Category Archives: Life as the church

My posts that help the church follow Jesus as a body

Change is possible: And worship can loosen stuck memories

Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.

At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic.  They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.

According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.

What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]

If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!

We need mismatching experiences for deep change

It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”

What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman (sermon) — Saint John's

You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.

John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.

Our worship can be a transforming environment

I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!

Temple (anatomy) (PSF).svg
All too often true of our worship experience

Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network  centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]

 I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.

Worthy of every song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe
We live for You

The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.

“I am naming your traits.
I live for you.
That’s me.”

That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.

The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:

Open up my eyes in wonder
And show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me

This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing

“I open my eyes in wonder
and see who you are.
I am filled with your heart
and see the fields white for harvest.”

Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:

And I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation

So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,

“I am building my life on your love;
I feel its firm foundation.”

The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.

I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.

I matter: The terrible, wonderful I AM

do i matterI have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”

We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”

Those messages need to be countered:

  1. You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
  2. You don’t matter because you are better.
  3. You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.

You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.

It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.

You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.

You matter because you ARE.

The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.

When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.”  That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.

I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.

Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.

I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”

Feeling the truth about me

We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.

But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”

How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.

I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.

We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”

1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.

2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.

Float Therapy for Anxiety, Stress and Sleep - Milwaukee Therapist ...

3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace. Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.

I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

A  dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

Ask and Guess Culture

The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.

Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.

Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.

An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.

I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury  recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.

The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful

The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.

  • Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
  • Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
  • Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we  attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?

I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.

Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!

I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s  day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!

Zoom is terrible: If you hate it, you have good reasons

zoom-privacy
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

We had another nice Zoom gathering as our cell last week. When we began to pray, a person finally said it: “I hate Zoom!” He might have said “Zoom sucks!” or “Zoom is terrible!” I can’t remember. But I’ve heard exasperated people say those things too, lately. What do you say about Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, etc.?

You are probably saying something by this time, or just wandering away from the screen in an irritated daze. Scientists know why we are irritated and it might help if we did too. Whatever we find out, or not, we Jesus followers have the stuff to adapt and thrive, since we have plenty of life beyond the screen.

Our cell was talking about how great we thought our pastors were doing with our online meetings. But one of our members noted that even though she liked experiencing the meetings together as a family, her nine-year-old no longer wanted to be in the room when Sunday night came around. Watching the screen just reminded him of how much he wanted to be with his friends. Then my wife chimed in with how irritated our four-year-old granddaughter is by Nana on the screen. She refuses to participate in online meetings, too. The gist of what she said is, “I just want to hug you and if I can’t then I don’t want to see you.” Zoom is terrible and the children know it. So maybe we don’t need the scientists to confirm what our inner child already knows.

Zoom life has issues

In March the global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we  all miss (see this NYTimes article). Most of us have had our faces arranged in a grid by now like the old game show “Hollywood Squares.” (And you may be the Paul Lynde or Whoopi Goldberg of the group — thanks). I know people who have attended virtual happy hours and birthday parties. Many of us have been learning in virtual classrooms and holding virtual business meetings for a long time. Now I am even doing virtual psychotherapy and your doctor is doing telemedicine.

But even the kids are reporting that something is not right – especially with Zoom. Along with security issues, psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists all say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making us feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (even more than we already felt). We might be better off just talking on the phone — no facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input on the phone might even heighten our sensitivity to what’s being said. This could be why Verizon and AT&T report average daily increases of as much as 78 percent in voice-only calls since the start of the pandemic, as well as an increase in the length of these calls.

The problem is the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble the subtle social cues we rely on to connect. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.

I use a computer to write, research and communicate for hours a day. I have my laptop screen open and a bigger screen attached to it. If you put me on a Zoom call I am even more distractable. It is very tempting to complete a project, fill in a chart or look up youtube videos that correlate with what is being said while people are talking. If I am on a zoom call for more than an hour, the deterioration tends to escalate. This is consistent with research on interpreters at the United Nations who report similar feelings of burnout, fogginess and alienation when translating proceedings via video feed. Studies on video psychotherapy indicate that both therapists and their clients also often feel fatigued, disaffected and uncomfortable with their process. I haven’t read all the studies, but I have listened to my comrades describe the disease. If you want to really communicate with someone in a meaningful way, video can be vexing.

Photographs by Guillaume Duchenne in 1862. Through electric stimulation, he determined which muscles were responsible for different facial expressions.

Here’s the main problem

Human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.

All those glitches, sound problems, and background clatter mess with our perception and wreak havoc on our ability to mirror. Without realizing it, all of us engage in facial mimicry whenever we encounter another person. It’s a constant, almost synchronous, interplay. To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connection. When we can’t do it seamlessly, as we can’t in video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and, thus, predict what they will do.

“Our brains are prediction generators, and when there are delays or the facial expressions are frozen or out of sync, as happens on Zoom and Skype, we perceive it as a prediction error that needs to be fixed,” says Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in affective response. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work because aspects of our predictions are not being confirmed and that can get exhausting.”

Video chats have also been shown to inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. We noted this at our cell meeting the other night. It is funny to see someone point at you, even though their screen may be arranged in a different pattern than yours. Unless you know people well before they get on the screen, they may seem uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty. Zoom might, ultimately, be undercutting the trust system we use it to maintain.

The whole online thing wears out fast. We meet up with family and friends, but many of us secretly find the interactions terribly unsatisfying. Some people feel like the box that lights up around us when we speak is like an interrogation lamp switched on. The conversation can default to drivel because people don’t want to take risks in a Zoom environment. The delay in people’s feedback or the awkward cross talking make some people feel it would not be rewarding to share a good story anyway.

Will Zoom kill all the relationships it touches?

There has never been a tool that couldn’t prove dangerous. Martial arts weapons all have a history as a farm tool. I would likely hurt myself with nunchucks, so it would not be surprising if I didn’t know what to do with Zoom, as well. We will have to think about what we are doing and practice to do it well. At the same time, we’ll have to admit the limited utility of the tool and use it for what it is worth, not assume it can do everything we might need. Zoom, and things on screens in general, have such powerful machines in back of them, we often feel helpless and just go along with wherever they drive us. But we need to drive them and get somewhere with their limited utility.

As our cell considered how our church was doing during the lockdown, we had a lot of positive feelings to share. But it wasn’t long before we shared how tired of screens we have become in a few weeks time. We miss the random connections we can make in our meetings, where even a glance across the room restores connection. We were concerned about fragile and isolated people who don’t or can’t even Zoom. We’re hungry and we know they are too.

I have made several new relationships with clients in the teletherapy era. They are not so bad. Spiritual direction can also  occur via Zoom. My cells have actually been deep and one of them has been dramatically easier to gather via the screen. In one meeting last week, we had a deep conversation about forgiveness. In the other, we could talk about how we deal with anger. So we can make great use of the Zoom tool, even if it is an irritating tool. In my sophomore summer during high school I got a job that mainly used a scythe to cut weeds around bomb depositories. The scythe is also an irritating tool. But it needed to be used in an environment where stray sparks might be dangerous.  I like Zoom when it is the best tool I have — in the same way I can relish a peanut butter sandwich when I am starving.

Right now I am starving for our rich community life. Zoom, and other vehicles, help us sustain that life in an uncertain time. If you are walking away from the screen because you are irritated, we can all understand that. But it would be great if you could recognize your irritation for what it is and press beyond it to connect in whatever measly fashion we can. We need each other. And we need to use this time to not only sustain our community in Christ but to build the next one that can thrive in whatever mess we wake up to when the present nightmare is over.

Love in the time of Covid-19

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning … to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera. ”
– Gabriel García MárquezLove in the Time of Cholera

So what is love in the time of Covid-19?

Marquez notes that we share physical love from the waist down, so there may be a lot of quarantine babies after CVS runs out of birth control.

But he also notes that there is spiritual love from the waist up. And that is what I will concentrate on since that’s what Jesus concentrates on.

Being in the middle of what must be the strangest social circumstance we have ever experienced will test us in many ways. But the biggest test is always to love. Joe Biden called us to a “war on the virus” last night in the debate, which justifies all sorts of ways for the authorities to “save us.” I hope they do. But even if they save us from the waist down, what will we be after our quarantine from the waist up?

I came back from my trip from the epicenter of Covid-19 infection in Seattle and shortly departed for a trip to the home of the CDC in Atlanta. At my conference down south the discomfort among the good Christians palpably rose until people started evacuating. The speaker called the attenders of the last plenary a “remnant.” I had intended to vacation a bit afterward, but the sites we had scheduled to visit began to close down. I found myself closing down.

And I began to wonder. Even if I wanted to care for people with Covid-19, would I be allowed? What if, like the storyteller in Marquez’ book, my love was not actualized at all and I had no choice but to keep it or lose it? Will the quarantine be like a cleansing, enriching fast, a refinement of love? Or will I spend all my time figuring out how to amuse myself so I can let go of the suffering of being locked up in the middle of death?

Resurrection in the time of Covid-19
John 20:11-18

Take some suggestions from Jesus

Last night a good number of people got into the virtual meeting the pastors gave us. I think the expressions of love in the comments were as moving as what our leaders offered. But the vast majority of us did not show up. So begins my wondering about how the love of God survives in the time of Covid-19. What would Jesus do to keep it alive?

He would come for us in love

He did that and he is still coming. Alive or dead, we will be with the Lord if we love Him. Likewise, we should come for others. People are going to isolate from the waist up, too. Don’t let them. Go to them. We certainly have enough ways to communicate these days! But if they don’t answer, you may have to dare to track them down in person.

He would risk his life to love

You know he would risk his toilet paper stash and would give people some bread. That’s a given. But people may get sick from Covid-19 and not receive decent healthcare. And they may be the people you don’t know that well, or who aren’t savvy enough to keep themselves safe. They may be people who did not follow the rules and are now facing the consequences. I hope this does not happen, and our huge, national wealth comes to the rescue. But we may need each other as the church and others may need us who can’t stand the church.

He would take time to love

People are calling this time of quarantine a great Sabbath. That is such a good idea! It would be a good time for making love, if that’s possible in your life. Much more, it would be a good time to be in love with God. I mean “in love” like in a territory, like in Pennsylvania or in New Jersey — at home in love, hunkered down in love not fear — forced to live in your home, which is the love of Jesus.

Maybe some of us will have more time away from the eyes of the boss to spend with God, meditating on how we might face the remote chance of dying and how we will be hearing about death for months. It would be a good time to not just watch Frozen 2 again (Disney’s Covid-19 gift to us, for a fee, on Disney Plus) but to watch our feelings and thoughts as we meditate about life and love and death and about whether we actually receive the promise that we will rise again.

After years of waiting and looking for love in all sorts of substandard places, the hero of Marquez’ book has his lover alone on a boat. They raise the yellow flag that means there is cholera on board and no one will let them come to port. They are condemned to be alone with their love. Marquez thinks love, itself, is the end of all good – worse points could be made. I think Love, himself, in Jesus is the end and beginning. And I wish you a quarantine deeply filled with that relationship as you travel through this time on your quarantined boat with your Lover, first, and then with all the others He has given you and leads you to love.

The climate crisis: It will take more than a good idea for the church to respond

In 1982 I was 28, Ronald Reagan was president and we hated Exxon. While we were doing theology the other night, I learned another reason why.

In 1982 Exxon confirmed the consensus among scientists about global heating with in-House climate models. The company chairman later mocked climate models as unreliable while he campaigned to stop global action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Exxon crisis
Exxon has juiced a lot of presidents.

The CEO of Exxon at the time was Lee Raymond (who was succeeded in 2005 by Rex Tillerson, recently Trump’s Secretary of State). Raymond was one of the most outspoken executives in the nation against regulation to confront the climate crisis. Speaking out against the Kyoto initiatives in a 1997 speech in China, he said that costly regulations and restrictions are a bad idea, especially when “their need has yet to be proven, their total impact undefined, and when nations are not prepared to act in concert.” He also questioned the science behind global warming and said the greenhouse effect comes in part from natural sources.

I suppose it is cliché to note that Jesus was sold out for 30 pieces of silver. Exxon sold us all out for $21 billion in earnings in 2018.

What should we do for the climate?

Although we were mainly learning to do theology together around a stimulating topic last Monday, we could not help but wonder what the church should do about the impending disaster — to a great degree foisted upon us by massive corporations who care more about immediate profits than the environment. The disaster may be stoppable or it may not be, but Jesus followers never rely on effectiveness before they express their goodness. So we couldn’t help but get practical.

As it turns out, we have lots of ideas about what to do. Jeremy Avellino gave us an overview of the issue and fellow members of the Watershed Discipleship Team began leaking their list of ways we can turn ourselves into a reputable alternative to carbon-spewing Americans.

For instance, Jeremy is an architect building homes that are more than sustainable, they can a actually hope to replenish the earth — so people can do that! Many of us can influence our workplaces to do good to the earth. We can influence the government to pass and enforce laws and rejoin international treaties. We can vote for the best leaders to deal with the crisis. Our friend Shane Claiborne reportedly uses Trip it to measure his carbon footprint since he travels so much.

Will the Bezos earth fund avert crisis?

More relevant, probably, is we could start or join boycotts of some of the greatest menaces to the planet. For instance, Jeff Bezos recently pledged $10 billion of his vast fortune to address climate change. The money, which will fund the “Bezos Earth Fund,” will then be granted to scientists, experts, and organizations working on various issues, both small and large. That’s not bad. But Amazon has been one of the slowest of the U.S. tech giants to go green, and its business, by its nature, is a pollutant.  In the face of giant corporations, we could boycott, buy local, or buy less.

Apart from what millions of individuals must do, we focused more on what the church can do. The Watershed Discipleship Team will unveil their suggestions for the church, soon. Maybe we should bring our own plates to the next feast after disposables are banned. Maybe we should contribute to the solar fund in order to transform our buildings into a benefit, not a drain on the planet — 40% of global heating issues stems from how we make and inhabit our buildings. From small things to large we could add up actions to make a difference. And even if we thought they did not make enough difference we would still be doing good just to do it, and that makes us different.

But will people do what we should do?

I’ve been on an environmental bandwagon since I first learned to hate Exxon. Nevertheless, people still keep “discovering” the evil being done to the planet — and they are in my own church! Why are most of us relatively ignorant and mildly engaged in one of the most disastrous possibilities ever to face humankind? And I will extend that question to include Judas again. How did he come to know the Savior face-to-face and then turn around and betray him so he would be killed? How could he collaborate with the evil powers? How can we?

I don’t think we are all bad. We should not underestimate just how hard it is to be an actual Jesus-follower in this era. We are fighting hard in our little slice of the Kingdom, but we are not winning the battle. People are more distracted, anxious and traumatized right now than they were last year. And they are not all learning to turn to Jesus, they are mostly turning inward and finding some small sense of security in curating a shelf full of attributes they choose to make up their shallow selves. If we want to do big things we’ll need to be deeper people. If we want to make a difference, we’ll need a community with a culture different from the world that protects Exxon’s capacity to kill us.

Here are three things a lot of us will need to do if we want to grow a big, influential group of Jesus-followers who make a big difference – and even if they don’t make a difference will still like doing the right thing.

who we are solves crisis

Get out of your pod

Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way present-day people imagine themselves as insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces.  More and more, we decorate the inside of our pods – our individuality and the identity group we choose. Philosophically, the buffered self is one result of living in a closed, physical universe, what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” Within that mental construct everything supposedly has a natural/scientific explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world.

If we don’t get out of this frame, we are not going to change the world. Jeremy called it the ocean we swim in, the warming, acidifying ocean. But when we try to breathe new ways, it feels like dying — and it is dying to our old selves.

Pay attention

Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity and personal implications. We were doing it rather well the other night as we did some theology. But it was not easy, and we hardly had the whole church doing it with us. More and more people live in a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners? [See the first half of Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble for further description, but skip his application].

As we were talking about what to do about the climate crisis, I felt a protest emerge.  Who are we going to get to do these things? Past models of discussing faith have almost all assumed a dialogue partner who is active, attentive, and aware of the costs of changing – a conversant whose world is thick, not thinned out by constant distraction. I thought we were talking out of that past model when we were getting practical. But people can’t even take the time to read and write emails! How are they going to apply a big, new thought?

As we move deeper into an age when people sleep with their phones, we can no longer make the assumption they can pay attention like they used to. Who is going to take themselves seriously enough to trust God and develop the depth to be a serious player in the climate crisis? We all need to do something together, but can we get six hundred people to all take out their headphones and listen to the proposal – much more effect it? If we go with love more than truth we will probably move more people. If our leaders create an environment where we can soak in what is good rather than just hear about it, we might end up with deeper people. But just producing a good idea might go nowhere.

Be a chosen one

All beliefs are a matter of argument, these days, and who wants to argue? Contested belief points us inward, rather than outward, in our search for some ground of being. If the external world appears to be an endless series of options, from deodorant brands to philosophies, our temptation is to withdraw to a safe, seemingly stable world – the inner world of ourselves. Our identity and our ability to choose its features becomes the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow Jesus, we may do so because of an inner conversation we have with ourselves (our buffered selves!) not with the living God or God’s people.

Our immersion in diversion and consumerism makes it easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs. It makes us less likely to devote time to contemplation. And it makes conversations about faith seem like more exercises in superficial identity formation. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us. As a result, religious labels—whether None, Baptist, or Buddhist—become not much more than a form of self-expression on the level of a favorite store, a college choice, or our musical preference.

All our proverbs and practices lead somewhere else than this sad look at humanity. We know an alternative way. But will we take it together? If we hope to form a lively response to the climate crisis we can’t just be against Jeff Bezos or for him, we need to be the chosen and beloved people of God, who have our own way through the troubles of the world and provide solutions and hope from our endless resources of grace.

The leader’s plow: C.S. Lewis seeds our imagination

As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!

Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”

plow up that surface

Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble  suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.

See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is what Christ warned us you could not do.  As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.  If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.

He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Mowers can become plowers

It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting”  blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”

All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.

I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated.  But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?

Tarot has been having a “moment” for a few years. I wandered into the moment when I watched an episode of something in which an old, dying woman read the cards for her new, young friend. It was a movie moment reflecting the present tarot moment — watching an old story using the old deck-full of stories to draw us into the drama of a life unfolding — and normalizing the latest emergence of this mystical method for finding guidance.

I hope this is where the tarot moment is leading. According to Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer, “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself…It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.” Hopefully, it is like a mirror that can lead to deeper reflection which opens up clogged or burned spiritual pathways so people can ultimately see Jesus for who he is.

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Paul and Silas in Philippi drive the devil out of a woman possessed of a spirit of divination — Pieter de With, ca. 1650

There are many Christians who are sure meeting Jesus is not what is going to happen if someone gets into tarot. The practice is associated with divination—unlocking the secrets of the future by occult, supernatural means. Divination is prohibited in the Bible, even when people in the Bible are doing it! Paul exorcised a woman used for divination!

Tarot cards were originally just a deck of cards, but some mystics, psychics, and occultists began to use the cards for divination. Many people still use them this way, and that is how they are popularly understood. You can meet diviners on YouTube. They promise to access spirit beings to find out things about one’s life or future. Usually, the practice of reading tarot cards starts with the questioner cutting the pack of cards or sometimes just touching it. The psychic or card reader then deals out some cards, face down, into a pattern, called a “spread,” on the table. As the cards are overturned, the psychic or reader constructs a narrative based on the cards’ meanings and their position on the table. The narrative has always placed heavy emphasis on fate and “hidden knowledge.” Jesus has a better way.

Image result for christian tarot deck
From Tarot de Marseille by N. Conver, 1760

Writing a new story

People are looking for a new story, their own story, in an age when making new stories from old ones is a primary industry – at least in the dying Western empire. So tarot is very intriguing, since each tarot card is a story in itself. The experience of a reading is like connecting one’s story to one in progress. And reflecting on or telling about the experience is an interesting story in itself.

There are so many apps for tarot! Using them results in many stories. One woman downloaded Galaxy Tarot and casually got to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. One day she was killing time before a phone interview for a job and flipped over the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them. “It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement. What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’” She went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work, but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”

The apps meet a need — and people will pay to have it addressed. The “metaphysical services” industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influences that create culture, according to Goop, #wellness.

Another woman said, “I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I ‘believe’ in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?”

Another said: “I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime. It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said tarot helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.” If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Some see it as empowering for traditionally disempowered Christian women. Which is why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards.

The Guardian notes the increased popularity of tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women.  People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”

A brief history of tarot

Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a card game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (slaves who became sultans) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations and figures of people you’d likely see in a Mardi Gras celebration..

Sometime between 1750 and 1800, French occultists reimagined the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests. For them, the cards combined multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong top note related to the Kabbalah. These decks were the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.

Image result for tarot cards origin

When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts (above). The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include the familiar cards: Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune often prominent.

The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much in the unlikely mystical origins as it is in the cards’ ability to wallop you with elemental symbols. Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The cards are crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. They elicit stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons,  RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones. Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater, has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle YA novels.

How does the church relate?

“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”

This truth does not mean people will use tarot in a mature way and not be drawn into harmful connections with spirits who hate them. But it does mean people can find ways of discernment in a myriad of ways. We (meaning Circle of Hope) affirm seekers of all kinds, coming from all the corners of the earth and have a wide view of how we each find the truth and our personal way along the Way.

“The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why”, says Amelia Tate. “My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet. “ She quotes an expert saying, “’Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,’ says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.”

People who feel they are alone in the world to find their way have an even more anxiety-provoking path ahead than everyone else.  If they are separated from family and the church, or the past in general, then practices that promise a spiritual moment and some mystical direction which don’t require too much thinking or relating can be very attractive. Jesus offers an immediate connection, too, but it is not as controllable as tarot can be. A connection with Jesus, though filled with wonderful moments, also requires an ongoing relationship with God and his people and a lifelong openness to spiritual growth and service. So it might seem very demanding, if immeasurably deeper. It is possible that people are drawn to divination because they never met a Jesus-follower who loves them and is not the stereotype they fear. Our cells have repeatedly been easygoing places to make relationships that undo their prejudice and make a difference.

Amelia Tate ended with, “Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.”

I can feel what Amelia is saying. And I can imagine how she would feel totally out of place anywhere she can imagine as Christian. I do not have a conclusion that can encompass everyone who is navigating the perilous seas of our time like she is. But I think a lot of them are alone on a raft of their own making. Our community, loving and accepting, is a safe place to explore their yearnings. A lot of people are permanently skeptical, or so they feel. Hopefully, our teaching maintains our dialogical  character and our love provides an invitation to imagine with us, not withdraw into suspicion.

For some, tarot is a comfort and a way to know themselves and their direction better. For most it is a moment, a stepping stone into what is their deepest and truest self. I think it would be better to skip it altogether, especially if you are prone to depression, anxiety or other illness – you’ll get a better “reading” from your therapist or cell group. What’s more, the practice could be dangerous, since it has been connected to divinization for centuries; delusions abide there, as well as spirits who are out to harm us. People have recovered from such entanglements, but it is probably best to avoid being entangled to begin with, since we all have a path laid out for us by Jesus.

I was surprised by how much is out there about this subject! Maybe the fad is already waning, since even I am aware of it. My exploration encouraged me nonetheless, since I uncovered many good-hearted people searching for love and meaning as well as many people trying to provide wisdom for starving people.  I don’t think the cards have easy or clear answers for them. But neither do I, as a Jesus follower. I tried to think of some “card” from the Bible for all the seekers I uncovered that might inform their search. I landed here:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).

The greatest truth and love are found in the Father’s lap. Life is not revealed in the cards. If you use them to meditate on your journey or to find direction, listen for the Spirit bearing witness that you are God’s beloved child with Jesus leading your way through whatever you face.

The end of history: 75 years after Auschwitz

Embedded videoRep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says:  “One thing that I love so much about mill — this new generation is the radical acceptance that I see from so many and they actually take time to read and understand our history, the history of the labor movement, civil rights, history of racial struggles, history of economics, history of the United States, history of colonialism.”

I know those people she loves. Many of them are members of Circle of Hope forming the next generation of the church. Many of those members go so far as to see themselves as “transhistorical.” They not only know the history of things, they are part of an eternal now with their ancestors in the faith (like the real Valentine). They keep making history with all those faithful people from the past. I love them at least as much as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does.

I think I feel about Circle of hope like Paul did about the church in Rome, planted as it was in the first century’s facsimile of a megalopolis:  “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Romans 1:8ff).

But what about those who have lost history?

However, I experienced a jarring collision between my Headspace trial and Jane Pauley on the DVR last night. It did not make me happy about the way history is going and being lost.

The Headspace app I spoke about in my speech last night taught me and many, many others to shut out the world and live in the present moment. The app provides a cartoon version of Buddhist practice for anxious millennials, especially. Their withdrawal reflects “the Buddhist way,” which includes this kind of teaching: “Buddhists reject identity by saying the self is empty Anatman. They reject reality because they do not believe in external reality. They reject presence because their goal is absence, absence of suffering.”

Buddhism is a pretty big tent, these days. But pop Bushism on apps fits right into the fearfulness that leads people to find ways to shut things out and just be in the moment, history included.

Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription "Work sets you free" after a wreath laying at the death wall at the memorial site of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020 (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
Holocaust survivors walk below the gate with its inscription “Work sets you free” after a wreath laying at the death wall at the memorial site of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020 (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

When I got home from the meeting at West Tulpehocken, I sat down to watch the rest of CBS Sunday Morning. It spent a lot of time on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Here’s the best story.

The people who have spent their whole lives and millions of dollars preserving Auschwitz, so no one forgets what happened there, are frightened. As each remaining survivor dies, there is a bit more slippage in society’s grasp of the history. The CBS reporters lifted a paragraph out of the Wikipedia page about Millennials to make that point:

A February 2018 survey of 1,350 individuals found that 66% of the American millennials (and 41% of all U.S. adults) surveyed did not know what Auschwitz was,[226] while 41% incorrectly claimed that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust, and 22% said that they had never heard of the Holocaust.[227] Over 95% of American millennials were unaware that a portion of the Holocaust occurred in the Baltic states, which lost over 90% of their pre-war Jewish population, and 49% were not able to name a single Nazi concentration camp or ghetto in German-occupied Europe.[228][229] 

Meanwhile, reported hate crimes are on the rise (see this WP story about kids!).  The Brookings Institute collected data to show how Trump’s persistent racist and xenophobic rhetoric increases hate crimes. For instance:

Another study, based on data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw hate crime rates more than double compared to similar counties that did not host a rally.

It is disheartening to anyone who knows what Auschwitz is to think that world leaders can find followers willing to scapegoat despised people groups and unleash hate in their direction.

Don’t gasp, act

Maybe more people will “tsk” than gasp when they read about the sorry state of the world. Thank God Rep. Ocasio-Cortez can find hope in the good people rising up in her generation. I am encouraged by the people of our church who keep hope alive.

But I don’t think any of us should be surprised that people are so wicked. I have a B.A. in history and quite a few years of personal history, now. It would take quite an effort for me to overlook how people keep inventing new ways to express the same old evil. Evil is redundant. When i saw the evil portrayed in Parasite, my first response was, “This movie is so redundant!” It was almost like people who love Bong Joon-ho’s “fresh look” have forgotten the 1930’s, or 1880’s, or 1780’s or Nebuchadnezzar.  Bong hasn’t. One of his favorite movies is How Green Was My Valley, which is the same old story of cruel capitalists and their throwaway slaves.

Jesus-followers apply the same old hope to the same old wickedness and keep the possibilities of forever alive. We have to keep our ability to be appalled intact as Trump and Bloomberg corrupt the populace swimming in the mud of their mudslinging. The people least capable of enduring the same kind of evil that could build an Auschwitz are the ones who will commit more hate crimes and scare people enough to barricade themselves in their countries, homes or minds. I hope we are not afraid to face these poor people and save them. First we need  to make a real relationship with God, especially now that we really need one. And we need to let that love build us into a community of others who share it. From that authentic community, we need to act with all we’ve got, to answer every piece of hate with the power behind the love that transforms it. We need to gasp. Even more, we need to keep acting.

Oscars 2020 teach the virtue of being the best supporting

In SNL’s Weekend Update the guest commentators have traditionally stolen the show ever since Roseanne Roseannadanna. It was no different last Saturday when Chloe Fineman got us ready for the Oscars with her unhinged impressions.

The Oscars always have a lot to teach us Jesus followers

As Roseanne Roseannadanna might say, “You can always learn SOMEthin.” And the Oscar broadcast was full of lessons. The Cadillac commercials appealed to predators and the Rolex commercials disguised themselves as tenderhearted. I flipped to TCM when the breaks got too long and Judy Garland was hamming it up with Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band — later in the show Judy won another Oscar! It was a year for impressions. Janelle Monae lit up the stage as a queer, black, woman Mr. Rogers — then lit up the front row with her crystal gown.

My biggest lesson came from the first award given: for Best Supporting Actor. On the one hand, it resembled the presidential race: old men and Pete Butigieg, or rich people and the rest of us: Tom Hanks (63) worth $350 million, Anthony Hopkins (83) $160 million, Al Pacino (79) $165 million, Joe Pesci (77) only $50 million, and Brad Pitt (only 56) $300 million.

On the other hand, it was an amazing collection of great actors doing what they do. The first three did amazing impressions of famous people. Joe Pesci did not act like a crazy gangster. And Brad Pitt still looks like Achilles in middle age. There were lessons in all of that. You can always learn something.

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We need good supporters to put on a good show

My favorite lesson came when I looked at the line-up for Best Supporting Actor and thought, “The lead actors might have been afraid to be upstaged by these guys.” Except for The Two Popes (which I recommend), I think they were all upstaged.

I think all these actors relished the juicy parts they got in relation to the players who got top billing. Like some of us noted during the Second Half of Life retreat last Saturday,  playing a great part for which we are well suited can be quite satisfying — maybe even more satisfying than trying to survive the leading roles we’ve been handed in the family or on the job. Brad Pitt had never won an Oscar for acting so this was a nice frosting on his cake. But Hanks won two in the 90’s, Hopkins has one, Pacino has one, Pesci has one, all from the 90’s. I think they were probably happy to get a juicy part whether it resulted in praise or not. Who else could have played Pope Benedict better than Anthony Hopkins?

One of the participants in the retreat reminisced at how he had sort of wandered into his starring roles that made him such a great supporter of the church. He had never followed the “best practices” career counselors pass out.  Instead, he had always taken positions that would allow him to stay planted in Philadelphia and stay connected to Circle of Hope. That worked out well for his career, contrary to what passes for common sense, and worked out very well for Circle of Hope. Just like a movie needs good supporting actors (and the 500+ people on the credits) to tell a good story, the church needs good supporters to show Jesus to the world.

We all need support and we should feel good about giving it.

When Eugene Peterson rendered Matthew 6 in The Message paraphrase of the Bible he used an acting metaphor:

The World Is Not a Stage

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Perhaps the old guys acting and running for president just can’t get off the stage. But it is at least possible that they have reached the age or maturity when they just like the craft for the craft itself and not the applause.  Jesus is calling us to let the inner connection with God sustain us no matter whether we are recognized for our prayerfulness, or not.

We will be rewarded for our often-unobserved, supporting roles. Like Paul teaches the Colossians:

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.

Paul may have been the “star” apostle who became immortalized in the Bible. but he would not have gotten very far without Barnabas. And Barnabas would never have been there for Paul if not for the unknown person who brought the good new of Jesus to Antioch. In the age to come, that unknown person might be rewarded with a greater chunk of our common inheritance than all of us. But just like Joe Pesci is probably not feeling too bad about his paltry $50 million fortune, we probably won’t regret our part of eternal glory we get to share after we play our supporting roles in the unfinished work of Jesus.

Can we feel good about our parts?

Some of us feel terrified we might be called upon to lead or to be too noticeably necessary. Some of us feel terrified we will end up looking useless or less-important than some shiny newcomer. We all have a lot to learn. But wouldn’t it be great if we all felt good about the parts we are given to play in the body of Christ? That wonder is certainly a place where we need a lot of supporting roles filled by players eager to do their best for the joy of the work.

We need good leaders and it is a blessing to have them. But we only need enough of them. We mostly need people in supporting roles: making and sharing the money like my career-blessed friend, figuring out how to put up the South Broad sign (eventually) and make Circle Kids viable (as was also happening yesterday). We need a lot of people who feel good about praying because praying is good and serving because our Master is good. Even the narcissists who end up getting Oscars are usually quick to point out that they would not be getting an award unless a whole dedicated team loved making movies. A church feels flat and proves useless unless it has a lot of people who just love Jesus and his people and can’t resist doing good whether anyone cares about whether they did it or not.

That kind of lesson is especially a good one for me, since I have just been given a supporting role to play. I doubt that I will ever feel like Al Pacino about it, but some people have suggested I might feel my way into some Mr. Rogers rather easily. Mostly, I am just glad I get to be in the process because I like giving my gifts for the work of God’s people in this crazy era. For Christ’s sake we need to get together and make a difference about climate change and the ongoing mass incarceration of African Americans — not to mention the ruin of the church under the thumb of Trump! Some people wonder if I miss my leading role. Sometimes I do — two months won’t undo 20 years.  But mostly I relish the juicy part I get to play supporting the wonders we continue to work. Circle of Hope is like a beautiful, odd woman in a shiny gown in the front row of the Kingdom — I find her irresistible.

Suffering on the southern border: Save us from MPP

January 29 marked the one-year anniversary of the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. The policy prevents asylum seekers from waiting for their hearings in safety in the United States and forces them to wait in locations across the border in Mexico where they face violence and extortion.

So last Wednesday, Gwen offered us a vigil to mark the injustice and give us an opportunity to meet the impossible with prayer. I want to keep that prayer going with this post. I know I have readers from all over the world, so let’s wrap the world in prayer with and for people desperate enough to flee their homes — and hopeful enough to run up against the borders of an uncaring, violent world.

One picture of the country’s unkindness keeps getting replayed in Mexico when detainees are released from U.S. detention without shoelaces.  They appear on the doorsteps of shelters where caregivers maintain stockpiles. One refugee reported, “They took away our shoelaces because so many people tried to hang themselves with them.” But the prison keepers did not give them back when they were released, thereby preventing laceless people from becoming targets for gangs and kidnapers.

no shoelaces at the border

Save us from MPPs

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The administration is using MPP (Ironically titled “migrant protection protocols”) in tandem with other illegal policies, including turn-backs and the third-country transit asylum ban, to subvert U.S. law. The result is effectively a near-ban on asylum. The Department of Homeland Security has forced more than 60,000 asylum seekers and other migrants to wait in Mexico under MPP.

We see you in the stranger, Lord

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

There are now at least 636 public reports of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.

Give us big enough hearts

This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.  (Matthew 22:38-40)

A recent study by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego found that one in four people affected by the MPP in Tijuana and Mexicali have been threatened with physical violence. The study did not include the extremely dangerous MPP return locations of Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, or Nuevo Laredo.

May we love as you love us

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.”   (Galatians 5:14)

Asylum seekers who miss MPP court hearings because of kidnappings are being ordered deported. A pregnant Salvadoran woman in a Laredo court told an immigration judge that her husband had gone missing in Mexico and couldn’t attend his hearing. The judge ordered him deported. A 9-year-old disabled girl and her mother missed their immigration court hearing while being held captive and raped. They were ordered removed by an immigration judge in San Diego.

Give us courage to see and act

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.   The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”      (Luke 10:36-37)

Only 4% of individuals subjected to the Remain in Mexico policy have lawyers. Less than 1% have won their cases. This inhumane situation and practices of the DHS violate U.S. asylum and immigration law and U.S. Refugee Protocol obligations.

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Director Beto Ramos said CAME provides shelter, meals, clothing and emergency care for families waiting to be called for processing for asylum in Agua Prieta AZ

Show us the way beyond the border

In a global village it is overwhelming to see everyone as one’s neighbor. Our minds have trouble embracing them all. We let ourselves be complacent because we are not on a road, like the good Samaritan,  where we encounter all these suffering outcasts. At best they are a passing headline or picture for many of us.

We have limitations and we are not the saviors of the world. But Jesus can help us suffer with him. We can pray, like we are doing now. We can share resources. We can support those who are on the front lines of love for us — we are already connected to people  through our own Solidarity Beyond Borders Team and through our MCC partners.

We can pay attention and learn to sympathize through people who lead us in compassion. Our friend, Ron Byler, executive director of MCCUS, was on the southern border all last week and reported what he experienced on his Facebook page. He not only reveals how wicked the situation is, but also how many wonderful people are giving their lives to be light in that darkness.

We can keep turning into love, even when it is daunting. Often that means not turning away from the suffering, just as Jesus never turns away from ours.

We’re an alternative to slaveholder religion

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Those attractive, young British Royals who had that great wedding, Harry and Meghan, are figuring out a way to do their duty but get their child out of racist England. Many people are appalled at their “cheek,” and ashamed of them for not “keeping a stiff upper lip” in the face of daily assaults on their “mixed” marriage. Systemic racism is a poison with a long half-life.

The English invented the slave trade, it is said, but it was left to their descendants, the Americans, to perfect its form. The “Founding Fathers” wrote it into their precious Constitution and the country’s original sin still permeates everything that goes on, no matter how often it is revealed and rebuked. The Founders may have had their problems with slavery, but their compromises sealed the sin into the future.

Slaveholder religion

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (@wilsonhartgrove) tweeted on Jan 4: Trump didn’t preach Jesus at #EvangelicalsForTrump; he preached #SlaveholderReligion.

  1. God has given me power.
  2. Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
  3. When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.

I have not been able to get that well-phrased summary out of my mind. It is like a new memory verse for me. Only the Bible is the slaveholder’s Bible, which has as its goal protecting an economy that is based on slavery. “Slavery for the good of all” could be its motto.

Wilson-Hartgrove has been touring and teaching from his book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. He was in Dallas at a Red Letter Revival doing a good job of challenging the racism at the heart of evangelicalism [report]. He says throughout American history, two versions of Christianity have competed for the loyalty of believers—slaveholder religion and the freedom church. He began to realize that dualism when he was appointed a Senate page by Strom Thurmond and discovered the Senator’s ardent opposition to all Civil Rights Acts.  At a key point in his life, Wilson-Hartgrove then encountered William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. “He began to teach me about a black-led, faith-rooted freedom struggle.”

He learned how slaveholders and their allies used the Bible to support their arguments in favor of slavery and of an economic system dependent upon slave labor. Some evangelicals might still use the Bible to justify the kind of capitalism people take as elemental to faith in the U.S. But most people don’t think it needs justifying, it just is. And they are thankful when the 1% exercise their power to create jobs.

Wilson-Hartgrove also learned about “the freedom church that was born on the edge of the plantations.” Meeting in brush arbors for worship, African-American slaves identified with biblical stories about how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and liberated them from exile in Babylon. “There has always been a struggle between slaveholder religion and the freedom church,” he said.

The freedom church was not invented in the United States, of course. It is a struggle repeated in every generation of the church. As we have often taught in Circle of Hope, after the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted the church, the “freedom church” people had to constantly confront the domination system his successors and imitators determined to institute:

  1. God has given me power.
  2. Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
  3. When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.

Kissing the Pope’s ring or bowing before the God-anointed sovereign with absolute power were among the things they resisted. My heroes, Francis of Assisi and the Anabaptists heard the gospel just like the American slaves did. Many others took great risks to be their true selves in Christ.

Racism (and all the other oppressions that intersect with it) is a spiritual problem that requires “soul work” to solve, Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Deep healing is needed. To be segregated from our neighbors by racial divisions and economic inequities makes it harder to know God. But as we listen to one another, we draw closer to one another and closer to God.”

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Free Bird by cristi b

Staying a freedom church

In a few days, Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WIND will begin our annual time to pray in light of one of our distinctives as a church: Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel. In a profoundly angry and divided region we are attempting to be the next generation of the church who holds out the light as a freedom church.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

When Paul wrote that he certainly had physical bondage in mind, as his letter to Philemon demonstrates. In that brief letter he tells a slaveholder it is incumbent on him to receive his slave as “no longer a slave” in Christ, which would certainly imply owning him no longer, since they had a common master. Likewise, we must all be, regardless of identity, vigilant on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to the evil instincts of the oppressors in the United States, who are backed by the world’s largest arsenal, the largest economy and a government devoted to the preservation of themselves as the heads of it all.

But, Like Wilson-Hartgrove would agree, Paul mostly had the spiritual problem in mind when he wrote the Galatians from prison under arrest by the great Empire of his time.  He knew that people are used to the slavery of sin and death and need a daily reminder to throw it off and not take it on again. Jesus the Christ has set us free. No matter if society imprisons us, it can’t take away that freedom. If it abuses us or even kills us we stand firm in the freedom of eternity. [I can’t get enough of this topic].

Paul’s teaching is bold because he also knows we are afraid. I am afraid to write this piece, since people who are desperate for freedom will critique my convictions, in some small or big way, and criticize my lack of appropriate action, or just use the power of the pen to condemn me for being who I am in the eyes of the evil world. I also fear the slaveholders who block my way to freedom every day with their controlling laws, oppressive capitalism for the rich, and immoral politics and policies. Among those slaveholders are the evangelical leaders who consign their flocks to follow Trump for political and economic power, both full of spurious promises, who have divided up the church and made people ashamed to be or become Christians.

Nevertheless, once again, at the beginning of the year, I am moved to hold on to my freedom and resist the yoke. This blog post is a small expression of my resistance. Community in Christ is possible. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Faith, hope and love are not dead. Our little outpost is just part of the outpouring of the Spirit pushing against the barricades of the evil powers. We are not the only alternative to those forces, but we are certainly an amazing one. If we die trying to be that alternative, that will be a good death.

Division is not new, reconciling always is: 2020 will be great for the church

In October, Megan McArdle wrote in the Washington Post, “I used to think there were certain rules about U.S. politics. There were things you had to do, like be nice to veterans. And things you could not do, like stand by a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault, invite foreign leaders to investigate the families of your political opponents or campaign for president as a socialist.

If those rules ever held, the past five years have gutted them. President Trump hammers daily on institutional norms, to cheers from his supporters; Democrats, meanwhile, are considering their own round of norm violations as soon as they get back in power.

Something major has obviously changed. It’s tempting to ask, ‘What has happened to America?’ but even that question doesn’t capture the scale of what’s going on. Waves of radicalism have swamped stable political orders all over the Western world. “

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Permafrost thaw ponds in Canada. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

People divide and cause division

I often tell the story of sitting out on the front lawn of our bargain house in Riverside, CA (fondly called the “Flintstone house” due to its creative stucco job) and asking the same question: “How could the country elect Ronald Reagan? It must be the beginning of the end.” We were probably right about the end, at least the end of something, if only the fracturing of the Evangelicals and Catholics.

When I was complaining about Trump to my 73-year-old, genealogy-loving brother the other day, he quickly reminded me, “Trump is not new.” If you read history you can easily find hundreds of examples of numbskulls elevated into power who make quick work of what wiser leaders took decades to build. It is a lot easier to tear something apart than to build it. The work of Charlemagne’s grandsons might be a good example.

As many have said, Trump is given too much credit for stirring up trouble when he may just be riding the divisions caused by other factors. McArdle summarized four movements Reagan never dreamed of that might be more responsible than the old men in power for the radical rivalries splitting governments these days – not to mention friendships, families and churches!

  • There is a growing division between the mobile class that floats from successful city to successful city and the people left behind in declining rust belts and rural areas. These floaters are the cosmopolitans and the others are the rooted, or as David Goodhart put it in his 2017 book “The Road to Somewhere,” the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” I have met these “anywheres” all over the world and many have passed through Circle of Hope. I have written a bit about how they hide their money.
  • George Shultz, the economist and secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, argues that the ever-increasing centralization of the federal government exacerbates division. It pushes power away from localities to remote authorities that are less accountable to individual voters, and less trusted. Schultz told McArdle, “Accountability is one basic principal of good government…The other basic principal is trust. You have to have a government you trust.” Federalizing everything also turns every political question into a life-or-death battle between two sides that are increasingly distant from each other, not just geographically, but culturally and economically. Lack of trust is the one “trickle-down” theory that seems to work. All authorities are subject to incredible suspicion, even one’s cell leader. So we keep talking about building a trust system.
  • Eric Kaufmann’s “Whiteshift” (2019) parses a great deal of data and comes up with a compelling story of division all over the world. As immigration rates rise and so-called “white” majorities feel their culture and demographic dominance at risk, they flock to candidates and platforms promising to control the flood. This is also true in China (Uighers), India (Muslims) and South Africa (Zimbabweans). I called the 2016 election a “whitelash” along with many others.
  • Former CIA analyst Martin Gurri argues in “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority” (2018) that the 21st-century information explosion has fatally weakened the old hierarchies that maintained social, economic and political order. The Internet has eroded the monopolies over information and expertise — or the communications systems transmitting them — that shaped and reinforced those hierarchies. Now networked insurgents are making inroads everywhere. People were already skeptical about any notion of truth before the Internet weaponized that skepticism. Now people have to wonder if their mom is spreading fake news the Russians contributed to her pastor’s news stream.

All these theories are probably right. We are in a perfect storm of factors that tend toward backlash, illiberalism, and disruption. Maybe the powers will find a way through and maybe the revolutionaries will keep us distracted until the melting permafrost drowns us all. It is hard to predict what will happen but it is not hard to feel anxious about the uncertainty.

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Jesus keeps bringing things together

As my brother might say, the newer things get the older they seem. Jesus was born the first time into an era of amazing innovation and astounding evil. What’s new? He is being born into the same situation now. Paul’s general criticism of humanity is as accurate now as when he first wrote it, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Last week, Christianity Today surprisingly called on the Evangelicals to admit the president has done the same thing: “His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Right now, in the middle of that, Jesus is raising up twenty and thirtysomethings, just like he raised up me and my friends. In many ways, they will change the world again. If they don’t reroute every Reagan and Trump, defeat every tyrant on the planet and reconcile every division, that won’t be surprising. But they will keep the truth about Jesus alive. And they will keep building a community in Christ where reconciliation is real.

So even though 2020 might be a political mess, I think it could be a glorious time for the church, especially Circle of Hope. We often feel tired and ineffectual, even while we are unusually strong and effective, but we still manage to look up and see the star moving over where Jesus is born. And we still manage to remember that God’s blessing is about peace on earth and grace to all. Our pastors and leadership team are helping us build a counterculture where we can live in reconciliation and from which we can demonstrate an alternative to whatever our truth-challenged society comes up with.

It is going to be a wonder-filled year.

Create an environment: “Caught not taught” is inevitable

Tested in their environment
Blunt and Corden in Into the Woods

OK, I admit it, I have Barbra Streisand on my ITunes playlist. Her The Way We Were album caught me and my college roommate when we were falling in love with our wives and she’s been around ever since.

One of my favorites is her rendition of “Children will Listen” from Into the Woods.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn

Children catch wonderful things from being around their parents. They have an uncanny ability to strain out the best in us. But sometimes they miss what you wish they’d catch while they are acquiring all your bad traits. Sometimes they catch psychological diseases you caught from your parents. Yet, quite often, there is enough love and trust in the family for them to become someone much finer than who could have been predicted, given their environment.

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The environment matters

You may have seen the poster above  titled “Children Learn What They Live.” I admit I chose that particular rendition out of hundreds in the image search, for one main reason. I like the fish trying to get some attention. What’s more, there are chicks swimming around, which intrigued me, since their feathers get saturated and they drown quite easily, and if they survive their swim, they are likely to catch hypothermia.

Converse with fish, if you must, but do not throw your chicks in the water.

Careful the posters you put on you walls
Children will inspect them

Or at least their grandfather might.

The beginning reads If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If they live with hostility, they learn to fight. We know that is true, at some level. If we did not learn it at home, we were certainly taught it in school or at work. It would not be surprising if your well-schooled inner critic were at work right now. Whatever psychological machinery monitors your hostility is probably at work in the background, too. Maybe you scorned Barbra and hated the poster — you can tell I have gone through a bit if I imagined that!

You could sum up the rest of the poem with: If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect. If they live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live. Most of us also know this is true at some level, even if the feeling seems like it is a fish trying to get some attention, meaning kindness seems a bit imaginary, but somehow very important.  If we were making a poster, we’d want to include it. Our love relationships in the family and otherwise tap into our spiritual memory of creation as being a nice place to live.  Hopefully, such love softens our hearts so we can be saved from the world as it is, which might get even less kind in 2020.

As soon as the children leave our loving embrace, they will walk outside, or watch The Avengers, or listen to the President, or learn that they are just a data point on the spreadsheet of corporate stockholders. People are not picking up kindness and respect from the environment right now. To the contrary, people keep telling me they are running into the inner Trump-demon in people.

We create an alternative

The children of God also catch things from their environment. They live in a spiritual ecosystem called the church. Even though the church teaches all the time, I think most people are moving with what they catch. Like it or not, faith is more caught than taught. We wish everyone were listening to their pastors and other teachers (I’m writing a blog post, for Christ’s sake!), and that happens. But if any true reshaping is going on it is going to look a lot like the social system in which people are swimming.

Since we know faith is caught as much as taught, if not moreso, Circle of Hope has always described how we develop Jesus followers like this: We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.

We are an alternative environment to the one where Donald Trump can move everyone with a Tweet barrage and where fear dominates most of the hours people aren’t sleeping. It is a lofty goal to think we can create an environment that images God like we do, but it is absolutely crucial to keep trying. God’s children also learn from from living with their spiritual parents and siblings in Christ. Who we are and what we do probably has more influence than what we say.

The Bible includes dialogue about “caught, not taught” in many places. In the following examples from the Old and New Testaments you can see parents wrestling with children who forsake their history and families, and see parents who are doing a terrible job at creating an environment of love.

  • Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s  teaching  (Prov. 1:8).
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

Mother’s teaching should be about the mystery of God’s wisdom. The main instruction of the Lord is to “love one another as I have loved you.”

As the church, we are often the first place someone is invited into a love that holds them and a wisdom that launches them. Our environment is a place of living water into which people can dive or just get their toes wet as they navigate their spiritual journey. Just being dipped in it changes one’s view of destiny.

How do we respond to our deteriorating social system?

We need to create an alternative environment. Americans often begin and end with fighting over their democracy as if it will save them and the world. That delusion might be the main problem for Christians growing up in the U.S. Empire. We think and feel power, or the loss of it, all the time. Everyone needs to learn something else.

Especially during Advent, we should all try on the new clothes of our new lives in Christ:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

We are citizens of the kingdom of God, right now, and the fullness of heaven will be ours before long; that is our hope. We are a circle of that hope, and you are probably part of a Jesus-environment where you are, too.

If we are products of our environment, then shouldn’t we do all we can to make that environment nourishing and not negative? Of course! Don’t give up. People need an alternative. We all learn what we live. And, in word and deed, we teach what we learn. The children we raise and the children of God Jesus has raised will mimic the model they are supplied. At the very least they should have the opportunity to catch some wisdom and love from someone bravely tending a garden (complete with demanding fish and endangered chicks, perhaps) in which to walk with Jesus and from which to bless creation.

What to expect if your loved one is in the media

The first thing we’ll probably do if our loved one is in the media is have a big emotion, right? — like when the cameraperson in the stadium puts you on the jumbotron.

Most of us will be excited. I was VERY excited when NPR discovered our Debt Annihilation Team and talked about them on two different podcasts, recently.  I hope you saw the notice on the Covenant List:

My loved ones sounded like their brilliant selves and our vision for following Jesus looked pretty great, too.

But sometimes you might feel puzzled, at best, and horrified, at worst, at how your loved ones gets twisted by inaccurate or unscrupulous reporting that will probably be on the internet forever.  The first time I ever got my picture in the newspaper they said my name was “Tod.” They got both the dogs’ names correct, however.

Our most recent relationship with the powerful media was pretty great.  NPR treated us generously. But I also feel disappointed with how the producer of “This is Uncomfortable” summed up  our radicality in a way none of his subjects implied.

Here are two things to expect if your loved one is in the media.

It is going to be depersonalized while looking personal

The segment of Marketplace I heard was the 23rd in a series about “Life and how money messes with it.” “Life” is a thing” and “money” is a force.  You’ve entered the media machine and it has a worldview. The show has a topic and you are being fit into it.

I kind of like the show’s point of view. We need to know that the average amount for people with credit card debt is over $6000. They said our team was “turning to a very ancient text, the Bible, to solve a very modern problem.” That’s all great.

Caroline Butcher sounded like a very charming, sincere person. The story of her troubles, joys, problems, and hopes was inspiring. They said saving, and living within one’s means is a social act.  They showed how sincere the group was about not compromising their Integrity. Caroline said the money helped her finances, but maybe even more profound, the group helped her change her view from “me” to “us.” When the reporter outed her in the Sunday meeting she owned her place on the usually-anonymous DAT — that made her shame lose some power, which might be the most profound experience of all. So that was all good.

I was impressed how love and hope kept leaking through the carefully-flat presentation of the format.

The producer will have a way of inserting their agenda which does not match what you said

There was really only one line in the segment that made me sigh with disappointment and a little bit of irritation. It was this:

“What’s so radical about that church’s system to pay off debt is that God doesn’t actually have to be a part of it. It’s really just a community helping each other out.”

Nobody said anything like that. God was a main player in all of it. It is hard to come to his conclusion from what he presented himself!

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The producer

On the one hand, it’s true. We would like to help people who don’t trust Jesus and his people. Being mutual with them would be great. Community is powerful. But I don’t think the producer meant to say just that. He was interested in the radicality of having community, not knowing God. He pointedly took God out of the question, for some reason.

So on the other hand what he said wasn’t true and was just plain poor reporting. He tweaked the whole thing on the sign off, after Caroline was up front about her faith journey, after people had allowed him to record them praying, and after Joshua gave a dandy explanation of the Debt Annihilation Team’s biblical foundation in a few sentences. All the people in the piece were open and vulnerable with their faith and the author summed it up with “Faith doesn’t matter anyway; this is all about people getting together, not God.”

Most of us wake up every day with some indecision about what matters or whether we even matter. So I can give the producer, Peter Balonon-Rosen, a pass on his conclusion. Most listeners probably listened to his summary and wondered what people he had listened to, anyway, like I did. But he would probably be a fine dinner guest.

When you get involved with the media, don’t be surprised if the producers produce what they want with the raw material of your story. They’re running a big machine looking for stuff to process and the machine has  some big assumptions to organize our thinking — on purpose or unwittingly.