The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

Image result for king i have a dream

Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.

Background check debate: Stray guns and your child at the playdate

Maybe you missed it, as you (and probably your children) were discussing Jeff Bezos’ private parts and the amazing scandals piling up in Virginia.  Nevertheless, this past week the House of Representatives held its first hearing on gun violence in eight years.

The testimony at the hearing centered on a bill that would make it harder for a person to buy a gun without a thorough background check. Supporters pointed out that right now it’s ridiculously easy to get lethal weapons from an unlicensed seller who is not going to check to see if said purchaser might have a record of violence, stalking or involuntary commitment for mental illness. That fact should surprise and appall us, but by this time it probably doesn’t. By now, your kids might think everyone has a gun and feel strange if you don’t!

Opponents of the bill clutched the Second Amendment and argued that the real reason we have so many deaths by gunfire is … well, take a guess at what they argued were the reasons: A) Guns, B) Bullets, C) Immigrants.

Matt Gaetz
Not a fan, but you need to see his face. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Answer: All the above.

Representative Matt Gaetz [more/biased info on him], a Florida Republican read a short list of people who had been shot by undocumented immigrants. Then he said, “I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. …Better background checks would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall, a barrier on the southern border may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” There are a lot of lawmakers prepared to say almost anything in their role as surrogates for the National Rifle Association. But it is still surprising that during this latest hearing the main gun advocate was from Florida.

Thousands of people took part in the March for Our Lives protest in Parkland, Fla., a month after the school shooting there a year ago. Credit: Saul Martinez for The New York Times

On Valentine’s Day we’ll observe the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shootings in which one student with a gun took the lives of 17 people. We just passed the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of 5 people in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport, which occurred six months after 49 people were shot to death at a nightclub in Orlando. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that a young man walked into a bank in Sebring, Fla., pulled out a pistol, forced 5 women to lay on the ground and shot each one in the back of the head. All these atrocities happened in Congressman Gaetz’ state. All the gunmen were native-born Americans.

The House bill I mentioned is unlikely to even get brought up in the Senate if it passes the House. But in 2017 the House and Senate did get together to revoke an Obama-era regulation that had made it harder for mentally ill people to purchase a gun.

We have terrible gun problems in this country not just because firearms are all over the place, but also because of the careless, and often stupid attitude so many people have toward them. This includes the Congress.  Their rejection of legislation of which the country overwhelmingly approves  helps perpetuate the attitude that guns are a casual part of everyday life, like your wallet or socks — something you wear when you go out to buy a loaf of bread, leave laying around the house and treat in general with less care and discretion than a light bulb.

This is the kind of thinking that gives us endless mayhem involving violent, semi-deranged young men who just grab one of the family guns and mow down five people in a bar. Toddlers who shoot themselves when they stumble across a gun that Dad or Grandpa left sitting on the bed, or find a rifle in the back seat of the car and accidentally kill Mom while she’s pulling into the preschool parking lot. We hear stories like that every day. I don’t think it is all due to caravans of immigrants coming to the border.

With all this, is my child safe to have a playdate?

Thus, one of the parents on our parents list asked what everyone does to make sure their children are safe on play dates. How does one bring up the question about how the parents of your kid’s friends deal with their guns? It is amazing this question must be asked, but we live where we live. Here is the original question:

“I’m wondering how you navigate that awkward “do you have guns? Are they safely locked up?” question when you’re arranging a playdate, etc. for your kids?  I feel like the easiest way to ask is just to put it out there with something like, “Hi, I’m _____. We’d love to have _____ over for a playdate. We don’t have any guns in the house. Do you?”  Hopefully, they’ll then feel free to respond.  Buuuuuut, what if they say yes?  Do you allow your kids to play at people’s houses who own guns and say they’re secured?  And if you don’t, then how do you tell them you don’t want your kid playing at their house?!  I think playdates are great for our kids and great for meeting new people, but I can’t seem to figure this out given our current world.  The end result for me is that I avoid setting anything up with people we don’t already know well, which feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing as I follow Jesus and try to “welcome the stranger.”

Answers

There was a lot more dialogue about this than there were answers on the parents list. But they were so useful, I decided to reprint them.  No names are attached, of course. If you want to be on the parents list, you can be. (I also added a hyperlink for Eddie the Eagle and left out what I thought was extraneous). Here they are:

1) I include this gun question along with questions about food allergies, pets (one of my kids has been bitten twice!), car seats, and other safety things I cover when doing a first play date with a family. Every parent I’ve asked this question has thanked me for asking it.

As for what do when I learn there is an unsecured firearm in the house, I don’t allow my kids to play there without me with them and I keep my kid in eyesight. I’m happy to meet up elsewhere or host the kids at my house instead.

2) I ask about guns when I’m trying to find out a little bit about how a family feels secure in their houses.  I ask about guns and pharmaceuticals (child proof caps?).  I’ve only had one person push back (and not much) about my guns question.  This may be because of where we live – not so many families are gun enthusiasts here in über-liberal West Philadelphia.  Every family I’ve asked these types of questions of has thanked me for asking them as well.

I’m always prepared to discuss why I think gun locks and gun safes are necessary when I ask these questions but the conversation has only gone that far one time.

Personally, I’m okay with a family who keeps guns in their house if they’re secured properly — especially if they’re hunting rifles and such.  Someone who keeps their guns in a safe understands that they’re machines for killing (people, game, whatever) and potentially incredibly dangerous.  Someone who keeps their gun “hidden” in their house so they can get them quickly if necessary is not dealing with reality and their worldview includes what is, to me, an unacceptable level of risk for my kids playing in their house.  There is probably a spectrum of people in between those examples but I’m really only okay with my kids playing in the houses of the folks on the first extreme.  If I meet parents of kids my sons make friends with who are of the “I keep my guns hidden in my house” variety, I plan to say something along the lines of “We’d love to have _____ over to our house but we’re just not comfortable with firearms in the house that aren’t secured so [my kids] won’t be able to come over to _____’s house.”  People who aren’t comfortable with that stance have their own stuff to work out — I’m okay with some tension between me and another parent if that helps keep my kids safer.

3) Our seminarian’s cohort, along with the pastors and the Leadership Team, wrote a teaching on guns and gun violence based on our discussion at our quarterly public meeting. It might be helpful for you as you consider this subject. You may have seen it before, but if not, you can find it on the Way of Jesus website here.

4) I hadn’t seen that summary from the cohort.  It’s wonderful.  This dialogue is making me think I might want to “struggle more” with this as our kids start to get into play dates at other kids homes.  I honestly hadn’t thought of it, nor to ask about other hazards.  Glad we are village parenting!

Image result for eddie the eagle nra gun

5) I think these are all good ideas to address the concern of kids, playdates and guns. To add another piece, talking to our kids about guns will be important, too. I grew up with a video called Eddie the Eagle [from the NRA},  which taught kids about gun safety. The whole thing is based around the question, what do you do if you see [find] a gun? And the answer, according to Eddie was: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult. I believe Eddie is still around as a friend of mine said they covered the topic, with Eddie the Eagle, at her son’s pre-school. This of course, isn’t going to address a philosophical or theological perspective with kids, but it does address the practical instance of encountering a gun, if for some reason it happens, even with the pre-playdate conversations.

6) I’m so glad that you brought up the importance of teaching our children about how to react in the presence of a firearm. Unfortunately, we have sensed the necessity of having this conversation with our kids from a very young age – three or four years old, I think (?). The first conversation may have happened after I witnessed a few kids playing with a handgun on my street. Also, when my dad was a child in the 1950s, his best friend was accidentally killed while playing with a loaded pistol.  He often shares concerns about gun safety with our family.

We’ve tried to have this talk in a less-worrying way that focuses more on being prepared, similar to learning about how to react in case of a fire. I know, however, that some kids do worry about being shot, especially if they participate in school lockdown drills, see certain things in visual media, or have had the misfortune of being in the presence of gun violence.  So… I think we also need to allow our children the space to express how they feel about all of this, and to practice good listening.  That may also help us to discern how to be more proactive.

It is important to talk about everything with each other and our kids, isn’t it!

I suppose we’ll have to talk a lot if everyone is going to have their privates exposed and their guns strewn around their privacy. Here is one last word from Jesus that might be comforting in the face of this troubling era. I like it in The Voice translation: “I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order” (John 16:33).

Depression season: Hope for the bleak, SAD midwinter

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) became the premier woman poet of her day in her mid-thirties. I love her for providing this stanza, which describes the season into which Jesus entered our time and place.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Jesus may not have been born in winter and he certainly was not born in England! But He definitely needs to be born every February in Pennsylvania. We are in the “bleak midwinter” right now. People are sick, pipes are freezing, cars are crashing and many of us are facing our yearly depression.

Around this time of year many people in the Northeast are sick of winter.  We’re sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather.  Winter gets old — fast. If you have brought out the yearly fantasy of moving to Florida with your relatives, we hear you.

In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as “seasonal affective disorder” (shortened to SAD, appropriately). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than the average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” beginning and ending at about the same times of the year.  Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness. More recent studies suggest the whole idea is suspicious, but now we are used to idea and you may have diagnosed yourself, already.

Whether we have a major disorder on our hands or not, the bleak midwinter excites bleakness. Every time I look at Christian Rosetti’s picture (above), I don’t wonder why she could write such a descriptive SAD scene in just a few lines. She had a few drifts of permanent snow on her feelings, I think. So when the winter comes around and we get sick, grumpy and joke we have SAD it makes sense not to brush off our yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that we have to tough out on our own.  It is always good to follow our feelings around a bit and see what they are up to.

There are ways to keep our mood and motivation steady throughout the year. If you’re the Mayo Clinic you’ll recommend that SAD sufferers try light therapy (replacing lost sunlight), psychotherapy, and/or medications. All might be useful, more likely if used together. If you (or your therapist) think you have SAD right now, or you are just grumpy and unmotivated, here are a couple of thoughts and some faith-based counsel that could help you figure out what to do next.

Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis

SAD is more about observing people than testing data. Recent studies that do plow through a lot of data can’t really find a seasonal increase in depression. If you feel depressed right now it may be more about how you are personally ordered rather than about being subject to a seasonal disorder, as if you caught SAD and need a chemical remedy. The seasons of the year often excite things in us that were going unnoticed. That’s normal life, not a disorder.

People experiencing feelings associated with SAD might want to get a couple of opinions before they treat their feelings with medicine. Even WebMD notes that “What we are observing is that Americans are increasingly viewing psychiatric medications as a solution for a wide range of social and interpersonal problems and for dealing with daily stress [and] general medical providers appear to be going along with this trend.” Depression has physical, psychological, social and spiritual components. Just taking a pill may make a difference, but might not solve the problem – and a drug-based-only solution might make things worse.

Image result for philadelphia arctic blast
Here is a seasonal disorder.

Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak

The winter is often the best time to lay low and listen to how the seasons teach us about our feelings and all they mean.

  1. Winter is not a curse.

A lot of good things are happening to the earth and to us, when we are “depressed”  In winter. An obvious, if underappreciated fact, is the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. Being fallow is good (Isaiah 55). Your depression might be a time for generating something new.

The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow.  Seeds get ready to sprout. (Psalm 147).  You may have a seed that’s been trying to sprout since childhood.

You may be moving into a new season. That is often depressing, but good. The Creator built mercy into winter, too. We can rely on that love (Job 38.22). We often need to keep reframing our sense of our situation when we feel God is not in the bleakness.

  1. Winter is part of our growth process

Even though the seasons change every year, many of us still feel winter like a slap in the face every time. Then when we move to Cabo San Lucas to escape it, we miss it and complain that it is too hot. We’re like that.

We talk about the stages of our faith development (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) because we want to learn to move with natural elements that sin and death have made feel like enemies. The changing seasons are another set of unchanging realities that can teach love and truth. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter each show us God in unique ways, over and over, until we learn to move with them instead of resisting or dominating. The changing seasons demonstrate how God’s care never changes, despite our changing seasons of life (Malachi 3). Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3).

  1. Winter will end. 

I can hardly wait until this winter is over, I admit it. Winter is often a challenge for me. (But then it rains a lot in May. Summer can get humid. And Fall is full of allergens). The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting.  Waiting is good.

We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8).  We are waiting for the “winter” of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious “spring” of the resurrection.  We comfort ourselves when we suffer with the promise that the age to come is not that far off. The day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, where pain, sickness, death, or tears will no longer kill us.  We have hope for a new beginning.

This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life (Romans 5).  Christians are waiters.  So we can  get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.

If you swallow the “spiritual pill” I just offered, will you be guaranteed a happy winter? Will changing your mind bring all your painful feelings to an immediate end?  Maybe. But not inevitably.

In the bleak midwinter — waiting for the thaw that never seems certain, trying to see single-digit temperatures as a growth opportunity, fighting off the strong sense that it is all an example of how we are cursed — Jesus comes to bring us hope.

Thank God I am not in charge of the seasons, or responsible for saving myself from them! I think Christina Rosetti ended her poem very well and I need to keep singing it throughout every bleak day:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Loss and Longing in Oscar’s Best Original Song Nominees

Image result for best original song 2019

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

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

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

Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy

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

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

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

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

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

All the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Place Where Lost Things Go

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

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

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

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flower arranger takes her time

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

Make the most of your time

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

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

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

The time you have is a gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to hang on to our joy

A lot of us are bogged down right now.

If you are full of joy, maybe you can just skip this one. Conversely, if you are resisting getting into stuff and don’t feel like changing right now, maybe you can just skip this one.

Because this simple post is all about feeling bad about feeling bad and how that might change.

Image result for anxiety in the age of trump

When I was out to dinner with good friends the other night we were complaining about how we were feeling bad about how many people feel bad. (Three therapists at a table of four will put at least a sprinkle of empathy in your tacos!) I added, to all the reasons we were collecting about why people are feeling bad: Trump is stealing our joy. I don’t mean, “I hate Trump or the people who love him and will only feel better when they are defeated.” I mean he has been on the screen for over two years, every day, disrupting, dominating, bullying, confusing, sending immigrant children to prison, now furloughing a million people, soon to be found out for how the Russians were part of his election campaign (it would appear). He’s a joy stealer par excellence. And if you were already anxious before he took control and tried to get more control, now you are really anxious!

Not everyone at the table thought I knew what I was talking about and maybe you don’t either. But whether I am right or wrong, I will still need to hang on to my joy, won’t I? It is basic to my new-birthright. Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:20-22

Having joy does not mean turning off contrary feelings

Those words from Jesus could encourage you or they might just drive you Christian-crazy. What I mean is, many Christians turn off their minds and hearts in order to perfect a fake joy that is really just a masterful defense against their anxiety and depression. They take charge of their joy and try to do joy right so they won’t be doing something wrong which might send them to hell, or might uncover their secret sins and unhealthy habits. Let’s not go Christian crazy, but let’s have some hope for joy in troubled times.

I love proverbs, in general, and this one in particular helps right now:

A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22

This is one of those “factual” proverbs, that state the obvious we might forget. It simply says, if you are thankful and hopeful, the past does not clog up your feelings with regret and the future does not look so frightening; when you are depressed and anxious it feels like you are slowly dying from the inside out.

So it makes sense to hold on to our joy, tend it, even see it as a power that overcomes the woes of the world. The Bible gives repeated examples of receiving and using joy. Here are a few.

Image result for nehemiah building the wall
If you can find out who made this, let me know.

Affirm joy exists for you

Here is the famous Nehemiah 8:10

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah called for a party to celebrate the building of the restored wall in Jerusalem. We should all make a note to self – “Do not have vacuous parties that don’t include a reason people can hang on to.” Parties breed joy. Nehemiah wanted people to affirm  the goodness of God and their own togetherness and love, as well as their accomplishment – all the things that bring people joy. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That is, joy the joy of knowing the love of God and receiving goodness from the Lord is the core of what makes us strong.

The word used here in Nehemiah for “strength” means “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold.” When we let go of our joy, we are vulnerable to the things that destroy us – our own weaknesses and sins and the bullies in the world. The joy of the Lord is my fortress. Don’t go crazy Christian and think God is all about keeping bad people and experiences away from you. But do affirm that if we have an impenetrable joy at the core of us, we have the strength to open ourselves to suffering and all sorts of “dangerous people” and take all sorts of “sacrificial” risks.

Remember past joy

Here is the wonderful Psalm 126 in its entirety:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

One good way to hang on to joy in troubled times is to remember past joys. The story we tell about our lives makes a difference. When anxious people cannot sleep, they have a difficult choice to learn. Instead of rehearsing their past failures and troubles, they need to search out the joys. Such searching is part of their strength.

Image result for paul joy in prisonUse your joy

When Paul was in prison instead of sailing for Spain, as he hoped he would, this is how he began his letter to his first church plant in Europe:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:3-6

Joy lives in us and we live in the expression of God’s joy. Creation is an enactment of the Lord’s generous love. Joy is the creative exuberance that the world reveals around every corner. Evolutionists don’t quite know, according to their theory, why animals prefer beautiful mates. Paul would say all creation is made to love our generous, beautiful God. Animals know that instinctively. The world is, in itself, an expression of joyful generosity. Jesus has opened up our hearts to love God and love with Jesus; when we do it, we experience joy, deeply.

When Paul writes his letter, he is also using his joy and sees it as a way to send joy reverberating all the way from Rome to Philippi. Along with joy being a wonderful feeling, it is also something we do. Paul is praying with joy. He uses his joy as a shield against what would do him in. And he uses it as an offensive weapon, too. A shield can deflect a sword blow, but it was also used to knock an enemy down.

Peacemaking types may not like the idea that they do anything that remotely resembles violence. I think that kind of “empire-thinking” is a tempting luxury for people who imagine themselves above it all like that. Regular folks are having a day-to-day problem with forces that want to steal their lives. We must fight those forces, coming from the inside and out, with joy, among other things. Here are some examples:

I believe God loves me. (Pow!)
I believe God is actively loving me right now in this situation. (Crash!)
I believe God’s love will never fail. (Wham!)
I believe God will not withhold any good thing from me. (Smash!)
You could not possibly steal my Christ-given joy! (Flattened!)

I still kind of feel bad that I ever feel bad. (Come Lord Jesus!) But I also remember when I did not feel the joy of the Lord! You may have been there last week, you were so depressed and anxious, living in this Trump-dominated country.

It helps me get back into the reality of God’s love when I affirm what is my destiny, then I begin to see and recall how God has surprised me and gifted me with joy, then I really get rolling when I use my joy in the same generous spirit in which it was used to find me and rescue me.

My faith is eroding: One thing you can do right now.

Relevant Magazine

“I think I am losing my faith—and I don’t know what to do about it.” I wish people would say that more often; they mostly just feel it until the feeling pushes them over the edge. Blame it on Trump. Blame it on unreconciled relationships. Blame it on dumb churches and their leaders. Blame it on science. Blame it on yourself. The blaming does not really help the feelings. They still end up with an internal struggle that has big consequences whichever way it goes.

If you feel some of these things, you are not alone. All sorts of people, from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society are feeling it with you. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons now find the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet. Some are panicking, many are reverting to the defense systems they relied on as a child and trying to find other things to hope in.

The terrors that taught us as children don’t really go away. So when we get pushed to the edge it is terrifying. It is one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems people have put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things and still hold on to some confidence that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those assertions are all that remain of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.

But what do you do, when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that fragile bit of faith seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much to own? How do you keep going in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?

Encouragement for the eroding

These mysteries of faith can’t be “solved” in a blog post. They can’t be “solved” as if they were a “problem” at all, can they? Most people of faith need to move beyond faith that solves problems into faith that is more about love – and we all know that love causes the delicious problems of being human as much as it solves them. So I have just a few beginning things to say which I hope will encourage people who are in the thick of some spiritual trauma. All the linked blog posts scattered around the page might help, too.

You may be at a point where your loss of faith feels unsolvable. At that point, living in faith often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious.” Jesus followers can become desperate while they are reading the Bible, when they are praying, after they are done volunteering and when they are trying to believe in the middle of a church meeting. They may be as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity, confidence and comfort they once did.

I’ve met people who feel a barren, spiritual dryness. I often tell them that feeling is actually a sign of their faith, not merely their loss of it, since others, obviously, have already adapted to a barren spiritual landscape and feel it is normal. These dried-out people almost always feel burdened by a sense of failure – a secret feeling they dare not share or often dare not admit to themselves. They are grieving, feeling helpless about regaining what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to be easier. And they are often angry with God, too.

So what can you do right now?

If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience for you in the future.

Sticking with prayer, Bible study or church attendance might provide anchors for your faith until the storm passes—but they might not. You might like to try psychotherapy to see if there is something in the way of your growth you don’t know about, or to provide some heavy-duty support while you are growing – maybe you aren’t up for that.

Maybe the process should be more about what’s right in front of you, for now — about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your baby’s head.

Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that will have to be OK. Maybe that’s as close to proving God’s goodness as you can get. To simply live and to find gratitude in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is on the holiness spectrum. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment is a pathway back to the hope you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and your worn-out religion.

But maybe you shouldn’t worry about whether the gratitude gets you somewhere right now. We’re good at turning simple goodness into a means to an end – gratitude is not a result to achieve or another religious exercise to evaluate. Try receiving the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to you and surprise you. People have often found the beginning of a new season of faith there.

As you are working at finding a new center, keep noting when you feel guilty. Guilt is good for turning us from bad behavior, but it needs to be checked when it makes us feel like a worthless person. Talk back to that voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible and don’t worry about what you think people are saying about you. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will. Maybe most of all, don’t worry about God. God is big enough to handle your doubts, fears and failures and knows exactly what you’re going through and why believing is such a struggle right now.

You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around and to find joy in what is right beside you and all around you as your journey continues. If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be.

Suggested by John Pavlovitz

Most read posts in 2018

I think there are a lot of good writers out there these days. So I am grateful that you take the time to visit my blog. I gained a few subscribers this year, which was heartening, since I’d like to share what God gives me with whoever needs it.

Image result for the shape of water

The next ten titles are my “top ten” for 2018

The Shape of Water: Enough already! – I react to the philosophy behind what was later named best picture.

The beginning of Joshua – My hope for my friend’s future.

Trump tempts Jesus-followers with the worst: revenge, lies, division – I consider our toxic political environment

A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends – Tim Geoffrion leads me to consider the Blenders, the Borrowers and the Inspired.

Give the baby a church, for Christ’s sake. – My parents did not know they were giving me an important gift when they gave me the church.

Trump is a lot like Nero, which brings me back to Paul. – My Greek pilgrimage helps me react to Jeff Sessions interpreting Romans 13

Resistance — Was it your fault or their struggle when they left the church? – Be careful with people in the church who are up against their resistance.

The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation – A Bible study summarized by Jesus: We are not excused from caring about what happens to our neighbor because of principle, profit or preference.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear – When I am alone, I am actually alone with God

Is it OK to use my work resources for the church or is that stealing? – We need to ask and answer good questions.

These five titles from previous years are among the most read in 2018, too.

Is God Going to Punish Me?

That feeling of obligation could be good for you (or bad)

12 Things spiritually wise people do not do.

Redux #3: Would God send Gandhi to hell? — redux

Frustration: 13 reasons people leave the church — and why you might be about to.

I feel the pressure. I receive your promise.

“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”

Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.

In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy.  She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.  She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).

Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.

My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.

Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.

I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!

We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.”   Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.

Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid.  The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.

I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:

  • I am your slave. Guide me.
  • I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
  • I have no one to trust but you. I will.
  • I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
  • Wow! Help! Thanks!

However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it.  We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.

You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.

Advent: Thank God for the Dayspring!

For me, Advent has a lot of layers (like my December wardrobe!). Maybe the layer I need the most is the personal one: the Advent of Jesus to me, Jesus coming to be incarnate in my little life.

The other day, after I woke up with some threatening congestion, I stumbled downstairs in the dark and finally made it to my chair to pray. I had been feeling what one of my friends called “a recession” for a couple of days –not quite a depression, and I was letting some of my anxieties get the best of me.

In the middle of all that unpleasant stuff, I had such a sweet, little experience of Advent, I thought I’d share it with you, in case you also feel like you are stumbling around in the dark on these darkest days of the year in what feels like a dark time of the world.

I was looking around my room and seized upon a flaw in one of the walls, lamenting that the contractor had done a poor job. Suddenly, it came upon me how wonderful it was to have this warm room in which to pray! It was a strangely instant turnaround. It felt like the Holy Spirit had whipped off the emotional bag that was over my head and showed me the joy that was in the very same room I had been criticizing! Just as suddenly, two Christmas carol lyrics leapt into my mind and I meditated on them for a long time.

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The first song centers on a quote from the John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, as he was prophesying over his child:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:76-79 (KJV)

The Dayspring visited me in the time of my impending seasonal affect disorder and lit up my darkness. My troubled way was guided into peace. So I am writing with this song in mind for me and for you

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel  [Sweet in Latin!]

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Like the hem of a garment

Another lyric quickly came to my mind, since my thoughts are  usually occupied by lyrics. It is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi, collected in the last book of the Old Testament. The old Christmas hymns come from writers steeped in the King James Bible, which is quite beautiful.

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 4:1-3 (KJV)

The Sun of righteousness rose in my room with healing in his wings. Like the hymn writer, Charles Wesley, I’m talking about Jesus. Malachi has a broader metaphor. His “Sun” is like God moving through the heavens, the fringes (or “wings”) of his long flowing garment spreading the blessings of life to farmers luxuriating in mild spring sunshine and gentle rains that restore parched ground and fatten starving calves. I woke up to the dawn and felt like singing with Hark the Herald Angels sing!

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings. [Brits!]

It is so good to have Advent again because I need the advent of Jesus in my shadeable little world.

I hope any dark clouds you are experiencing soon pass as the Dayspring drives them away. May the Sun of righteousness rise again where you are seated and convince you to reach out, touch the hem of his garment, and be healed.

Four suggestions for making leaders in 2019 (maybe yourself)

Good leaders are in short supply. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but they can tell you that. Our church has great leaders; I hope yours does, too. But to keep up with Jesus, we need to work with him to make more leaders in 2019. How do you think we are going to do with that?

Let’s dispel one misconception right at the start. When people talk about creating more leaders, a natural response is, “If everyone becomes a leader, who is left to follow?”  [Dean Martin asked a similar question]. It’s true, if everyone is fighting their way into the top position, the endless power struggle will create a terrible organization (and those exist). That would definitely be “too many leaders, not enough followers.” But in the church, I think we usually have the opposite problem. A lot of people give their ambition at the office and would rather someone else lead the church, even if they are the best one to do it! Plus, I think people really care about what Jesus says, and they would just rather quietly serve than deal with the issues that come with works of power at all.Related image

Anyway you look at it, Jesus was making leaders and He still is. He is the epitome of the great leader we would like to be. He is not against power; he exercises a miraculous amount of it! If you clicked the two links in the last paragraph, I think you’ll see, with me, that we are taught that leaders are always followers, but followers should be ready to lead when they are needed. Everyone has the power of the Spirit and we are responsible to use it humbly.

The best leaders are elevated followers who have learned by serving their master, Jesus. So let’s not worry about creating too many leaders. Jesus followers are not climbing over one another to be the leader of the church; they gave up such pursuits when they responded to the call to follow Jesus and live a new life. Let’s call out the leadership in one another in 2019 and find the faithful, available and teachable servants who can lead our cells, teams and further congregations and, as a result, lead the world out of the mess it is in.

Here are four suggestions for how to think about leading and how to apply what we know.

Leadership is a role, not right

Eurocentric people have been debating the “divine right” of the leader to rule for centuries. The revolutions in the 1700’s put an end to that for kings. But humanity just gave the “divine” part to “the people” who gave the elected parties the “right” to rule. Recent presidents take that right rather absolutely, don’t they? And if you work for a boss, you may feel their absolute authority acutely. Some corporations have a “god” upstairs somewhere who can deliver prosperity or poverty with a word. This situation is one we are used to so we think it is normal. So when people enter the alternative society of the church, they often assume the same thing is going to happen: there is some king or some secret cabal running things and not them. And plenty of church leaders see an opportunity to get their divine rule on and get carried away trying to be powerful. We could talk about this for a long time, and should.

For 2019, however, why don’t you help someone take the role of leader and help them with the weird power dynamics it creates? It will be challenging for them if people think the church leader is exercising a right or an identity. They will suddenly become this strange person — like one day Rachel was your buddy, now she’s the pastor and you need to treat her like some “thing” that is not like you anymore. Let’s keep our heads on straight; all our leaders are still like us. We give them a role to exercise in the church because they can do it and we need them. They are elevated in our structure and given power to act, but they still have the same kind of issues we do. Imagine yourself being a leader! Ouch! It is a joy to serve, but there are a lot of things people need to figure out on their way to being a good one.

Leadership is a duty not just a delight

Some leaders honestly feel about leading like Freddie Mercury felt about singing. When they can lead, they are in their sweet spot. Good for them! But I still think the most effective leaders in the church feel like they are answering a call, not considering whether they are following their bliss. The see the necessity, or the opportunity, or the emergency and they decide to act on behalf of the mission of Jesus to transform the world. They were not sitting by their Christmas tree one day scrolling through their Ipad and said, “I think I will lead the church. That would make me feel good.” Maybe someone has done that, but I have never met them yet. Most of the time, like when a cell multiplies, the most obvious person becomes the next leader. They may have never thought about leading a cell until it becomes obvious to everyone that they should be deployed.

I know I was pretty shocked when it became obvious that I was a pastor, way back when. That was NOT what I had in mind. But, to be honest, I had a lot of trash in mind that would certainly have been a lot worse, so I am delighted. It has been a lot of fun to follow Jesus in my role. So, in 2019, why don’t you be delighted in someone who is doing their duty? We can make it hard on someone or we can make it delightful to have such followers. Yes, they will do their duty wrong, but you will probably do your following wrong, too, won’t you? So we will need to work it out — and it is given to us to do that.

Leadership is a gift to you and from you

I am glad we are still talking about spiritual gifts in our church. Leadership is one of them, in several forms, when you look through the lists in the New Testament. The lists make it obvious that we don’t need as many leaders as we need other gifted people to make a whole church. There will always be many more followers than leaders at any given moment, even though any of us might be gifted to lead when it is necessary. The idea of spiritual gifts implies, however, that a few people are usually gifted to lead and we should honor the work of the Spirit in their lives. We also need to honor their difficulties, since each one of us has our own difficulties discerning and exercising our gifts. We have a hard enough time having confidence that the Spirit of God even cares enough about us to lead us! Most leaders feel like that, too.

So the leader gives the gifts of leading and we give them back the gift of following. It is all gift with us and God, just so Christians worked gift-giving into the Christmas celebration of God’s self-giving love in Jesus. So in 2019, why don’t we give our leaders, new and next, the gift of their leadership? Help them do their work; don’t make them beg, as if they were just dying to see if you would follow them. It is our responsibility to make good leaders. They have no more innate value than the rest of us Spirit-bearers. But they are crucial for our life together to work well. If they have the gifts, we want to receive them!

Contrition Set No. 8 (2008) — Anthony Smith Jr. (NYC/Bethlehem, PA)

It is your church, not theirs

Some members of our Leadership Team have been frustrated when our church did not work like their business or agency (or their ideal of how they work). They regularly experience hierarchical modes of leading where a boss (or HR policy) has the power to take away someone’s money and give them a bad resume. As a result, people show up on time and do what they are supposed to do. They wish they could fire some church people!

I tell them, quite often, since I had to learn it too, that the church is more on the family side of life, not the corporate — thank God! But that means people are more likely to act like they do in their families and the leaders are more like parents than bosses. This can be lovely, since we all could use some re-parenting and we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But it also means that people refuse to pick up their blocks, are rival siblings, and feel intense symbolic feelings about things the leader thought were minor. It is terribly easy to act like an infant instead of being elevated to parent! Like Paul had to convince people: we used to be children, but now we are heirs of the kingdom of God [Paul’s great Advent passage].

So, in 2019, why don’t we refuse to exercise the luxury of reacting like we are children while the only adults in the room are our overworked leaders? And, by the way, how about helping our own relatives with the holiday celebrations rather than showing up late with a six pack? If your mom doesn’t want you to do the dishes for her because you do them so poorly, how about doing them with her and finally learning what you missed while you were avoiding things? We’re the church. It is not the leader’s church, as if she is supposed to get you to clean your room as her vocation! We are all “heirs according to the promise.” If we don’t act like that, no leader can save us. They’ll probably burn out or move on and our community will deteriorate into something that barely looks like Jesus lives there at all.

The subject of making a leader is a bit more than this blog post can chew, I think. But I was looking into 2019, when the leadership of the United States is going to show more of its true colors. Who would want to be a leader in such a mess? Not me. But I was also looking at our resilient, intense church, and was downright excited about what we might become. I think we are uniquely gifted and well–situated to offering the alternative the region needs, as the church always is, especially now. If you are a leader in some way among us or wherever God has placed you, thanks and don’t give up! If you are making a leader and can be inspired to keep at it in 2019, thanks and don’t give up!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando — video version

Hey everyone. Here is a video version of this week’s blog. For links and such, consult the written format. Thanks for reading and listening!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando

I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away.  One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!

I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw).  This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.

The economy did not send people to Disney

My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”

The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!

But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding.  A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.

Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”

A solitary worker at an e-commerce company’s distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania. — Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.

“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games  ready for purchase by eager teenagers.

The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis

Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.

Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.

We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.

OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties.  But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.

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

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

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

Being avoidant is not enough

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

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

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

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Following the Feast Maker God: Our way to hospitality

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Parable of the Great Supper by Harold Copping (1863-1932)

In Luke 14, Jesus is tells a parable about God, the feast maker, and his servant, Jesus, looking for people to attend their great banquet. It is all prepared! It is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We need to resist our lame excuses and come to the banquet! What’s more, we must forgive ourselves for not inviting people to the feast and forgive them for not coming.

But before we apply all this revelation about who God is and who we must be, we need to come to the feast ourselves. There are good reasons we are not hospitable.

There are parts of us which have reasons not to come to the feast

Last week in Daily Prayer :: WIND, David Benner pointed out when we have surrendered to the love of the Great Feast Maker, we find the “courage to face unpleasant aspects of our inner selves…to face our fears as we soak in love.” The Lord’s words about a great feast are an invitation to bring all the lame, broken, and fearful parts of ourselves into the banquet of love being prepared for us. There is a place at the table reserved for each broken part. Before we can be risk being hospitable, we must allow the neglected parts of ourselves to enjoy the warmth of God’s love as they are honored with special treatment. Maybe you should read the parable again in that light.

Most of the time, I think , we read the parable and focus on those foolish people who won’t come to the feast. Once we realize that we also have reasons we don’t always respond to God’s invitations, much less offer invitations, we can understand that Jesus is looking at everyone’s troubled, left-out hearts. Some people are so left out they dread being included because it might not feel as good as they need and they would feel even worse, which they cannot tolerate. No party is going to solve their problem; they need to come to God’s feast. Others are just gods to themselves, making their own feast, so they don’t feel the need to come unless they can tell in advance it will benefit them. When we read the parable we may shake our heads at the responses to the invitation, but we’re looking in the mirror, too.

It is a good thing the host is caring for others

What about the host in the parable? My main reason for writing is to talk about being like God, the great host. In the parable, the host is hurt. Isn’t the parable full of a sad feeling we all know about? —“I gave a party and you did not come. I invited you in and you ignored me or avoided me. I wanted to love you and you did not want my love.” The guests in the parable are so callous! I hurt for God.

And I hurt from following God’s example. I have thrown a lot of parties, plus I was in charge of weekly Sunday meetings for years. There has been an awful lot of opportunity to feel rejected. But the feast is too important to let rejection get in the way of it. We need to attend it and we need to give it. It  is a matter of our salvation and fulfillment that we repent in our heart and change our ways. We must forgive ourselves for not coming to the feast, and, even more challenging, we must repent of not inviting people to the feast and not forgiving them for not coming.

What the Bible shows is that God is a feast giving God. God’s heart is open and making a home for us. We don’t come to the party and what does God do? — opens up eternity in response. In the parable of the prodigal son and his brother, one chapter later in Luke, God is clearly shown as a host.  When the lost son arrives, the whole household jumps into action because the father is a feast giver and everyone is prepared to have one. It is what they do. Of course they have a calf fattening! They all know the master thinks, “No one should eat with the pigs and no one should isolate themselves in the field and sulk. We are going to have joy, make a place for joy and invite people into salvation.”

I have gone to many parties that were, essentially, do-it-yourself feasts. As is so typical of our era, many hosts don’t want to compel people to be anything they are not already, or ask them to do anything they don’t want to do, so we give parties that are not hosted. I come in and no one even acknowledges me. It hurts! Surely they know that I had to repent of my aloneness and my fear to come to their party! It is so selfish of the host to protect their own fear of rejection or offense by not noticing me coming in from my personal pig trough! In contrast, Jesus is in the streets finding needy people, and God is running down the road to meet prodigals. Every time someone comes in the room, whether it is the bit of heaven of our Sunday meeting or the Thanksgiving celebration this week, they are coming from somewhere broken and they need to be welcomed in. Whether they accept the fullness of Christ in our invitation or not, they must have a place at the table.

The center of our feast is the center of our lives

If we don’t compel people to come in and run down the path to greet them, our communion table is a joke. In the bread and cup, Jesus is up on the cross dying for the sins of the world, forgiving our terrible habits of the heart, compelling us to come into his father’s house, running after us, and opening up his heart and eternity. Whenever the church gathers, the essence of the meeting, as is the essence of our lives, is the feast. If there is no feast, is there any salvation? — aren’t I still alone, on the outside? — aren’t I still trying to get what I want without connecting, without the risk of love?

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Likewise, having enjoyed the bread and cup, am I actually one with Christ if I don’t turn to someone and share the forgiveness at the center of our meeting? Forgiveness is not an abstraction accomplished in some heavenly courtroom; it happens between a needy person and a forgiver. Jesus says we are forgiven when we forgive. We are at the feast when we give the feast.

It will always hurt to be hospitable. Maybe that’s why we often hesitate to take it on. The suffering love of Jesus hurts Jesus and it hurts us. I have been noting who did not attend my meetings and parties for forty years in public and in my own home; I think it is like God to be disappointed and delighted at the same time. Every party hurts and every party is the center of my deepest joy. There is nothing better than the Love Feast we just had. There is nothing better than the cell meeting Julie had last week where the women said something like, “A month ago I never wanted to go to church again and now I am going to host your cell.” Every one of them does not work and in every one of them the feast-making God is at work.