Category Archives: Doing Theology

Is Circle of Hope too political?

The man was not a big fan of the church to begin with, but that’s another story. When he walked back into a meeting not long ago after a prolonged absence, he was immediately hit with an impassioned speaker calling us to prayer about a burning issue. I can’t remember which issue. It could have been caged children or climate change, the heroin scourge or income disparity, or the continued marginalization of Philadelphia school children.  In our church it would be surprising if something like that were not a part of the meeting; it’s part of our liturgy. After all, our proverb says: We are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.

He left the meeting angry and pretty much decided not to come again. When the pastor asked him about it, he asked her back, “Why is Circle of Hope so political?”

Circle of Hope protesting at the DNC

The question has been asked many times before and never by someone who was lost in wonder. So let’s ask it again. Is Circle of Hope too political? If you’re part of another rendition of the church (I know this gets read in India periodically), you can ask it about your own church: “Why are we, or are we not, so political?”

First, about the word

The word “political” has two general meanings. The first one is not what the man was worried about, but it might have been what the church was doing. The word political can simply name something  relevant to politics — it has political origins, implications, or effects.

To politicize something in this sense means to make it a topic of politics and public concern, that’s all. It does not necessarily belong to a party or even a “side.” It is just an issue we share. President Obama’s former science advisor John P. Holdren used the term this way when he noted, “Science is already politicized (even if many scientists themselves resist admitting it),” because decisions about public funding for science are “made through a political process.”

But the word political also has a second meaning that links it directly to political activity. People use the word this way when talking about “political competition” or “political protest,” or when saying a previously routine matter “has become very political.” If something is political in this sense, it is about moving the people toward one’s desired ends, or just thwarting one’s competitor, usually with politics understood as the pursuit of power.

To politicize something in this sense thus often has a pejorative meaning, suggesting unsavory methods and a lack of principle. In debates over climate change, vaccines, and similar issues, critics of mainstream science often claim it has been politicized in this sense. Bob Walker, for example, a former congressman and campaign adviser to Donald Trump, recently said that “Climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.”

Sometimes we are too political

It is the second sense of the word that my friend walked out on. In the cutthroat political atmosphere of the U.S., many people are sick of everything being political. Someone struggles with their identity and they enter a political competition in which one needs to choose a side before they can figure out which side they might be on if there were even a reason to have sides! Very few people think children separated from their parents and sent to unknown places is a good thing, but once it gets to be a political struggle among the authorities it is hard to remember what we agree about.

I have walked out on a few of our presentations myself, at least in my heart. When someone comes before the group assuming we all agree and then implies that everyone on another side of their issue is in league with the devil (and they often mean the Republicans!) that’s too much for me. We’re often as bad as the politicians who seem to be playing a blood sport instead of serving the common good. Such people actually think if they don’t play politics well, nothing will get done. Maybe they are right about the Senate, but they are not right about the kingdom of God. I don’t need to cite a Bible verse; you all know that the ways of the world are not the way of Jesus.

We’ve done ample theology about the holiness of one’s cup.

No one played politics like that less than Jesus. That has to be a main reason the government killed him. He violated all their rules while being perfectly innocent before them! At the end, he was the forgiving victim of their power struggle and then rose from the dead to show how powerless it really was. So if we are throwing out Jesus to engage in society’s  power struggle in the name of Jesus (since we need to play politics well to get the will of God done), I’d say we are WAY too political. If our politics-become-holiness damns people with whom Jesus is not finished, we are WAY too political.

Everything, in a sense, is political

The first sense of the word is less understood these days, it seems, at least among Christians. On the one hand, many blindly accept that politics means a competition for who wins. More commonly, on the other hand, they think being involved in politics is dirty, so they just avoid the whole thing. Their solution to being overly involved and responsible is to be avoidant and irresponsible. “The church should not be involved in politics,” is what they say. Since we are the church, I suppose that implies a strangely divided heart  — part of us involved in “church,” but the rest of us allowed to be involved in politics.

There is not much that is not political if we are all in this together. The word came into common use from the title of Aristotle’s book meaning “affairs of the cities” or “of the people.” Whatever rises to the attention of the people is politicized. For instance, in U.S.  society, people are debating whether Flint’s tainted water is a political football, or just something everyone should be concerned about. Should refugee families (or just anyone trying to cross the border) go through ten years of arguing and anxiety among the powers that be or should they be cared for in a respectful way? Should politicians use science to scare people or to help people? Americans don’t know the answers to those questions, as a people, but they are political questions for everyone.

In this first, major sense of the word, Jesus was wildly political. The Romans knew he was a rival king, questioning the legitimacy of their power. The religious leaders knew he was a rival rabbi, teaching things that upended the status quo and questioning the foundations of their retributive law and scapegoating system. Greedy, sexually immoral, unreconciled, uncaring, godless people all found their conditions raised up into public view as Jesus taught, healed and saved — all in the public eye, for the most part, raising the issue of a right relationship with God, revealing our utter need for grace. Nothing was privatized, nothing was hidden, nothing was only secular or sacred.

If anything, our church is not political enough!

Don’t get me wrong, if “political” is just more insensitive “holiness” that angrily draws lines and damns the other side motivated by a worldly lust for power that’s not from the Lord. We might as well be Democrats instead of Christians, who will never have the forgiving victim, Jesus, at the center of their platform.

But if, as Jesus followers, we persistently raise the questions that need to be answered by the people in this era, I think we are in step with the Lord. For the most part, we don’t shy away from boldly raising the questions, even if someone walks into our meeting and judges us according to their unloving (or maybe just unconsidered) standard.

Our compassion teams often bring up what needs to be brought up while never having a meeting. Do we need to be slaves to debt? Do black lives matter? Can we stop mass incarceration of people of color and the poor while the 1% are unaccountable? Can we find ways to share? Can at least the Christians hold hands across the borders? Can we proactively make the peace we all want rather than the war that never achieves it?  Can we live in harmony with our watershed? Can we feel the land and farm it even in the city? Can doing business do good? Do children and the suffering have to live on the margins? And more. I think they do politics well. they bring things up with their actions, not just their tweets. That’s a lot like Jesus.

Like I said, I think most everything Jesus did was purposely “political” in the first sense of the word.  For one final example, one of the most overtly political things he did was go into the Temple and reclaim it as a house of prayer. The people who dominated the temple questioned his politics.

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:18-9.

At his trial his accusers said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

The accusers were talking about the central political symbol of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish people and Jesus was talking about himself. The presence of God needed to become a political issue. As it turns out, the accusers were unwittingly right, His death destroyed the old order and his resurrection created the new. That’s good politics. We dare not be pushed off the scene by fear or disdain, when we look at others or they look at us. Jesus came for us all and people need to see that. Jesus can transform our politics, starting with his church, and people need to hope that.

Code switching: All us weird people need community

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

Code switching as a survival tool

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

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

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

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

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

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

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

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

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

Weird, code-switching people need community

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

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

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

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

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

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

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

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

Wrestling with rumors: WWJD with #WWG1GWA?

On March 20, President Trump retweeted a 2-year-old video of a teenager receiving a zealous pat down by a TSA agent in the Dallas airport while his mother filmed the incident, knowing she would be delayed that much more if she caused any more trouble with the security guards (WP). I don’t want to show you the video, because it just gives it more playtime, and by this time, the video is a meme.

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We are in a season of rumor

But I can’t help talking about the source who belatedly brought the video to Trump’s attention, through a winding path of Twitter celebrities. It shows where he gets his information and makes me wonder why the president, and so many others, are so fond of spreading conspiracy theories. The TSA is branded as an instrument of the over-reaching government and Trump spreads the rumor its all part of a conspiracy.

In general, we are all figuring out what is going on by spreading and assessing rumors. For instance, last week an FB friend asked me if an old rumor about Circle of Hope is true: “I was told you don’t believe in dinosaurs.” She sent me a screenshot of the FB dialogue about us and one person chimed in to verify our “unbelief.” “Absolutely true!” he said. We are in the season of rumors becoming accepted facts. BTW, I had just been to the Natural History Museum in NYC and saw some of the dinosaur fossil record, which I don’t think is an elaborate fake.

I suppose “conspiracy theories” are graduate-level rumors. My acquaintance, Nicholas DiFonzo gave a brief outline of his extensive and helpful research on rumor on this video.

The video Trump shared appeared on a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed, which is operated by a man who pushes QAnon theories. I don’t pretend to know what is going on with QAnon since I just became aware of them. Although, being Anabaptish by persuasion, I’m probably in line with half their motivations. Regardless of my general ignorance, here is one man’s take on who the anonymous Q (and team) are: QAnon for beginners.

The man Trump retweeted has a Twitter bio which includes the phrase “WWG1WGA,” shorthand for “Where We Go One We Go All.” That hashtag is a rallying point for the narrative that ties together the Pizzagate conspiracy and a supposed “deep state” plot to control American politics (WP from last August). WWG1WGA is the main Q slogan.  It’s thought to come from the 1996 Ridley Scott film White Squall about a group of young people caught at sea in a terrible storm. “The Storm” is a common metaphor for Trump’s assault on the Deep State. Trump himself referenced it last October during a dinner with military commanders. People are painting the slogan on walls here and there.

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The Washington Post sneers at such conspiracy theory purveyors, but it is useful to understand them. Once a rumor has been repeated enough and not debunked, it begins to build a worldview. Many QAnon people are persuaded Donald Trump is standing in the way of a cabal of the 1% who are determined to create a global police state that will take away their freedoms, and they are determined to be on the right side of history (an example of America’s doomsday obsession).

QAnon has a religious wing

Apart from the President’s collusion with them, my main interest in QAnon was generated by the following video from the blogger Sean/Cordicon (above). Through him, I learned about the QAnon manifesto. He also represents the religious wing to the movement which emerged out of the ooze of 8Chan. (You can see elements of the QAnon 8Chan  posts here). In the following video, Cordicon is a little disappointed with the marketing campaign for the movement’s seminal book, but he has more instructive things to say about the surprising connections being made with 1st century Christianity.

Sean seems like a sensitive guy, and he is passionate about Jesus. At some point, he discovered a Jesus, promoted since the 1830’s or so, who is something of a prototype for himself: a person who has been denied his true existence by the powers. In case you did not watch the video (who has time for every link in this post!), I’ll tell you that, at one point, he held up the book below about the “Q” source for the gospels posited by some 19th century theologians. He claims this book represents the true Jesus.

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I suppose it was inevitable that QAnon and the Q Source for the gospels would meet and have a baby via the internet.

The Gospel of Q that has captured Sean’s imagination remains a hypothetical document. No intact copy has ever been found. No reference to the document in early Christian writings has survived. Its existence is inferred from an analysis of the text of Matthew and Luke.

James Robinson helped infer it. Robinson was part of the famous Jesus Seminar that began dialogue in the 1980s. He is also one of the main popularizers of the Gospel of Q. He says,

The Sayings Gospel Q is even older than the Gospels in the New Testament. In fact, it is the oldest Gospel known! Yet it is not in the New Testament itself — rather, it was known to, and used by, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the eighties and nineties of the first century when they composed their Gospels. But then it was lost from sight and only rediscovered in 1838, embedded in Matthew and Luke.

After all, Q is a product of the Jewish Jesus movement that continued to proclaim his message in Galilee and Syria for years to come, but from which practically no first-century texts have survived. The New Testament is mainly a Gentile collection, and hence only preserves the sources of Gentile churches.”

The “Gentile churches” got a reputation with a collection of mainly German scholars, not for following the Spirit of God, but for imposing a European, Greek and Roman gospel that eradicated the original Jewish, Syrian Jesus. You can see how this easily morphs into general QAnon thinking. The QAnon people are rebelling against the “new world order” imposed by some “Illuminati,” the same kind of people who buried the real Jesus!

Here’s a little more about the hidden “Q” source for Matthew and Luke. Scholars compared Matthew and Luke to Mark and saw when Matthew and Luke tell the story about Jesus, for the most part they both follow the order and often even the wording of Mark. But, into this common narrative outline, Matthew and Luke each insert extra sayings and teachings of Jesus. And although Matthew and Luke do not put these sayings in the same order, nevertheless they each repeat many of the same ones, sometimes word for word.

The scholars thought it unlikely that either Matthew or Luke could have copied from the other, so how can this sort of agreement be explained? The answer appeared to be that Matthew and Luke each had two sources in common: the Gospel of Mark and another gospel, now lost, a collection of sayings known only as Q. Q stands for “Quelle,” the German word for source. Although no actual copy of Q has ever been found, many scholars are convinced that such a document once circulated in early Christian communities. Here is an essay about it from The Atlantic: The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.

Should we think about Q or do anything about it?

I wrote this piece to try to give some context to what is brewing in the U.S.. You might run into QAnon and think the theories are facts! Rumors grow into conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories become division and wars.

Even more, I wrote to question what amounts to a rumor and then a conspiracy theory that the true, original Jesus has been lost with Q. You might come to think if we strip away the narrative of the Lord’s “supposed” death and resurrection and all the miracle stories, we would see the real Jesus in the wisdom sayings that are left. We would then have the purest Jesus, relieved of the burden of European domination, Greek philosophy and expectations of power.

To be honest, I agree with some of what the Jesus Seminar was trying to do as they searched for Jesus beyond the trappings of His Westernization, even if they were searching from a position of authority with their Western academic assumptions firmly in place and came to spurious conclusions. But I don’t think we need to throw out the “bathwater” of the Bible to find the “baby” Jesus again.

And while I can appreciate that Sean would love to have a Jesus who emerges from behind the veil of the domination system, I don’t think we need to embroil the Lord in the latest conspiracy theory, as if he can be reduced to a LARP. Sean does not think he is in a live action role play, but I’m pretty sure he would admit he has plenty of people jumping on the bandwagon who aren’t as serious as he is. Jesus has often been used as a pawn in some political struggle. We don’t need to collaborate with the latest.

I was drawn to Paul again in 2 Corinthians 10 as a place to ponder what Jesus would do:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

We must not wage war as the world does, not with its philosophies and not with its weapons. That seems sure. We must develop a deep, Spirit to spirit relationship with God, live in an authentic community in Christ where we can discern together, and trust that our meager attempts to understand the truth and tell it will be met with supernatural assistance.

Maybe most of all, I think Sean reminded me that Jesus listens to people, even on the internet, with compassion and openness, ready to honor their value and deepen their understanding. We are all wrestling with rumors. No rumor tells the truth about Circle of Hope and no link on this page tells the past, present or future story of whoever it is from or about. Paul is talking about saving eternal lives, not winning an argument.

Our open hearts and listening ears weaponize our love. Long after the present realignment in the world order is over, Jesus will still be fighting His battle the way he does, with suffering love and a hope that transcends whatever the rebels think they will achieve with their hashtag army. Until that day is done, we wage war, with Paul, with resurrection power, not mere words and certainly not based on our right to bear death-dealing arms. It is a confusing moment in our history, so expending the energy to live in truth will cost us. But as we enter Holy Week we can see again what kind of story we are writing with our expensive love.

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

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

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

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Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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Reality Acceptance

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

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

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

Nonjudgmental Stance

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

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

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

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flower arranger takes her time

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

Make the most of your time

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

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

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

The time you have is a gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for fortnite skins

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

Being avoidant is not enough

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

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

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

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

We love what evangelicals were: Let’s be who we are becoming.

When the seminarians cohort met last week to do some theology, Corinne quoted a speech by Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton (from our mutual alma mater!), as an example of an Evangelical who is struggling with us:

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

He went on to talk about race, nationalism and economics as other notable places where the Evangelical movement has long been off the rails in the United States, noting that someone told him when one Googles “Evangelical” one gets “Trump.”(I tried it. Sure enough, the last three entries on the first page concerned Trump). A Christian is in big trouble when Trump is associated with their spiritual convictions.Image result for evangelical millennials

That kind of “evangelical” is why people leave the church

One of the generators of the post-WW2 Evangelical explosion was Fuller Seminary. Now Fuller is facing decline as the white church causes an exodus of millennials. As a church founded by an evangelical-influenced Anabaptist and twentysomethings, Circle of Hope regularly hears and feels the abhorrence associated with the label “evangelical.”

Carolyn Custis James asks the church what they are going to do about their reputation in the Huffington Post:

What would inspire [millennials]  to return [to the church] if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “come!” or “stay away”?

To begin with, if you want people to stay or return, how about not labeling them? —  like calling them “millennial?”

We’ve been creatively answering Custis’ questions and many others for many years. At our meeting to do some theology we pondered the question “What’s up with Evangelicals?”

  • We considered how to affirm Evangelicals who keep the faith while jettisoning the label that has been hijacked by powerful racists seeking to control the domination system.
  • We considered how we are not an exclusively Evangelical church, by any stretch of the imagination, but how we care about all the traditional emphases that mark the movement.
  • We noted that while we share some convictions with historic Evangelicals, at the same time we care about the contemplative prayer movement from the Catholic church, the spiritual immediacy of the Pentecostals, the social action of the Mennonites, as well as all sorts of art, thinking and influences from movements that most people have never heard about from all over the world. We aspire to transcend labels.

Jeff Sessions is a good reason to wear the label “Evangelical” lightly

The big “for instance” about Evangelicals came up during our “Ask Me Anything” session on South Broad last Sunday. One of our friends asked Rachel what we are supposed to do about Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children after they enter the U.S. illegally. Sessions said,

“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (whose dad is a notable Evangelical pastor) summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” – USA Today

What are we supposed to do with that? Let’s be kind of Evangelical about it right now and actually care about what the Bible says. I think it is obvious that Paul is not writing the Romans as if he were Jeff Sessions! Jesus was killed by evil-doing authorities and the Apostle would soon be killed likewise. Neither of them were notably obedient to the established order out of principle. If anything, Paul is recommending in Romans 13 that the church obey the authorities so they don’t all get killed before the church takes root in Rome! Nero will shortly try to get rid of all of them after the big fire (Trump is like Nero). Even a cursory reading of Romans 12-15 reveals a vision that far transcends something as measly as obeying worldly powers as a goal for Christian behavior:

  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
  • Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8).
  • You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (14:10).
  • We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up (15:1-2).

As our dialogue developed among the cohort, I was happy to see us shrug off the label “Evangelical” as well as others plastered on us by the world while affirming the goodness that can be found in most containers (like “Brethren in Christ”). We ended up wanting to help people who  think Jeff Sessions might be a member of Circle of Hope find their way out of the thicket of lies growing up around them. Really, I don’t think any of us even know Jeff Sessions; much less is he one of us. Besides,  the trap he is in makes him about as real as reality TV and he probably knows he is just playing a role — he might not like it either. Regardless, our debt to him is love. And though he deserves contempt, we are not going to treat anyone with contempt. If we are convicted to be more faithful than others, we will bear with the weak and build them up. We are going to overcome evil with good.

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

I have been in many discussions lately in which the convictions I just described have been labeled as “not enough.” From what I understand of the persistent arguments thrown at me, I am supposed to wear a label from the most recent political fight and defend it. I am supposed to get power and use it rightly. I am supposed to be with the Evangelicals or against them, as if our endless strife were Lord and not Jesus. It is tiring.

So I was glad to find some actual edification as I was zoning out in front of the TV on my day off. I tuned into Gone With The Wind again after flipping through other possibilities —  I love to watch finely-done movies, even if they are philosophical travesties. I only got to the part in the movie where the disreputable but moral Rhett Butler convinces the daring but disreputable Scarlett O’Hara to violate all standards of public mourning by dancing with him at the charity ball. She mildly laments that her reputation is going to be shot after all their unseemly waltzing. He tells her, “With enough courage you can do without a reputation.”

I may have gotten as much from that line as I have from Paul’s letters on today’s subject. I’m not sure why he didn’t write it himself; he surely thought it! As people who take our faith, the Bible, the Church, and its mission seriously, we need a lot of courage these days, because, as one of the cohort noted, “Evangelical” might as well be an “F word;” and Jeff Sessions represents the church on the news! Our reputation is shot with the so-labeled millennials. We live among Americans and they like to fight, not love. They love power, not pleasing their neighbors – even the weak ones seem to wake up every day wondering who stole their power! We need courage! Because I can’t help thinking we were made for this very moment, good reputation or not.

There are a lot of loving Evangelicals (I hope you said, “Of course!”). Their movement has roots in all the serious-Christian movements in the history of the Church. I can be one of them, or not, because I am serious about following Jesus, too. Wherever the Lord is followed, I’m fine. We all have the future in Christ to receive and build; we need to avoid  fighting to do it right now. We are meant to end strife, not conform to it.

That’s not to say I don’t think a good argument can be usefuI! — but I would hardly let one label me. As Paul said (in Romans 13, Jeff!), “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” There are great labels yet to be born, like “There goes that effin’ armor of light guy!”

The dreaded future: How Jesus helps us get from here to there

I was in a meeting with some very thoughtful, caring people last week. We were talking about thorny questions with unclear answers. Others in the group cited long experience, cutting edge interactions and the latest scientific data. I referenced, you guessed it, Netflix. Much of what we were talking about had to do with the future, including our fear of it. So I mentioned Altered Carbon.

I told them, “I do not recommend this series because then you will blame me when you watch it.” But I found it pretty riveting — full of scientific, religious, revolutionary and artful themes. Plus, it is beautiful. It is all about a future we are beginning to experience when “consciousness” is downloaded on “cortical stacks” and inserted in various “sleeves” (bodies). I can’t begin to tell you where they go with this, but I warn you, it will be one more way to instill dread when you see it.

The future is all about dread, right? Most movies assume the future will eventually be the ultimate war, which is dreadful (Avengers Infinity War), or it will be a post war disaster, which is also dreadful (Blade Runner 2049).

Christians are notorious for taking the Bible and going off on a future which will be dreadful for everyone but them. We Jesus-followers actually have a future, so it is fascinating to think about it — and we have done that since the first disciples. But we can be as fearful and hysterical as people who have no hope. Back in the 70’s, Evangelicals started scaring the pants off people by filming the rapture. Nowadays, we just need to tune into CNN to have our pants scared off. Surely this era is the “tribulation.”

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The Hidden Face of God — Jed Malitz

Among the thousands of shrill voices screaming for our attention, there is one voice we need to hear—the voice of Jesus. But what does He have to say about the future?

Know about the future

Jesus rebuked people for not knowing about the future. They did not recognize that important prophesies were being fulfilled all around them. He once scolded a crowd: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why don’t you know how to interpret this time?” (Luke 12:56). He expected them to be able to open their eyes, look around and put two and two together — but they hadn’t even learned their numbers.

Don’t worry about the future

The future did not trouble Jesus. He was not preoccupied with what might happen. At the end John 16 He tells his disciples, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). 

Jesus revealed the future so His disciples would rest in Him, not walk around under the shadow of dread. Jesus is the anti-dread. The resurrection is how the end works out. We rest in that hope. Jesus is frank with his disciples about His imminent death, the persecution to come, and the sorrow, pain, and hardship ahead. But after predicting all these frightful events, He tells them to place their trust wholly in Him. For Jesus-followers, the story of “the end” is not frightening, it is another resurrection story about the whole creation rising to new life.

Get ready for the future

Jesus frequently spoke about future events. In Matthew 24, He laid out a vision of events to come and concluded by saying to His disciples: “Take note: I have told you in advance.” He wanted them to know facts ahead of time to help them (and us) face the coming days.

I think we can lose the wild-eyed speculations many teachers find irresistible and focus on Spirit-led discernment. That’s what Hebrews 10:24-25 means: “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). We “see the day drawing near” because we are looking for it. We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand our day and the hour in which we live. We don’t shy away from reading the signs of the times simply because thoughts about the future make us uncomfortable.

Let the future influence the present

Every time Jesus talked about the future, He connected it to what people were doing in the present. Prophecy is given for now, not for then, to help us get from here to there. In John 14 Jesus is quoted telling his disciples right before he dies: “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.” We have God’s promise. We can be at peace.

We have God’s promise so we can plan big things for next week. We are eternal, so we can dare eternal things. Right now our whole country is going through a sea change. Donald Trump s so dreadful people don’t even want to know what he is doing. It is hard to face the future. Sci-fi movies that seemed absurd might prove reasonable. The prospect makes some of us avoid everything, including our own future!

Our church (and probably yours) is going through what everyone else is, plus we have a unique transition all our own going on. Some days we wake up and wonder, what is going to happen? Old people are gone. New people are here. Plans that were small last year now have a big presence (like those buildings we keep finding, ending mass incarceration and gun proliferation, and discovering new ways to connect with God as who we are now). Challenges we did not even imagine now preoccupy us (like war with Iran and the gentrification next door). The future keeps coming and we don’t feel like we are keeping up.

Jesus will help us interpret the times. We don’t need to worry. We need to stay ready. But we also need to stay rested – not because we ghosted on the challenges, but because we gave up on controlling the dread and trusted the Anti-dread. When my pastor calls me into the mapping process in the next couple of weeks, I won’t be reading the signs of the times with scorn and dread, I will see them pointing toward a good end, and I will point myself to do my part in getting us all from here to there.

Reconciliation begins with forgiveness – primarily of you.

Conflict burns. Like that welt on your hand that takes weeks to heal after you hit the side of the oven, the reminder and pain of conflict remains long after a disagreement ends. Some of us would rather not cook up a relationship at all for fear of being scorched again! Whether we address conflict head-on or mostly absorb offenses, handling the emotional aftermath is hard. If we aren’t careful, resentment can bubble up into a new flame and consume us. Are you keeping a fire going somewhere in your relationship circle right now? In your marriage or family, maybe?Related image

It is good to have a strategy ready for conflict. And it is important to deepen our consciousness for what to do with the emotions that follow it, and often make us sore. Having a healthy conflict and working through the aftermath both require a basis of forgiveness to end in healing and not further heartache.

In Matthew 18, right after Jesus’ instruction on moving from conflict to reconciliation, Peter asks a probing question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

The religious leaders of Peter’s day had already put a numerical cap on forgiveness. They taught to forgive three times, and you’ve earned the patience badge on your spiritual Fitbit meter. But then after your three strikes you’re out (and in the U.S. possibly in prison forever). Peter,  as passionate as ever, threw in four more just to be sure.

Jesus’ response must have been a bit aggravating: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Then he tells a story to explain his daunting answer. A servant is brought before his master to settle an account. We’re let in on a secret in verse 25. This servant who promised to pay back everything can’t pay. Yet his master doesn’t hold him to his empty promise, but personally absorbs the debt.

That reminds me of someone.

Shortly after, this forgiven servant pursues a fellow servant who owes him far less than he had owed his master. He seizes him and begins to choke him: “Pay what you owe.” The fellow servant’s reply sounds familiar: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you’’ (Matt. 18:29).

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My pain instead of yours

Is this fellow servant also making a promise he cannot keep? MaybeIt’s infuriating when we’re on the receiving end of empty promises, isn’t it? Picturing such experiences in his story, Jesus gives us a taste of what forgiveness really feels like. God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness so wonderful but so hard. When we radicals actually apply the Bible and pursue the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 we are doing it as forgiven people, looking for forgiveness to bind us all in grace.

Andrée Seu Peterson writes: I asked a few people if they’d ever forgiven anyone and what it felt like. They gave me answers so pious I knew they’d never done it. . . . Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties. It’s my pain instead of yours. I eat the debt. I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you, and you go scot-free.

Most of us don’t want any of that when we address conflict, if we dare to address it at all! No, we want a fellow sinner to satisfy our righteous demands—for their own soul’s sake, of course. But that seventy-times-seven thing calls our bluff.

Perhaps you theoretically think you can muster up enough forgiveness to meet the criteria. At least you don’t want prisoners to rot without rehabilitation or ex-offenders to lose their voting privilege! But have a fight with someone in the cell and they could get cut off. If your mate loves porn or other men, you might never get over it. If someone besmirches yours or the church’s reputation, they’re out. Our church has gone through long seasons when personal codes of justice trump forgiveness every week, somehow, and it would be legit to question whether we pay attention to Jesus at all.

Later in the Lord’s parable, the Master punishes the servant he forgave, calling him wicked because he couldn’t forebear with another’s empty promise: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:32–33)

Our gratitude for what God gives us is revealed in how merciful we are toward those who owe usOur horizontal relationship with one another reveals the nature of our vertical one with God.

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Forgiveness is an antidote to resentment

Walking through conflict can be tricky. As we progress through telling brothers or sisters their fault, acquiring witnesses and perhaps eventually telling it to the church, our self-righteousness can flare up and engulf our insides even as we seek to maintain a pious shell. When our adversary doesn’t seem to know the script—to repent in dust and ashes—it’s easy to be a Peter, sigh, and ask, “How many times, Lord, must I go through this with this person?”

When we dwell on the person’s behavior and not the finished work of Jesus, we can get stuck in resentment. Outside communion in Christ, the Jesus way to conflict resolution, even when sincerely followed, will probably leave us empty and disillusioned. 

So what do we do when bitterness invades our souls, especially if the offense cuts deep?

  1. Admit: I can’t shake the bitterness. Pray something like this: “God, I need your help to stop feeling rage. I’m not sure I even want to let this go. Lord, please take this away.”
  2. Revisit: God promises us life. When we think of the promises of God, we often think of his unconditional love—the stuff Pinterest memes and coffee mugs are made of. But there are sobering promises, too: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Listen to God’s implicit question in the Lord’s parable: “Will you trust me with these hurts, these regrets, and these unpaid debts?”
  3. Reset: Go back to square 1. We are forgiven. It is where we are born again. It is the doorway to our eternity. The very offense that causes us to go to another sinner, looking for their redemption, is a similar offense to whatever drove Jesus to the cross on our behalf.
  4. Recalibrate: Look toward square infinity. Some people have wrecked Matthew 18’s practical road toward harmony by making it a means to purify the church from whatever might cause them to forgive. But the Lord loves the people who sin against us, even hate us – and we just might meet them in the age to come. Their tiny faith might not be enough to satisfy us, but it might be plenty to assure them of eternity. God’s goal is redemption, first of all, not merely justice. Jesus is our justice, any other justice we experience in this world is right and desirable, but it is not the hope on which we stand. Any person we saddle with the requirement to make things right with us could easily wither under the weight of our demand.

As we labor under the burns that take so long to heal and flinch with the fear of being burned again, try these additional actions:

  • Stop re-reading that hurtful email or text message.
  • Stop meeting with the friend who seems to enjoy hearing all about what was perpetrated by that terrible person you can’t forgive.
  • Stop going to those places with all those memories.
  • Stop savoring a cycle of painful or vengeful thoughts but shift your mind to dwell on what is good. When you are tempted to seek revenge—if only in your mind— think on your Master who saw you trying to make things right on your own, making promises you could not keep, and forgave you anyway.

Forgiveness is the foundation of the life of Christ visibly alive in the church. It doesn’t begin with other people getting with it, repenting and being forgivable. It begins with each of us.

A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends

Tim Geoffrion (a spiritual director/coach) interviewed Buddhist monks a decade ago while he was teaching Christian theology in Thailand and briefly in Myanmar. As a result, he became aware of helpful contributions Buddhist philosophy and practices offer, not only to Buddhists but also to Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) 

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Dalai Lama lays a wreath where MLK was assassinated.

Many of us are in regular contact with adherents of both Buddhism and its cousin, Hinduism, primarily through yoga. We see Buddhist monks on the street all the time, and many of us are fond of Richard Gere.  In the U.S., .07% of the people are Buddhist, 1% in Philly. 1% in the U.S. are Hindus, 7% in Philly. I mention Hinduism because  Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was a Hindu, and though the religions are clearly distinct, they have similarities. Many Catholics and Evangelicals find Buddhism attractive, as a philosophy, because of it’s demanding, principle based, self-denying, personally-responsible practice. Without looking to closely, apart from its god-less center, Buddhist-like Christianity is common. So many of us have many connections.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. As we often teach among the Circle of Hope, Christians need to know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body, reduce anxiety and open up to spiritual experience. Buddhists specialize in this. Buddhists develop capacity to  comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom. They develop their ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering. They value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships. Of course, it is true that many Buddhists do not regularly practice such things or possess such qualities. They may keep incense burning before a statue of Buddha just like other people might keep a candle burning in front of Mary, and that’s about it. But as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are still mysteries to many Christians.

Tim Geoffrion being schooled by a Thai friend.

Looking to the East is nothing new for Western thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

A first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I’m not trying to write about what specific benefits you should seek from Buddhism. Many of you are probably doing just fine without thinking about that subject at all, as am I, for the most part.  I am being more general. How should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues? How do we keep faith with a spirit of generosity?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different kinds of reactions.

The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.

The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without much theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it. So they may have that thinking in the mix, too.

The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive view of Creation. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” someone who genuinely loves God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ. Maybe Thomas Merton would be in this category.

I think it matters which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions. What postmodernists call syncretism is probably a reality for many people: the media mashes up cultures and beliefs for us all day every day. For true seekers, I think it is possible that they are faithful to Jesus long before they know it, just like a Tibetan monk called Merton a “rangjung, a naturally arisen Buddha.” Regardless of all the connections humanity has in our spiritual searching, Jesus-followers need to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God and view of self are basic to how we live. How we know God and relate to God, and how we receive God’s work in our lives, affect all our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, we all need to integrate reason and experience in community to find our true self on the true path.

We are relating to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus said, “Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:36-8). The incarnation of God is Jesus begins our exploration.

In his book God in the DockLewis is quoted as saying, “If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Brahma?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammad and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”

From our secure base, reattached to our Parent through the work of Jesus, we can explore all sorts of beneficial goodness built into creation and imagined by humanity.  But every attempt to blend religions as a means to provide this base falls short of providing a spiritual foundation upon which to build. I think I have learned a lot from the wisdom and cultures found in “the East.” But Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorcing the Christian community’s reflection over the centuries that provides thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of the revelation in the Bible.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after exercise, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had involve being consciously inspired and led by God as I wait in the silence; involve heart-felt, honest prayer and worship; or involve hearing God speak to me through the Bible and my brother and sisters in Christ.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m inspired. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any good source, and freely and respectfully borrow insights and practices from other religions (just like I am borrowing many thoughts from Tim Geoffrion today), providing they genuinely cohere with how the Lord speaks to me through the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ and the Bible. I have a relationship with God in Christ that guides my explorations.

I value dialogue but I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my way is laid out by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers. It seems inevitable that part of my experience will be encounters with different cultures and religions; they will help me open my eyes and mind. I respect fellow seekers and I welcome the opportunities.

As you consider your own journey, here is a prayer Tim Geoffrion suggests:

“Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This post was retooled from Tim Geoffrion’s helpful series: Benefiting from Buddhism.

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What does “pastor dominated” really mean functionally?

The Good Shepherd — Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome

We poll our Leadership Team once a year or so and they come up with the most interesting and useful stuff! They not only helps us think about ourselves better, they ask questions all sorts of people might ask if they ever got a chance. So this might apply to you and your church. Somebody asked, “What does pastor dominated really mean functionally?”

I am not sure where the person got the phrase “pastor dominated.” It is not like we have a proverb, or a line in the Cell Plan that says “We are pastor dominated” (as opposed to the undominated churches!). I’ve got a feeling I wrote it someplace. Because I have often said it when I was trying to be frank about how we operate. I don’t mean it in a bad way; I want to be pastor dominated. I want to be led. I need the leader.

Domination is almost a dirty word.

But I should use a gentler word than “dominated” shouldn’t I? I like things too colorful, I think (my grandchildren knew my favorite color was red before they asked me). I don’t think anyone in the  Untied States thinks highly of the word dominated, do they? Just look at the definition that comes up on Google:

“Domination” is “the exercise of control or influence over someone or something, or the state of being so controlled.”

That doesn’t sound so bad, right off, since parents obviously dominate their children for their own good, if they are a trustworthy parent. I have been using the word in a parental way. But the Google dictionary immediately uses the definition in a sentence like this: “evil plans for domination of the universe.” That sounds bad.

The synonyms given for “domination” are: “rule, government, sovereignty, control, command, authority, power, dominion, dominance, mastery, supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, sway.” That doesn’t really sound so bad. We need people in the lead and there are usually good reasons we put them there. I was using the word in a more discernment-process way, as if I had a love relationship with whoever was given sway. But the immediate example that followed the synonyms was “she was put off by the male domination sanctioned by her boyfriend’s family.”

Apparently the dictionary writers have never experienced a benevolent power, but have experienced a lot of untrustworthy dominators, especially men! When I was saying “pastor dominated” I assumed everyone was in Christ, who is Lord of the church, and “pastor” is just a function we recognize for the leader, who does indeed “dominate’ us in the sense that we listen to him or her and trust them to bring us together and lead as we have all discerned the Spirit wants us to go. The pastors are precious to us.

I think people don’t see dominators like I do

Of course, if I have a pastor who is dominating for the sake of domination, I am, indeed, in trouble. It is a common trouble, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone who has been around the church for long hasn’t met a leader who thinks leading is enjoying their supremacy and using command and control to exercise power for the sake of shoring up their weak ego or manipulating the system for their self-interest, conscious or otherwise. I have experienced that! I’ve probably done it! How could we not fear having such leaders when the White House staff acts so odd everyday under the leadership of a President who takes historical cues from Napoleon, apparently. If my pastor is unconscious, lazy, or does not serve me or us but serves their own interests instead, it is pretty disastrous. Then the leader of our dominion is a dominator like Google thinks they are, not a servant like Jesus.

I think I should not use the word anymore. But I still have to ask whether we ought to stick with how Jesus puts His own content into words or adopt the way the world uses words to describe its obsession with power. I think the person who asked the question, possibly, and certainly the people who wrote the Google definition are suspicious of everyone with power — maybe because they are are guarding their own! Paul appears to think very differently:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. — Ephesians 1:20-25

There is power and Jesus uses it well. I am not trying to write the ultimate theology of power, here. But if you think Jesus is a ruler like Trump, you are mistaken. I thank God that Jesus is my Lord! I don’t have to diminish the word “Lord” because I am afraid of power or I think I have to resist God’s potential abuse of power to protect my autonomy and my own power! I gladly submit to the rightful king of the kingdom. I submit to his rule. Anyone who leads us is also submitted to his rule, or we are in trouble.

So what about the power to dominate?

The Bible writers talk about power all the time, and Jesus demonstrates what he thinks of earthly domination quite clearly. Paul says:

But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 5:20-21

Isn’t he joyfully saying that it is grace that properly exercises dominion? It is sin and death that want to adjudicate who is wrong all day. If we are sure our pastors will dominate us for evil (or we just want to make sure they are properly suspected and surrounded by controlling policies), who is dominating, and by what power are they attempting to dominate?

We are called to live in trust of Jesus, who has been revealed as the power above all powers, ruling in truth and love. In his light, anyone who claims an inappropriate authority will be shown up for who they are, if not now, then in the end. I share Paul’s praise of Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Colossians 1:15-17

If anything is going to hold together in the church, it will be because Jesus is holding it together, not because we have everyone in properly-defined corrals for their unseemly power. One the contrary, we celebrate the power of Jesus unleashed among us.

So functionally, calling us “pastor dominated” (which I will stop doing, since Google has a lot of power) comes from an egalitarian place, since we are all listening to Jesus and following. The leader has a specific role in the body, not a right to dominate us in some antichrist way. They exercise leader power for our common good. We help them do this. We nurture, correct, encourage and love our pastors into their full capacity to move us, shape us, help us, and  teach us. We set them apart for a special role because we think they are given it by God, not because their innate power deserves it or demands it or because we are so foolish we can’t follow God without them. And that goes for all the other leaders we have unleashed — there must be 100 or more! They all lead because they are loved, not because they are greedy for power.

We know that any one of us might be called out to lead, if it were necessary. Would you do it? Probably. But, after all this, you might be afraid to heed the call because someone might tag you “dominating!” That would be trouble.

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Is it OK to use my work resources for the church or is that stealing?

Several people came up to Jesus and asked him questions: “Who is my neighbor?” for instance, and “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus pointed the first man toward overcoming the hatred between Jews and Samaritans! He pointed the other toward selling all he had and giving the money to the poor! I think many people quickly decided to stop asking him questions! Maybe you don’t dare, either — not really, at least.

I think the vast majority of people who stopped asking would be like American Christians, at least a lot of them, who still won’t care for their neighbors (especially if they don’t share their “identity”) and certainly would not even consider impoverishing themselves to care for “the poor” as a class of people. How many times have I heard, with a laugh, “Be careful what you ask God, you might get an answer!”

So why do we keep asking so many questions?

We keep bravely asking because we have the freedom to do so. That is, we have freedom to ask any question we want if we live in the “tier one” of Paul’s thinking, as our new nomenclature identified last year. We exercise our freedom in Christ when we ask whatever question we want and do not fear what we will hear in reply. What can happen to us, now that Christ has set us free?

When the question in the title was asked on our Leadership Team Survey, I don’t think it came from such freedom. I don’t know, because it was anonymous, but I don’t think so. I think It probably came from “tier two” thinking where things are a bit murkier than the confident faith of tier one. That’s OK. Probably the majority of us are working toward forming a container that is settled enough to receive the content the Spirit of God wants to pour into it. It takes a lot of development to resonate with revelation. That development  includes asking some questions that might result in answers that reorient our entire lives!

We also keep asking questions because we have no idea what we are doing much of the time. We need help figuring out how to be alive, much more how to be alive in the Spirit! There are no “dumb” questions. The word “dumb” developed into meaning “stupid,” you know. It started with “mute” or “unable to speak” and, by extension “disabled.” Maybe dumb should really mean “unable to ask a question!” We try to accept every tiny question we or someone has because we know we are all seeking and developing. What’s more, we know God became tiny and humble in order to hear and bear all our questions and to assure us anything that confuses or troubles us will always be heard and carried.

So what is the answer to the question?

As with most questions, there were a lot of answers our team explored last week. And even though this question seems like a simple one, just like the questions people thought Jesus would simply answer, the question set off some lively, instructive dialogue at our Leadership Team meeting.

The simple answer is: If you employer thinks using company supplies for personal uses is stealing, then yes, it is stealing. Ask her for some paper for personal use and see what she says. If he gives you reason to think he doesn’t mind, then no, it is not stealing. The general implication is that things belonging to other people are used for the purposes they design. But another implication would be that you would not know their designs unless you ask them.

This answer breaks down a bit, however, when it comes to intangible resources, like time or thoughts, which are the things we mainly sell to our employers these days. It would not be surprising that an employer acted as a slave-owner who behaves as if they own you, not just the paper supplies. They would never say this, of course, but they might behave as if they own all our time and resources. The partner in the law firm is in St. Lucia, but you are supposed to work 80 hours a week to do what is assigned. You are otherwise booked, but you must come into work if called. Some employers might fire you if you call your sick mother on company time.

This sense of ownership might extend to what we think! If you violate the political or religious sensibilities of some employers, they might fire you, even though that’s illegal in many cases. So some people might be afraid to use their money for things other than what their employer desires (or for anything a prospective employer might desire in a new employee). Even if an employer actually assumes people need to care for other people than company employees during the work day, you might not even ask if you could do it and just wait until the end of the workday to care because you assume the principle is: the employer owns my time and thoughts during work hours (and maybe all the time!).

Does paying you entitle the employer to police your time and thoughts as if your personhood were part of the resources they have? Are you stealing if you make a phone call? Write an email? Take a break for a church, school or community meeting? Call in sick because you are sick of not being at the retreat day the church has planned outside your two-week vacation allotment?

I think the tangibles are easy. Don’t take manila folders unless you ask. But the intangibles are not. I am very “liberal” about the intangibles, since I expect you will do your job with excellence and, at the same time not become “slaves of men” (as Paul says). So your employer is going to get more than their money’s worth, and you are going to be free. Serving a master so Jesus is glorified is a strategy only a free person can apply.

Moral questions are a good place to start

One reason I thought this was a good question for our Leadership Team dialogue is that it is a moral question. Morals are concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character. We are regularly (as in every week, at least) faced with someone’s moral issues around Circle of Hope. People have been known to leave the church because of them. The questions Jesus was asked were deeply moral questions from moral people brave enough to ask them. Most beginners are confronted with questions like them all day, if they are actually growing into true selves. We need to ask them.

But let’s be honest. Moral questions are not the ultimate questions. Jesus was regularly accused of being immoral, himself, and was killed for being a lawbreaker, wasn’t he? So there is something to think about when we ask moral questions seeking to get things right. Nevertheless we will ask them, because how we have sex, how we eat, how we share, how we talk, how we raise children, how we think and so behave are all moral issues. If we don’t leap at them to satisfy our own curiosity, someone else will probably leap for us (just watch Fox vs. MSNBC).

Unfortunately, I think most believers are probably more comfortable with questioning how we use work resources than they are asking how the Spirit is leading regardless of how our enslavers dominate us. But we have to start somewhere!  Let’s keep asking, and hope someone who is farther along the way is around to help us hear the answers. Thank God, the resurrected Lord is around and our questions often lead us directly to a deeper relationship with him.

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The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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Do not be afraid: Your container will be filled with content

I am surrounded by twenty and thirtysomethings. It is a blessing. Serving these people has been the joy of most of my life. I think the spiritual life that follows adolescence and precedes the second half of life might be the most interesting but also the most frustrating and dangerous time of life. So I often feel like I am in the thick of it. We often think of babies as the most vulnerable of creatures. Twenty and thirtysomethings spend a great deal of their energy creating a container in which these dear little beings can survive.  But what about the parents? They are vulnerable, too, and quite often their true selves die before they even get recognized!

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid
Clearly what will be called personality problems depends on who is doing the calling. The slave owner? The dictator? The patriarchal father? The husband who wants his wife to remain a child? It seems quite clear that personality problems may sometimes be loud protests against the crushing of one’s psychological bones, of one’s true inner nature. — Maslow, 1956

Build a container for content

The noble actions of first-half adults are focused on finding one’s place in the world, often as a mate, a parent, an income supplier and a social system builder. The whole era of first half development is a crucial time for growing into our fullness as humans and as spiritual people. But a big danger comes with our development. Our container building can become the only thing we know how to do and we never move on to receive the content to fill up the container! Success, security, some sense of power – looking good to ourselves and others, can almost be our only considerations. We can become containers with little content.

As we often say, U.S. society promotes such emptiness, since our rulers are preoccupied with adolescent pursuits. For instance, they are obsessed with security needs, among other things. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seriously question the enormously high military budget. But that budget is all about the container. The developmentally-arrested president wants to build a wall to contain the whole country and protect it from “shithole” nations!  At the same time, appropriations that reflect needs that are deeper than Maslow’s first two stages on the hierarchy of needs are neglected: education, health care for the poor and everyone else, community-building and the arts. The leaders neglect the need for content in the container. Is often the first cut in the budget, if it is considered at all.

The U.S. is basically an adolescent society and our religious expressions look like it, too. Liberals criticize the church if it is not preoccupied with food and housing [Maslow’s first level]. Conservatives criticize the church if it is not filled with certainty [second level, isn’t it?]. Circle of Hope can get it from both sides as people come to Jesus and his people looking for the basic needs they lost when their lives fractured in this fracturing world. We help them build a container. It is tempting to stay stuck in it and miss the content for which it is intended.

Richard Rohr says, “We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life. But we have to be careful, or they totally take over and become all-controlling needs, keeping us from further growth.” Receiving the content of resurrection life takes faith and trust, which are not that useful if one is anxiously maintaining a container. Thus the most common one-liner in the Bible (365 times) is “Do not be afraid.” We we need to move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and identity. But it is scary to do so.

Do you think we commiserate more with what people fear than we help them not be afraid? How many people are driven from your cell because they can’t compute life beyond their container-building religious ideas? Consider how often you don’t help them figure out how to move deeper. Maybe your cell is stuck at the third step up Maslow’s pyramid up above and does not have an eternal outlook.

Be afraid of the right thing

Being preoccupied with morality, control, safety, pleasure and certitude comes to a bad end. A high percentage of people never get to the content of their own lives! Sometimes you can see the trouble creeping up on us. Areas of our leadership team silo off and don’t talk to other teams. Whole congregations get a sense of their “otherness.” People demand that we make policies about identities. We have to keep saying, “Human life is about more than building boundaries, protecting identities, creating tribes and teaching impulse control.”

Like Jesus said in Luke 12, “Why do you ask, what am I to eat? What am I to wear?” He asks the container-builders who ask such questions, “Is life not so much more than food? Is life not so much more than clothing?” Repeatedly he asks, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world, and lose your very soul?” (Matthew 16:26). And I add, what will happen to your children if all you teach them is fear and practical faithlessness? What will happen to the church if you persist in never getting the content you need to share? What will happen to the world when your adolescent faith burns up in the heat of adulthood?

A thirty-year-old in our church was 13 when the 9/11 attack turned the country even more into a security state. When they were 19 the Great Recession hit and fear and anger skyrocketed. Since the 80’s, a philosophy-shift resulted in the top 20% of the population securing 76% of the wealth. Now, Oxfam says, worldwide, 8 men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest people in the world! Everyday life has encouraged a whole generation to be anxious and fearful. Now Trump is president and each day looks like the foundations in society are being upended. It is no wonder we try to build a wall around ourselves . But our vessels of clay are meant to to hold glory.

Take heart, you were made for this

Jesus tells us to “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is hard to hear him when we are feverishly trying to keep ahead of the eroding foundations under our feet, as if that were top priority. Jesus was less concerned about his impending death (!), about his life-container, than he was about the content of his life. He was less interested in the consequences of his actions than he was interested in revealing to his fearful, controlling, unfaithful followers what a container is for. Life is more than finding one’s own bliss or balance, disciplining and making the most of one’s time, and fighting for one’s rights — all that is for beginners! The bulk of an eternal life is lived in trust and hope. Dying to mere self-awareness, self-aggrandizement, and self-centeredness is the first task of gaining content for the container.

Barack Obama displayed some of this wisdom when he was shown talking to David Letterman the other night. He said, “One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did—was part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, doesn’t have to do with regulations [making a container], it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness [being and receiving content].” He is a hopeful guy and he inspires me to be the same, even when I feel I am in the thick of it. Our containers (egos, churches, and what not)  have holes in them, so we need Jesus to overcome our world and keep filling us with eternal life. But as  long as we are co-workers with the Lord instead of container protectors, we have a chance to become the kind of content that makes the world take heart.

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