Category Archives: Doing Theology

I matter: The terrible, wonderful I AM

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

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

Those messages need to be countered:

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

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

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

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

You matter because you ARE.

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling the truth about me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exxon crisis
Exxon has juiced a lot of presidents.

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

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

What should we do for the climate?

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

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

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

Will the Bezos earth fund avert crisis?

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

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

But will people do what we should do?

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

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

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

who we are solves crisis

Get out of your pod

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

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

Pay attention

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

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

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

Be a chosen one

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

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

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

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing a new story

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief history of tarot

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

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

Image result for tarot cards origin

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

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

How does the church relate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re an alternative to slaveholder religion

Image result for meghan and harry

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

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

Slaveholder religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Bird by cristi b

Staying a freedom church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is a political storm coming? : Some help for travelling through it with Jesus

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Trump is a storm of his own making.

So who knows what is going to happen next year? The financial markets are getting scared – and you know what fears drive Americans the most! People continue to get more divided as the President masterfully feeds lies to fears.

I keep offering the same response to people who still want to argue about it all. While Donald Trump is monstrous, he is not new. His ilk runs Turkey and Russia. More germane to my topic, his ilk tormented Jesus and lied to get him killed. Jesus did not mince words with them:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” – John 8:43-47

I don’t want to unpack everything in that passage right now. But you probably need to do so. Because Jesus has been lied to death in our era, too. [Aren’t people Lying to you about Christianity?]. Whose desires are you appeasing? Do you believe there is any truth? Do you know what Jesus says, much more believe it? Can you hear what is from God? There are a lot of questions here.

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Families are divided in more ways than one these days.

Why are we so storm-tossed, even in the church?

I mainly want to bring up the social aspect of all this lying that is making it hard for some of us to go home and visit the folks, much more challenge us as we look at the future. Be honest, the folks at home might not be reading blogs. They might not even approve of Philadelphia, or at least what you are doing in it if you were born here. Even if you are feeling uncomfortable with the disconnection you feel, I think we should acknowledge there might be more reasons we are getting divided up than the other side is filled with morons.

The other day YouTube offered a video when I popped in to find something else. I actually  wanted to see it! I guess I have “liked” enough things for it to feed me what I desire. The best thing it came up with was this video of a “liberal” woman discovering why she was having so much trouble with “conservative” people by reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Here’s the video:

I love how this women opens up her mind to understand how Trump appeals to people who do not share the dominant ethical foundation of her background or territory.

I spent a couple of pages on my dissertation talking about Jonathan Haidt because he can help therapists navigate ethical territory without being appalled by how their client sees things so differently than they do.

Then I spent some time translating Haidt’s social-science-bounded work to help us build our community in Christ. We are generally boundaried by the same kind of bias the woman described in the video. So I wrote a couple of posts to help us think a bit more inclusively:

We could be a shelter in the storm

I offer the discussion to you today because I think we are headed for some big trouble in the country in the next few months. I hope we can speak into it as Jesus-followers, not just go with the turbulent “mainstream.” We need to pluck people out of the maelstrom/mainstream and give them a safe place on our “third way.” Our way is a journey through the future on which we generously accept where people are at with some understanding and offer them the truth in Jesus which will save their lives and give them a new place to stand.

To provide that place we will need to resist giving in to the temptation to despise grandpa as a demonstration of our righteousness and avoid castigating people for being on the wrong side of history. As the women points out in the video, much of what masquerades as a reasonable argument is a passionate defense of unconsidered reactions. They are the same kind of reactions that caused people to call Jesus a liar and caused Jesus to tell them they were following the devil. A simple agreement we might make together for navigating the treacherous waters ahead and saving people from the flood would be to not follow the devil!

Shutting down and not engaging is not loving. Taking political sides and damning the enemy is not true to Jesus. The way of faith, hope and love is the third way and we have already created an alternative space to share it. I hope we will maintain some awareness of one of our proverb (and the tagline for this blog): Truth without love kills and love without truth lies. We can stand in such a both/and space because Jesus is standing with us. We need to “behold” him there, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Is Circle of Hope too political?

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

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

Circle of Hope protesting at the DNC

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

First, about the word

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we are too political

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

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

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

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

Everything, in a sense, is political

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

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

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

If anything, our church is not political enough!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code switching: All us weird people need community

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

Code switching as a survival tool

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

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

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

Such confessions sometimes lead to connection

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

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

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

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

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

Weird, code-switching people need community

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

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

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

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

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Queer philosophy helps to change things

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

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

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

Wrestling with rumors: WWJD with #WWG1GWA?

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

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We are in a season of rumor

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

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

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

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

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

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

QAnon has a religious wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should we think about Q or do anything about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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Reality Acceptance

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

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

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

Nonjudgmental Stance

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

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

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

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

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

Loss and Longing in Oscar’s Best Original Song Nominees

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

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

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

Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy

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

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

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

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

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

All the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Place Where Lost Things Go

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

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

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

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flower arranger takes her time

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

Make the most of your time

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

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

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

The time you have is a gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being avoidant is not enough

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

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

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

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Other articles: How Does Screen Time Affect Kids’ Mental Health?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hidden Face of God — Jed Malitz

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

Know about the future

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

But don’t worry about it

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

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

Get ready for the future

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

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

But don’t forget to live in the present

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation begins with forgiveness – primarily of you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That reminds me of someone.

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

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My pain instead of yours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forgiveness is an antidote to resentment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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