Category Archives: Doing Theology

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?

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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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We mostly have opponents because they oppose us, not because we are bad.

A few years ago, some of us were reading Psalm 109 together during our noon prayer time.  It may not be on your top-ten psalms list, so give it a try.

When we read it, we had a groupthink moment and ALL got the wrong impression about what was going on. When we heard verses 6-19, we thought the psalmist was pronouncing a long curse on someone! We suspected something like that was in the Bible, and here it was! It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! We are nice, of course, and we at least keep our curses short.

Sometimes the Psalms feel a little rough to us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. What’s more, a lot of us just don’t trust anyone, so we never share what we really think or feel. So all that angry, vulnerable poetry in the Psalms jars our sensibilities a little. This one seemed VERY jarring:

“May his children become orphans

            and his wife a widow.” (v.9)

Who would say such a thing!! We were uncomfortable reading it. How did THIS prayer get in the Psalms?

Oh, it is SOMEONE ELSE talking

The prayer had started off in a way we could relate to more easily:

 “In return for my love, they accuse me,

            though my prayer is for them.

And they offer me evil in return for good

            and hatred in return for my love: (Psalm 109:4-5)

That we could pray. We’ve all been abused and misunderstood. I’m not very good at seeing it — but I am sometimes hated. I’m usually shocked when I find out about what someone feels about me or says about me, but sometimes I do find out that I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.

We thought what came next was the Psalmist pronouncing a long curse on the people who returned hate for love:

“Appoint a wicked man over him,

            let an accuser stand at his right…

Let his days be few,

            may another man take his post….

May his offspring be cut off,

            in the next generation his name wiped out”

It was going on and on. One of us finally said, “Whew!” Because we usually think – “If it is in the Bible, then it is an example for us.” If the Psalms are a prayer book, this is a wild prayer! But we were more than a little hesitant to say the prayer.

We didn’t understand that vv. 6-19 is a quote of what someone else is saying about the psalmist, not what he is saying about them. The prayer is about being taken out, being hated, being attacked by an evil person. He ends up crying out for mercy:

“And You, O Lord, Master,

            act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,

                        for Your kindness is good. O save me!

For poor and needy am I,

            and my heart is pierced within me.”

My realization after using this Psalm and studying what it really says is this: I can get surprisingly out of touch with the forces that are coming against me! Evil and its allies want me destroyed. You may have the opposite problem and think I am kind of nutty, since you’re effectively paranoid all day — so have some mercy. I had such a resistance to pronouncing a curse that I didn’t see the curse coming at me — even in the safety of my own prayer book!

Poor, needy, opposed — admit it

In Celtic Daily Prayer it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We are even getting used to Trump’s daily lies! We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! Look at how so many have sacrificed children to screen domination and allowed porn to provide a generation’s sex education. When evil does come at us, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice — “Who am I to judge whether any screens or sexual practices are unhealthy?”

I want to love and trust first, but I don’t want to be nice to evil. Even worse, I don’t want to impassively stew in what’s wrong until it cooks me.

So I recommend some appropriate drama today. Let’s pray it together: “I am surrounded! I am needy! Save me!” 2018 could be 2017 doubled, Lord!

Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you who are like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed — so opposed that our opponents might wear us down or throw us into defensive apathy. Lord knows that if we keep harping on mass incarceration there is a domestic army willing to defend itself! We are made good in Jesus and we, because of that good at work within us, are dangerous, as far as the Lord’s opponents are concerned. They just might try to take us out. We just might need a Savior!

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Turn to resilient love: History is bearing the fruit of nominalism

Last week I offered an article to my Facebook friends about the “secret” war the U.S. is helping to sustain in Yemen as the unhinged Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the Defense Minister, causes war crimes out of the view of journalists. Our own unhinged ruler further loosened the  long leash the Obama administration had given the Saudis as the civil war between Shias and Sunnis raged on, backed by Iranians and Saudis with Al Qaeda in the wings.

I lamented the lack of a moral center in the whole, horrible mess. Americans have wondered how Russia can think the ends justify the means as that government supports the Syrian government bombing and starving civilians. Yet the U.S. government is doing the same thing through its ally Saudi Arabia, and it’s just as unconscionable when the U.S. is complicit in war crimes.

It breaks our hearts to see children starving. But how can anyone decide what to do? It appears that most people are sinking in a philosophical morass that started a long time ago and is bearing the fruit of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and many other horrors. The myth of freedom demands that desire is at the center of everything we do. It is how we decide. Desire defines our “individuality.” Western culture believes an individual must be the author of his or her desire in order to be free. Nothing or no one can tell us what to do. So how could the U.S. tell the Saudis not to starve Yemenis in the name of their country’s desire to be free according to its sense of identity?

Last week’s blog post was about Donald Trump’s lack of moral center, as he pardoned the racist Joe Arpaio. A couple of friends got on my son’s feed after he posted my work and made light of it, mainly because i dared use the tragedy of Congolese slaves as part of my example. I think I violated their sense of ownership of their own experience, co-opted the story of their desire, and appeared to thwart their struggle to be the authors of their own destiny. I was trying to be a Christian with them, but we’ll have to keep trying.

What happened to goodness?

Finding a moral center in a Trumpian world is difficult. People can’t seem to agree on what is good. There are many reasons for this difficulty that Jesus followers should ponder. For one thing, progressives and conservatives alike serve the same god: individuality. If Christians are to speak the truth in love, they need to get off either bandwagon. We may find some affinity with good-hearted people in either camp, but the world desperately needs the church to get back in God’s camp and provide an alternative to the madness. When will we clearly say, “No, we are not going to ‘follow our hearts’ no matter what society, the church or anyone else says, no matter how many times Disney preaches it to our children”?

I’ve been studying and pondering how we got to the place where Christians can support Trump and the place where identity wars can divide brothers and sisters in faith. Here’s the philosophical/theological trail toward the answer I’ve discovered so far (with help from Rod Dreher).

in the 1300’s “nominalism” took the medieval philosopher’s sense that everything has an inherent, God-given meaning and tweaked it to say that the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends on what humans assign them. You can see the seeds of our present preoccupation with our individual identities in this thought. How we have been named and how we name ourselves makes all the difference to most of us, and the title “child of God” is not usually our number one sense of self, since that derives from God and not ourselves.

In the 1400’s optimism about human potential shifted Europe’s focus from God to humanity who were seen as “the measure of all things.” We’ve been measuring our progress ever since.

In the 1500’s the Reformation broke any remaining sense of religious authority to shreds and started the infighting that makes Christians hard to trust. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand” and ably expressed the personal conviction that has been individualizing faith ever since.

In the 1600’s The Wars of Religion in Europe further discredited religion and helped usher in the modern nation state. The scientific revolution  replaced the organic sense of the universe with a machine. Descartes applied the mechanistic thinking to the body: “I think therefore I am,” not “I am an organic part of God’s world.” Most Europeans, like Descartes, still thought of themselves as faithful Christians at this time, but the way they thought of themselves and decided what is true began to change.

In the 1700’s the Enlightenment created a framework for existence with reason, not God, at the center. Religion became private, not public. The United States protected an  individual’s right to faith in a faithless state. France created an antifaith democracy.

In the 1800’s The industrial revolution ended the connection most people had with the land. Relationships became defined by money. The romantic movement rebelled by emphasizing individualism and passion.

In the 1900’s The horrible world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress as well as faith in Jesus. The growth of technology and consumerism further convinced people to fulfill individual desires and submit to huge corporations which supplied that fulfillment. The sexual revolution elevated the desiring individual as the center of a new social order, deposing enfeebled Christianity and all other religions.

Now in the 2000’s people have almost no moral center outside themselves to rely on, no community that is respected to monitor their behavior, and no sense of covenant that can require their sacrifice. We are reduced to individuals gathering enough power to win an argument about whether our desires will be legalized and our identity protected.

Good is faith working in love

All along the way the church has been sustained by the Holy Spirit and has continued to perform miracles and connect people to God, in spite of increasing opposition and a persuasive counter-narrative to the Gospel. Moana’s song, above, sounds fresh, new resonant, while Sunday’s songs are made to seem old and discordant. Christians readily adopt the demands of the new order just so they can stay in business, or at least not have the endless arguments with judgmental people who parse their every word looking for some insidious oppression that would steal away the freedom to be whatever is desired and to do whatever money can buy. Even so, God’s love is resilient.

In the middle of all the turmoil, I think the church has an opportunity to save the world. One of the ways we do it is to resist being co-opted by the arguments that are fragmenting it. If you want to satisfy your nominalist itch, name yourself a “Jesus follower.” If you are drawn by all the Disney propaganda and worry that your desires will not find enough freedom to flourish (or you are worried about others)  at least wonder, with James, whether your desires will lead to life, as they promise. And when the constant, conflict-promoting media tempts you to turn a suspicious eye on your loved one or neighbor and require some test of their truth to gain your acceptance, turn to love, which covers a multitude of sin. Trust first, accept first, include first and then sort out the inevitable issues that only faith working out in  resilient love together can solve.

That sound is Trump tromping on the Paris Pact for Pentecost weekend.

The howls of protest from around the globe are hopefully ringing in the president’s ears. Donald Trump’s executive order to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has been generally decried:

  • CNN: Trump to Planet: Drop Dead
  • The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World
  • Foreign Policy: Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America
  • Esquire: Are You Proud to Be American Today?
  • Slate: We the Victims
  • The Guardian (UK): Trump Just Passed on the Best Deal the Planet Has Ever Seen
  • Washington Post: Trump is Abdicating All the Country’s Moral Power
  • TalkingPointsMemo: Paris Decision Was Driven By the President’s Rage and Fear
  • Arnold could not resist his regular Trump takedown

Most of the time, activist Christians just join the howl. There is room for that. But Pentecost, yesterday, promised more, didn’t it? Surely Jesus was fulfilling the beautiful, old promise of Isaiah as the Spirit was poured out during the festival of the first fruits; it was the ultimate demonstration that God’s word waters the earth and brings sustenance – all the way from the seed to the bread seeds provide.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” — Isaiah 55:10-13

Like the trees miraculously clap, it is just as amazing that we have become God-praisers who dare to hope — and dare to act on that hope in desperate times.

Trees clap their hands in the face of climate change
Isaiah 55:12 — Brenda Bogart

The climate catastrophe makes it clear that we live in desperate times. We need to repent in order to survive. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping seem to know this. The president elected by evangelical Christians seems to think the 70 jobs gained by opening a new coal mine in PA is worth ecological disaster.

I say “we” need to repent because, whether we like it or not, the United States government has drawn its boundaries around us. But I also can say that “we” of Circle of Hope, probably have a lot less to repent of when it comes to climate change. From the beginning of the church we have been aware and active. Lately, we even have a compassion team devoted to the new concept of “watershed discipleship,” which calls us to live as partners in our respective watersheds, connected to the earth and connected to others who share our bioregion. Long before that new concept, we were going with the old, Biblical teaching of being a tribe inhabiting our place, forming a new community that was not beholden to the arbitrary lines of the political map, but connected as a people filled with the Spirit. We loved trees, but even more, we loved with those hand-clapping trees Isaiah sees — enlivened, as we are, with the new energy of God’s redemptive presence.

One of our friends treated us to Wendell Berry via Daily Prayer not long ago. He also claps with the trees. More than a quarter century ago Berry was arguing, before it was fashionable, that “global thinking” was often a mere euphemism for an abstract anxiety or passion that is useless in the struggle to save real places. “The question that must be addressed,” he contended, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land.” Only love and responsibility for specific places – what native Hawaiians call aloha ‘aina – can motivate us to struggle on their behalf.

Some people are working toward Berry’s vision from the outward in by rediscovering a bioregional identity. That’s great. I come at it from a more Anabaptist approach. In a real sense, I think we are more like the Hawaiians who carry the reality of aloha ‘aina in them. They identify the watershed; they love it; they aren’t created by it. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. The earth does not make us. Like our Cell Plan teaches about being an organism:  “We aren’t waiting; we aren’t merely prospective; we aren’t laboring under the condemnation of some structure to which we need to conform. We exist as who we are. We are being built by God. We feed on the Spirit and develop.”

Image result for watershed discipleship team

Even though we work from the inside out, wherever we are planted, there is little doubt that the movement of the Holy Spirit right now must include “re-place-ment.” Our Watershed Discipleship team is an outpost of an intellectual movement (mostly fronted for us by Ched Myers) that reflects Kirkpatrick Sales’ 1985 primer Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sales defined a bioregional sense of place: “Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.” Ched Myers and others are even more specific, and talk about being “intertwined within a larger system called a watershed” in which the inhabitants are linked by their common necessity and use. In a sense, we are cradled in the basin of our watershed where the organisms are interconnected and interdependent.

I find Myers’ imagery appealing. It fits us and it fits the Bible. Our approach to social action as Circle of Hope has always been to embody it. We are an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, living in our own skins in our own place. While reactive people are howling at Trump, we may join the chorus, but we do so from a place. No one can deprive us of our connection to the Creator and the creation. We are the new creation in Jesus. We have never been subject to the “political geography” of dominant cultural ideation (at least that is our conviction), so when someone calls us into the “topography of creation,” they seem to be describing our native territory.

Trump’s blatant skepticism of climate change highlights a moment when our sense of being grounded by the Spirit in a community living in a discernible place becomes an even more relevant aspect of our mission. As Myers teaches, we are in a “watershed moment of crisis.” Acknowledging a bioregional sense of place helps the unaware become part of the context they are missing. It is time for restoring humanity’s right relationship with creation, which can be clearly experienced in our watershed. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum is often paraphrased to sum it up: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

In the face of humankind’s self-destruction, Isaiah’s vision is one of joy, not despair. The Lord is the Creator. God’s renewing presence waters the earth and makes it like our mother. Everyone is an armchair evolutionist these days, so they think the earth is all we’ve got, so the earth is our mother. From that viewpoint, Trump’s poor leadership is even more horrifying. But we “go out in joy,” knowing that the hope of the world, the hope for our watershed, the hope of our church and our cell is the promise of God delivered in Jesus. Everywhere we turn, we deliberately and relentlessly plant trees and clap with them and in that become spiritual redwoods ourselves.

A Stance: How Jesus Acts on His

Jesus lived among people with stances on everything, too.

Here is Jesus taking a stand. He has a “stance.”

And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” — Mark 7:9-13

The Pharisees had their stance and Jesus had his. They each saw the world in a certain way.

The Pharisees had a point of view that had been refined over a few hundred years. They had an intellectual and emotional attitude. Their stances were so important to them that quite a few conspired to get Jesus killed when he threatened their validity and power.

Jesus had some stances, too. Most of them were pretty basic, when it came to behavior. To the law-abiding Pharisees who wouldn’t even follow one of the ten commandments he said, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.” When he was talking to people who sin he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43).

Church can become a matter of competing stances.

But what did Jesus do as a result of his stances? Did he try to get someone punished? Did he want to enforce them? Did he want to get someone killed? Not at all. He did not treat us according to his stances, he died for us. He treats according to his love.

We need to “go and do likewise.” Do so will be tough, because postmodern “democracy” is a constant collision of stances. Supposedly, the world is ordered by people expressing their individual consciences within the safety of laws that protect their identities. In reality, as we all know, it is ordered by people who can buy enough influence to guarantee that their stance seems very important. Regular people get lined up behind a particular stance and are defined by massive definitions of “identity” and argue all day like congress. Since the institutions are God-free there is no center to bring any substance to the dialogue, so the process is a constant competition to see who will define the center today.

A few years ago Gwen and I were in court because she was subpoenaed to appear in the district attorney’s case against the young man who threatened her on our stairs with a letter opener taken from my office on floor below. She talked him down the stairs and was fine (thank God!). But she then had to go through the torturous “justice” system while the young man languished in jail for months. What the lawyers did epitomizes what we all do these days. It is even worse, maybe, than what the Pharisees were doing with their law, certainly similar. The lawyers compete, case after case. They try to get witnesses confused (“You said the knife was six inches long, and now you say eight. What was it?”). They try to find a way out of following the law. They accuse the other side of procedural mistakes. There is no real interest in the truth. They often make sure their clients don’t tell their story at all, because they can’t compete in the game very well. It seems to me that we are all being trained to defend our self-interested stances with the same kind of dialogue.

What you do about your stance is more important than having one.

When “what is your stance on?…” is the big question in the church, which it sometimes is, it is trouble. The church definitely takes a stand in the world, but it does not act on it stances like the world. For one thing, the church is a kingdom, not a democracy, essentially. That doesn’t make democracy a bad way to run governments; it just means governments are different from the church. But the main reason the question can mean trouble is this: if we argue our stances all day we’ll end up with a competition to dominate a godless center, just like the world does.

Jesus stance

We have stances, just like Jesus has some very radical stances. And just like Jesus doesn’t mind talking about his stances, we talk about ours. More important, Jesus has an even more radical way of acting on his stances. It is how we act in relation to our stances that makes the church like Jesus.

The big example, like I began, is Jesus’ stance on sin. He has a strong “point of view” (from the center of creation): “Sin is killing you. Don’t mess around with pretending you aren’t doing it. You Pharisees don’t even follow the Ten Commandments and act like you are so holy!” His stance does divide up the world between people who are for him and against him. But here is the big difference: he does not treat people according to his stance on sin. He wrestles the sin for them and then with them. He acts for everyone, whether they follow him or not, by acting out of his dying love.

Our church and all the churches are in danger every day of getting divided up into competing stances. I think it is safe to say that most people think the validation of their rights/opinions/political identities/power is crucial these days. They judge the church according to whether it agrees with their stances. We even get judged for not having stances!

I think our only hope in such a day is to discern whatever we can call Jesus’ stances and then act on them the same way he did. He is the center and we listen for truth from the center, but then we treat people in love, not according to their stances or ours. The love may not be based on how great they are, or on their right to be loved. At its best, our love for them will be a dying love animated by Jesus himself.

Alien Citizens: the church as the alternative to the madness

I was blessed to come upon a piece by William Willimon in The Plough this morning. I wanted to remember it and I hope you will remember it, too. In that hope I lifted it and reprint it below.

On MLK Day and in this final pre-inauguration week, we need to consider how to be the church in troubling times. I think Willimon tells us how to do it well; I don’t want you to miss it.

Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political

William H. Willimon

In Resident Aliens, their influential 1989 book, Will Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas laid out a bracing vision of how to live Christianly in contemporary society. Where can Christians find guidance in the challenging times ahead? Plough asked the retired United Methodist bishop, now a Duke Divinity School professor, for his insights.

What did Christians have at stake in the past presidential election? The question is not primarily which candidate we should have voted for, a decision that for me was made easy by Donald Trump. Instead, we ought to be asking: Why should we vote at all and, once the 55 percent of eligible voters have voted, what are Christians to make of the outcome of the election? How then shall we live now that “the people have spoken”?

How will Trump rule, or be led by those who want to rule through him? Now that less than half of the voters have coerced the rest of us to call Trump our leader, how then should we live? How will we exorcise the demon of American-style racism and xenophobia that Trump has unleashed?

For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.

Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.

Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”

As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.”

“How quaint,” the world must have thought; “how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.”

Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”

About the same time as Arnold’s sermon, Karl Barth was telling German preachers that they ought to preach “as if nothing happened.” The “nothing” that they were to ignore was Hitler. Barth urged preachers not to waste pulpit time condemning the Nazis. Demons were on the prowl which could not be exorcized except through prayerful proclamation of the Word of God. Barth’s famous Barmen Declaration (which never mentions Hitler) was a defiant statement that the church must be free to preach and that Christians listen intently to no other word than that of Jesus Christ. When the Nazis forced Barth to resign from his teaching position in Bonn, his last advice to his students bidding him a tearful farewell was to remain centered on scripture, exhorting them: “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!”

Were Barth and his friend Arnold ­escaping politics by not talking about politics? No. Arnold and Barth knew they were preaching God’s word in a world where politics had purloined sacred rhetoric and assumed eternal significance for itself with talk of Volk, Land, und Blut. They talked politics but not as the world talks politics.

“We must deprive the politicians of their sacred pathos,” Barth advised his fellow preachers. The flames of political zealotry must be starved by taking eternal significance off the table when we engage politics. The preacher must view the pretentious modern nation-state and its presumptive politics through a wide-angle lens. Politicians must not be allowed to assume a messianic posture, and citizens must be warned against giving politicians glory that belongs only to God. In other words, Barth and Arnold were determined to do politics in a peculiarly Christian way by talking about who God is and what God is up to before making any assessment of human alternatives to God.

God’s Politics: The Body of Christ

Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.

Constantine and the sign at the Milvian Bridge.

Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.

Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.

Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”

In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”

Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”

Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.

Clementa Pinckney under his sign

Preachers as Politicians

In Charleston, South Carolina, the senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church, Clementa C. Pinckney, was a state senator and a powerful politician. But the night he was martyred he was in the basement hall of his church, leading a small group of laypeople in prayer and Bible study. Much of the ordinary, unspectacular work pastors do is holy if we believe that the church is the incarnate Christ’s chosen means of showing up in the world. Even the mundane body work done by pastors and lay leadership is sacred when it equips Christ’s commissioned “ambassadors” and constitutes an “embassy” of another sovereignty, a living, breathing Body, something that a young South Carolina racist recognized as a threat to his white supremacist world.

The people who got the nation’s attention by giving so bold a witness to forgiveness after the massacre at Mother Emanuel didn’t drop down out of heaven. They were produced here on earth, in lifetimes of listening to sermons by pastors like Pinckney who took seriously their responsibility “to equip God’s people for the work of serving” (Eph. 4:12).

I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”

Christians are “political” because beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences. However, Arnold’s Incarnation sermon is based upon more than that hackneyed, common­-sense observation. Arnold assumes that, when storm clouds gather and politicians strut their stuff before adoring audiences, the most world-changing, revolutionary statement we can make is that Jesus reigns; that God, not nations, rules the world; and that even the best of Caesar’s solutions fall short of the kingdom of God. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world, God’s exemplification of creative social alternatives, is the church. These sweepingly political claims are more than personal and private. As Arnold says, because we know, through Christ, who God (i.e., reality) is, we “cannot shed blood or tolerate private property,” we “cannot lie or take an oath,” and we must uphold “the faithfulness between a man and woman in a marriage under the church,” because we believe that God, not politics, names what’s really going on.

Returning from a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, where hundreds of us had gathered to once again castigate the state’s political buffoons, I was rather pleased with myself for my courageous (though not costly) political activism. We got them told.

Listening to the radio on the way back, we heard Governor McCrory dismiss our demonstration as “just a bunch of aging hippies from the sixties.” Ouch! Our Trump-wannabe governor bragged that polls showed close to 60 percent support for his right-wing policies.

“Preacher,” said the person I had dragged to Moral Monday with me, “sounds like we don’t need better politicians; we need a better class of voters. Maybe you should stay home and work on your Sunday sermon rather than get arrested in Raleigh.”

I have met the political enemy, and he is… me and my fellow Christians, who find it so hard to embody our convictions, and who, even in our left-wing protests, unintentionally give credence to political scoundrels. If we are going to worship a Savior who is determined to tabernacle among us, to show up and thereby disrupt our settled arrangements with Caesar, then we can’t avoid the mundane, corporeal work of having meetings, forming a congregation that becomes in its life together and its way in the world a visible, breathing, undeniable bodily presence of Christ.

That’s why maybe my most radical, ­politically significant act is to take Eberhard Arnold as my model: stand up this Sunday and preach that God’s will be done, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, whether we like it or not.

 

I woke up fearing fear: Being pulled toward the edge of the inauguration.

fear is a liar

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:16-18 (NIV)

I woke up pondering these verses. I think the Holy Spirit was helping me face the fear that seems to be infecting the world around me and infecting me! Many of us feel like we are being pulled toward the edge of something as we move closer to the inauguration. It is scary.

Some of us are lashing out in various ways and maybe getting ready to get on the bus to head for Washington to lash out in a big way. They have undoubtedly been told, perhaps by the silence they meet when their voices get louder, that such behavior is wrong.

Others of us are pretending nothing is happening, as if by sheer force of will we will render the fearful things unreal, or irrelevant. They have undoubtedly been met by some passionate person knocking on their foreheads, sending them another email, barraging them on Facebook requiring them to get out of their denial and face the enemy before it is too late.

Meanwhile we have the 24-hour infotainment industry, the 1%’s plaything, managing perceptions, wondering how to deal with Donald Trump tweeting lies that somehow need to be considered seriously because he’s the president.

I woke up pondering these verses because I woke up pondering fear, my own and everyone else’s. John had a lot to say to me. He comforted me. There are so many good things that he wants to give us, the church, in this frightening, unpredictable day in just these few lines! Pick out what you need. I picked out three things:

  • Confidence
  • Perfect loves drives out fear
  • Whoever lives in love lives in God

People have said so much about this passage over the centuries, that I feel like referring you to a Google search project. But let’s just be us and see what God is going to do with us today. We face a lot of fear.

One of the things that kills the community of the church is a common reaction to fear: I think something bad is going to happen in our relationship so I plan for it not to happen in advance. I try to solve the problem you might have before you have it. I might not even let you say much about what you are feeling because I already fear what you are feeling before I hear you say it! Likewise, I don’t say much about what I feel or think because you are going to react negatively or I might be offensive and we would have a conflict, or you might be silently offended and leave. So in order to connect, I don’t connect. This happens in close friendships, marriages, and business partnerships, but let’s think about the church: all our cells, teams and budding partnerships. John has a few things for us to apply.

Don’t let fear steal your confidence.

Our confidence comes from God who is love and who loves us. Some people read John’s words, above, as if he is saying: “We will have confidence on the Day  of Judgment if we are like Jesus.” There is something to that. But if that is all there is, it is a good reason so many people who believe it never get out of their starting blocks because they are afraid they won’t finish the race.  I read it as saying: “We have confidence because God’s love is with us; so we know we will be able to stand before Him without fear, now and forever.” Paul says it even clearer, but I will just refer you to him.  Don’t let fear steal your confidence.

Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love.

Love is a powerful weapon. People seeking the common good all over the world know this, even when they don’t know Jesus. Most of us feel that love makes a difference. Love upends things, even fear. When John says “Perfect love drives out fear,” some people focus on the “perfect” in the sentence. I do think John means to say God’s love is perfect and we should perfect it. But the point is not to be perfectly loving so you can be perfectly disappointed in how bad you are at loving and how ineffectual your love seems. We can end up being fearful of not being perfectly loving, right? — even fearful about being fearful!

Such an attitude about oneself usually results in criticizing others for how unloving they are; then there we go again in our usual judgment-laden struggle. I think what John means to say is this: Jesus is bringing us confidence to face our fears as we face them in the middle of his love. We love, not fear, because He first loved us. As a result of this great, self-giving love of God in Jesus, we end up connected to God again and so able to bring God’s kind of love to the world. Don’t let your love be driven be the fear of imperfect love, just receive God’s love in Jesus and give what you’ve got.

Hang on to the love where you find it

Love is the best we can do. I know a lot of brilliant people who know a lot about a lot. They are going to apply their wisdom and all that intelligence to make the world a better place. I just watched Hidden Figures (loved it) in which three black women friends rose to the top ranks of NASA in the 60’s. The movie made you feel like miracles can happen, and they happen. But most of us are not going to do or experience a movie-makeable miracle this week. And John does not promise that, or even imagine the expectations of the 21st century, where if you don’t do something amazing, nothing is happening. What he does promise is this: the great love who-God-is and what-God-does-in-Jesus is infecting the world with eternity. Even unbelievers who latch on to that great breast are fed with possibilities for all we long to receive. Like Paul also says, even the best ideas and greatest ambitions without love are gone like the ring of a bell that has stopped disturbing the air. The love who God is and the love God does is greater. Hang on to love where you find it and let the seed of God there lead you into fullness.

Yes, it will be hard to have confidence in such love because it is imperfect. But your judgment is not always the point. God is the creator of love and none of yours will be wasted.