Category Archives: The Mission

Jesus and Me at the Climate Strike Protest

The Youth Climate Strike happened last Thursday. Many Philly high school students walked out of class to make a point. I was with them at noon at the new Love Park. Others came later, after school, to be part of a global day of action coordinated by teens to get adults to combat climate change. Here are Politico’s pictures from around the world.

The movement was sparked by 16-year- old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, whose nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (!) was recently leaked. @GretaThunberg tweeted “Tomorrow we school strike for the climate in 1769 places in 112 countries around the world. And counting.”  Here is  her Wikipedia page — rest assured, my friend, you still exist if you do not have one yet.

The high school people made it work

Image result for Sabirah MahmudSabirah Mahmud is a lead organizer for Philadelphia Youth Climate Strike. She experienced the effects of climate change first hand when she visited the relatives in Bangladesh and got caught in a flood.

We had our own Gretas and a few Garths leading Philly’s strike. Sixteen-year-old Sabirah Mahmud was the lead organizer of the local demonstration. She’s a sophomore at Academy at Palumbo High school  (along with Zach Sensenig).

Mahmud says she wants to go to medical school and travel the world, but last October’s United Nations report on climate change makes her wonder if she’ll ever get the chance. Catastrophic floods and fires could become commonplace in 12 years, among other terrible things, according to the report — that was the mantra at the protest: TWELVE YEARS! The teens can’t wait and the planet can’t wait until today’s students are old enough to vote, let alone run for Congress. The world needs to take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution by 2030 NOW!

It is commonly thought by 2040, the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in 2012. Coal demand is expected to grow 0.6 percent every year between now and then. Last year was especially bad for carbon pollution: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million (for the first time in millions of years). Meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them (according to Foreign Policy).

The speakers said they’d heard from older people in power that radical plans like the Green New Deal would wreck the economy. (Here Vox explains the GND). The younger people countered, often fairly hysterically, “If you’re not planning for a future with climate change, what future are you even planning for?” As we were meeting, they got everyone to text government officials to demand their action and support for radical change. They also called on the City to turn down plans to expand a Philadelphia Gas Works plant in South Philadelphia to produce liquified natural gas.

In Wellington New Zealand, one student’s handmade sign read, “Climate change is worse than Voldemort.” In Sydney, Australia, a banner read, “The oceans are rising, so are we.” (according to Euronews).

I appreciated the comb over jab in the hand-made sign.

More and more people are being mobilized.

During our go around at the Good Business Oversight Team meeting last Thursday morning, Greg said his favorite compassion team was the Watershed Discipleship Team, who have a rather large vision they are whittling down to some actionable goals for saving our ecosystem.

They are not alone. The Sunrise Movement was represented at our protest. They are the same people who orchestrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ appearance during their occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office. I must say, as a person who has always loved high school students, I am thrilled to be led by them in this effort. This is one old person they are not up against.

But they are certainly up against some OLD people! The Sunrise Movement also filmed their meeting with Dianne Feinstein, 85, who has been a Senator since I was 38 (she is worth about $94 million dollars BTW). Her dismissive response to young, but assertive, Magdalena went viral and hundreds of thousands of people have watched it. She responded to the passion of her visitors by debating the specifics of the resolution they were pushing and showing contempt for their audacity in thinking they had something to offer her wizened self. Twenty-nine-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal resolution met with the same reception from old people in the House, only it was from Steny Hoyer (79) and Nancy Pelosi (78).

These officials are just too old to be leading during this perilous time and they just won’t stop — Trump (72) may face off with Biden (76) or Sanders (77)! The kids are afraid these old people are going to move as slow as old people do, doing what they’ve always done, fighting their old battles while Philadelphia neighborhoods are flooded and poor people keep getting asthma from unchecked pollution. In the coming 2020 elections 21 of 33 Senators up for a vote will be 65 or older. Euronews quoted a 15-year-old who was striking saying, “If we don’t do something, it’ll be our lives affected, not the 60-year-old politicians! We need action.”

XR Philly with their easily- understood message.

Some people are springing into action. I ran into Daoud Steele, who has been part of South Broad meetings in the past. He wondered if we might rent space at 1125 S. Broad for meetings of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Last November that group came to prominence when it organized the largest civil disobedience protest seen in the UK for decades, which culminated in the occupation and closure of five bridges in central London. Since then it has grown rapidly and XR branches have sprung up in more than 35 countries.

Deep Green Resistance [DGR] is an even more aggressive organization. It is largely based on the book of the same name by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen (2011). Their principles start where the environmental movement leaves off, claiming that industrial civilization is incompatible with life. Technology can’t fix it, and shopping—no matter how green—won’t stop it. To save this planet, we need a serious resistance movement that can bring down the industrial economy.

What did you think, Jesus?

I think Jesus was into the climate strike.  I’ve written about what I think God thinks and feels about the desecration of the planet before: The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation.

I doubt the Lord was that thrilled with all the anger, threats and lust for power shouted into the mic. Conversely, I suspect he was sad over how many teenagers could come to an event dedicated to saving their lives and stand in little groups chatting and ignoring the whole thing. But he has never let normal human reactions keep him down or make him hopeless.

I think Jesus was happy to see young people doing what young people should do. He was pretty young, himself, when he was instructing his elders in Judaism, undermining the authority of the temple, and turning the other cheek to Rome — which has confounded the powerful and heartened the meek ever since.

I think he was delighted to have people in the United States waking up and doing something. The U.S. is the second largest CO2 polluter in the World, and the first per capita. Daoud and I wondered if the country were entering a cancer-like process in which we were now accepting we had the disease and could have a public grief process and maybe be healed.  Meanwhile, the president tweeted on January 28

“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? [sic] Please come back fast, we need you!” (Here is the Daily Show response).

So there are obstacles.  One sign said, “You can’t comb over climate change.” Yet people in power are certainly trying to do so — as in Andrew Wheeler of the EPA. But hope matters. That’s why we stick together as a Circle of Hope.

That brings up the final thing Jesus probably liked about the climate strike: the kids circled up. They threw off being autonomous, DIY, self-reliant/lonely people in front of their screens, got out into the air on a great, spring-like day, and tried to love each other, love the planet and have a common purpose. They had a lot of the trappings of the church! They just needed a Savior who wasn’t their cause or themselves. But that will come.

Patrick on the Hill of Tara: And hidden under the Guinness in my neighborhood

I was wandering back from Center City this afternoon and walked into the surprising green horde descending on various bars and frats from the colleges in University City for St. Patrick’s Day Eve. One young woman shouted drunkenly into her phone as I passed, “Why did you call at 4? Everything started at noon!” As I told my Instagram crew, I began to feel a bit naïve when I saw a sign on the door near 30th St. that said this bar was a stop for the “Erin Express.” Then I got to Drexel and saw the bus! (below) That was right after I began noticing what the green T-shirts said. One young woman’s was “Let’s get fucked up!” One young man’s was “Shake your shamrocks.”

So I had to put at least a tiny antidote into the sea of Irish nationalism and Patrick desecration in my neighborhood. I offer you a version of a message I delivered after my wonderful pilgrimage to Ireland and beyond over ten years ago now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Light a fire!

Patrick on the Hill of Tara                                                             

When we were in Dublin that summer, we took a very interesting history walk, lead by a young college woman studying history at the famous Trinity College. We learned, among other things that “Dub-lin” means “black-pool” in some Viking language, the Vikings being among the many people who have oppressed the Irish, not to diminish the oppression of the British, which our guide made sure we heard about. Being oppressed was the story the guide had to tell over and over, and she seemed to have sort of a chip on her shoulder about it.

She also seemed to have a special interest in educating the Americans in her group, since there are more Irish people in the U.S. than in Ireland, but nobody seems to know anything about them. Elementary school children are filled with nonsense about the Irish: they find leprechauns, they chase pots of gold, they find three-leaf clovers, they are superstitious, they dance jigs and they tell tall tales (well, that last one is probably true). The advanced kids know that they often march in parades around March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day you have to wear green or you might get pinched. The first St. Patrick’s Day parades weren’t in Ireland, they were in the U.S. to demonstrate Irish political power. The first one in Philly was in 1771.

My guide did not take kindly to the fact that Irish people are more known for drinking Guinness and eating Lucky Charms cereal than for James Joyce or even the real St. Patrick. She sneered at Americans, well known for living off the candy of sound bites and sixty second ads rather than chewing on the complexity of a long narrative.

So that means my subject might be a little challenging if you are an American. It is a long narrative. It is much easier to pile into Fado or Plough and the Stars and have a drinking party on St. Patrick’s Day than to understand the 4th century believer called Patrick. More fundamental to my purpose, it is easier to have a thin veneer of Christianity, a little fragrance of faith — a spritz, than to follow Jesus like Patrick.

What I have to say concerns the story of Jesus getting to the Irish people and changing the course of their history. It is a great story. But the reason I want to tell parts of it is that it has a lot to say about how the history of each of us and how our present day can and should change, as well.

Like my Dublin guide seemed disappointed in her patrons, I think quite a few of us feel a little disappointed when we give people a tour of our faith. We think people have the wrong impression of us Christians, like my guide thought people misunderstood the Irish. We feel kind of oppressed by how people think and how they don’t care to understand us or Jesus. If you sometimes feel like you are surrounded by resistant oppressors, then Patrick’s story may give you some encouragement and instruction. He kind of came from nowhere, was something of a nobody, but he faced up to the powers of his day and he made a big difference.

Patrick is the slave who came back to convert his masters

One of the most phenomenal things about Patrick that most elementary school students are not taught is that he was a slave who came back to convert his masters.

Patrick was born on the west coast of what is now Scotland or Wales. He was probably the son of an old Roman-connected aristocratic family who were nominally Christian. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to serve one of the many kings controlling sections of Ireland, probably in the north around what is now County Mayo.  Patrick worked as a herdsman for six years.

Fortunately, we have a couple of things Patrick wrote; and he writes that his faith grew in captivity. He began to pray the prayers he had learned as a child many times a day. One day he had a vision and heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home. Later on he heard that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship. The ship apparently went to France, first, where Patrick studied to be a pastor. After various adventures, he returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.

Patrick recounts that he had another vision many years after returning home:

“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

He decided to go back to Ireland and give his life to bring Jesus to his former masters. This is an important thing to note: the revelation of Jesus comes with Patrick from out of nowhere; it comes from the slaves. This might encourage people like us who sometimes feel like the opposition to Jesus is strong and our message has no power. I think Patrick should be especially encouraging to people who work in the cubicles, and feel enslaved to the bosses. Your hiddenness is OK.  If there is any fire where the powers that be don’t expect it to be, it will be noticed, eventually.

By the time Patrick died, thousands of people had been baptized and Ireland was on its way to being a predominantly Christian place. Even today it is among the most faith-driven places in Europe, which has, by-and-large, gone post-Christian.

Patrick-like people can’t stay hidden under a sea of Guinness

We have to appreciate the hiddenness of the truth about Jesus. Jesus himself only expected people to hear who had ears to hear. He did not work hard to get world fame or more hits on his website.  God came as a baby to a poor family. John says that Jesus was not even recognized by his own countrymen who were looking for the Messiah! Patrick went back to Ireland with this same sense of humility. He seemed to think, “The message is hidden in the creation and I will reveal it. But at the same time, I am also a creature, so it may be hidden in me.” Paul writes about it this way:

 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

     “No eye has seen,
       no ear has heard,
     no mind has conceived
       what God has prepared for those who love him”—

but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

Patrick had spent his formative years out on a hill in Ireland. When he walked back in to the village to tell people about Jesus, he didn’t come in a motorcade. He probably had leaves in his hair from sleeping out in the woods and may have looked like some kind of Ent. Like other Celts, he had a strong sense of God’s presence in creation — he met God there and relied on God there. The Druid religion had an ancient history, drawing on the study that built Stonehenge and manipulated spirits. Rather than bringing something no one had ever considered before, Patrick brought a definition that people needed for what God is doing in the world. The wisdom was hidden and he was telling people where it is.

In our era, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s, the rulers of the age are seeking truth in striking ways – in particle colliders and in market regulation. But, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s age, they continue to crucify the Lord of glory. It is given to us to tell the story of Jesus and demonstrate his presence with us.

Fire on present-day Slane

Patrick-like people build a fire

Gwen and I were on our pilgrimage and following a path that would take us to the holy sites associated with some of the notable figures of Celtic Christianity. The first big stop was the Hill of Tara.  Just to be honest, this was our first big day of traveling around in a car, keeping to the LEFT, and my driving about put Gwen over the edge. By the time we got back to Dublin and were eating Indian food, I thought she might take the skewer from her kabob and  kill me. But it is all part of the journey.

I’d always wanted to stand on Tara and look across to Slane. Both Tara and Slane were central sites of the Druid cult. A year after Patrick arrived, the high king, King Laoghaire  (leheera), was holding the annual assembly on Tara. Patrick wanted to convert the king, at best, but at least he wanted permission to travel and to do his missionary work among the kingdoms. He wasn’t getting a hearing so he decided to participate in the assembly. The king’s magicians had warned King Laoghaire  that he needed to do something about Patrick or his message would overturn the established order. They were right. The king didn’t do anything and the order began to be overturned on Easter in  the year 433.

Once a year all the nobility and shamans came to Tara to light the fire. The idea was that everyone else was supposed to douse their home fire and it would be relit from this one, central fire. It so happened that this ritual coincided with the Easter that year. On Holy Saturday, Patrick lit his own fire on Slane, across the valley from Tara but in plain site. The point was clear. The true light that enlightens everyone had come into the world of Erin.

King Laoghire was incensed. He sent some men to bring him Patrick dead or alive. Patrick was already headed toward the king. When the king’s men got to the spot where Patrick was, however, all they saw were a few deer. Or, as Paul might say, their unbelief had blinded them. The story goes on to tell of a miracle-working power encounter between Patrick and the court magicians which eventually got Patrick permission to work out his mission.

It is a great story and a great deal of it is probably even factual. But the truth of the story is a little deeper than the facts, which is true of the Bible and true of the whole story of the spread of faith in Jesus. Patrick’s audacity did not just come from his courage. It came from a sense that it is inevitable that Jesus will be seen. He is hidden, not absent. The fire on Slane just made the obvious more obvious.

Likewise, the story of Patrick and his band being disguised from their killers as deer, is another example of being hidden. You might not see them, or they might even be hidden from you, but that does not mean you won’t be meeting up with their faith in your own backyard. The Celtic church Patrick founded believed that creation bore the imprint of God so deeply that all you had to do was scratch the surface and you would find Jesus. Like God came to earth in Jesus, the earth reached out to welcome him; creation and the Creator were made for each other. So taking back Tara for Jesus was less a shift in political power and more an unleashing of nature to retake what had been corrupted.

Patrick’s Jesus is still hidden today

On the hill of Tara today is a relatively recent church building. The building is no longer used as a church, since the whole site has become a secularized national park. There is a statue of Patrick, of course, but there is also something else going on that surprised us.

Gwen and I decided to pay two euros from my sabbatical grant (God bless the Lily Foundation!) to take in the program in the church. It is our habit to go into church buildings and soak in the quiet and pray, whenever we come across an open one.  So we went into this little building and had the place mostly to ourselves. We were there near the end of the day, since we got lost getting there, of course. A busload of Japanese tourists had just left. So we were soaking up some quiet in a very beautiful interior when the guide came in to say the presentation was about to begin.

We had the strangest experience! We had not noticed that they had installed blackout shutters to roll down over the stained glass. They flipped a switch and the room came to life, mechanically, until we had been plunged into the dark. A video presentation began about the ancient burial and ritual mound of Tara. The church had been de-churched, the hill had been un-Patricked and the government was sponsoring a recovery of Gaelic history by speculating on how the mysterious burial mound had been used. There was no mention of Christians at all, even though they had sanctified the mound for 1700 years.

The blinds came down and we Jesus-followers were re-hidden! If you go across the valley to the hill of Slane, where Patrick lit his fire, there is an even bigger tourist site devoted that much larger mound. I felt oppressed. I had just been communing with Jesus, remembering the work of Patrick, when the church was taken over by pagans celebrating human sacrifice and sun worship on the hill of Tara

I kind of felt sorry for Patrick, still on the hill, but surrounded by people replanting ignorance where he had shed light. What’s more, the M3 motorway is about to plow through he Tara valley so when you look at Slane you’ll see a freeway.

I felt sorry for us, too, since we are increasingly surrounded by people committed to putting Jesus in a museum along with all the other belief systems they are sampling. We’re also surrounded by the freeways and global warming of their dominant faith in unbridled economics disconnected from earth and God.

By the end of Lent, maybe we’ll know who Jesus really is

Patrick looks a bit forlorn up there in the painting, doesn’t he? He’s up on his hill praying for Ireland. But at the same time, I think he is looking like he is in touch with earth and sky. He is in a thin place where he is making a connection with God.  Alone, vulnerable, hidden, misunderstood, opposed. But at peace and bringing something to his moment.

The Celts had a great appreciation of verses like “the rocks will cry out if you don’t praise God.” They knew that the truth had been hidden in the earth from ages past. Even the Druids with their ghastly rituals on Tara knew something of the wisdom planted in creation. Jesus revealed it in full. Jesus revealed the ignorance and rebellion of humans and the goodness and plan of God. Patrick and others were followers who revealed it as they followed Him. It didn’t matter if they had their own power, God had the power.

Jesus himself, like this scripture shows, came to the hill of Jerusalem like pilgrims had for centuries to celebrate the Passover, now at the end of our Lent. Many people recognized him and honored him. To most he was hidden. He was opposed by the powers that be who put down their shades.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.Luke 19:37-42

It is sad how Jesus remains hidden to so many. It is sad how the shades are coming down to hide even what has been known. Jesus weeps over our darkness. But at the same time, faith will keep springing up. Even the stones could reveal the truth about God redeeming us through Jesus! I suspect one may be talking to someone right now on some hill as they look out over their city.

You may seem hidden as a believer where you live. Circle of Hope may seem like a hidden little church. It may seem foolish, going out to do some small act of goodness to reveal Jesus. What you say may seem pitiful. What you bring may seem very weak. Don’t despair and don’t stop. God repeatedly prefers to reveal his glory in the pitiful, hidden things placed in his hands.

(Want to hear this material? Here is the speech.)

Background check debate: Stray guns and your child at the playdate

Maybe you missed it, as you (and probably your children) were discussing Jeff Bezos’ private parts and the amazing scandals piling up in Virginia.  Nevertheless, this past week the House of Representatives held its first hearing on gun violence in eight years.

The testimony at the hearing centered on a bill that would make it harder for a person to buy a gun without a thorough background check. Supporters pointed out that right now it’s ridiculously easy to get lethal weapons from an unlicensed seller who is not going to check to see if said purchaser might have a record of violence, stalking or involuntary commitment for mental illness. That fact should surprise and appall us, but by this time it probably doesn’t. By now, your kids might think everyone has a gun and feel strange if you don’t!

Opponents of the bill clutched the Second Amendment and argued that the real reason we have so many deaths by gunfire is … well, take a guess at what they argued were the reasons: A) Guns, B) Bullets, C) Immigrants.

Matt Gaetz
Not a fan, but you need to see his face. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Answer: All the above.

Representative Matt Gaetz [more/biased info on him], a Florida Republican read a short list of people who had been shot by undocumented immigrants. Then he said, “I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. …Better background checks would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall, a barrier on the southern border may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” There are a lot of lawmakers prepared to say almost anything in their role as surrogates for the National Rifle Association. But it is still surprising that during this latest hearing the main gun advocate was from Florida.

Thousands of people took part in the March for Our Lives protest in Parkland, Fla., a month after the school shooting there a year ago. Credit: Saul Martinez for The New York Times

On Valentine’s Day we’ll observe the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shootings in which one student with a gun took the lives of 17 people. We just passed the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of 5 people in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport, which occurred six months after 49 people were shot to death at a nightclub in Orlando. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that a young man walked into a bank in Sebring, Fla., pulled out a pistol, forced 5 women to lay on the ground and shot each one in the back of the head. All these atrocities happened in Congressman Gaetz’ state. All the gunmen were native-born Americans.

The House bill I mentioned is unlikely to even get brought up in the Senate if it passes the House. But in 2017 the House and Senate did get together to revoke an Obama-era regulation that had made it harder for mentally ill people to purchase a gun.

We have terrible gun problems in this country not just because firearms are all over the place, but also because of the careless, and often stupid attitude so many people have toward them. This includes the Congress.  Their rejection of legislation of which the country overwhelmingly approves  helps perpetuate the attitude that guns are a casual part of everyday life, like your wallet or socks — something you wear when you go out to buy a loaf of bread, leave laying around the house and treat in general with less care and discretion than a light bulb.

This is the kind of thinking that gives us endless mayhem involving violent, semi-deranged young men who just grab one of the family guns and mow down five people in a bar. Toddlers who shoot themselves when they stumble across a gun that Dad or Grandpa left sitting on the bed, or find a rifle in the back seat of the car and accidentally kill Mom while she’s pulling into the preschool parking lot. We hear stories like that every day. I don’t think it is all due to caravans of immigrants coming to the border.

With all this, is my child safe to have a playdate?

Thus, one of the parents on our parents list asked what everyone does to make sure their children are safe on play dates. How does one bring up the question about how the parents of your kid’s friends deal with their guns? It is amazing this question must be asked, but we live where we live. Here is the original question:

“I’m wondering how you navigate that awkward “do you have guns? Are they safely locked up?” question when you’re arranging a playdate, etc. for your kids?  I feel like the easiest way to ask is just to put it out there with something like, “Hi, I’m _____. We’d love to have _____ over for a playdate. We don’t have any guns in the house. Do you?”  Hopefully, they’ll then feel free to respond.  Buuuuuut, what if they say yes?  Do you allow your kids to play at people’s houses who own guns and say they’re secured?  And if you don’t, then how do you tell them you don’t want your kid playing at their house?!  I think playdates are great for our kids and great for meeting new people, but I can’t seem to figure this out given our current world.  The end result for me is that I avoid setting anything up with people we don’t already know well, which feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing as I follow Jesus and try to “welcome the stranger.”

Answers

There was a lot more dialogue about this than there were answers on the parents list. But they were so useful, I decided to reprint them.  No names are attached, of course. If you want to be on the parents list, you can be. (I also added a hyperlink for Eddie the Eagle and left out what I thought was extraneous). Here they are:

1) I include this gun question along with questions about food allergies, pets (one of my kids has been bitten twice!), car seats, and other safety things I cover when doing a first play date with a family. Every parent I’ve asked this question has thanked me for asking it.

As for what do when I learn there is an unsecured firearm in the house, I don’t allow my kids to play there without me with them and I keep my kid in eyesight. I’m happy to meet up elsewhere or host the kids at my house instead.

2) I ask about guns when I’m trying to find out a little bit about how a family feels secure in their houses.  I ask about guns and pharmaceuticals (child proof caps?).  I’ve only had one person push back (and not much) about my guns question.  This may be because of where we live – not so many families are gun enthusiasts here in über-liberal West Philadelphia.  Every family I’ve asked these types of questions of has thanked me for asking them as well.

I’m always prepared to discuss why I think gun locks and gun safes are necessary when I ask these questions but the conversation has only gone that far one time.

Personally, I’m okay with a family who keeps guns in their house if they’re secured properly — especially if they’re hunting rifles and such.  Someone who keeps their guns in a safe understands that they’re machines for killing (people, game, whatever) and potentially incredibly dangerous.  Someone who keeps their gun “hidden” in their house so they can get them quickly if necessary is not dealing with reality and their worldview includes what is, to me, an unacceptable level of risk for my kids playing in their house.  There is probably a spectrum of people in between those examples but I’m really only okay with my kids playing in the houses of the folks on the first extreme.  If I meet parents of kids my sons make friends with who are of the “I keep my guns hidden in my house” variety, I plan to say something along the lines of “We’d love to have _____ over to our house but we’re just not comfortable with firearms in the house that aren’t secured so [my kids] won’t be able to come over to _____’s house.”  People who aren’t comfortable with that stance have their own stuff to work out — I’m okay with some tension between me and another parent if that helps keep my kids safer.

3) Our seminarian’s cohort, along with the pastors and the Leadership Team, wrote a teaching on guns and gun violence based on our discussion at our quarterly public meeting. It might be helpful for you as you consider this subject. You may have seen it before, but if not, you can find it on the Way of Jesus website here.

4) I hadn’t seen that summary from the cohort.  It’s wonderful.  This dialogue is making me think I might want to “struggle more” with this as our kids start to get into play dates at other kids homes.  I honestly hadn’t thought of it, nor to ask about other hazards.  Glad we are village parenting!

Image result for eddie the eagle nra gun

5) I think these are all good ideas to address the concern of kids, playdates and guns. To add another piece, talking to our kids about guns will be important, too. I grew up with a video called Eddie the Eagle [from the NRA},  which taught kids about gun safety. The whole thing is based around the question, what do you do if you see [find] a gun? And the answer, according to Eddie was: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult. I believe Eddie is still around as a friend of mine said they covered the topic, with Eddie the Eagle, at her son’s pre-school. This of course, isn’t going to address a philosophical or theological perspective with kids, but it does address the practical instance of encountering a gun, if for some reason it happens, even with the pre-playdate conversations.

6) I’m so glad that you brought up the importance of teaching our children about how to react in the presence of a firearm. Unfortunately, we have sensed the necessity of having this conversation with our kids from a very young age – three or four years old, I think (?). The first conversation may have happened after I witnessed a few kids playing with a handgun on my street. Also, when my dad was a child in the 1950s, his best friend was accidentally killed while playing with a loaded pistol.  He often shares concerns about gun safety with our family.

We’ve tried to have this talk in a less-worrying way that focuses more on being prepared, similar to learning about how to react in case of a fire. I know, however, that some kids do worry about being shot, especially if they participate in school lockdown drills, see certain things in visual media, or have had the misfortune of being in the presence of gun violence.  So… I think we also need to allow our children the space to express how they feel about all of this, and to practice good listening.  That may also help us to discern how to be more proactive.

It is important to talk about everything with each other and our kids, isn’t it!

I suppose we’ll have to talk a lot if everyone is going to have their privates exposed and their guns strewn around their privacy. Here is one last word from Jesus that might be comforting in the face of this troubling era. I like it in The Voice translation: “I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order” (John 16:33).

Loss and Longing in Oscar’s Best Original Song Nominees

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This year’s original songs nominated for an Oscar have an unsurprising theme: loss and longing. If they are not downright sad, they are about sad situations, sad lives and a deep longing we can all relate to.

Sad songs are more popular than happy ones and have greater staying power. I wish Pharrell’s Happy would last longer than Adele’s Hello, but I would not count on it.

In a sad world, sad songs can be addictive.  So be careful; it is sad out there. Research suggests that sad music can play a role in emotional regulation — I think everyone knows the word “cathartic” by now; and everyone talks about “venting.” Music-evoked sadness helps us release emotional distress in a safe, beautiful way and provides some distance for reappraisal, and insight. Sometimes it gives us the chills, which feel good and soothe anxiety. Sad music teases out hormones like  oxytocin and prolactin, which are also associated with mom’s cuddles and falling in love. So the aftermath of a sad song can be a period of feeling not so sad. Of course we’ll need a another dose very soon – at least most of us seem to. But we like going back for more.

Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy

Jesus followers, contrary to what some of their teachers taught in the last century [like this], are encouraged to be sad in a hopeful way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

We have a safe place in Christ to grieve fearlessly, knowing that we are not in danger of the deadly despair we dread. When we are wearing our true selves, we can sorrow without defeat and experience sadness without hopelessness.  We can aspire to true sorrow and true hope.

One reason Paul gives for this wonderful capacity is our knowledge that we grieve temporarily. We know our grief will come to an end. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Paul highlights that hope by pointing back in time and then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

This year’s songs are also acquainted with grief and longing for something else

The songs nominated for Best Original Song of 2018  are all longing for the hope Jesus instills in us (at least unconsciously). Take a look and see what you think.

All the Stars

Black Panther is a hopeful movie about a culture in hiding, its treasure masked by its contradictory camoflauge of poverty.

Kendrick Lamar and SZA sing a duet of the nominated song, All the Stars, during the credits. Here’s part of it:

Love, let’s talk about love.
Is it anything and everything you hoped for?
Or do the feeling haunt you?
I know the feeling haunt you

This may be the night that my dreams might let me know:
All the stars are closer, all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer…

How did it all go to feel good?
You could live it all.
If you feel bad better live your life
We were runnin’ out of time.

I do not know everything Kendrick Lamar is getting at. But I can tell he is longing, like the movie, for respect. Even deeper, he is trying not to let love slip away, even though he would like to stop feeling the pain of missing it. Maybe even deeper than that, he would like the moment when he feels the stars are closer to be a regular occurrence — he misses God, too.

I’ll Fight

RBG is a bit of hagiography about the lawyer-turned-SCOTUS-member who worked valiantly to put women’s rights into law.

The song is called I’ll Fight. And RBG can pack a wallop for someone as notoriously diminutive as she is. Here is a bit:

When you feel you’re taking all that you can take
And you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break
And the tears are rivers running down your face, yeah
When your faith is low and you’ve got no strength left
When you think you’ve gone as far as you can get
And you’re too run down to take another step

Oh I will take up the struggle
Oh I know it’s a fight

So I’ll fight, fight that war for you
I’ll fight, stand and defend you

Saints have often been stand-ins for the Savior. So it is appropriate that Jennifer Hudson, the church woman, steps up to sing a testimony: “I was low but you rescued me, I was defenseless and you were my strength.” It sounds like a psalm!

The song longs for that person who meets us when the tears are streaming down our face. Ultimately, I met that person in Jesus. But Jesus has a lot of friends. Every Jesus follower keeps growing in Jesus-like empathy and conviction; so sing it, Jennifer! And plenty of humans who don’t follow Jesus have goodness and courage built right in as the beloved creatures they are; so stay alive, Ruth!

The Place Where Lost Things Go

Above is the songwriter singing his version. If you want Emily Blunt, here she is.

Mary Poppins Returns is a great remake of the original. It should be given an award for daring! Emily Blunt should win prizes for letting herself be compared to the icon, Julie Andrews. Like so many Disney movies, the drama centers around the death of a parent. In this case, it is mom who is lost — thus, this stanza of The Place Where the Lost Things Go:

So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she’s always there
Watching as you grow
Hiding in the place
Where the lost things go

The theology of many movies teaches children that dead people are like stars that shine down on us from heaven. And if you don’t forget people they are still alive, at least in your heart. I have, indeed, imagined that loved ones I miss are still looking over me, and my memories of them comfort me, since I still miss them. So this is a sweet, if somewhat untrustworthy song.

God has been generally banished from the movies, but we still need a Savior (Black Panther, RBG, and Mary Poppins) and we still need and still long for a touch of love and mystery in our sadness (strength in blackness, strength in weak old age, and strength returning to Dad in his deep, deep sadness). I hope Jesus appreciates how religious these movies are! He is still needed!

Shallow

I wasn’t much of a Gaga fan until this movie. As soon as I saw it, I forgave her for following Janet, JUDY and Barbra, she was just so talented! Plus, she writes evocative songs, like Shallow. Here’s a lot of it.

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In just a few brief lines, this duet hits us where sadness meets fear: “Will I ever get to be who I feel I am? Is my longing doomed to go unmet?” I appreciate the clever image of crashing through the surface. It is on the other side of what seems to be the impenetrable surface that we find out we can’t be hurt like we feared quite so much.

For Lady Gaga, personally, the wall between men and women is broken down as the partners listen and empathize in this song. What’s more, the walls the misfits, like her, need to crash through is demonstrated for everyone needing to find courage.

I went back and listened to the words above as if Jesus were singing them, wherever that seemed right. It fit for me. I am blessed with people who crash through surfaces with me and for me. But when it comes to finding the place where they can’t hurt me, that comes with Jesus crashing into humanity and then crashing through death. My courage is too shallow to get where the song promises. Lady Gaga is worth about $300 million dollars — I know it does not buy her the great courage she has, but it surely helps. The rest of us probably need more.

When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a set of stories in which someone is going to die. It is a movie about death. The crack shooter, Buster Scruggs, sings the nominated song, When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, as he is ascending to heaven. Here’s much of it:

When they wrap my body
In the thin linen sheet
And they take my six ounce
Pull the boots from my feet

Unsaddle my pony
She’ll be itching to roam
I’ll be halfway to heaven
Under horsepower of my own

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
When the roundup ends
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
And the campfire dims

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades
His spurs for wings

The final one of the film shorts that make up the movie: “Mortal Remains,” is the only one in which the characters are already dead. They are only marginally aware of this reality. They remind me of the spirits in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (MUCH recommended, if you haven’t read it yet). This final parable pulls the rest of the stories together. It is the story of how three people who would normally not be in the same stagecoach together find their souls being harvested.

As dead people they try to put things together. Each is very sure of their own point of view as to what is happening. With a nod to why sad songs and stories about death move us so much, one of the harvesters notes that “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”  Each person’s confirmation bias can’t save them; though different, each is just as dead as the other. It is a Coen Brothers parable. They seem to see a world full of swift repercussions, but one that is also random, in which the only certainty is death.

The humor that laces the Coen Brothers’ debate with the narcissism and nihilism of the postmodern era leaves room for love and hope, which their wacky characters often demonstrate. The whole, three-hour Oscar ceremony, complete with the often less-than-classic nominated songs it elevates, is a similar celebration. Beautiful, talented people celebrate, show honor, cry, praise people (and sometimes God), and showcase the best of humanity.

I feel for the attenders, all all gussied up for their stagecoach ride in the Dolby Theater, all with their longings, 80% of the nominees soon to experience loss. In many ways, as the nominated songs are performed,  they will reveal their sadness and longing.  Those beautiful people might experience that tingle we feel when something has broken through our surface and the Holy Spirit gets an opportunity to beckon us into eternity and our true selves.

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

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

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

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

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

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

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

The economy did not send people to Disney

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

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

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

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following the Feast Maker God: Our way to hospitality

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Parable of the Great Supper by Harold Copping (1863-1932)

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

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

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

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

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

It is a good thing the host is caring for others

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

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

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

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

The center of our feast is the center of our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

My son reported that a person making their covenant last Saturday at the Love Feast said they were taking a stand with the church as a reaction to Trump. Hearing that was one of the best moments of my weekend!

A lively Love Feast makes for an alive church. Authentic, living covenant members make for a lively Love Feast. Put it all together and the living body of Christ is, indeed, the antidote to what ails the world — and Trump’s character is an ailment.

I have written a lot about the president since he began running for office. He is terrible for Christians – for those who hate him and those who love him. For the last two years, his evil ways have only become more evident. I can still understand how he can get a rally going in Illinois. But we Jesus followers need to understand our role in providing people an escape from the aftermath of his rhetoric.

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Proud Boys beating up a protester outside their meeting.

What is happening?

On Thursday, law enforcement arrested Gregory Bush, who tried to shoot up a black church, couldn’t get in, and so moved onto a Kroger grocery store and killed two black patrons in cold blood while pointedly sparing a white one. On Friday, it was Cesar Sayoc, who was charged with sending mail bombs to a bunch of folks who just so happen to be targets of Donald Trump’s verbal attacks. And on Saturday, it was Robert Bowers, who entered a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and, amid a torrent of anti-Semitic hate speech, went on a rampage that left 11 people dead from gunshot wounds. That marks three days in a row, then, that an angry, middle-aged man committed a violent crime that certainly appears to have been encouraged, at least in part, by Donald Trump’s decision to turn the bully pulpit into a bully’s pulpit.

Not long before, the pro-Trump Proud Boys beat up opponents after their leader spoke at the Republican Club in NYC. At the same time, news outlets were reporting that Trump’s lying was actually picking up speed in advance of the elections, trying to stoke the Kavanaugh confirmation victory momentum – and yes, he lamented that last week’s events sapped the momentum. And yes, he did say the synagogue would have been protected from the Nazi if they had an armed guard.

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Evocative stock image

To stand in this evil day we need a place to stand.

We can’t just shout back or fight back. We need to build the alternative. So I am encouraged when someone wants to build the church as a response to Trump and any of his  supporters who are as deluded as he would like.

That brings me to another good moment during my weekend. I was at the conference of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies in Lancaster (CAPS — Gwen is on the board). I went to a workshop led by an expert on rumors.  He had some interesting things to say about people who flood the airwaves with lies so people give up on knowing the truth. He had some good psychological reasons why people love conspiracy theories so much. He also said that what we are facing, every day now, is blatant evil. Like the Bible recounts, people who don’t follow Jesus are in league with the father of lies, the devil. The tongue is a fire, James says.

We are not just in a political battle. Such a battle might be a distraction if it were not put into perspective. We are in a final campaign against rebellious powers for the rule of humanity.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For 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. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. – Ephesians 6:11ff

The presenter reminded us that Jesus has defeated the enemy. We are mopping up with him. But just because the decisive battle has been won, does not mean the enemy is not in a frenzy of resistance, like any cornered, wild animal might be. A striking example of this reality is how the Nazis “turned up the ovens” in 1944 after it became evident that World War 2 was lost. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6000 Jews a day that year. In March, diverting much-needed resources from the war effort, Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to supervise the deportation of the country’s Jews. By July, 440,000 had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In a final act of delusion, a month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies — the “blood for goods” proposal. Again and again we see the devil’s allies acting in similar ways. They might beat people up in the street, but we must not be afraid or begin to think that trading blood for goods is an actual option.

What we are doing is more important than ever

Trump is not the first disciple of the father of lies to come into a powerful position in the world. And we are not the first or last group of Jesus followers who take our faith seriously enough to build the alternative in the face of their strategies for domination — our movement got started under the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula, after all! Trump is just a shocking inspiration for all the activities we might normally take for granted in a more peaceful world, like a lively Love Feast.

Being a cell, forming a team, meeting for worship are all taking on their truest meaning aren’t they? They aren’t just about our good feelings or personal development; they are about transforming the world and giving people an escape from the madness of the evil powers – and all those regular activities are transforming  people and offering people an escape.

Having a well-supplied Common Fund is more important than ever. Sharing our money is not like paying the rent on our spiritual house, it is about making us strong and supplying visionary leaders who can keep us together and equipped to stand in an evil day. And we are standing in significant ways — against forgotten diseases like lupus, against the unjust justice system, against the oppression of the poor who are forced out of their homeland in Central America and other places all over the world, against mental illness, joblessness, addiction, loneliness, faithlessness and fear.

As I was writing this, another person sent me a text about the Love Feast. They were excited! That meeting, like so many of the meetings we hold, was like a big rock in the societal pool of our region. We don’t know where the ripples will carry the news that Jesus is risen and alive in his people. As Paul encourages the Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” We’re part of the campaign to redeem the world. We have another Lord and we won’t bend the knee to the latest liar who tries to usurp Jesus.

Advertising: Our hate/maybe-not-hate-so-much relationship — video version

Perhaps I will figure out how to get a better pic on the face page of my video. But this one is pretty accurate. Someone asked me to do video versions of my blogs, so I tried it for the one I sent you on Monday. Let me know what you think.

Advertising: Our hate/maybe-not-hate-so-much relationship

In 1997, about the time Circle of Hope hired Gerry West to help with music, a couple of ethnographic filmmakers followed a theater group through Papua New Guinea who were hired to be “advertising missionaries.” We once had an IVEP person connect with Circle of Hope from Papua, so that makes the film even more interesting [about IVEP].

Screenshot of Papuan converting to Coke.

Back then in Papua New Guinea, three quarters of the population could not be reached by the regular advertising mediums of television, radio or print. “The market” had to be developed by other means. Small theater groups traveled to remote places performing soap operas devised around advertising messages for a variety of products. They were missionaries sent to bring the consumer revolution to the people of the highlands. They would unfold a set on the back of a flat-bed truck, portraying a modern Western living-room where the advantages of Coca-Cola, Colgate, clothing, canned food, and washing powder were touted. The film observes the impact of the advertising theater on a previously “untouched” village in the remote valley of Yaluba. The change is sometimes comic, but, to my Western eyes, mostly tragic as the natives are converted to the religion of consumer capitalism.

There are reasons we are a well-kept secret

From the beginning, Circle of Hope has had a bad relationship with advertising, since the whole language seems tainted by another religion. As a result, we might be one of the best kept secrets in town. People who find us are consistently relieved to have done so. But they often say, “Why have I never heard about you before now?” One of the reasons is that many of us feel if we tell someone about Jesus or about what His church is doing, it sounds like advertising and advertising is, essentially, evil. Does that make us a very holy group?

Maybe your church feels a similar ambivalence or outright resistance. I was talking to one of Dan’s friends at his wedding last weekend and he said he dabbled in a big Baptist church in Jersey. His take was that people came to it because the church had a bang-up “living nativity” every year. I imagine many in our church and maybe yours would consider that unholy, if not embarrassing, advertising.

So the evil advertisers have shut many of us up. We don’t want to seem like them so we just don’t say anything. That reaction sounds like something right out of Screwtape Letters: “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” We want to open our mouths because we love Jesus and we think our church is a miracle. But we dare not sound like we are advertising. So we get in the habit of never speaking. Then we become numb to the feeling that people really need to hear from us.

This might sound far-fetched. But I know aversion to advertising is a strong sentiment among us because I have often been in charge of the limited advertising the church does. Many people are extremely sensitive about how we look to the stranger they imagine who receives our mailings or sees our website. They are afraid those unsuspecting people are going to feel invaded by some lame thing from a church and think Jesus is lame (or themselves, of course). They have a reason to fear, since so many churches, especially the big ones with live nativities in the front yard, speak advertising like their native language and turn off as many people as they turn on by their collusion with consumer capitalism —something like this, maybe.

Can we learn the language spoken in our mission field?

Lately, some of our leaders did some thinking about this and decided we needed to take some risks to make some new relationships. We need to have “advertising” as a second or third language. While our main language will always be spoken face to face, which has been the main way we grew to nearly 700 people, we think that among the nearly 7 million people in the metro there are many more people who would like to meet us. So we want to learn to speak their language better. Right now they might speak advertising better than English, for the most part. So we at least want to dip our toes in that water. We think we can get better at representing Jesus and our vision in all sorts of ways that won’t bring shame on the Lord or embarrass the sensitive hearts among us. A key distinction between the world’s advertising and ours is that ours is a result of being constrained by God’s love. We advertise because we are already compelled. It remains to be seen if that love can get through to people in spite of the medium of marketing in the U.S.

We don’t meet too many people who have not checked out our webpage before they show up at a meeting.

This is what we think we are doing with the medium, which is quite different than the hucksters in New Guinea trying to get villagers to drink warm Coke. For us, any advertising we do…

  • is a hand of friendship to people who respond to advertising.
  • is an opportunity – for the Holy Spirit to move and for unchurched to change. Each way of connecting can be used by the Spirit beyond our strategy or control.
  • is a way to shape perception. We want people to see Jesus and the church favorably.
  • is a way to subvert the lies that flood the airwaves and infect the landscape. Ben wrote about this.

We cannot “clever” people into the kingdom of God. Our best advertising is the love we have for one another, the open confession and forgiveness of our sins and the compassion we show to those in need – the fruit of the Spirit. If any of our demonstrations can do it, these everyday miracles can awaken the desire in unchurched people to know Jesus and become part of the Christian community. Advertising in itself doesn’t make the body of Christ happen. It is a way to be found by people who are looking. Our goal is not, “Let’s have really good marketing.” Our goal is, “Let’s show people Jesus and what he is doing in our church.” Advertising simply reveals what is already happening. If nothing is happening, there is nothing advertising can do to fix that!

Re-begin the Beguines: True alternativity we’ve just barely tried

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For 300 years, from the 1200’s to 1500’s the Rhine River Valley in Europe experienced an astonishing revival of Christian experience among regular people. One of the great expressions of it was the founding of many communities of “beguines” and their male counterparts “beghards.” These communities were part of a huge spiritual movement that stressed the imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. {Check out the best seller of the time]

I am praying for a  new flowering of similar discovery and passion in our own time. If you read this blog, you probably stoke my hope. Many younger Jesus-followers, in particular, are trying on the basic Christianity their recent ancestors in faith have abandoned for political fights and empire thinking. Circle of Hope is a good opportunity to try on some beguine-like radicality. So can we re-begin the beguines? We are in the process of refining our church in many ways, these days, could the beguines lead us?

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Priest lectures a group of beguines

What is a “beguine?”

No one knows for sure where the word “beguine” came from. It could be a derivation of “beige,” since many of these people were heavily involved in the flourishing new cloth manufacturing trade in Europe and wore simple tan clothes. Maybe they’d be called “denims” today. But “beguine” could also be a pejorative nickname that stuck, like “Christian” — no one really knows.

I admit, when I remembered these inspiring people the other day, I passed over the great mystics among them and went straight to Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter (who may be as obscure to some of you as the 13th century!). In the Creole language of Martinique and Guadeloupe a beguine is not a Christian lay woman living in a religious community without formal vows. The term came to mean “white woman” in general, and then it came to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples’ dance. Cole Porter popularized this dance wherever people were cool in the 30’s and 40’s. There is not much connection between Cole Porter and my spiritual heroes, which goes to show how spiritual movements flourish, get co-opted or corrupted and are lost on some dance floor. But I persist.

According to the famous mystic, John of Ruusbroec, the beguines’ religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them (Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310). The Beghards were even more public about their reforms; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Pope, the German bishops and the Inquisition. Before the close of the Middle Ages, the communities were in decline, diminished by institutionalization, persecution and the waning of the textile trade. But some beguinages kept going for 800 years until the last beguine died in 2013.

They weren’t trying to build a legacy, anyway, much the opposite; they were just trying to have a life in Christ. When radicals like the Franciscans started speaking the gospel outside the church and its power structure, in the vernacular and not just in Latin, it led to thousands of people acquiring a genuine relationship with Jesus, which ultimately led to an intimate oneness with God. This spiritual progression was ultimately known as “mysticism” [link to posts on “mystical hope“].

The last intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium
An intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

Part of a great movement of the Spirit

Responding to itinerant preachers before the year 1200, women by the thousands flocked to various convents. The communities did not have room for all of them. So they joined together in their own communities for spiritual growth and pooled their resources to buy  large houses to live in (above), or whole sections of a city. Initially, the beguines were widows and single women, but soon married women found ways to connect. They were devoted to the poor. Some of the first houses formed around infirmaries where many volunteered. They bought the new Bibles being translated into local languages and studied together. They wrote their own devotional books, music and philosophy. Some of the earliest books in Dutch and German were written by Beguines, such as Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechthild of Magdeburg. Radically in love with Jesus, these women saw themselves as brides of Christ and gave their lives to the pursuit of knowing Jesus and serving his cause.

How far can we go with similar intent? It would be great if some of our good businesses became means for people to pray together, then go work on their common business. It would be amazing if people saw our cells and congregations as distinct parts of the city where people protected one another’s relationship with God. It would be wonderful if we managed to care for the poor in new ways that did not rely so much on corporations and government.  It would be wonderful to incorporate more of the feminine and fluid theology of the era of the beguines. It would be great if we unleashed our creativity even more to give voice to the movement of Jesus among us. It would be miraculous if our sense of alternativity blossomed into another movement of the Spirit in our time.

I know we are in the process of trying all these things right now. So miracles could occur! Some of us just have a toe in the water, some of us are kind of over “radicality,” some of us are on the other side of Christ-centered faith, many of us are just beginning to walk with Jesus. As the beguines demonstrated, it doesn’t really matter who one is or where you are on the faith journey; renewal and inspiration are all about the Spirit of God — and the Lord’s Spirit is not bound by who we are right now. Where could we go? And who might we become? We have courageous examples from the past who suggest exciting ways to develop.

Dear Google: Why do Americans show such disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies?

The other day I was so tired after sweating through some lawn work I sat down in front of TCM with a big glass of water. And there she was: young Katherine Hepburn acting strangely, as usual, in a movie I had somehow never seen, The Little MinisterSince I have been tagged a “little minister” a few times, I got interested and witnessed a strange view of Christianity — I’m still digesting it. As is sadly common in the movies (and this was 1934!), the plot is about how love must rescue little ministers (and whoever else has their head on straight) from the mean old hypocrites who are “bound by God” to enforce the rules that keep everyone from true love! If elders like those of the Scottish Presbyterian Church portrayed actually exist in great numbers, as the movies lead us to believe (as in, they are in every church of every kind!) then it is no wonder so many people finally give up on the church even though they like Jesus — a lot!

It turns out this little piece of anti-church-elders art started out in 1891 as a J.M. Barrie novel (he wrote Peter Pan) and was turned into a play for the famous Maude Adams in 1897 (who was famous for being the first woman to play Peter Pan, which became a tradition). Then it became a silent movie in 1921 with Betty Compson. Then Katherine Hepburn gave it a star turn in 1934 as a talkie when she was 24 years old.

I suppose I should have been interested in the little minister himself, trying to be all stern and proper in his new parish but falling in love with a “gypsy” (who turns out to be the ward and heir of the Lord of the manor). But the actresses were more interesting, as was their character, who carries all the anti-establishment sentiments of the piece. She’s like St. Francis emerging from the forest — the truth-seeking rebel who always seems to show up to reignite the Spirit, even though the law-keepers and power-mongers are trying to take over the church.

But what interested me even more is how awful the elders of the church were portrayed.  It is not that the church does not deserve to be stereotyped; Pence is the Vice President, after all!  [I’ve complained about him myself.] And his agenda definitely resembles the mean-spirited, loveless stereotype the movies keep undermining. [A stereotype this year’s movie: Paul the Apostle of Christ, undermines quite well]. The stereotype is terrible, but all too true, and it got me thinking.

I decided to do some research, which, as you can tell, is like a hobby for me. I typed into Google: “Americans disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies.” I was hoping that someone had already cataloged all the criticism the church gets onscreen. I did not get a straight answer to my question, but I did get some revelation about how the world sees Christians these days. Take a look at the first four articles that came up.

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#1. The Guardian: “White” Christians are now a minority of the U.S. population

First off, so what? What is “white?” What do you mean by “Christian?” And why do you keep labeling people and making them majorities or minorities? So many problems! But the 2017 article is interesting:

But change is afoot, and US demographics are morphing with potentially far-reaching consequences. Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population.

Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.

The survey is no ordinary one. It was based on a huge sample of 101,000 Americans from all 50 states, and concluded that just 43% of the population were white Christians. To put that in perspective, in 1976, eight in 10 Americans were identified as such, and a full 55% were white Protestants. Even as recently as 1996, white Christians were two-thirds of the population.

I suspect The Guardian thinks these “white Christians” are the same people J.M. Barrie thought were idiots. I’m pretty much OK if their majority disappears too, even though I guess The Guardian would label me one.

#2. Time: Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture

First off, who are “regular” Christians and what is “American culture” (Katherine Hepburn movies? Facebook? Walmart? Childish Gambino?). I think there are plenty of people, like me, who don’t lose a minute of sleep wondering about whether they are welcome in American culture. As a matter of fact, being alternative to American culture might be the same as being saved.

But Mary Eberstadt, as usual, has a point and Time gave her an op-ed in 2016 to voice it;

This new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before.

It is true, the media is a powerful tool for mockery. These days, mockery is like an industry, not a literary device used to get to the truth, as in all the variations of The Little Minister. Trump makes a mockery of truth every day. People mock Trump for making truth a mockery. Christians are right in there and rightly getting it right back at them. Personally, I think we little ministers can do better than mocking or trying to unmock a Hillary or Donald.

#3. The American Conservative: The Problem of Contempt in Christianity

I don’t have any “first offs” for this third entry, since I think she is absolutely right. Contempt kills love and we are swimming in a cesspool of it. The Little Minister was a sweet little stab of contempt in the heart of the church: its leaders, and it deepened a suspicion that infects probably 75% of the people trying to work out the body of Christ together.

Grace Olmstead said this in 2014 and look where we are four years later!

This reminded me of another article on kindness and the “other,” written by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic last week. She writes that the greatest destroyer of marriages is contempt, whereas the greatest builder of marriage is kindness:

Contempt, [researchers] have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.

In contrast, she writes, “If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.” Smith lists several ways to be more consciously kind, but one of the primary ways it to be “generous about your partner’s intentions … The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”

This simple advice should be applied to more than just a marital relationship. What if we treated church, and Christianity as a whole, in this way? Instead of responding to denominational and traditional differences with contempt, what if we tried to assume the best of the other, looked for shared truths, united on core doctrine, and spoke with combined honesty and generosity about the things we see as misguided or wrong? What if we spent more time in shared service, “showing interest and support” for those actions we see as laudable and important, rather than merely looking for things to critique in the denominational “others” around us?

It is good that she started with a critique of how Jesus-followers act, since she went on to describe how Protestants are beginning to feel the backlash from people who have been under their political thumb since the country’s inception. The movies often take the point of view of oppressed “gypsies” (like Katherine Hepburn :)) who are interesting because they contemptuously point out the misplaced and unChristian contempt of church leaders for huge segments of the population.

#4. Wall Street Journal: One Hundred Years of Freud in America

First off: How did this article get into the WSJ? And how did it end up number four in my search? The internet is a strange thing. Did Google know that I am a psychotherapist and this would wind my clock? Did it know that I was analyzing the motives of moviemakers and the reactions of their prey?

This article from 2009 may not interest you much. But it serves to point out what is happening to us. The movies don’t always create the philosophies, they reflect them. Freud was a determined outsider, too, who doggedly unlaced strait-laced people. And Christians, for good and ill, have been loosened from their traditional moorings ever since. I think psychotherapy can unleash the work of the Spirit in us. But it can also become another philosophical overlord if Jesus doesn’t direct it.

A Harris poll last year found that nearly one in three American adults had “received treatment or therapy from a psychologist or other mental health professional.” Orthodox Freudians are relatively rare nowadays, and drugs are replacing psychotherapy as a treatment for many mental ills. (A study out this week from Columbia University says that one in 10 Americans is now on antidepressants.) Yet some version of Freud’s talking cure—with or without the dogma—is an accepted feature of American middle-class life.

Before his visit [1909] , Freud predicted to his circle of followers that presumably strait-laced Americans would never embrace his ideas “once they discover the sexual core of our psychological theories.” But of course in America sex sells; indeed, it is probably one of the biggest reasons that Freud’s theories gained such currency here. As with so much else, he was wrong about that, too.

The Little Minister brought it all down to “true love.” The minister’s head is warmed by a gypsy heart and the whole town is enlivened. Natural goodness is set loose, the minister personally stands between the murderous oppressed and their clueless overlords, takes the knife meant for someone who deserved it, and Jesus is revealed (it is quite a plot!).

Americans show so much disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies because there is a lot of true Christianity laced into America. They have some discernment and hope. The government has often been held in check by the faith of Americans, but not that often (although we don’t know how bad it would have been without the Jesus-followers doggedly following). From my little experience, I think most people can spot a real Christian when they see one. That’s what The Little Minister was all about — spotting the true Christians; one was dressed like a minister, the other like a gypsy. Others were scattered here and there.

There are so many Christ figures in this little movie it deserves an altar call! The heir of the fortune gives it all up after she falls for a true Christian and God answers her prayer for healing. I suppose nowadays, if people don’t see such folks on screen it will be hard to see them at all, since they look at screens so much! But when they look up and see you, I hope you will not feel so much shame at being associated with with the idiot Christians so often depicted in the movies that you forget that you are actually associated with Jesus, who doesn’t need the affirmation of Americans to be the Lord of all.

[Sorry for publishing this twice subscribers!]

Paul’s disasters: And those looming for us

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The apostle Paul’s church planting project was definitely prone to disasters! When I was in Greece following him around, that fact I knew from the history in Acts became more and more evident.

  • In Philippi, the first main stop, he is attacked, flogged and thrown into prison!
  • In Thessalonica, jealous opponents round up ne’re-do-wells and start a riot. He escapes after dark.
  • In Berea, he is successful until agitators from Thessalonica show up. He escapes by sea
  • In Athens, he makes a great speech, but he is not too successful — not quite a disaster, but disappointing.
  • In Corinth, where he stays quite a while, he is thrown out of the synagogue and moves next door. The Jews eventually make a united attack and bring him before the authorities.

When you read Paul’s letters back to these church plants with a disaster lens, you realize that he was trying to prevent what was about to kill them! In Galatia, they are changing the gospel back to Judaism. In Corinth, there are factions which are each  reinventing the good news to support their power struggle. In Philippi, pillars of the church are unreconciled. In Thessalonica, people are freeloading off the community waiting for Jesus to return.

Before we get too discouraged about humanity, Luke makes sure you understand that miracles ensue. [We need those.] I think he makes sure we see how difficult it was to plant the church so no one gets the idea it was not miraculous. His book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, so we more human-centered types will not forget the Apostles were just like us. The big miracle is that the church not only survives, it appears to thrive on disaster, from the first martyrs and persecutions to the present day attacks on Indian believers associated with the Brethren in Christ.

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We are prone to disasters

Last week I reminded our Leadership Team Core of these historical facts as we started our meeting for a couple of important reasons.

First, we Americans think we are so powerful (rich, smart, better, etc.) that everything will and should work out. A traditional song of some American Christians is “Victory is mine!” Others go right along with “God bless USA!” as the camera pans the soldiers. That just goes to say, as the president says, that we think we are supposed to win. So we are easily disappointed. If something doesn’t work (like marriage or most of our electronics) we throw it out. People leave relationships (and so the church) at the drop of the hat, following their bliss. We almost never take the good given, because that offends our sense of what we deserve. We have a Christianity that looks almost nothing like Paul’s and so we cannot do disaster. We hardly ever take uncalculated risks, which he apparently did all day until Nero killed him.

Second, we are headed for any number of disasters

  • Trump may do us in [He’s like Nero].
  • We have bid farewell to a significant number of people in the past year and we might end up on a roll as people think we are less successful than we have been for the past 22 years. [Admit church planting failures]
  • We may buy another building in the Northwest that causes all sorts of trouble. [Do we need buildings?]
  • We are not sharing the amount of money people promised and we might need to make some radical adjustments to adapt. [Sharing is radical]
  • People keep sinning and you never know when the system gets too weak to endure it until it gets too weak.
  • We are transitioning from my former role to a whole new, better, structure. But it takes radicals to do it and we might not even be paying much attention  as (back to point one) we live in the Trump fog.

I must tell you, I think my dire warning about us met with the same reaction I had to Paul’s disasters in Greece and elsewhere. I was excited. I think our LTC was generally excited too. The fact is, we Jesus followers feel like we are really alive when we are on the edge of death in some way. How better to identify with Jesus? Paul said, “I want to share in the Lord’s suffering and so share in his resurrection!” Me too. I’m not going to be foolish in order to tease out a miracle — but I am foolish enough to require one.

I have often had some great solutions to problems, led by the Spirit. But I have to admit, I have persistently relied on miracles when it came to church planting. It is the only authentic and realistic thing to do. I may think I know a lot and think I should exercise a lot of power. But when it comes to church planting, it is an act of the Holy Spirit and we follow in the Lord’s wake to get anywhere at all. When we talk about being on the apostolic edge of what is next all the time (at least I hope you talk about that) it means being on the edge of disaster a lot, since we are also on the edge of the amazing next thing God is making us and making with us.

Wildness and worry: How Paul puts them together

The probable site of the “bema,” or the steps/platform where the magistrates sat, in Philippi.

A boring picture of rocks, then two pieces of the New Testament letters of Paul is not the most exciting way to begin this blog post. I hope it gets better for you.

I am trying to describe how wildness and worry go together in us.  And I mean both words in their best sense, since some of you may think both or either are not that attractive.

  • Wildness, when we are thinking of the Holy Spirit, is alluring — at least it is attractive in people who are free enough to experience and express God’s presence.
  • Worry, on the other hand, is usually seen as unattractive — and it should be when it is all about our fear. I am thinking of it as an inevitable feature of caring for others and for the redemption project, as you will see.

Here are the two Bible portions on my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:21-29

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Galatians 4:19-20…5:7-13

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! …The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

When I was on my pilgrimage recently, following the Apostle Paul through Greece, I had a recurring fear: “If I tell anyone how much I identify with this man, will they label me a grandiose fool?” But last week I had to admit to my spiritual director that Paul has been my spiritual guide from day one of my faith. As I have the vantage point now to look back on many years, I can see how much that is true. I think the parts in bold, above, are key elements of his teaching, and I have tried to make them key to my life.

My new Paul icon from Berea

I identify with both Paul’s wildness and worry

You can decide if the Spirit speaks through Paul, or not, as he would heartily agree you should. So I offered two little portions of his letters today that demonstrate something I recently put together for myself, as well: There is a connection between his wildness and his worry.

My director was parsing out meaning in my deluge of storytelling the other day and he noted how I spoke with delight about how I stood before the “bema” in the ruins of Philippi, undoubtedly near where Paul stood himself, and loved the wildness of the whole scene. Then I was talking about my worries about the future of Circle of Hope and he noticed such a change in my demeanor that it was striking, “What are these two things? Do they go together?” I think he wanted me to stop worrying and move with my bliss.

I eventually told him, “It is all part of the same story.” I had been talking a lot about Paul so I said, “I think I can connect these two things to Paul, want to see me try?” He did. And I remembered today’s verses.

In our dialogue, I had been alluding to our Church Planting Summits last year, when we had all sorts of scenarios for the future of our movement. My director was surprised at how wild we are, since he has been a Presbyterian for a while. For instance, when Presbyterian pastors end their service in a local congregation (like I did in 2016), they are generally sent packing and have a strict no-contact clause in the ending agreement. Circle of Hope did not do that with me. So there I was last summer leading a discussion as Development Pastor about how we should connect as congregations (association, aggregation or composition?) and helping us consider combining congregations if they would be better together than struggling as small groups apart. He marveled at the flexibility! He could see the benefit of being one church in many locations. He said, “Most churches just try to survive and most of their energy goes toward protection, not freedom.” You are rather wild.

But I am also rather worried – quite often. I sometimes think I would rather buy a beach view and practice my well-earned inner peace apart from worries. But then I realize that I hooked my wagon to Jesus and God is very concerned about the earth. It is not so much that the Lord is just worrying over us like something shameful or terrible is going to happen to his creation – he knows the end. But he is worrying like a mother hen might brood over her eggs until they are hatched; and the Lord is fussing like a human mother whose children are just getting mature enough to drive a car.

The wildness of creation is at work. Re-creation has been set loose by Jesus. The sentient, loving beings who carry the heart of it all are yet to be fully revealed. Will they all make it to the good end? I am worried with that kind of worry.

Paul demonstrated both his wildness and worry when he wrote

You can see the complementary nature of wildness and worry in the Spirit in the verses I shared. The passages are often consigned to the “worry” category: “You dear Corinthians with whom I spent so much time. Are you really going to divide up and think you are more special than your teacher?” And “You dear Galatians who responded so favorably to the gospel, are you now going to listen to people who teach you need to be Jews first so you can be Christians?”

I can relate to the worry side. I often think it is wrong to worry — and mistrust in the end is probably wrong. But I might say, “Circle of Hope are you going to squander your community and alternativity now that it is so sorely needed? Will you really think about yourselves first and not imagine a future of mutual trust in Jesus?” Maybe we all relate more to anxiety, so when we see it in Paul we remember it.

But the wildness is also in these passages. I mean that very attractive Spirit-driven wildness that makes Paul such a notable and world-changing guy. I suppose if he walked into the Sunday meeting we’d either adore him or be scared to death by him. The way he makes his point to the Corinthians is to list all the wild things that have happened to him because of his calling in Jesus. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, bandits, hunger, it goes on. When I was following his journey, just the amount of walking he did seemed daunting to me. The prospect of entering a new town in a car provoked enough anxiety in me! — when I was in Philippi, I was complaining that it was too hot and I was glad to get back to my air-conditioned vehicle! Paul was entering a new continent with a brand new message expecting God to work a wonder – and repeatedly that is just what the Spirit did.

To the Galatians he appeals to their highest, wildest selves in contradiction to teachers who had come in and appealed to their lowest and enslaved selves. He speaks so boldly people have been criticizing him for being too aggressive ever since. But Paul feels free and he speaks freely. And he thinks the Galatians can handle their freedom in the Spirit without being reduced to the Jewish law, which was just a tutor for their adulthood in the Spirit as the children of God. When I thought of Paul being hauled up in front of the magistrates, I was reminded of how much faith he had in the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus unleashed!

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A “celebration of what can be” by David M. Kessler

I can’t seem to have wildness without worry, either

I am not sure I convinced my director, but I began to convince myself that my wildness and worry went together. There is no way to take risks unless I hope they will make a difference. There is no way to exercise my freedom without hoping others experience the joy of it. There is no way to be part of a cell or team and not long for the fullness they represent or despair over the trials they face. There is no way to build the wild thing called the church and not worry over its future and brood over the fragile new birth springing up in it all the time. Paul was not just traveling around Greece for the sheer exhilaration of exercising his thrilling new freedom to do so! He was nurturing a people who would be set upon, almost immediately, by their own unprocessed sin and by people ready to redirect their movement into channels that suited themselves more than Jesus!

The movement of the good news in Jesus keeps on rolling in about the same way it did in Paul’s time. As I look back on how Jesus has led me, it makes me happy to think my mentor from the past was so influential. I wish I could be more like him, even now. But I am delighted the same Spirit who moved him made me like him at all! — intrinsically wild and often worried for good reasons.