Category Archives: Building community

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 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.

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.

Image result for best supporting actor 2020 nominees

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.

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.

Image result for children learn what they live poem

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.

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

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

The not so new holiness

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

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

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

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All SJWs are not alike

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective, Covenant and Community in the age of Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clinton AK. Audra Melton for the NY Times

Covenant is an antidote

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

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

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

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

Can we even talk about being a “collective?”

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

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

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

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

The Lord among us organizes us, not the program.

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

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

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

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

Programming is too easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the basic thing Christians do?

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

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

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

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Lessons for the church from the Narcissist in Chief

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

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

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

Narcissism is a village issue

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

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

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

Narcissism comes to the Sunday meeting

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

There are a few signs of it:

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

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

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Could be the scorning persona and the unloved child

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

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

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

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

Code switching: All us weird people need community

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

Code switching as a survival tool

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

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

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

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

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

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

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

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

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

Weird, code-switching people need community

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

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

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

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

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

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

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

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

Cumbersome is good for us: Love is not easy

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

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A moment in our weeks-long mapping process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Innovation from Upland, CA, my old stomping grounds.

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

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

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

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

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

Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.

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

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

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

Cumbersome assumes we need help.

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

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

Francis and Jesus will erode your control fantasies for good

    Jesus spoke to Francis from this cross.

Preaching to the birds was miraculous, not cute

A few years after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) had been quickly canonized (1228), the learned Franciscans who took over the order were already distributing an “authorized” and sanitized biography of him penned by St. Bonaventure. He and his cronies ordered Brother Leo’s collection of stories destroyed (1266). Many of the brothers did not follow the order. When you read the stories his friends told, they present a man who should not have been sentimentalized inThomas Celano’s Little Flowers and turned into a birdbath  or turned into a soulless moral lesson by Bonaventure.

I’m here in Assisi, which is a lovely, spit-shined shrine to Italy’s patron saint. There is plenty or birdbath Francis to be found in the stores lining the pilgrim ways. There is plenty of Bonaventure’s classier Francis  as well . A street sweeper is rumbling outside my window as I write, making sure the dirty 1200’s and Francis’ Lady Poverty loving beggars are not allowed in the city for too long.

Yet Francis and his Jesus do manage to leak through the well-managed 21st century. I met Jesus again on the original San Damiano cross (above) yesterday in Clare’s church. A replica of the one that spoke to Francis is outside the city at the little church where Francis received his life changing call. I heard the message again and, of course, put it on Instagram: “Go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is fallen into ruin.”

Statue of Francis and his war horse ready to give up their armor at the entry to the Basilica.

Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies

I first witnessed the scene of Francis’ revelation in Brother Sun Sister Moon, the 70s version of the uncontrollable story . I religiously watch it every October 4. From my first steps of adult faith I felt moved to do my part in the rebuilding. I think we are doing OK, so far. But the church is a bigger wreck than ever in the U.S., preoccupied with sex, trying to control how people deal with reproduction instead of meeting and demonstrating the Alternative: the half-naked Jesus on the cross, speaking more outrageous sermons from his new “mount.” The church not only generally despises voluntary poverty, it persecutes people who don’t get in bed with capitalists and support the huge military it takes to prevent any hint of mutuality. But we keep building.

Yesterday morning, as I began my retreat in earnest, I wondered how many stories from the early days of the Lord’s movement in me, or in Circle of Hope, I have suppressed. Now I have Bonaventure-like credentials, and the financial ability to spit-shine my environment —or at least to buy some more illusion of control, do I present a more socially acceptable version of me and of us? As I wrote that line a chorus of church bells began to ring, announcing 7:30am. My attention was turned to the chorus of birds celebrating  a beautiful Umbrian day.

I suspect the Lord will be able to disrupt me, and you, no matter how many ways we find to subdue his impact. Later at mass at San Damiano, a butterfly flew through the window and fluttered over the priests just as we sang the Gloria. It was not only a fitting tribute to Franco Zeffirelli (RIP), but to the Lord, who asks us to stop trying to control nature and join him in it, tending it together for glory, not just using it for pleasure or profit.

At the scene of subsequent Pentecosts

I’m checking in from my trip in Italy. On Pentecost Sunday yesterday  I took some time to appreciate the places on my pilgrim route where the Spirit touched another person or generation with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit just like happened that first time, reported in Acts 2.

Rome

We stopped by “Paul outside the walls,” the site where Paul was allegedly crucified by Nero. This completed last year’s pilgrimage to Greece. Paul had an unlikely “pentecost” that day on the way to Damascus.  I’ve been surprised many times by how the Spirit finds me, too.

Montecassino

We made the climb to the top of the famous hill near Naples where Benedict of Nursia planted the monastery that would influence Europe for good for a thousand years and still inspires pilgrims like me. Being welcomed into these islands of faith and learning provided “pentecosts” for thousands of seekers in desperate times, beginning in the 600’s.

Padua

Up in Veneto during the 1200’s, Anthony of Padua helped Francis of Assisi train the many new community members their revival movement was attracting. At his shrine we saw his famous tongue, preserved as a memory of his remarkable speaking career and his ongoing influence.  On a Saturday, one worship time after another was packed!

Philadelphia

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Spring is glorious

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Meanwhile our instagrams told of all sorts of moving experiences on Pentecost weekend — from the splash party in the Northwest to blue skies over South Jersey, from intimate times around the piano to the Comfort Retreat. We have bits of Paul, Benedict and Anthony in us. We experience, demonstrate and teach all the “pentecosts” in our own way. It was amazing then and God with us is amazing now. I can’t help but think God will meet us and continue to use us in desperate times. I’m inspired by the past but probably more by our present together.

Ownership proverbs: More evidence that Jesus is risen

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

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

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

Ownership proverbs from passionate pastors

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

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

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

We’re having trouble even associating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is great to give our time for the owners

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

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

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

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

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

It is better to give our lives because we own them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moneyland: What does a Jesus-follower do in the era of that dark power?

People are writing such wonderful things these days! But it seems so few people are paying attention! This post has that spirit of hope and lament running through it.

It happened again.  I couldn’t resist starting my new book before I finished the one I was reading. The first one was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration — an old entry on our Kindle bookshelf about how African Americans finally fled Jim Crow in the South. It is so well written, I keep going back to it. But it is so painful I can’t talk about it yet. [NPR interviewed the author in 2010]

I think I heard about the new one, Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World by chance on NPR. I need to talk about that one since Gwen is about ready to head for Ukraine in June and that is where an unusual door opened into the secret world of the kleptocrats who saw a weakness in capitalist democracies and have exploited it to the fullest. Not only are they rich, they have an extraordinary control over the countries they exploit and generally live above the law. Paul Manafort, who opened the Ukrainian door to us here in the U.S. was just inept enough at his exploitation to end up in jail. His boss, Donald Trump, also seems rather inept, but he has no lack of brazen self-interest as he attempts to propel himself into the head of the plutocracy. The next proposed boss, Joe Biden, has a son, Hunter, who has also been in and out of the weird Ukrainian door to Moneyland, so we’ll see where all this ends up.

Moneyland people by art for show.
News from a Moneylander family: Treasury Secretary Minuchen’s father bought Jeff Koon’s “Rabbit” for $91.1 MILLION last week, setting a record for a piece by a living artist.

Meanwhile, the little people, like you and me are totally in the dark about the flow of money in “moneyland.” The author, Oliver Bullough, does his best unravel it for us. For example, if you give to a non-profit supporting a hospital in Kiev the administrator may have a bank account in St. Kitts, like Paul Manafort, or she may have to pay someone who has one or risk the lives of her children. If you want to spread your goodwill to another city in Ukraine, you will have to ride the neglected roads (budget lines pillaged by insiders) and get through countless checkpoints at which the armed forces/police ask for their cut (rule of law is undermined). We experienced this in Zimbabwe, personally, when we were there, Robert Mugabe being the head kleptocrat.

Bullough writes in his revealing introduction:

“It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the superrich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, it’s inaccessible.

This is the place I called Moneyland — Maltese passports, English libel, American privacy, Panamanian shell companies, Jersey trusts, Liechtenstein foundations, all added together to create a virtual space that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The laws of Moneyland are whichever laws anywhere are most suited to those wealthy enough to afford them at any moment in time. If a country somewhere changes the law to restrict Moneylanders in any way, they shift themselves or their assets to countries with more generous laws. If a country passes a law that offers new possibilities for enrichment, then the assets shift likewise….

If we wish to preserve democracy…we must confront Moneyland’s nomad citizens, and must find a way to dismantle the offshore structures that make it so easy for them to hide their money from democratic oversight. They are at least as significant a threat to the rules-based order that we’ve created to make the world safe as the terrorists and dictators we read about every day.”

What do Christians’ do in response to all this?

Image result for christians heads in the sandGet our heads out of the sand

I hope this isn’t overly critical. But aren’t Christians generally known for keeping their heads in the the sand, even though they should feel safer to look around than people living without Jesus? I think I can sympathize with the temptation to perfect avoidance. For most of us, we are happy if we feel relatively safe and we hope nothing changes. These days, the world makes many of us so anxious, we are even more likely to turn a blind eye to what evil is up to as long as we are not on its radar. But that is not the call from our teachers:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:11-16)

We are not to acquiesce to or collude with the darkness, we are supposed to expose it!

I am distressed there are enough blind Christians in the United States to support the smokescreen from the Trump administration that promises protection from the infidels in Iran and an abortion-free society in exchange for spending all our treasure on warfare and indebting the country for generations, while the rich hide their money offshore and the rest of us suckers pay the taxes for it all. If you have a job and don’t feel too hard-pressed right now, at least care about the poor, the most defenseless who bear the regressive weight of the schemes of Moneyland. The Ryan tax cut for the rich and Trump’s incarceration of immigrant children should provide a graphic enough picture of what is in store for the poorest. Surely no Jesus follower wants to collude with that! We should expose it.

Tell the truth

Bullough accuses most of us of not even knowing the truth. But he is sympathetic, since the truth about Moneyland is a well-guarded secret. I appreciate how he offers his book as an antidote. I’m glad he had the freedom of speech to write it. I’d say most of my readers also trust in freedom of speech to change the world. If we do anything to protest, it mostly has to do with speaking, or writing, or chanting in the streets.

It’s when we don’t feel the freedom that things get rough. Here’s an example from the Bible. When King Herod heard about what Jesus was saying, he was a bit terrified (see Mark 6:14-29). Jesus reminded the king of John the Baptist so much, he was afraid John had risen from the dead! He had just killed the Lord’s cousin for daring to speak up about his unholy marriage, among other things. Jesus soon followed in his cousin’s footsteps for telling the truth to the Jewish and Roman rulers who sent him to the cross. As usual, the rule of law was about the rulers. When that is the case, truth tellers need to hold on to their eternal life — they are going to need it.

I think I notice a subtle change in our truth-telling church over the last ten years. As the post 9/11 babies come into leadership, there is less conflict, less truth telling, more ghosting and more cutting off. Jesus tells them, “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” They tend to reply with Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-8).

I don’t know if that applies to you, personally, but the world seems to be conforming to the spirit of the age and truth-tellers could get killed, and do. I think our fear of death is shutting our mouths. We may not fear getting killed, but we think our money will be stolen and our jobs eliminated if we don’t keep quiet. We know education does not guarantee security. We see how the whims of the president can destroy a family’s farm in Iowa in a matter of months. People are thinking, “Who knows what might happen if I make myself a target?”

Jesus’ ultimate answer to Pilate wasn’t, “I tell the truth and that is what changes the world.” Jesus is the truth, the way, the truth and the life. When we relate to him, we relate to his Father. Our reconciliation saves us and changes the world, which brings me to the main thing we do in the face of Moneyland.

Build an alternative community

Some scholars call Ephesians “Paul’s book of the church.” I think it is his book about following Jesus, which never happens outside the church. Jesus followers live a reconciled life as closely connected and interdependent as members of a body. This makes us an alternative to the “fruitless deeds of darkness” mentioned above. If we are Christian in principle but not practice, mostly law and not love, we are sitting ducks for the ways of the dying world or just more ideologues in a power struggle.

Paul teaches:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (4:15-18)…

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:12).

Oliver Bullough might wish his book was so influential people would be talking about it 2000 years from now. May you write something that profound!

We rely on you to be profoundly yourself in Christ and to dare to make an alternative community with us. The resistance we perfect and the transformation we effect depends on being the body of Christ. We are like Jesus before Pilate — we are who we are; we are the truth. We aren’t there to argue, we are there because the world is struggling against God and its true self and we aren’t struggling with them.

Is Moneyland a real place? It is if evil can blind us, if the powers can keep us in the dark with them. Regardless, it is not as real as the kingdom of God where we live with Jesus and one another. Every time we turn toward home and turn away from the deceptions all around us, we are strengthening our true selves, and just that small action speaks the truth in love to a world desperately in need of it.