverbs in the 1200’s and in the 2000’s. I’m glad Jesus is getting us and our brothers and sisters all over the world to risk the miracle of tangible, practical, cumbersome love in an age when it is hard to find.

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.

Ownership proverbs: More evidence that Jesus is risen

Image result for You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.Do you think this old proverb is true? “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill.

I love proverbs like that one, so I don’t care how “true” it is as long as it helps us ponder something worth pondering. In this case, I think we should be pondering, “Am I making a living or making a life?” Maybe even better: “Am I making something wonderful or just getting used by someone to make their fabulous living?”  

How Jesus-followers answer that second question right now is elemental to whether their church is a living organism or a demanding volunteer society, whether their church is a community with transforming power or just another inept non-profit overshadowed by the corporations that dominate the landscape.  When it comes to being the church, do we rent our lives or own them? Is life in Christ about ownership or volunteering?

Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors

New churches are boldly wrestling with how to get Jesus followers to be more like members of the body of Christ and less like members of the swim club they rarely have time to visit. They are trying out proverbs on their people:

  • “Members have rights, Owners have responsibilities!” Pastor Matt at Good News Church made “this quick video” about it.
  • “Battleship vs. Cruise ship” is the title of Pastor Josh’s teaching for Redemption Church. “Ownership is not just coming and seeing what’s happening at Redemption, but being willing to come and die for the mission of connecting people to Jesus for life change!”
  • “Customers vs. owners “ Ed Stetzer wanted to shift the the culture in his church from passivity to activity. His problem was when new people entered the church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.

Sometimes it is hard to know whether these church leaders are just being critical of people who aren’t making their dreams of church glory come true or they are prophetically noting sinful behavior that will destroy the work of Jesus. I suppose it could be both.

We’re having trouble even associating!

It is not just church people who are considering what is happening with associations in society — that is, entities that require mutuality to exist, not just paying people for their labor. I’ve spent my whole life hired by such associations, so I’m interested, too! People seem to be having trouble associating themselves, period, much more “owning” an association!

The famous Alexis de Tocqueville published  Democracy in America in 1835, but people think it still has relevant observations to offer about the American character. He said, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” Supposedly, when Americans want something done, they don’t ask the government or the aristocracy, they associate. That tendency purportedly made U.S. democracy strong. I’d say the church in the United States created this character trait more than the Constitution.  But associating is a good trait. I am deeply involved in Circle of Hope, Circle Counseling and the Mennonite Central Committee, which are all good examples of highly effective associations

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Over time this character trait has been undermined by rapacious capitalism and the ascendancy of so-called democracy over the church. Robert Putnam famously captured the trend in his book Bowling Alone in 2000. It is even more true now that less people join clubs, have dinner with the family or invite friends over. So the associations I love are really bucking the trend. Circle of Hope is founded on cell groups, which is about inviting friends over every week! My cell is, essentially, a family dinner! Nothing could be more countercultural. Plus, our church assumes everyone will eventually share a covenant relationship with the others who form it. Our covenant members are the heart of the community and its many enterprises – they own it. That’s presently odd, as far as the direction the world is going.

I wish we had more fights about whether we are volunteering for or owning the church. This would be a good proverb to ponder: Volunteers help owners do good things. Owners do good things by nature. I think that is true, and it always makes me wonder who the volunteers think they are when they share some little bit of their limited good with an association. Manuals for non-profits remind the organizers to help volunteers “feel some ownership” during the hours they contribute. They generally don’t — what do they feel?

It is good to “feel some ownership” when we volunteer. But having ownership that is in one’s thoughts and feelings rather than in one’s hands and feet is hard to sustain. Just going to church can become so boring, it is unsustainable over the long haul. If you’ve been “going to” a church for over a year and you don’t own it yet, I can’t imagine what it does to your sense of self to keep doing it! How could one possibly see themselves in 1 Corinthians 12 or Acts 2 if their association was mainly a matter of being in the Sunday meeting twice a month, having stints in a cell group and doing random acts of volunteerism?

That sounded critical; I’d rather it was prophetic. But you see what the church is up against. We should be inviting people into our home when we go to a meeting, not tentatively entering someone else’s meeting. But since most people never invite people into their home and rarely are invited, since most of our time is spent making money for someone else, it is quite a leap to act like we own the place when it comes to being the church.

It is great to give our time for the owners

Most people are over “getting stuff” (maybe because the 1% has most of it). They are convinced their 86,000 seconds a day all need to be invested wisely. Or at least they feel guilty for spending 3600 of them at a time making Netflix a reality. They want their moments to count because they only have so many — so they think. This preoccupation with how short life is helps make volunteers scarce. People are out making as much money as possible in the least amount of time so they can get as many experiences as possible to fill their seconds before they are too old to have them. They make money to get experiences [Xbox ad].

Many people have trouble believing that wasting time on volunteering is worth their precious seconds. Some people won’t even get married because relationships take so much time! So associations that depend on volunteers try to make it seem like volunteering is a great experience so someone will do it:  “National Volunteer Week is…a wonderful opportunity for everybody to check out the volunteering options in their community. Proactive, hands-on service is an amazing way to meet like-minded people and give something back to your community at the same time. Whether you are looking to use your professional skills to help others, paint a school, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, you will be able to find something to interest you!” Some people love that pitch. But many more, I think, have better ways to be self-interested.

Maybe this is a good proverb: Volunteering is a good experience. It can also extend one’s life. A few years ago, a therapist was researching how kindness affected health. He learned that volunteerism was associated with a markedly lower risk of dying. Depending on the study, the decrease in death rates ranged from 20 to 60%! This is huge. For perspective, another good example of lowering the risk of dying is the introduction of clean drinking water. After water filtration and chlorination were introduced early in the 20th century, death rates from contaminated water dropped about 15 to 20%. Volunteering should be a public health issue!

Even though volunteering is good, I still think feeling like a volunteer in your own church is unworthy of a Jesus follower and makes the Bible writers, who know they have become heirs of the kingdom of God (!), look silly. If a Jesus follower does not really believe they have an eternal life, like Jesus demonstrated when he rose from the dead, then what is the point of being a Jesus follower? Jesus followers are intimates of the King in immeasurable ways! But if volunteering is the best one can do, it is  still healthier than protecting one’s time, even though that volunteer time remains the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much time the faithful have to “waste.”

Jesus owns his life
For These Sheep I Lay Down My Life — Eugene Higgins (1874-1958)

It is better to give our lives because we own them

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  — Matthew 20:28

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” — John 10:17-8

The amazing restoration Jesus has brought us includes the astounding freedom to give our lives. No one can take our lives. We don’t have to buy one with our labor. We have been given it back as a free gift and we are expected to live free from our former masters.

This is the main reason we are owners of the church, not mere members of an association or volunteers in someone else’s enterprise. As good as those latter things are, they are shadows of what it means to be risen with Jesus. Like Him, we choose to serve for the joy set before us and the transformation it brings, not because we have to spend our precious time well enough to justify our existence or get what we deserve. We lay down our lives for others because it is what we are made for, not just because we’ll live longer or feel better about ourselves (although we will!).

Churchill had to convince Britain to give it all they had or the Nazis would have taken over everything. He did it for God, King and democracy, I suppose. His great success shoul have taught everyone a proverb for all time, don’t you think? — You’ve got to own your own country, not live under a Fuhrer. But immoral powermongers are hard to keep out of power, since they wake up every day with nothing to do but grab it.

In the face of our own challenges, our pastors struggle with our idealistic (and straight-from–the-Bible) vision of being the church. Like other places, our church is often colonized by consumers who admire volunteers, when who the pastors really need  to lead are owners. Fortunately, our pastors have an amazing preponderance of covenant keepers expressing their ownership in cells, compassion teams and all our other teams and businesses. We are so far from going along with the present societal trends we look weird. But the need is great and the temptation to become just another seconds-of-my-minutes-counter is ever-present.

“We are called out to be a living organism, building community together in love”

Some days I wonder if we have the stuff to keep being a “we” and keep giving our lives fearlessly for the transformation of the world. Usually, those are the very days someone does something that splendidly expresses the life they were given to give with real freedom. Then I am encouraged all over again that Jesus is risen and we are a circle of hope — and a church with some radical proverbs of our own!:

  • The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.
  •  We are living as a created organism, not creating a religious organization.
  •  Forming cells and teams is a basic way we keep learning how to express who we are and what we do as people called into a new community in Christ.

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.

We contained a crisis and discovered a strategy for reconciliation

The church is famous for kicking sinners out, even though they are the very people the church is designed to serve! Like I said last week, I think troubled people need extra grace; they don’t need to be cut off just when they are in their deepest trouble. I think most churches are trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve dared to make our solutions to sin a feature of who we are. Some of our ideas seem so new to people, it has not been unusual for our approach to conflict to cause conflict!

This incident I want to tell you about, even though I’m not worrying about remembering all the facts perfectly, helped us create a useful approach to the kind of conflict that endangers people and threatens the whole church. We sum it up in our statement: Forgiveness and Containment.

A couple popped up from our South Philly neighborhood. Each of them were in a cell group. They seemed excited that she was pregnant and they wanted to get married. They were emotionally needy but both seemed to be gaining new faith. They wanted to become covenant members rather spontaneously and so we said, “Why not?” We baptized them, married them and made them covenant members on the same day! The week after they joined our covenant, their marriage went into a dramatic meltdown. Violence. Midnight phone calls. She locked him out and he stayed at his cell leader’s house. Come to find out she had a restraining order on him even as they were getting married and making a covenant! It was a spectacularly messy situation.

The people who cared for these newcomers spontaneously formed a circle around them. They quite consciously saw an opportunity to act as white corpuscles rushing through the body of Christ’s bloodstream to get to the wound. They formed what we later named a “container.”

How much choosing is really involved in sinning?

We realized we had a conviction about acting out Matthew 18 (read it!), since we are way Anabaptist and we think the Bible should be lived, not litigated. So embracing all these sinners, as we tend to do, was very educational!

There are many kinds of sinners – like all of us reading this. I do think some, like the people at the top of our leadership pyramid in the U.S., actually practice sinning, like lying and cheating, exploiting the poor, causing war, perpetuating racism, stirring up hatred and strife etc, etc. They choose to sin because it is practical and because they have the power to get away with it and they think that’s how it should be. But I think those kind of people might be rare.

Since I began practicing some psychotherapy, I’ve become even more convinced even sociopaths and people with a narcissistic personality disorder are doing a lot less choosing than I wish they were. If they were making choices all day, it would be easier to judge them – and I often wish I could forget Romans 14 and 15 and just condemn people. Many people are not choosing to sin, they think behavior Jesus followers might name sin is normal – even after they follow Jesus! They do less choosing than they do following their perverted desires and deeply-installed false gods that everyone around them names as good. It should not be too surprising if  they made a covenant before God with someone on whom they have a restraining order!

Glenda Jackson retired from being a member of the British parliament and came back to the stage in the past few years. She had a bit to say about the ascendant sense that choosing is what being human is about. (In the picture you can see her choosing to play King Lear on Broadway). She is famous for saying:

In coming to the basis of Thatcherism, I come to the spiritual part of what I regard as the desperately wrong track down which Thatcherism took this country. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees, all these were the way forward.

Like Glenda Jackson, I don’t believe we get to reconciliation if it all depends on individuals choosing it like they choose a make of car or brand of cigarettes. Righteousness happens in the context of relationship with God and others, not just in our personal choices. I don’t think Jesus calls us to jump into “disciplining” people when someone cannot hold themselves together, as if they just made a mistake. They need to be transformed, not just taught or forced to make better choices.

I think many people have an arrogant sense of their own responsibility and so that of others. People are bound in sin long before they come to some kind of realization that they can make other choices. Feeling sorry for their condition makes me sound soft on sin – but I honestly think people accused Jesus (Matt. 9) and Paul of the very same thing (see Romans 5:20-1 for why). I sometimes feel compelled to tell people, “I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in your sin. He already died because of it. His interest is forgiveness and restoration, not judgment. His choice and not yours is what is important.”

Our choice to be preoccupied with our sin and with the sin of others, makes a mockery of the Lord’s work. What we should be obsessed with is redemption and the possibilities of resurrection life — if I am not so preoccupied, I am not sure I am even a Jesus follower. He did not die so I would keep believing that my choices are what makes the universe happen, or worse, that my choices are what is ruining it.

The focus of Jesus is a new creation. Like Paul says, “Nothing counts but love and a new creation.” The Lord’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 18 about forgiveness and reconciliation are among the most practical things he says about what he is after. It is teaching as fundamental as “Love your enemies” and “Love one another as I have loved you.” His teaching: “When you are sinned against, win your brother or sister back,” is basic to the new creation.

Create an atmosphere bent on reconciliation

Like I said, we kind of bumped into a means to work on reconciliation in the most damaging of circumstances when that young couple blew their marriage to smithereens and began to infect the church with their fury, neediness and demands. They were more than willing to get people on their side and fight it out. And they did not know how damaging they were being — and with a baby on the way! They needed to be contained so they would not infect the church. And they needed to be contained so the church would not naturally cleanse itself of them before they got a chance to come to their senses, be healed and be reconciled to God and one another.

In our statement, Forgiveness and Containment, we start by convincing people that forgiveness is essential. Most people believe this theoretically, but they don’t act like it is fundamental to their lifestyle. Any “discipline of correction” from Jesus begins with forgiveness. Jesus is correcting our lack of forgiveness by pouring grace on us. I won’t go into all we say about forgiveness except to say this: Conflict is inevitable in community. There is invariably trouble. Without forgiveness, community is only possible where people are superficial.

Many churches are devoid of real connection because people solve the sinning problem by outlawing conflicts instead of learning to be redeemed by our endless involvement in them. The best they do with problems is to say, “No problem” (or get away even quicker with “NP”), and pretend they are not angry. As a bad but persistent evangelist, I can tell you that many people don’t want to touch the church with a ten foot pole because Christians can’t do conflict, can’t be trusted, and seem to love drawing lines that cause conflict. In our neck of the woods, winning the culture war battles is definitely losing the cause of redemption because it is about having a lot of conflict while pretending nothing is happening personally.

What a cell should be best at is healthy conflict. But I dare say you don’t trust us enough to speak freely and wouldn’t have much of a life-giving strategy to process conflict should it happen during the next cell meeting or the next half hour. And if you came across a person who couldn’t feel, couldn’t budge, was visibly angry, what would happen?

Most of us would cut that peron off. In the short run, it seems far easier to simply “forget” than to forgive. Saying, “No problem,” often effectively means, “You are dead to me.” However, the mind is rarely so accommodating. It is very difficult for us to forget experiences and the feelings that go with them. If we make a practice of sweeping hurt under the rug, one day we will undoubtedly trip over the bump. In the long run, we need deep and penetrating acts of forgiveness to be free.

So Matthew 18 is a crucial primer on the practical work of forgiveness, which is the central feature of an authentic church that loves like Jesus loves – Jesus who we gladly proclaim died as an act of forgiveness among other things. How do we get there when these sin-ridden people blow themselves up in the middle of our perpetual Easter worship? I am going to say one more thing about creating an atmosphere of reconciliation. You can read our strategy for what to do when pollution threatens that atmosphere by looking over Forgiveness and Containment.

Forgiveness
“Forgiveness” — click for source.

Making and keeping a covenant is central to an atmosphere of reconciliation

When we got going, we decided to double down on what other churches were deserting: the covenant. At the center of our body are the covenant keepers — whose yes is yes and public stated. People in covenant agree to live reconciled. They agree to agree. That’s the main thing. Additionally, in our marriages there is a covenant. And in our cells there is an implicit covenant even if the cell does not write it down. We work on all those relationships as basic.

People come to the church with an expectation of being ideally loved, often much better than they love or were loved in their families growing up. Mostly, they relate according to the self-defensive rules they learned by the time they were six. So you can see how there is going to be trouble unless someone is doggedly nurturing an environment where self-giving love like Jesus’ can be learned.  Our covenant love needs to lead us, not just the discipline hit squad.

Suppose you have a person in your cell who avoids another person in the church because they can’t stand being in the same room with them?  What am I to do? Most people give up on such people, or even forget about them. But here are in my cell and I love them. Maybe I should throw them out because they are choosing to sin. But I never do. Instead, I keep them in the covenant where I hope they will get over their immaturity and be reconciled.

What we want to do is get to reconciliation. So we need to pay attention to how we can recover from covenant-breaking and pay attention to how the covenant breakers can get back into an experience of our love. I think Matthew 18 works best with a clear breech.

  • I expected you to take care of my children but you yelled an obscenity at one of them and they are still traumatized.
  • I expected you to be trustworthy but you took money from the team’s checkbook to buy groceries because you were too ashamed to ask for help.
  • I expected you to share money with the common fund like you said you would when you made a covenant and you didn’t.
  • I found out you have been approaching women and threatening them with your overtly sexual behavior.

Those are all easier. And they are probably the kind of things the Lord is mainly talking about.

Covenant breaking is probably not,

  • I was offended by your body language
  • You ignored what I was saying
  • I am really tired of your psychological foibles
  • I thought you said you would do the dishes.

Those experiences will all require some forgiveness, but I don’t think every day conflicts need to go directly to sin. Regardless, Matthew 18 works if you are just offended, too. It helps you create an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a main skill I try to build in couples therapy. If you are upset, own your feeling and tell your story. Listen to each other and understand. That may be enough to get to forgiveness.

There is a lot more to a life bent towards reconciliation. I have been thinking and writing about it so much, I realized I could put together a reading list for a group I was teaching. See if it helps you learn more about the revolutionary traits Jesus frees us to exercise. They transform the world: Readings on reconciliation.

How the Dialogue List helped teach us lessons in love

A group from the BIC asked me to lead some a study about reconciliation last week. Many of the practical things I talked about can be traced back to a formative incident over twenty years ago when Circle of Hope was a very young church. Looking back, I seem young at 44! And oh, you twenty-somethings who made a church!

Early COH looked a lot like this.

Following my conviction that Jesus would build His church and I could hope for people to form the trust system I thought every church should be, I had created the “Dialogue List.” It was a listserv open to anything anyone wanted to talk about. So it was a constant exercise in trust just to read it and meet the unpredictable things that might show up on it.  We learned a lot about reconciliation by having the Dialogue List.

At that time a creative, rather charismatic man, who was married to one of our worship leaders, decided to come out as gay. This caused a crisis in his marriage, which he did not immediately want to leave, since he had two children and loved his wife. Their situation began to cause a crisis in the church since he was not afraid to be vulnerable and he was outspoken – and he felt like he had friends, which was true. He was not making a statement or a political move by coming out, he was having a problem. He eventually moved back to New York with his lover. Not long ago he was at a Frankford Ave meeting  where I was happy to reconnect. I had been deeply involved in their lives.

Another young man from a traditional Christian background, who was a rather large help to our various building projects, was offended that we let this sinful process go on in the church with what seemed like very little judgment. He wrote to the Dialogue List to voice his protest. He said we were harboring sinners and making a mockery of God’s call to holiness. He felt like he was supposed to swallow that and was choking on it. He wanted the gay man banned from the church.

I should not have been surprised this happened, but I was surprised. It all happened before I got extensive training in mediation and negotiation, so I think my appreciation of a healthy conflict was weak. It all happened long before I got my doctorate in marriage and family therapy, so my appreciation of individual and systemic disorders was foggy. All I had going for me was my vision of what I thought was a healthy church based on the Bible. So I swallowed hard and decided to write back.

Condemnation is an enemy we must not love

I knew making a public reply amounted to a nuclear option. I was about to cash in all my “respect chips” and respond to the Dialogue List as everyone listened in. But I wanted to make it plain where I was going to take a stand. I took it squarely on the side of the weaker brother: the gay man who had just torpedoed his family. And my key passage to justify my stance was and has been since, Romans 14-15.

Here are the most relevant verses:

1– Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
4 — Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
10 — You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat
13 — Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1-2 — We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
7 — Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
18-19 — I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Those last two verses might not normally be in this discussion, but I think they were part of what Paul was talking about. He did not think he had much to say about anything if it was not backed up by his demonstration of the gospel of Christ – the gospel that knits together Jews and Gentiles and is destined to reconciles the whole Roman Empire in a new unity in the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  The young man who wrote to the list had a point, but he did not have the love, did not speak from the Spirit, and did not have great deeds of mission to back up his dramatic judgment. I thought what he was saying was deadly to all we hoped to become.

We had a breaking marriage with children on our hands and a couple who cared about their kids and cared for each other too. They were sorting out a sex issue in public, which automatically fascinates everyone. Their impending divorce was a disappointing surprise to many of their intimates in our 200 person community. As far as I was concerned, their various sins were not the biggest issue, but their reconciliation and ongoing faith were huge issues. What’s more, how we handled this challenge as a new community might determine what kind of a church we would become.

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Getting involved in messes is messy

So I spoke back very strongly to the young man who wrote to the Dialogue List. It was straightforward letter – probably too straightforward, since I was upset. When I was remembering this incident, I tried to find a copy of the note I wrote, but I failed to do so – thank God! I hope I am blessed and it isn’t in internet eternity somewhere. I doubt I handled everything that great. I explained how public judgment was out of the question, not only because it revealed a hard heart, but, in this case, it was without personal relationship with the accused. It amounted to slander. It was also irresponsible. If the writer had done the discipling and comforting work, then maybe he would have had something to say. But he really only knew what they had heard. As far as I was concerned, if anyone needed to be banned from the church, it was the one who was willing to pronounce such judgment, however warranted according to his principles. As long as I was around to lead things, it was going to be love first, working for reconciliation as a top priority, and serving those who are wicked, or out of order, or ignorant enough to cause trouble in hope of their redemption.

As it turned out, my letter to the Dialogue List surprised many people because they expected me to meet their stereotype of hard-nosed evangelicals who think gay people are bad by definition. And I surprised another whole segment of the population because I was willing to “kick someone out of the church,” only it was the Judaizer who wanted to return us to the law.

I later learned from a master reconciler in South Africa that anyone who tries to get people to reconcile, especially when conflict over family ties or taboos is on the table, is a bridge that gets walked on by both sides. If we are not ready to be misunderstood, it is unlikely we can help people overcome their misunderstandings. I still feel some adrenaline when I talk about my difficult letter to the list because it was an exciting time and I was getting walked on! But I also wince at how badly I played my part in it and how much more I had to learn. The many reasons I felt walked on turned out to be creative suffering that helped grow me up. I think the suffering we endured with this couple together helped grow up the church, too.

The couple got amicably divorced. We helped the wife move back to upstate New York where she met another good man and had more children and a life of deep faith. The husband went off with his lover and continued to have a hard time, but still felt fondly about Jesus. His children also faced some big challenges. I wish he had stayed in covenant with us. The man who made the accusation, eventually moved to the far burbs. But a couple of years later, he wrote me an email to thank me for my rough treatment. He said I was right to face him down in public and he learned an important lesson. People in our church still relate to him and his nice family.

This incident and several others started us on a path towards practical forgiveness and reconciliation right in line with Matthew 18. I think I will share some more about that next week. I hope this little story inspires you to go against the current of the present moment in history in the U.S. and make something beautiful – a church where people can suffer, grow and never fear that they have friends who will work for their best interests and help them move through their misunderstandings and troubles in love.

There is another way: In an age of suspicion develop a trust system

When the birds start singing in spring, my heart starts to remember old, joyful songs, as well. I pause for birds, partly because Jesus taught me to do so: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26). But even if I did not know the Sermon on the Mount so well, the birds would have taught me to trust God. And such trust would have loosened a song of joy in my heart.

This spring, we have experienced an avalanche of the unmelted snow of mistrust on the mountains of lies and greed that characterize our no-trust country. I’m afraid it is all going to melt and flood us by June. You may have stopped watching news channels, but they are all unmoored from the truth. This week the President lied so hard about the Mueller report that his tongue must have hurt. People are not only losing their trust in God and the church of Jesus Christ, they don’t trust one another either.

We are called to develop a trust system

In the middle of that flood, we have a very prescient proverb we managed to get into our collection: We are called to develop a trust system. That means we are more like the birds of the air and less like Donald Trump and we know it. What’s more, it means we intend to build an alternative system to the world’s mistrust, by trusting each other and breeding trust in people who want to stop feeling worthless and claim their honor as trustworthy people.

I was cleaning up my books the other day (they tend to multiply!) and I ran across one I could not remember buying called Smart Trust. It is one of those business books that teach capitalists basic morality as a means to be happy and successful like Warren Buffet. I like these books because they boil down ideas into practical ways we can implement. For instance, here is most of this book boiled down into a 25-minute speech.

And the rest of this blog post is going to boil the book down even further into a few useful paragraphs.

I offer this to you for a couple of reasons. 1) A big reason: Quite a few of us are sucked into the mistrust system the world is perpetrating. We are susceptible to conspiracy theories, suspicious of all leaders and prone to cutting off because no one can be trusted. If that is you, you are undermining our trust system. 2) A bigger reason: Each of us can contribute to making an alternative by staying conscious of our responsibility to build a trust system, which simply begins with trust in Jesus and trust in his people.  We can nurture joy instead of despair. A new world is possible.

Trust builder traits

Covey and his team did some nice business-book research on their topic by finding people all over the world who demonstrate “smart trust.” In their opinion, this conscious, strategic trusting is the defining skill that separates mere managers from leaders.

For our purpose, “smart trust” it is the defining skill that separates a Jesus-follower who can develop a trust system from those who James calls a “double-minded” — who can’t trust and can’t be trusted. Likewise, they are people Jude calls “clouds without rainwater.” If those negative attributions seem to harsh, return to Jesus trying to lure us into leaving  destruction by pointing out the birds managing to trust God in the middle of it.

The authors collected five traits that characterize these trust builders:

  • They choose to believe that trust is essential.
  • They start by developing the character and competence (the credibility) that allows them to trust themselves and be a trusted part of a trust system, in our case, the kingdom of God.
  • They say what they intend to do and assume others also have positive intentions. They make people prove they are untrustworthy, not earn trust.
  • They do what they say they are going to do.
  • They take the lead in extending trust, which leads to a “virtuous cycle” in which others are unleashed to build great things and feel the joy of the good work of faith, hope and love.

I think you can note these traits in the character of our church. We have been building a trust system for a long time. When it breaks down, we can see it, because we normally don’t live in a Trump-like world in which no one can be trusted and the untrustworthy cast suspicion on everyone else. When Trump decided not to cooperate with Congress, it became evident that the authors of the U.S. Constitution, even though they put checks and balances in their famous doc, relied on “gentlemen” to apply it. They expected leaders to at least be concerned about their honor and reputation! When power is more important than mutuality, the “rule of law” is about whoever has the power to enforce the law. When we can’t trust our leaders, we need to find some new “gentlepeople.” We want to be those  trustworthy people, led by Jesus, the ultimate leader.

The example of the Grameen Bank.

The authors piled up stories of trusting and trustworthy leaders from around the world. I think the story of Muhammad Yunus is especially notable. He should be honored, as he is, by people around the world. He is the Banker to the Poor who made a bank built on trust to help the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, initially, get out of their slavery to their lenders. In his system of microcredit, trust is the key. He says, unlike banks who tie up clients in legal knots, making sure they are never out of the bank’s reach, “Grameen assumes every borrower is honest. There are no legal instruments between lenders and the borrowers. We were convinced that the bank should be built on human trust, not on meaningless paper contracts….We may be accused of being naïve, but our experience with bad debt is less than 1 percent.”

Our Debt Annihilation Team is an ongoing experiment with similar intent. They have also experienced “bad debt.” But there has been more joy than confirmation that people cannot be trusted. We extend some relational “microcredit” every time we sit down face-to-face in one of our free-forming cells, don’t you think?

Blind trust or mistrust

Good business books come up with metaphors and charts to make their big points. Covey asks us “Which glasses are you wearing?” Is your lenas blind trust or distrust?  The Proverbs taught us long ago what social scientists keep proving: “As we think in our hearts, so we are” (Prov 23:7 KJV). The “glasses” through which we see people and situations make a difference. The two extremes most of us fall into in relation to trust can be seen in the chart below. See what you think about how you generally work, or how you work in various situations like job and family. How do you work in the church?

The third way: build a trust system

One of the reasons to excerpt this book for you is that their idea of  “smart trust” is a “third way.” And we do love our third ways! These ways are alternatives to the either/or the world usually presents to us. Our alternativity is not just our own way, it is a way of trusting the leadership of Jesus all along our way. Our basic faith in the trustworthiness of the Lord makes us radicals.

This “smart trust matrix” is designed to give us a better pair of glasses so we can see our way into a better place where being trusted and trustworthy unleashes our creativity and joy.

I don’t always get what a four-quadrant matrix means, but they at least get me to think. This one is trying to move me to have some discernment when it comes to trusting people in our trust system. Like Paul tells the Corinthians while he is helping them move through some conflict, I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”  That’s the kind of assumption we want to develop. Paul knows he is talking to people in all four quadrants, but they all need to get to a place where they are on the Lord’s side (1 Cor 10). Quadrant 1 is blind trust; Quadrant 4 is mistrust; Quadrant 3 is no trust. You may need to move through all of them to get to Quadrant 2: smart trust. Or, as Paul would say, we need to develop good judgment that leads to reconciliation and unleashes joy.

The other side of the smart trust coin of course, begins with being trustworthy ourselves. We don’t just inspect other people to see how they fit into a matrix! Being trustworthy breeds reciprocal trust. And even if no one trusts you back, Jesus does. The Lord’s trust strategy is at the heart of what Victor Hugo was working out in Les Miserables when the bishop trusted Jean Valjean with the candlesticks. Viewers have gotten teary-eyed ever since, believing that one person can, in fact, make a difference. Grace works. Entrusting people with grace is the basic strategy of God in Jesus for the transformation of creation.

Jean Valjean becomes a better man and even releases Javert. Over 70 million people have seen Les Mis onstage. They long for a different kind of world where grace makes a difference and people are considered worthwhile. The BBC put out yet another TV version this month. People keep hoping the liars who set off avalanches of mistrust will not win the day! And even the days they seem to be winning are better because of  those who trust God and one another and stubbornly build a trust system where the skills of transformation can be learned.

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

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

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Light from the foothills of faith

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

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

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

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

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

Five lies the culture tells us

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

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

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

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

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

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

From Brooks:

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

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

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

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

From Brooks:

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

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

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

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

From Brooks:

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

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

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

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

From Brooks:

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

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

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

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

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

From Brooks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insiders and Outsiders: Knitting them together in love

Insiders and Outsiders — Juliusz Lewandowski

The Seminarian’s Cohort held an interesting exploration last month on a perennial subject in the church: “outsiders” and “insiders.” Sometimes the boundaries of the church are too thick and our area too constricted. Sometimes the the boundaries are too porous and undefined. So the subject of who’s inside and who is not is always interesting to those who want to be in and are bumping into the barriers to entry they perceive. And it is always interesting to people who are in and feeling threatened by newness or the loss of what they hold dear. The subject was also interesting to the Bible writers who were also forming community around the revelation of God — an enterprise that always implies that some people are moving in a common direction with God and others are not.

Here is a paraphrase of a key section of 2 Corinthians which has been used by defenders of holiness to explain their sense of the church being a new Israel on the way to the promised land and needing to be pure from outside influences. It tells us that insiders should be separate from outsiders and entry into the church means a deep commitment to becoming and staying separate.

The big temptation for God’s people has always been idol worship, being deceived, and thinking dark is light and lawlessness is righteousness. In Jesus, God has fulfilled an ancient promise to walk among His people, once in Jesus and now in His Spirit. We are the temple of God. That makes us innately holy and we dare not forget that. We need to separate ourselves from unholiness. Our goal should be to perfect holiness out of reverence for God. — 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Here is a paraphrase of a key section just before the previous one in 2 Corinthians which has been used by people who think the Body of Christ is intrinsically porous and has, as its main cause, including people from all the nations. It tells us that insiders remain on the earth for outsiders, persistently invade their territory, and urge them to enter into faith.

The love of Christ urges us on beyond our boundaries. We have a resurrection viewpoint we did not have before. So we see everyone as a new creation to be realized in the love of Christ. This is the basis of our new life: in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The call to insiders and outsiders to accept one another

The dividing lines in the church (and in our culture, by and large) follow the contrasting principles derived from these verses. On the one hand there are ethics based on taboo, shame, security, tribe and tradition. See this article of the religion of Trumpism from last week.  On the other hand, the dominant ethic is “do no harm,” based on freedom, democracy, individualism, self-reliance, and progress.

Paul, while solidly one end of the spectrum, personally, worked throughout his whole ministry to keep insider-oriented people and outward-focused people in the love of Christ. In Romans 14 and many other places, we see him trying to knit the two perspectives together. Here is another paraphrase:

Accept those whose faith depends on strong boundaries, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. When it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, some believe in eating anything, others won’t eat idol-tainted meat or any meat. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has accepted them. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Those who find it hard to stand will be made strong in the age to come. And those who think they stand tall may find that their certainty was misplaced when they meet the judge. — Romans 14:1-12

My Christianity was inspired by radicals who were committed to fleeing the death of the world’s ways and perfecting holiness, namely Francis of Assisi and John Wesley (as well as all those people in the Jesus Movement). Unlike other monks and missionaries. my mentors were interested in getting their holiness into the lives of others, not cloistering it away for themselves. Very early on, I felt an aversion to “reactive separatists.” Gwen and I summed up what we thought the Bible meant with the term “invasive separatism.” Our term is simple. It means we know who we are and we intend to live in a community that understands what God has made them. It also means from that place we shine whatever life we have and give whatever gifts we’ve been given.

When I first watched the TV series A.D. Kingdom and Empire I was excited to see the writers displaying great understanding about the subject of insiders and outsiders. As the series shows, the Jews who became Christians had spent a lifetime perfecting holiness. Then the  Holy Spirit demanded all sorts of change and acceptance. The way the script portrays the Apostle Paul is especially good at showing this perennial challenge. The fanatical Jew becomes a fanatical Jesus follower. The more conservative and communal original disciples have to decide whether they can accept their former persecutor into the fold on the basis of his unusual experience with Jesus. Even more, Gentiles and Roman persecutors receive the Holy Spirit and receiving them an insiders seems taboo enough to make a person queasy.  In the following clip, the ultimate symbol of an outsider, the Roman centurion Cornelius, is sent as a messenger to Peter who is compelled to accept him.

That’s us on TV!

Circle of Hope, although certainly turned toward “outsiders” has a lot of dialogue like those shown in the TV series. Social action people protect our morality against the powers that be and fight people who won’t do justice as they see it. Circle of Hope purists are suspicious of and resistant to change or just blithely set in their ways. Immigrants who are banging on the walls of the nation do not always find a place in the church, easily. The oldest rituals are maintained, like Sunday meetings at 5 and 7; just last week the pastors  had to argue that other meetings are also “public meetings.” Radical Christians sometimes shake the dust off their feet because they are tired of our uninspired compromises.

The Cohort soon realized that we had a subject that was much larger than we anticipated. Most of the time we don’t have much consciousness about people who are not “us” even if we just made the most recent rendition of “us” last week! When we got to thinking together, we had some important revelations to collect. Here is a sampling:

  • The call to the church to be separate is central to inclusivity. If there is no substance, just diffusion, there is no “in” in inclusion. If we pay attention to being inclusive too much we can undo what we are actually talking about. We want to welcome people into our life together with Jesus. If we protect people from the pain of change, thinking that is kinder than helping them over the boundary, we can leave them alone, “free” to be unconnected.
  • True alternativity requires self-awareness about the inevitable exclusion someone will feel. Unlike the present philosophy running the world, we do not believe that individual identity is a starting point. Inclusion is not granting the justice of everyone’s personal godhood or even assuming the personhood they bring to body will find a place to rest. They’ll certainly find love and acceptance, but a relationship with Jesus and his people is all about transformation.
  • People need to choose. We can make that easier. There is a call from God to every person in our not belonging. That means when we realize we are out, that painful experience calls us into something else. We have to choose to be in. The question is, “Can you accept belonging?”
  • People are filled with shame and naturally feel issues about how to attach and how they are not accepted or acceptable. There is really no way to avoid excluding someone, since they have already been excluded, at some level, long before they get to the church. Our strong desire to not be responsible for excluding anyone or making them feel bad can be self-serving and unhelpful.
  • We may need to reteach our long-held assumptions stemming from the process of reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18. The process of inclusion includes carefrontation. So much of what people fear is confrontation. Our world daily reinforces how depressing constant confrontation can be. Our resistance to adding to confrontation unwittingly leaves people out, since we won’t deal with their experience of being unreconciled because it might confront them and hurt them.
  • We noted that our document about atonement explanations is a characteristic, generous way we do theology that allows the several ways the Bible describes the work of Jesus to be OK. We encourage people to develop, and to assume the fluid nature of their faith. Some people may need a careful, boundaried period (like people in recovery, or people who have experienced trauma). Others may relish the ability to have different elements of themselves dialogue in safety about what are often mutually-exclusive thoughts. This kind of acceptance is reflected in the movement we note from Earth to Wind to Fire to Water along the Way of Jesus.

Fascinating subject, isn’t it? We just scratched the surface. Once again, daring to bring up subjects that are too big for us to handle helped us to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. At the same time, our dialogue demonstrated just how much confidence God has built into us — and we know stuff, too!