Category Archives: The Mission

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.

8409
Paul and Silas in Philippi drive the devil out of a woman possessed of a spirit of divination — Pieter de With, ca. 1650

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

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

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

Writing a new story

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief history of tarot

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

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

Image result for tarot cards origin

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

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

How does the church relate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of history: 75 years after Auschwitz

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

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

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

But what about those who have lost history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t gasp, act

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

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

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

Suffering on the southern border: Save us from MPP

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

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

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

no shoelaces at the border

Save us from MPPs

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

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

We see you in the stranger, Lord

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

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

Give us big enough hearts

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

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

May we love as you love us

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

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

Give us courage to see and act

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

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

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling
Director Beto Ramos said CAME provides shelter, meals, clothing and emergency care for families waiting to be called for processing for asylum in Agua Prieta AZ

Show us the way beyond the border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Image result for melting permafrost
Permafrost thaw ponds in Canada. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

People divide and cause division

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for star of wonder

Jesus keeps bringing things together

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

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

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

It is going to be a wonder-filled year.

What to expect if your loved one is in the media

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is going to be depersonalized while looking personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for Peter Balonon-Rosen marketplace
The producer

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

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

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

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

The three things that changed my mind about those “other” people

In August, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said immigrants legally in the U.S. may no longer be eligible for green cards if they use food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits. To justify this direction, he cited an 1882 rule intended to undo the words on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming the poor through the golden door by restricting immigration to wealthier people.

Cuccinelli’s intentions are just one of many ways the government is inventing to keep people, especially poor people and people of color, out of the United States. The  administration of Donald Trump (the Nativist in Chief) is so full of enmity and strife they can’t implement most of their threats, but that certainly doesn’t ease the fears of families who are left in limbo and too often separated from each other.

I grew up in a lower middle class family in the 1950s and 60s. My parents bravely clawed their way out of their parents’ poverty. Along the way, they cultured every “white” fear of the “other” possible. As a child, I swam in the nation’s original sin of racism. The family carried a careful disdain for every outsider who somehow managed to get into the white man’s country. This was my father’s creed, even though his grandmother was so poor she tried to get onto the Choctaw rolls in order to receive Native American benefits. As a result of all this training, even now I have a small, inbred instinct that resonates with people who think Ken Cuccinelli makes sense as he protects the nation from “freeloaders” flooding in to steal the fruits of “our” hard labor. I thought “otherizing “ people was just the way things worked until I was in Jr. High.

Friendship

Long about Jr. High I began to wake up to what all this hatred really meant. My mind began to change due to my friendships. I played sports with people who spoke Spanish at home and many were dear friends my whole childhood. I also learned my town’s name was Spanish and the first colonizers of California were from Spain. I had Japanese girlfriends, which really did not go over well, since my dad had fought them in World War 2. California was a major melting pot and I melted in.

The Bible

More important, I began to read the Bible for myself when I was a young man. My parents were not Christians, so they did not have any authority to recast the Bible for me; therefore, I got it straight.  When it came to “other” people, the Bible is clear. Jesus was an “other” and allied himself with poor people and outcasts, all the fancy buildings dedicated to him, notwithstanding. Israel was a nation of freed slaves who were commanded to treat outsiders like guests. Jesus made it clear that if his followers did not go to the ultimate degree with this element of Jewish morality, they were not his followers. “Love as I have loved you” and “love your enemies” are not hard truths to understand. I understood them.

Travel

What sealed my change of mind and helped create new instincts was experiencing other cultures and people first hand. The TV and our many screens makes the world seem small until you are travelling all over it. I’ve been all over. I have five abiding images that continue to stoke my love and reinforce the truth I gained in rebellion from my parents’ manifestly bad example as I followed Jesus.

  • While in Indonesia as a seventeen-year-old exchange student, a legless blind woman appeared in our train car after a stop, a car dominated by our merry band of rich kids en route to Bali. She scared us as she begged. She refused our food, since she was sent for money. Our conductor entered the car and was appalled. He actually had the train stop and they threw her out in a rice field in the middle of nowhere. We cried. I have never forgotten her.
Related image
Homes for the “other”
  • Gwen and I lived in San Diego for a little while before we had children. Whenever we crossed back over the border from Mexico, it amazed us how the air felt different — San Diego was irrigated with water that flowed through California’s expensive water projects and it sweetened the air. When we delivered help to people on the steep, dirt streets of Tijuana, it was our first experience of people all over the world who live on the hillsides without any utility services.
  • My first immersion trip with MCC was to El Salvador and Honduras. It was at the end of the civil war the U.S. financed. More than once our van was stopped by eighteen-year olds with automatic weapons making sure we were doing nothing subversive. We later learned many of them were probably kidnapped and forced to do their duty. In El Salvador we visited some of the “marginalized” people MCC was housing in one-room corrugated homes, for which they were very grateful. We learned the “marginalized,” although they lived in a category, did not officially exist. The territory on which they squatted had no government jurisdiction and they had no citizen rights. They were “others” who lived someone else’s lie.
  • While in South Africa learning mediation from the experts, our group of visibly-Western, wealthy people spent a brief time in downtown Johannesburg enjoying coffee in a sidewalk café. Our handlers began to note the young men who were beginning to circle us. They had warned us that desperate people were on the prowl for unsuspecting marks. It was a bit terrifying to be otherized by the otherized.
spraying the other people
“Fumigation” in Colombia
  • In Colombia, again with MCC, we survived a ride through one section of the mountains — where vans had been stopped by kidnappers rappelling down cliffs, to arrive in beautiful Cali. There we met displaced “others” who had been driven off their land by the war on drugs. The helicopters spayed Round-up indiscriminately, so people growing corn to feed their families were punished along with the coca farmers. One of them made sure to tell us to speak to our government about such cruelty. I did.

Jesus makes us safe enough to love the “other”

The government is as cruel now as it has ever been. And a good 40% of the voting population is convinced, as my father was, that there is not a problem a wall could not solve. Purported, Bible-loving Christians are some of the staunchest defenders of people like Ken Cuccinelli.

It is a blessing that I read the Bible, since it has little hope for any kingdom God does not rule and has little hope for any situation that is not seen through the lens of Jesus. Ultimately, being rooted in Jesus allowed me to cherish my cross-cultural encounters with the “others” I have met over the years. Jesus gives me the courage to put my opinions, identity and way of life at risk. Because of Jesus I am ready to be changed by my encounters with others just like God risks to relate to me and you. The process of love is unsettling unless one is settled in love.

David Brooks rightly noted last Friday that millions of Americans are being asked

“to accept high immigration while they are already living with maximum insecurity. Their wages are declining, their families and communities are fragmenting, their churches are shrinking, government services are being cut, their values and national identity feel unstable. Of course they are going to react with suspicion if suddenly on top of all this they begin to feel like strangers in their own place.”

I see what he is saying; I grew up in a house full of those fears. But when have regular people ever felt anything but that? My Dad was just trying to survive, too. He thought it was dangerous to be connected to others and illogical to care about their needs if his own family suffered.

Without that Jesus lens, the points Cuccinelli, Brooks, and Trump make along with their supporters and detractors will be endlessly made, just as the same points have been made my whole life. A friendship may show you another way. The Bible will surely teach us something different. Travel may open one’s eyes. At least I feel I have learned some life-changing things as I have listened to all those things. The big one is: no one is really safe and others are not safe from us unless we are safe in Jesus.

You can’t make me not be a blessing

If I heard right, Donald Trump said that although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was great at using the internet, he was not as great as “Donald Trump.” Daniel Byman wrote “And of course, the counterterrorism success had to be about him. Trump noted that the Islamic State is ‘technically brilliant’ and uses the internet ‘better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump.’” So I guess Daniel heard it, too.

Image result for donald trump baghdadi
The information about the terror leader’s more specific whereabouts, the officials cited in the report said, came mostly from Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who continued to pass on the intelligence to the CIA, even after Trump announced the pullout — a move widely perceived to have been an abandonment of the US’s Kurdish allies. — Times of Israel

Donald Trump inspires me to godliness like nobody else, these days. ‘Take them out” he says about lesser targets, “but what I want is Baghdadi” as if the other deaths were of no account if he could not get the “big win” of the leader.  In a serious moment of military success, he makes sure to thank Russia, disparage the intelligence people investigating him instead of finding further targets, and dis Nancy Pelosi. He lies about what he wrote in his own book and complains about not getting enough credit for identifying Osama bin Laden, while taking undue credit for killing a man the United States death machine has been hunting for years.

Trump is an anti-blessing.  Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). With the best trained search-and-destroy soldiers in the world carried in eight helicopters, backed up by aircraft and ships, the U.S. came in to steal, kill and destroy, and, as the president later said, to secure the oil.

Blessing in the face of anti-blessing

When up against anti-blessings, a song usually comes to my mind, since much of what I know about godliness is derived from music.

We sang one prayer at our amazing Love Feast last Saturday that applies:

“Lord stop these wars where blood is spilt for money!”

And, strangely enough the old song Make Me a Blessing came to mind from my days in the Baptist church as a child. This song came from the Moody Bible Institute in the 1920’s and was a surprise crowd pleaser that made it into all sorts of hymnals. It has all the trappings of an insensitive, us vs. them Christianity in which the “lost” are pitied until they receive the message of Jesus and get into the fold. Being out of the fold as a child, I could relate to that. The song has issues, but it also has a prayer that answers the anti-blessings of the world

Make me a blessing, O Savior I pray. Make me a blessing to someone today.

Related imageI probably should not show this to you, but a quintessential “church lady” sang Make Me A Blessing on YouTube and I found it. She is apparently the woman Dana Carvey was channeling on SNL many years ago.

 

I like this no-instrument Church of Christ group from Alabama much more.

The word “blessing” is a bit overused in the Bible as a translation for several words that have a more nuanced meaning. When one speaks a blessing she calls out God’s goodness to fill a person or situation. When you bless someone on the train after they sneeze, it might seem risky, but it is a little act of sweetness retained from days of yore.

More, blessing is an act of identifying the goodness in someone and praising it, or calling goodness into someone or something  to protect or sanctify it. When you bless the food, you are in that territory. Praising the food and calling it into good use should be the basic behavior it is. Applying the same spirit to your children, church , or country is even more relevant. In my case, when I pray “make me a blessing,” I am talking about a defiant act of being, saying and doing good in the face of people and institutions that are bad, tell lies and do evil and call it good.

Living out of abundance

So a questionable song came to my mind and the Lord encouraged me by it. In relationship to Donald Trump, the anti-blessing, I want God to make me a blessing as long as I have life to live abundantly. Why shouldn’t I, who am so blessed by God, live out of that reality instead of reacting to all the nonsense around me?

Here is the kind of stuff I mean by being a blessing:

When my wife, family or friends are going off because they are too tired, too unprocessed or giving in to their worst instincts, I don’t want to take on their distress and feed it back to them just because they irritate or frighten me. I want to be a blessing to them, understanding, caring and feeding back love in whatever form it is necessary.

When my region if filled with trash, full of addicted and mentally ill people left on the streets, filled with anonymous people who are persistently self-protective, I don’t want to hide out or just clean up. I want to get more personal, turn toward, look for the source of the problems and feed Jesus into them in a way that people can receive.

When my country is self-destructing I don’t want to be threatened into silence or pushed to one side or another that is not beside Jesus. I want to note the goodness that is there and speak goodness into the process wherever I can find a hearing. But more, I want to defiantly be good myself, build a community filled with goodness and resist by existing.

You can’t make me not be a blessing.

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

Image result for political storm
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.

Image result for trump divides families
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).

Hungry for equality? Service is the great equalizer.

The usual motley crew getting ready to trespass into the secret testing site.

At most of the protests in which I have been involved, starting with nuclear testing and El Salvador (and this year moving into climate change, gun control, police violence and immigration), I have often been asked the same question, “Is this protest doing any good?”

This better do some good

I suppose all protesters have to ask that question, at some, level, at least because they had to leave work or miss lunch, most of them, to add their voice to the cries of outrage. And “work” generally cares about itself, not justice, so who knows what it might do to them? So “This better do some good!”

I think “Is this effective?” or “Will this work?” is a typical empire question when asked in the United States. Especially here, people think they have the right and the power to make things happen, to remake the world according to their desires, to effect progress. So, especially here, all public discourse has to do with power — and most private discourse does, too, unfortunately (at least I know a lot of people who are in a perpetual power struggle). Work harder, work smarter, but get something done. Get what you deserve. Control things. Manage situations. Protect your future; it depends on your choices now.

We all seem to think we are in charge of the world and our own destiny. By extension, a protest is generally about exerting enough power to get the government/corporations to change.

Sometimes it works. During my lifetime I have seen pressure influence the government to change. For instance, the government stopped nuclear weapons testing at Mercury, NV in the 90’s after arresting 15,740 protesters (me included). Social action works often enough to keep hopeful, infuriated people in Hong Kong in the streets for weeks. I feel compelled to raise my voice quite often, myself. But there always seems to be some further travesty to shout about, doesn’t there?

Being effective is a secondary benefit

But being effective is not my main interest. My hope does not rest in getting Moscow Mitch McConnell to do the right thing nor rest in Mitch getting canned by Amy McGrath. Obviously, our protests about nuclear weapons have not stopped Putin, Trump and unknown numbers of Iranians and Israelis from plotting a nuclear solution to various problems (like hurricanes!).

People power accomplishes some great things, but it is amazing how often the evil powers beat the people at the game of domination. People who protest and organize to get power are often discouraged. If they think Jesus is all about dominating  the worldly powers or is just as preoccupied with exercising power as they are, they quickly get sorely disappointed with God for refusing to play the power game at all.

Of course, Jesus has miraculous power…

But here is the main thing Jesus shows us about how to get justice and equal rights:

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. – Galatians 5:13

In the “empire,” people are constantly jockeying for the best deal for themselves. They become experts in the law in order to protect themselves and fight against people who steal their freedom and their wealth (or the possibility of wealth). Here the freedom to be autonomous is a paramount value and the only ethic is “Do no harm,” which includes harm to identity. Equality under the law is the main thing people hope in and what they protest about.

But I don’t protest just because I want to get the government to do good. I protest as a prophecy because the grace of Jesus gives me the freedom to BE good. I’m not just trying to get something; I AM someone. I don’t hope to get freedom from some evil power; I have already been given freedom by God. I don’t use that freedom for myself, like I formerly used whatever small freedom I felt I had before I rose with Jesus, in order to get more power; I use it to serve. Like Jesus, I use my freedom to become like a slave to others, bound to love. I think that is what Paul’s teaching is all about, and I wish it were a more common teaching today among his people.

Service, given freely,  will make us equal

People thought Jesus was a fool. Paul is quite aware he is a fool, as far as the rulers of his age are concerned. People still think getting out on the streets as a witness to the goodness and freedom of Jesus is foolishness. What does it get done? How can it give the protestor a proper share of the domination? Many people find it fruitless. Why not forget about the whole mess and frantically become as powerful as possible, carve out a piece of the capitalist pie as a hedge against whatever terrible thing is coming instead of trying to change things?

Here are my two reasons to show God’s goodness in the face of the corruption of the world:

Being a slave to all is good in itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think demanding equal rights under the law is a good thing. It is very hard for a traumatized person to feel free enough to serve anything but their self-interest. And the powers that be around here have created the huge injustice of income stratification and privilege hoarding to overlay their traditional racism and rapacious capitalism in the U.S. We’ve got to say “NO,” and loudly. But the freedom of walking into daily life free of its clutches, only constrained by the love that fills us and dominates our reactions is more precious than anything the “administration” can accomplish.

But what’s more, serving one another is the actual great equalizer. Being the family of God in service like our brother Jesus makes us all one in love – at least that’s what He’s hoping. Even when people get so-called “equal rights,” for which Americans think they are famous, even the light of the world, they still face discrimination every day and then a Trump regularly shows up to make it all worse. Does fighting for and waiting for equal rights make anyone free? Does going into denial and pretending Jesus makes me free in some otherworldy way make me free? — more than the former, perhaps. But I think what really makes us free is what Paul says: “Use your freedom to serve” or “choose the slavery of love.” That makes us all equal in character and purpose and gives us the experience of being free we crave.

I have rediscovered this truth repeatedly over my sojourn many times. One of the places it first became clear to me was in Nevada when I trespassed in the nuclear test site on behalf of the world and got “arrested.” Actually, I was just detained by bored policemen,  handcuffed with plastic bands and put in a chainlink cage for a little while because they did not really want to bother with a bunch of people clogging up the courts with their righteousness. Strangely enough, we accomplished something. But more, I accomplished being free. I faced my fear of the power: too little power on my part, too much power on the government’s part. Neither power made that much difference, but faith acting in love just WAS different. Being a locked up “slave” of the state for a while has been educational ever since.

Our common service, mutually compelled by the love of Christ makes us equal. Hopefully the world will come to resemble that truth. But I’m not waiting for a miracle that already happened; I want to live it now. According to Paul, we are free to live it now in Christ, and no other power on earth can give that freedom or take it away.

Don’t lose heart: People are more than numbers on a mass shooting scorecard

we do not lose heart. West Philly dawn
Dawn in West Philly!

I think this is the verse which everyone who hopes young white men will stop killing people is recalling today:

“Therefore we do not lose heart.
Though outwardly we are wasting away,
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”
(2 Cor. 4:16).

During my whole life, which is comparatively long, by now, this has been a go-to verse for the many “lost causes” that go with following Jesus:

  • police killing black people, and, in general, any citizen they are sworn to protect [guns and gun laws];
  • atomic weapons in the hands of Trumps or Putins or ayatollahs, the absurdity of war in general;
  • do gooders around the world tagged as “subversive” and tormented or murdered, lack of caring and sharing in general;
  • evangelism in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian era, generally because the Christians are in the service of oppression, for reasons I have yet to fathom.

You get the idea.

The news reality TV put the death of people on the screen as if they were marks on a mass shooting scorecard, comparing the last murders to the previous, zoning in on Beto O’Rourke crying while they waited for Trump’s tweet.

The Dems blame Trump’s rhetoric for encouraging El Paso (can anyone dispute that?); the White House “pushes back” and blames the “sickness” of the shooter (can anyone dispute that?). Why those two things don’t go together, I have no idea. Surely no one on the street thinks sick people are not the first to be destroyed when the leaders are terrible and fighting with each other. Families disintegrate for the very same reasons, and dead churches litter the landscape because people thought being “right” was better than being reconciled (back to 2 Corinthians).

Don’t lose heart. Act.

Our old friend, Sarah Withrow King, reposted a Facebook entry Sunday from a Philadelphia activist now in Nashville. Her friend is trying to stay in the game, even though it is discouraging to think the country will continue to handout AK47s to anyone who wants one. Here is an excerpt I think will encourage you and maybe keep you motivated to hang on to Jesus and take action:

There was a massacre in El Paso yesterday and a terrifyingly similar attack in Dayton. The El Paso shooter was a white supremacist who posted a manifesto about hating immigrants and the Dayton shooter was also a young white male.

Yesterday when I briefly saw news of a shooting before going to bed, before much was known about it or who the shooter was or the motivations, I saw a comment on the New York Times article: someone wrote, “I don’t think it’s been even a week since the last one. I stopped crying after Parkland.” Something pierced my heart, knowing that my biggest fears are coming true: more and more collective numbness to mass shootings, and likely numbness to mass terrorist attacks by white supremacists.

I remember giving myself some guidance after a major attack a couple years ago. Here’s what I wrote to myself, which I’m repeating for my own benefit and anyone’s this morning:

    1. Feel the enormity. Whatever that feeling is.
    2. Look to people who have been doing work on the ground in the community for years, to those who live and work and are organized there, for cues on action in solidarity (psych: not Democratic hopefuls or others will expect to swoop in as heroes)
    3. Connect to those around you – emotionally, strategically. Remember you’re not alone.
    4. Respond. It’ll be messy and imperfect. Say what you want to say and do what you feel you need to do. …

So repeat it in your heart, and let tears come whether that’s this morning or later or at 3AM: There was a massacre in El Paso yesterday. 20 people are dead. The shooter was a white supremacist who posted a manifesto about hating immigrants. This is real and this is my world. — Margaret Anne Ernst  (Her blog)

As I am sure most of you think, making Facebook posts and blog posts have limited value in the face of daily disasters (like Greenland losing an amazing amount of ice in the most recent European heat wave!).  Although the myth of the echo chamber has been widely debunked, for whatever reason people are not listening to one another, much less promoting healing and creative dialogue. I think one reason many don’t listen is probably “the medium is the message.” You don’t think I am quite real as you read this, and I agree. I am much wilder and unpredictable in person, also a lot more caring, angry, irrational, wise and weird than I am here. We need the face to face.

We must make face to face happen

We no longer live in villages, generally, and spend hours online. The El Paso shooter said he spent eight hours a day there. Face to face is hard to come by. And if you are going for it, like we are in our church (and like restorative justice people are as they upend mass incarceration — listen to On the Media’s Repairing Justice: How to Fix the Internet), then you might get tired. Love can be hard. You’re swimming against the current. The need to keep making real relationships can be discouraging.

But everyday I think something like: “I hope young white men will stop killing people,” and “I hope anxious Congolese people will not kill their doctors,” and “I hope corrupt Ukrainians will not sell out their fellow-citizens,”  and “I hope Moscow Mitch will start legislating for the common good.” I can’t help it. I hope  we will settle down and talk to our children and listen. I hope we will look at our own anxiety and trust God. And I hope we will strategize how to get together when we see our own neighbors. Most of all, I hope we will build a church – the true alternative to the madness, when it is not itself, mad.

Make it a go-to with me in this potentially numbing week: “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Putting our faith in action will always be hard. But Jesus will always be with us every step of the way.

Rejection: The prophet’s dilemma

Image result for trump paper towels
Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Rican hurricane survivors.

We certainly have a lot of disappointed prophets in the U.S. these days, don’t we?! They told us exactly what would happen if Trump got elected and they were exactly right. He lies. He incarcerates children. He threatens to do something, doesn’t do it, and then says he did it and people believe him. His yet-to-be-uncovered corruption is like an iceberg ready to sink your Titanic. He’s a racist. It goes on.

The disappointed prophets lament like Jeremiah:

So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips. — Jeremiah 7

Jeremiah 7 is a good read, period. I especially like this line when I read it like an exasperated South Philly native:

“The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven.”

Only I might translate:

“The children watch their phones. The parents go to work. And someone orders Amazon Fresh to make money for the kings of capitalism.”

So what’s a prophet to do?

I’m a disappointed prophet, too. But at least I did not think Hillary was going to save the world or Barack had done so. The Democrats are well on their way to offering some other 70-year-old to lead us like some doddering Robert Mueller supposedly dispensing justice.

I feel sorry for all these old people trying to keep up. They are all older than me! And I had to text Rachel last week to get the name of someone I had known for 30 years because I was about to see them and my old brain could not bring it up fast enough! I’m disappointing enough and Joe Biden is 76! (Mark my words).

So what do we do when our prophecy is rejected?

Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.

File:Bartolomé Carducho - Death of St Francis - WGA04207.jpg
Death of St. Francis — Bartolomeo Carducci (1593). National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

A good example, at least for me these days, is what happened with the prophecy of the disappointed Francis and Clare of Assisi. Both of them had a dream that their splendid revelation about simplicity, community and love was so basic to the way of Jesus no further improvements were needed. They went about their passionate lives and communities sprung up all over Europe in imitation of them. People hungered to be connected with something authentic, serious and joyful.

But soon both Clare and Francis were pressed for a “rule”

  • That’s a rule like all the other orders of monastics (which they didn’t really think they were).
  • That’s a rule like the ones priests lived by under Canon Law (priests they never wanted to be).
  • That’s a rule according to the best practices of the experts (to whom they didn’t really feel like relating).

People listening for God heard their prophecy anyway, despite all the distractions.

Prophets speak for the Ruler, not the rules

Clare ended up suffering under a rule imposed on her little community in San Damiano based on the Benedictine Rule, which isn’t a bad rule, it just wasn’t what she had in mind after God called her. If she had wanted to be a Benedictine nun, there were plenty of opportunities.

They made Francis write a rule. The first one was a couple of pages long and was mostly quotes from the Bible. The final one, right before he went off to die, was a little more expansive, but was still more a story that a ruling doc.

Really, NOT having a rule was the point! A prophet speaks from God, they are not interested in refining some thought from the past or applying the best thinking of the present bureaucracy.

Right after Francis died, the new “order” whisked his body into hiding lest Perugia steal it. In an amazingly short time the new leader of the new order, Elias, had a basilica built to house the saint’s bones and all sorts of other intriguing things I recently saw – even Francis’ raggedy brown robe. Ironically, though unintentionally, the basilica attendants made sure I was wearing long enough pants when I entered the church and a priest told me to take off my “Italia” ball cap before I got a peek at it preserved under glass like a treasure. Francis could not have predicted my experience, or that of his robe, either.

The pope codified all the papal bulls regarding the Franciscans so they had a little handbook for how not to get out of control. They got in line. Soon St. Bonaventure had systematized the thoughts and sanitized all the stories.

Governing bodies rarely trust God and others like Francis did — a prophet always thinks something like that. For example, the last oracle of Jeremiah is:

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
and the nations weary themselves only for fire.

You might get tired of being rejected

Jeremiah is exhausted, but he is right. I’m not sure the point of saying that is, “Exhaust yourself because you are right” or “Your exhaustion with all these people makes you SO holy.” But if you don’t ignore the prophetic Spirit of  God incarnate in Jesus and rampant in the body of Christ, you will very likely get tired of being rejected. Because people will keep making cupcakes for the queen of heaven and the nations will keep wearying themselves only for fire. They’ll wreck the heavens and unleash fire on the earth. We need a savior.

Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.

Our Savior has no interest in the end of time, as far as we will ever know. The Lord is going to keep us prophesying until it is time. There is no sense imagining when that time is; we just need to keep telling the truth and living the love.

As far as the church goes, the whole enterprise is a prophetic expression of truth and love. The more we exercise our gifts, including some concentrated bomblets of prophecy, the more people get a chance to turn, be freed from the dying nonsense of the world, and be connected to the Giver of All Good Gifts.

People without Jesus know about those gifts, and people who follow Jesus know even more, now that eternity is opened up to them. Looking into eternity and sometimes speaking things that come directly from it is a joy in itself. Being a prophet is innately encouraging, it is just all that rejection that’s tough.

Francis may have died a bit disappointed in his forties, but his legacy lives on and his prophecy is revered while those who despoiled his beautiful dream are reviled.  The despoilers did not listen, but they could not destroy the truth, nonetheless. If they don’t listen to you or respect the church of Jesus Christ, nothing is new – except the prophecy of course, which always feels like it just came right off the delivery truck from the Kingdom of God.

Goose and pig stories: The opposite of what the domination system demands

I flew to Italy on St. Kevin’s Day this year (June 3). He is another in a long line of “saints” who have shown me the beauty of doing the opposite of what the domination system demands. For more about the “domination system,” here is a summary of Walter Wink.

Victor Ambrus King O'Toole and his Goose from Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs First published 1892, this edition published 1970

 

Kevin and King O’Toole’s goose

Kevin lived through the entire 500’s in Ireland, it appears [see this old post for more]. But, of course, people were less concerned with scientific precision at that point, so who knows exactly what happened. His legacy is still happening, and most people you know named Kevin are, ultimately, named after him. He wandered off into the mountains south of what was not yet Dublin and found a remote cave, an old bronze age tomb, overlooking the upper lake of the beautiful valley of Glendalough. There he entered his hermitage to be with God and his beloved creatures.

However, people found Kevin and wanted to be near him. The story goes he decided to establish a monastery. But the pagan King O’Toole of Glendalough would not allow it. Here we go.

As the story continues, it happened that the king had a much beloved pet goose, which was now quite old. As time passed, the goose became so weak it was unable to fly. The king was very upset, for he loved the goose very much. Hearing of Kevin’s sanctity and power, the pagan king sent for him, and asked that he make the beloved goose young. Kevin asked for a payment of whatever land the goose would fly over. As the goose could no longer take flight, O’Toole agreed. When Kevin touched the bird, it grew young, and flew over the entire valley of Glendalough, and on that site the monastery was established, as well as a settlement that was famous for a 1000 years after Kevin died, the ruins of which can still be visited.

However it happened, the aristocrat, Kevin, having given up all he owned and the prerogatives of his class, made a deal with the domination system on his radical new terms, which included miracle and audacity.

Image result for brother juniper pig
From Rossellini’s movie The Little Flowers (1950)

Juniper and the pig

Francis of Assisi rediscovered the joy of returning to Caesar what he thinks belongs to him, things like a dying goose, touched with the glory of God. So often the “render to Caesar” account is used to justify the division of the world into sacred and secular and paying one’s taxes on time. But Jesus isn’t even carrying a denarius with which to make his point. And when the system kills him, he makes his point big time with his resurrection.

Francis and the other children of the budding middle class of in Assisi whose parents were inventing capitalism got the point. It scared people mightily when the returning crusader, Benardo de Quintivalle sold off his extensive estate and gave it all away. The bishop of Assisi told Francis, “Your life seems hard to me; it must be burdensome not to have any earthly possession.” Francis answered, “My Lord, if we wanted to possess anything, then we would also need arms to defend ourselves. That is how all the quarrels and conflicts get started, and they are obstacles to love. For this reason we can possess nothing.” He did not convince the bishop and the church has been presiding over battles and blessing big business ever since. Lately some evangelicals have even embraced the godless Trump with just such power in mind.

Like Kevin, Francis brazenly confronted people with their excess by begging for it. Others gave him his hermitage site on Mt. Subasio, where I had this revelation. Others donated the little chapel in the woods of Porziuncola that became Franciscan headquarters.

The story of Brother Juniper and the pig demonstrates a mentality that flourished among the brothers of Francis before the domination system tamed them all again.  This is how it goes.

One of the brothers was sick and Juniper asked him what he might like to eat to make him feel better. The man answered, “A pig’s foot.” So Juniper went over to a herd fattening on acorns nearby and cut the leg off a pig. He cooked it up and served it to the man as he joyfully told the story of his attack.

The swineherds who had witnessed the deed, furiously marched up to Francis and insulted their settlement as a bunch of thieves. Francis apologized, saying he knew nothing of the incident they reported. Vowing revenge the men headed for Assisi.

This was a serious matter. The good name of the brothers would be finished. So Francis found Juniper and casually asked him if he had cut off the foot of a pig recently. “Si, naturalmente.” With satisfaction he told him all about his charitable deed. Francis was not so satisfied. He said, “Go find the man, throw yourself at his feet, and promise complete restoration.”  Juniper was astounded that someone would get excited about his good deed. “I’ll give the man satisfaction, “he said, “but I can’t understand the fuss over a pig. It belongs to God, anyway, not to the man, and may as well be put to good use.”

When Juniper caught up with the incensed owner, he tried to make him understand how he came to cut off the pig’s foot. He was full of zeal and enthusiasm and acted as if he had done the man a great service. The man flew into a rage. But Juniper just persisted in trying to be heard. He finally threw himself around the man’s neck, kissed him and assured him him he had done it all out of love. Then he asked for the rest of the pig.

This audacity resulted in the miracle. Juniper’s simplicity and sincerity were so credible the man’s assumptions began to crumble. With tears in his eyes, he confessed he had done the brothers wrong. He went and got the maimed pig, slaughtered it, roasted it, and with great emotion carried it to the brother’s table to make up for the injustice he had done them.

Follow the goose and the pig

As opponents try to undo the deceptions and corruption of the Trump regime, they often say, “Follow the money.” That’s exactly what Kevin and Francis, and their many followers, refused to do. They were more likely to follow the goose and the pig, to rely on the Spirit and the work of love rather than stay on the treadmill of acquisition and self-defense – the rule of law, some call it. In Kevin’s day, the Roman Empire was caput. 600 years later in Francis’ day, feudal economics was coming to an end. In our day the American empire, as we’ve known it, and the Enlightenment experiment in general, may be coming to an end. We’ll see. But what is a Jesus follower to do?

The point of goose and pig stories in every era is that God has ways that do not depend on capitalism or power. Jesus demonstrated that in full. His followers have always found ways to make their own demonstration again and again. The formation and constant reinvention of Circle of Hope is a miracle story of people finding more than they bargained for and sharing their pigs in great quantities. We’ve asked and received. Maybe we are afraid sometimes to squat the king’s land or ask for the owner’s pig, to rely on the miracle and act out of love. But many times we aren’t afraid, too.

Francis and Jesus will erode your control fantasies for good

    Jesus spoke to Francis from this cross.

Preaching to the birds was miraculous, not cute

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

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

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

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

Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies

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

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

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

At the scene of subsequent Pentecosts

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

Rome

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

Montecassino

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

Padua

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

Philadelphia

View this post on Instagram

Spring is glorious

A post shared by Benjamin White (@benjaminpwhite) on

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

In Palestine: It is good to be a child caring for children

Image result for uncle bobbie's

Donovan and I shared a pleasant hour at Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown last week. As we were winding down, he brought up how Marc Lamont Hill, the founder of the restaurant, had been fired from his commentator role at CNN for using an “anti-Semitic” phrase in a speech he gave to the United Nations. He called for equal rights for Palestinians “from the river to the Sea.”

When we were in Palestine, I met so many West Bank residents and Israelis who think such rights are crucial for the future health of both Jews and Palestinians, I thought it was a settled part of the ongoing argument about what is next. But in the polarized atmosphere of the United States, Hill’s remarks were immediately characterized as a call for the eradication of Israel! As you can hear in the Al Jazeera report on the incident, most people thought he was just talking about all Palestinians — those who live in Israel or the West Bank, achieving rights equal to Israelis. Others saw the phrase as a line straight from the Hamas playbook.

Donovan and I had wandered into the minefield of Israeli fragility and aggression in our own country, where 27 states have already enacted legislation that targets anti-Israeli boycotts designed to pressure Israel for justice, and where federal legislation against the boycotts is pending. What’s more, the Christians seem to have chosen the side of the Jews (who they identify with the state of Israel) for once. Pat Robertson summed up the radical Evangelical theology that produces super-supporters of Israel who think their support is a matter of Bible-following holiness. That’s as far as I will wander into that.

I just want to pay attention to Palestinian children

I bring up Marc Lamont Hill stepping on one of the landmines spread around the perimeter of public opinion to protect Israel because we were discussing the explosion he experienced right after I had outlined the following exhortation. I would like us to pay attention to Palestinian children and the ongoing injustice Israel perpetrates as they  protect their nation’s right to exist, violate international law, illegally settle the West Bank, operate a police state and divide up the territory they occupy with an apartheid-like system. I would be speaking hysterically if I had not briefly experienced everything on that list in person — a giant wall always in the background snaking along various borders.

I don’t think Jesus followers need to gain the world’s power in order to effect perfect justice. Jesus will bring everything to right in the end. Besides, striving to be on the top so we can help people at the bottom seems to be the exact opposite of the Lord’s strategy. Like Jesus, i think we should accompany those at the bottom, identify with them and see the world through their eyes. We work for peace and justice from that vantage point.

So that brings me to the children of Palestine. MCC distributed an infographic about their situation. Here is part of it.

They have trauma stories

Jarrah, an 18-year-old Palestinian man, was 15 when he was arrested by Israeli soldiers. He says, “I used to go out with my friends to parties, but now when I reach the end of the street I remember what happened. And I come back. There is no feeling of safety.” The children are traumatized by the occupation and the constant threat of random Israeli arrest. Many of the Palestinians live in territory under military control, which does not have the same civil law structure as other places.

Each year Israel detains and prosecutes 500-700 Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Human rights organizations have documented the systematic mistreatment and abuse of these children, including torture, blindfolding and lack of access to legal counsel. These practices run counter to basic norms and protections within juvenile justice systems. (Like the U.S. government emulates Israel’s wall, it also mistreats detained children).

Obaida Akram Jawabra was detained and is afraid he will end up in prison again. One reason he is afraid is because to get to school he needs to cross Route 60. That highway is controlled by the Israeli military. Here is his story.

Here is another story from Al Jazeera about a sixteen-year-old who’s arrest was caught on video and went viral.

It is good to be a child caring for children

On April 30, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) introduced a bill, H.R. 2407, to prohibit U.S. taxpayer funds from supporting the military detention of children in any country, including Israel. This important bill builds on similar legislation that was introduced in the last session of Congress. Do you know how to encourage your representative to sign on as a co-sponsor?

Jesus welcomed and blessed children, saying “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). We are called to care for the most vulnerable among us, including children. I would add that we are to BE the most vulnerable, just like Jesus emptied himself to become one with us in our sin and brokenness. That may always seem like a counterintuitive strategy to us. But the road to transformation is always a step toward the “least of these” as one of the poor, in fact or in spirit.