Tag Archives: alternativity

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

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.

The Love Feast: A big splash of goodness in a flood of evil

My son reported that a person making their covenant last Saturday at the Love Feast said they were taking a stand with the church as a reaction to Trump. Hearing that was one of the best moments of my weekend!

A lively Love Feast makes for an alive church. Authentic, living covenant members make for a lively Love Feast. Put it all together and the living body of Christ is, indeed, the antidote to what ails the world — and Trump’s character is an ailment.

I have written a lot about the president since he began running for office. He is terrible for Christians – for those who hate him and those who love him. For the last two years, his evil ways have only become more evident. I can still understand how he can get a rally going in Illinois. But we Jesus followers need to understand our role in providing people an escape from the aftermath of his rhetoric.

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Proud Boys beating up a protester outside their meeting.

What is happening?

On Thursday, law enforcement arrested Gregory Bush, who tried to shoot up a black church, couldn’t get in, and so moved onto a Kroger grocery store and killed two black patrons in cold blood while pointedly sparing a white one. On Friday, it was Cesar Sayoc, who was charged with sending mail bombs to a bunch of folks who just so happen to be targets of Donald Trump’s verbal attacks. And on Saturday, it was Robert Bowers, who entered a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and, amid a torrent of anti-Semitic hate speech, went on a rampage that left 11 people dead from gunshot wounds. That marks three days in a row, then, that an angry, middle-aged man committed a violent crime that certainly appears to have been encouraged, at least in part, by Donald Trump’s decision to turn the bully pulpit into a bully’s pulpit.

Not long before, the pro-Trump Proud Boys beat up opponents after their leader spoke at the Republican Club in NYC. At the same time, news outlets were reporting that Trump’s lying was actually picking up speed in advance of the elections, trying to stoke the Kavanaugh confirmation victory momentum – and yes, he lamented that last week’s events sapped the momentum. And yes, he did say the synagogue would have been protected from the Nazi if they had an armed guard.

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Evocative stock image

To stand in this evil day we need a place to stand.

We can’t just shout back or fight back. We need to build the alternative. So I am encouraged when someone wants to build the church as a response to Trump and any of his  supporters who are as deluded as he would like.

That brings me to another good moment during my weekend. I was at the conference of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies in Lancaster (CAPS — Gwen is on the board). I went to a workshop led by an expert on rumors.  He had some interesting things to say about people who flood the airwaves with lies so people give up on knowing the truth. He had some good psychological reasons why people love conspiracy theories so much. He also said that what we are facing, every day now, is blatant evil. Like the Bible recounts, people who don’t follow Jesus are in league with the father of lies, the devil. The tongue is a fire, James says.

We are not just in a political battle. Such a battle might be a distraction if it were not put into perspective. We are in a final campaign against rebellious powers for the rule of humanity.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. – Ephesians 6:11ff

The presenter reminded us that Jesus has defeated the enemy. We are mopping up with him. But just because the decisive battle has been won, does not mean the enemy is not in a frenzy of resistance, like any cornered, wild animal might be. A striking example of this reality is how the Nazis “turned up the ovens” in 1944 after it became evident that World War 2 was lost. Auschwitz was gassing up to 6000 Jews a day that year. In March, diverting much-needed resources from the war effort, Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary and dispatched Eichmann to supervise the deportation of the country’s Jews. By July, 440,000 had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In a final act of delusion, a month before the deportations began, Eichmann offered to exchange one million Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies — the “blood for goods” proposal. Again and again we see the devil’s allies acting in similar ways. They might beat people up in the street, but we must not be afraid or begin to think that trading blood for goods is an actual option.

What we are doing is more important than ever

Trump is not the first disciple of the father of lies to come into a powerful position in the world. And we are not the first or last group of Jesus followers who take our faith seriously enough to build the alternative in the face of their strategies for domination — our movement got started under the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula, after all! Trump is just a shocking inspiration for all the activities we might normally take for granted in a more peaceful world, like a lively Love Feast.

Being a cell, forming a team, meeting for worship are all taking on their truest meaning aren’t they? They aren’t just about our good feelings or personal development; they are about transforming the world and giving people an escape from the madness of the evil powers – and all those regular activities are transforming  people and offering people an escape.

Having a well-supplied Common Fund is more important than ever. Sharing our money is not like paying the rent on our spiritual house, it is about making us strong and supplying visionary leaders who can keep us together and equipped to stand in an evil day. And we are standing in significant ways — against forgotten diseases like lupus, against the unjust justice system, against the oppression of the poor who are forced out of their homeland in Central America and other places all over the world, against mental illness, joblessness, addiction, loneliness, faithlessness and fear.

As I was writing this, another person sent me a text about the Love Feast. They were excited! That meeting, like so many of the meetings we hold, was like a big rock in the societal pool of our region. We don’t know where the ripples will carry the news that Jesus is risen and alive in his people. As Paul encourages the Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” We’re part of the campaign to redeem the world. We have another Lord and we won’t bend the knee to the latest liar who tries to usurp Jesus.

To weave community: Outdo one another in showing honor

Babies are being born in my circles of the church. They are bundles of disruption who demand that their parents and those who love them abandon most self-oriented pursuits. They insist we focus on what else really matters: the weaving of community.

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Community makes regular people ambitious

I have followed my dreams and ambitions my whole adulthood, and I am sure I have been led by God to do so. But the Lord also taught me, early on, that family and friendship — the basic, personal relationships that pull us to develop community, are the home of the love that keeps my ambitions humming. It is the momentary revelations of love that remind us we are alive. Here’s an example of a moment. When I was a child I would shake my hands with glee when I was excited – my family never forgot it. (One of my grandchildren paddled their belly with similar enthusiasm  – and probably still does when no one is looking). When my younger sister was brought home from the hospital, I was about 2 ½. I was standing in the driveway jumping up and down and shaking my hands with glee — so eager to meet her! No one ever forgot my joy – or the wild way I showed it!  It was one of those moments people love to recall — a moment when love and joy ruled the family. I suppose we keep going to meetings of the church because, so often, something happens that reminds us that God is with us and love is possible — joy and love rule the family of God.

In the U.S. society, we are so overrun by philosophies of autonomy and individualism that we spend all our time mastering them at the expense of weaving the fabric of community together. It’s not that both movements aren’t important. Individuals make up the community and communities make individuals. They are always running in tandem. But it is easy to see that individual pursuits often overshadow making relationships. One obvious example is how often people wait to get married until they have settled their careers these days. “Millennial men and women are more concerned with establishing their own lives before agreeing to share them with a partner” (Cosmo). Likewise, once those thirtysomethings are having children, the pursuits of their individual families often remove them from their extended family, much more does it removed them from the life of the church or neighborhood. Very busy people often become very successful in the economy at the expense of their community; this is an old story now.

Weaving individuals into community is a Bible theme

Balancing our God-given uniqueness with the weaving of community  is one of the major themes of the Bible from start to finish. It is a basic story about love. The story about Joseph and his brothers is a great example. The fabric that makes up Joseph’s “coat of many colors” is desecrated by his brothers. But it is his understanding and leadership skills, combined with his capacity to forgive, which saves his family and supplies the strong ties that will keep God’s people together in Egypt. The next big story is about Moses and the themes are similar. Just as the social fabric of Israel is unraveling in slavery, God commissions the uniquely gifted Moses to lead the people into their own country. Over many years on their heroic journey, they learn to weave the fabric of authentic community. The unique vision of Israel and their authentic community go together, or there is no promised land.

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A good way to see God’s people weaving community is in the Ten Commandments Moses delivered from the mountain.  One way to look at these famous sayings is that they install disruptions to individual ambition and personal glory in honor of maintaining community ties. They are all about honor, which is the foundation of life in community. When we honor God and have no other gods, we love the Lord with all our heart, soul mind and strength. We devote our energy to the innate desire of all creation for communion with the Creator.  The obvious extension is to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

As the list of commands are completed, they enjoin us to honor our parents — being trained to give fundamental respect to others by giving respect to the community who formed us. We are called to honor the Sabbath — to cease our self-directed work and honor who we are and in what community. The rest of the commandments honor individual rights: to life, to marriage, to property, to honest public affairs and to individuality. The communal fabric is sustained if we have respect for the individual. The individual is sustained if they have a supportive communal fabric.

For all my life, people in the United States (and other societies) have been having quite a contest about whether they will be subject to these principles. With all our capacity to be autonomous and an acceleration in our preoccupation with individual rights and the technology to exercise them, we are all experiencing a dangerous unraveling, it is even hard for the church to hold together.

Healthy ambitions spring from extravagant honor

When I am counseling couples, especially before they are married, I often end up using an old metaphor to make a point about honor. If we want to stick together, we all need to “doff our hats” to one another, like a chevalier meeting a lady or a lady curtseying to another. These kind of behaviors used to be common and they made sense. It is easy to see the flaws in a society, of course, but most of them have something quite brilliant built in, too. In the 16 and 1700s the nobility of Europe were trying to hold on to their power in the face of the pressure of individualism and democracy, not to mention capitalism, individualism on steroids. Back then, they developed systems of rank and honored people accordingly with great expressions of courtesy, which they thought hearkened back to better days in the past. So Alexander Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844, looking back to 1625, when d’Artagnan was learning the elaborate ways of courtesy. Movies ensued and so we all know about it. Try this one you’ve never seen at ~24:45:

I often tell marrying couples to figure out how to express that great clause in the great Romans 12: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV) – “prefer” one another, “take delight” in honoring the other, “eagerly,” “excelling” at it. If you want to be ambitious, be ambitious about that. When your mate enters the room, bow before them as if they were really something. If you are wearing a hat, ceremonially, sincerely, let it sweep the floor before them. At least put down your phone for a second and look them in the eye! Honor is the foundation of community. It is the practical expression of our love for God. When the Ten Commandments says “Honor,” it does not mean “obey” and it does not merely mean “respect;” it certainly cannot be reduced to  “sending thoughts and prayers.” Honor is profound regard for the innate value of others before God. It is the life of Christ bowing before sinful humanity with forgiveness and self-sacrifice and then Jesus trusting his followers with his own Spirit. Honor is Joseph finding that his uniqueness is valuable for the preservation of his community even after they had left it unrecognized and squandered it. It is Moses taking on a job he does not want for the sake of the people.

This month, all sorts of things have happened to me and those I love that reveal how important community is. As a result, the fabric of our community has been strengthened. When the baby is born, when the wedding happens, when people change, when we find ourselves in a funeral, we are reminded that our individual pursuits happen within a community. When people die alone (and they increasingly do) it shows how unraveled we have become. As usual, God, in Christ, has made us the alternative to dying in general and dying alone in particular. To be that alternative, start with the easy stuff and recalibrate your schedule, if it needs it, to honor our community. Weave the fabric. Your unique contribution is crucial.

If you let yourself do this, be sure you have spent time being prepared by God before you leave the house, because that kind of love can take over your life. You might be drawn to honor each person you meet, not just your mate or friend, with at least a doff of your hat. You might even smile at people who think their headphones make them invisible, untouchable and safe from alarming contact with other humans. You might risk talking to the needy. You might ignore the resentments you think have made a boundary between you and someone. We need to keep weaving, since we all know how fast things can unravel, often just in time for the baby to be born to remind us just how much those relationships mean to us and to the world.

Re-begin the Beguines: True alternativity we’ve just barely tried

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For 300 years, from the 1200’s to 1500’s the Rhine River Valley in Europe experienced an astonishing revival of Christian experience among regular people. One of the great expressions of it was the founding of many communities of “beguines” and their male counterparts “beghards.” These communities were part of a huge spiritual movement that stressed the imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. {Check out the best seller of the time]

I am praying for a  new flowering of similar discovery and passion in our own time. If you read this blog, you probably stoke my hope. Many younger Jesus-followers, in particular, are trying on the basic Christianity their recent ancestors in faith have abandoned for political fights and empire thinking. Circle of Hope is a good opportunity to try on some beguine-like radicality. So can we re-begin the beguines? We are in the process of refining our church in many ways, these days, could the beguines lead us?

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Priest lectures a group of beguines

What is a “beguine?”

No one knows for sure where the word “beguine” came from. It could be a derivation of “beige,” since many of these people were heavily involved in the flourishing new cloth manufacturing trade in Europe and wore simple tan clothes. Maybe they’d be called “denims” today. But “beguine” could also be a pejorative nickname that stuck, like “Christian” — no one really knows.

I admit, when I remembered these inspiring people the other day, I passed over the great mystics among them and went straight to Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter (who may be as obscure to some of you as the 13th century!). In the Creole language of Martinique and Guadeloupe a beguine is not a Christian lay woman living in a religious community without formal vows. The term came to mean “white woman” in general, and then it came to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples’ dance. Cole Porter popularized this dance wherever people were cool in the 30’s and 40’s. There is not much connection between Cole Porter and my spiritual heroes, which goes to show how spiritual movements flourish, get co-opted or corrupted and are lost on some dance floor. But I persist.

According to the famous mystic, John of Ruusbroec, the beguines’ religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them (Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310). The Beghards were even more public about their reforms; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Pope, the German bishops and the Inquisition. Before the close of the Middle Ages, the communities were in decline, diminished by institutionalization, persecution and the waning of the textile trade. But some beguinages kept going for 800 years until the last beguine died in 2013.

They weren’t trying to build a legacy, anyway, much the opposite; they were just trying to have a life in Christ. When radicals like the Franciscans started speaking the gospel outside the church and its power structure, in the vernacular and not just in Latin, it led to thousands of people acquiring a genuine relationship with Jesus, which ultimately led to an intimate oneness with God. This spiritual progression was ultimately known as “mysticism” [link to posts on “mystical hope“].

The last intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium
An intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

Part of a great movement of the Spirit

Responding to itinerant preachers before the year 1200, women by the thousands flocked to various convents. The communities did not have room for all of them. So they joined together in their own communities for spiritual growth and pooled their resources to buy  large houses to live in (above), or whole sections of a city. Initially, the beguines were widows and single women, but soon married women found ways to connect. They were devoted to the poor. Some of the first houses formed around infirmaries where many volunteered. They bought the new Bibles being translated into local languages and studied together. They wrote their own devotional books, music and philosophy. Some of the earliest books in Dutch and German were written by Beguines, such as Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechthild of Magdeburg. Radically in love with Jesus, these women saw themselves as brides of Christ and gave their lives to the pursuit of knowing Jesus and serving his cause.

How far can we go with similar intent? It would be great if some of our good businesses became means for people to pray together, then go work on their common business. It would be amazing if people saw our cells and congregations as distinct parts of the city where people protected one another’s relationship with God. It would be wonderful if we managed to care for the poor in new ways that did not rely so much on corporations and government.  It would be wonderful to incorporate more of the feminine and fluid theology of the era of the beguines. It would be great if we unleashed our creativity even more to give voice to the movement of Jesus among us. It would be miraculous if our sense of alternativity blossomed into another movement of the Spirit in our time.

I know we are in the process of trying all these things right now. So miracles could occur! Some of us just have a toe in the water, some of us are kind of over “radicality,” some of us are on the other side of Christ-centered faith, many of us are just beginning to walk with Jesus. As the beguines demonstrated, it doesn’t really matter who one is or where you are on the faith journey; renewal and inspiration are all about the Spirit of God — and the Lord’s Spirit is not bound by who we are right now. Where could we go? And who might we become? We have courageous examples from the past who suggest exciting ways to develop.

Six soul-killing political pathologies demanding the church’s conformity

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Damon Linker of This Week, Penn, and suburban Philly, says “The lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it’s easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.”

I was in a house full of grandchildren as I read that. That made it an even more alarming prediction. Are the children destined to navigate some terrible pathology? I hope not. But if they are so troubled, it will give Jesus an opportunity to prove, once again, that he is greater than our hearts.

Trump may catalyze the worst in us for his own benefit, but he couldn’t do it without the rest of the country providing him opportunity and giving in when he takes it. We of Circle of Hope mildly talk about our “alternativity,” but how far have you been driven, in truth, into some individual bunker from which you plot your safest route to your personal desires? Our recent dialogue about consolidating two of our congregations, although amazing and encouraging (and alternative!), also highlighted what we are up against these days. We are tempted to conform to the pathology around us either by adopting it or endlessly rebelling against it – either way it dominates us.

Linker lists six features of the United States society that often threaten to become features of our church, as well. I hope commenting on his list contributes to finding a way to avoid the pitfalls of our time.

Skepticism about leaders

  • There’s the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims.

If we desert our families and can’t listen to our leaders, can we learn to follow Jesus? Aren’t we tempted to perfect autonomy, thinking that is a good thing? I think our pastors talk about our skepticism all the time — but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks it is right to listen to them, or that they actually do listen. People tend to wake up to “who’s in charge” or “what’s the process” when they discover some change actually impacts their “personal lives.” Otherwise, they assume that everyone in charge is self-interested or corrupt and try to steer clear of any process that might require their responsibility or sacrifice. Skeptics need to be questioned: Are all the region’s police self-interested and corrupt? Is everyone in government out for profit? Are the Cell Leader Coordinators unaware of your reality? Are protesters wasting their time?  What kind of person is your skepticism making you?

Virtual extremism

  • There’s the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space.

The Russians would not be able to corrupt the U.S. system if the echo chambers in which citizens are trapped intersected and if they were not all atomized into individual interpreters of the day’s news. Our church, designed as it is to span usually-distinct territories and people groups often has a terrible time getting people to follow Jesus together if their ideological underpinnings are not satisfied. I have convictions that I consider elemental to my faith in Jesus and which bind me to prophesy to society, but should they exclude others who don’t know what I’m talking about yet?

Endless entertainment

  • There’s the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Last week one of my grandchildren so skillfully lobbied for watching the The Two Towers we spent hours of a cloudy vacation day doing it. Afterwords, we had a long talk (long for elementary attention spans, that is) about what the movie means. One of them questioned my authority to begin such a discussion, of course (back to point one), but we talked anyway. I pointed out that the movies corrupt Tolkien’s story, since the filmmakers use extraordinary, powerful technology to tell the story of the meek inheriting the earth. This thought came to mind after I was informed that the spectacle of Helm’s Deep is much more interesting than the Hobbit scenes, and it is time to hit the bathroom when Gollum is dithering about his soul. They might be children of their age, in danger of spiritual lobotomy by the powerful scenes from the entertainment industry. The news is infotainment and the presidency a reality TV show. It is no wonder people have a tough time taking their faith and their church seriously.

Accepted polarization

  • There’s ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country’s multiple counter-majoritarian institutions.

We passed around an article a few weeks back about the interesting divides in the country. We could see the cultural stereotypes played out in some of our own dialogue as the church. We don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the country’s division among us. One might say many of us are obsessed with what divides us — condemned by their “identities” to perpetual otherness instead of welcomed into the community we crave. Lately, our email list of covenant members has been the scene of some brilliant practical theology after our leaders called us to a course of practical necessity and creative adaptation – a change. I am glad to see we gravitated toward unity in Christ instead of mere diversity of choice.

Distortion as strategy

  • And there’s the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.

The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual BiographyI was in Barnes and Noble with five 7-11 year olds, enough said. While we were buying books I spotted a surprising title: The Faith of Donald J. Trump. I pondered it the day after the news of Cohen’s and Manafort’s legal issues came to a head, both which point to the corruption and brazen immorality of the leader, who the books calls, “the one guiding figure who can return us to the traditional values-hard work, discipline, duty, respect, and faith-that have long been the foundation of American life.” It is small wonder there will be a whole generation of people who assume any leader, including a church leader, is lying. After all, we don’t need Trump, just a few bishops in Pennsylvania will make us wonder.

No love of enemies

  • Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.

Are people, in general, really losing all capacity to have conflicts that result in mutually beneficial outcomes? In our church, people often solve difficult relationships by refusing to ever have the conflict they feel. They kill love to avoid conflict. They neuter their faith in the name of some “acceptance” that masks their fear. They don’t want to be a loser and they have reduced love down to not making anyone else lose. This is politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts. Such a “politics” could kill a church, of course.

I felt a lot of these influences tempting us during our dialogue last week; so I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I could trust our trust system. We purposely designed our church so people could wreck it by being unloving or irresponsible (since Christians love and care and share or they should not be called Christians). I was not sure we would be Christians when we felt hurt or threatened or needed to fail and change. I went to prayer. Jesus came through and we came through. We’ll all be fine. But we will still be living in a world that is clearly not fine, these days. It will try to drag us down with it, so we’d better keep praying.

Standoff: We have treasure to apply to the trouble

There was another standoff on Saturday night.

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Michelle Wolf’s performance, which included a harsh skewering of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left the media sharply divided over its level of propriety. — CNBC

White House Correspondents Dinner

President Trump did not go to the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington Saturday night (although Ivanka, Kelley and Sarah did). The headliner was comedian Michelle Wolf, and she took no prisoners. She was not really that funny, just kind of mean. For instance, with Ivanka watching this was her joke: “There’s also, of course, Ivanka. She was supposed to be an advocate for women, but it turns out she’s about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons. She’s done nothing to satisfy women. So I guess like father, like daughter.”

In a speech that lasted for more than an hour, President Trump sought to reinforce his position as a Washington outsider victimized by a system threatened by his presidency. — Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Trump rally in Washington Township, Michigan

The President was in Michigan having an oppositional event. And he did not take prisoners either, beginning with a harangue against the “dishonest people” in the media and the “phony Washington White House correspondents thing.” Following a string of tweets on Saturday morning that blasted Senator Tester, who made it plain that Ronny Jackson was unfit to head the VA, Trump told the crowd that “what Jon Tester did to this man is a disgrace,” and said that the concerns raised about Jackson were “vicious rumors” designed to “destroy a man.” The President also issued a threat: “I know things about Tester that I could say too. And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”

It was a liar standoff. Mean people being mean. We apparently like that stuff. And if we stop liking it, Laurence Fishburn’s career may be severely diminished.

Will the church completely adopt standoff relating?

I hate to say it, but I think we like stand-off relating in the church, too.

The church tends to be very adaptable to whatever culture Jesus wants to redeem. Sometimes it is TOO adaptable and ends up sponging up than sponging out, sucking up poison instead of releasing antidotes. The church has been divided up by politics for years. Us Anabaptist types try to hold on to our third way, but we often end up mimicking the fights of the world and dividing up over them as if Jesus weren’t our unity. Our church is not immune from standoffs that end in walk outs that result in cut offs. In an era in which forgiveness is finally super relevant, we’re tempted to forget about forgiveness and go ahead and try to win the stand off or at least adapt to standoff reality as if it were reality.

A new book by Bill Schneider (you may have seen him on CNN) shows just how bad it has gotten. It is called Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable. He’s been covering politics since 1976, and in the book he traces the development of a massive cultural divide that developed over that time between what he calls “Old America” and “New America.” Old America privileges tradition, religion, guns, isolationism, “street smarts,” and whiteness; New America favors progressivism, the environment, gender and racial equality, globalism, education, and diversity. Trump, observes Schneider, did not invent this divide, he merely capitalized on it.

I think I joined the New America about 1974 in many ways. Thank God that was also about the time I was signing up for radical Christianity. I think many of us in Circle of Hope are members of the New America mainly because so many of us are new and the old America is old, but also because we’re diverse in many ways, we are living into climate change, and equality seems like it should be moot, not a fight.  I can only hope that people who start new can also get radical with Jesus, who is so old he always seems new.

We have treasure we should not squander

What I want to suggest is simple. In 1976 a lot of things seemed new in the United States, too, to us 20 somethings and the old stuff sucked. Latching on to Jesus made more sense then and it makes more sense now. After many years of sticking with faith, I can tell you it offers a lot more than the interchangeable solutions of the world. The alternativity of the church is the best hope for the world that keeps inventing new ways not to fix itself while totally believing the opposite is happening. Like Jesus says, “Every[one] who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:51-53). We’ve got treasure that winning a standoff will not supply. From that treasure, we might even win a few standoffs. But even better, we would win if we lost them.

Our faith is more precious than the drama or despair of the present moment. Though we suffer great torment, we dare not give in to the temptation to pick up the fights and weapons of the world and squander the treasure we have to offer to the pains of our passing-away era. The healing alternativity of our faith supplies what is needed for the constant trouble of loving our mates, loving unfinished people in the church, and caring for coworkers and neighbors. It is certainly a better direction than creating and dying from a standoff. And the treasure of our faith applies generally. We care about every troubled person and the systemic issues that trouble them. But we care from a deeper place than any standoff demonstrates. If we can’t care from a heart that knows the love of God, I wonder if our “caring” is not more empty promises leading to more standoffs, just more lies from mean people.

Alternativity in the era of Trump, Kid Rock and Charlottesville

Deactivating creates some alternativityMy Twitter account is dead. It was compromised somehow and I started following a growing collection of interesting, and unknown people. I did the first steps of repair – changed my name and password. When that did not work, I discovered other repairs to try. Instead of trying them, I hit the “deactivate” button. You probably have done similar things by now that provide a strange sense of liberation from the web.  I will miss my connections with the Congo and the Middle East; we’ll see if they lure me back. But I won’t miss fame-seekers, marketers and hackers.

I have twinned my Twitter experience with last week’s exploration of alternatives to COBRA health insurance. Gwen retired from her job, so our health insurance was deactivated. We could no longer ignore what had been hidden in the gobbledygook of her pay stub. I plunged into the indignities of the AHCA website for the first time. I was hit, again, with the realization that the one percent has, indeed, managed to extract an extraordinary entry fee for the privilege of using their medical system.

 

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Wants to be alternative

My twin experiences end up being a parable for this new era in which we live: the hopefully brief era of Trump/McConnell, Bannon/Kid Rock, the era of survival of the fittest effectively applied to the state-run economy, the era of scarcity among the wealthy and lack of community among the inextricably connected. I fled to prayer this morning when I woke up to it all. We are up against a lot.

False scarcity

Big communicators, like the Koch Brothers, convince people that there is not enough to go around, so you have to fight hard for what you get and protect it. Their evil message trickles into everything, as if we were not sinful enough to think it anyway. People are scared of losing their jobs, their homes, their future retirement money, so they give whatever it takes to stay afloat.

Fear mongering

Now it is threats against North Korea and Venezuela that the mouth-in-chief is piling up in the airwaves — and his approval rating actually goes up! Perhaps his followers in Charlottesville will succeed in creating the same kind of atmosphere that propelled Nazis into power! People are scared of violence, of losing security, so they cut off from people and demand protection.

Colossal foolishness

It remains hard for me to believe, for some reason, that the one percent is really wicked enough to follow the gospel of maximum profit for minimum expenditure as if it were salvation. As Weber famously explained it, the “spirit of capitalism” has profit as its end, profit as a duty, and cultivates industry, frugality, punctuality and honesty as the means to that end. Most Americans, especially Protestants, are completely conformed to this foolishness.

Christopher Carter’s complaints about it all made the rounds of my Facebook friends:

A car plows into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters to the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville. This is evil. And in the midst of it all, our administration (president and speaker of the house) release statements that say nothing of substance in order to declare that they said “something” to those who chant their names at these rallies.

I am not surprised by the racism of white people as I encounter it all too often. I am, however, hurt, and continue to be fueled by a righteous anger by the fact that 58% of Protestants and 52% of Catholics voted for a President whose life and politics are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.

We are in the throws of a theological crisis. Similar to times past when white Christians theologically accommodated slavery, then Jim and Jane Crow and lynching, and then segregation. Too many Christians mistake the individualist freedom of the State with the freedom we find in Christ. For these Christians, the State and the freedom (i.e. entitlement) they find in the racialized oppressive practices of our country, has become their idol. We must call this idol worship what it actually is, heresy. Unless your faith is rooted in the state, bathed in whiteness, and dried on the backs of the poor and people of color, it is incompatible to be a person of faith and support a president who does not speak out against this violence and who’s name is chanted by white nationalists.

What do we do?

We are trying to do it every day, no matter who hacks us or what it costs.

The Bible verse that sums up the proper response for me today should be much more widely applied than it is:

God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-7

The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.

The body of Christ is alternativity

Abundance

Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.

Fearlessness

Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.

Wisdom

Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.

Alternativity

Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.

Lent: We gave up doing basically nothing for the season

All the guides to Lent (including most of mine) have to do with applying some good thinking from the ancient and medieval church. It is so great. I am doing it.

The idea is so old, so someone else’s, so demanding, the vast majority of Christ followers, radical or nominal, are ignoring it — for all practical purposes, at least. Their loss.

That being said, I think we may have stumbled on to another discipline that we don’t need a lot of prayers, plans, meetings, guidebooks or history books to do: we just do stuff. We gave up not making a difference a long time ago. But this Lent, in particular, We seem to have given up giving up doing nothing all over again. We are kind of over freaking out about Trump, and are back to being the alternative we have always been to neoliberalism, now neolberalism turning toward totalitarianism. We don’t sit around.

Alternativity: finding a way beyond the walls

1. We build the church

Jerome began a cell last week with a set of mostly-new people. They all went against the grain and sat down to community. Our congregation in the Northwest is seven-months old and already show signs of taking its first toddler steps! This keeps happening.

The main thing the world needs is an alternative. Democracy is great and needs to be expanded, but it obviously is not saving the world. People have elected the worst government in my memory — for the most part they let their reps buy their position so 1% capitalism would be preserved. What people really need, as they always have, is not more info, power, and government largesse, they need to be a responsible part of their own people, culturing a common life with Jesus at the head. We are making that community, whether we are 20 or 60, new believer or old salt. We do it very simply by forming cells where we deliver our spiritual gifts face to face and by holding weekly, public gatherings where we worship, teach and incorporate people looking for Jesus. Those simple acts of building an alternative community in Christ spawn all sorts of other amazements! We map  our direction our ourselves, not just apply someone else’s thinking. We fund it all ourselves, not living off our business profits or grants from the fat cats. We keep inventing it ourselves, it does not belong to our leaders or our founders, it is us.

2. We pray

A lot of us never pray, it must be admitted. They are missing out. But most of us do, and we don’t think it is doing nothing, because we actually believe God responds to our prayers. We don’t run the universe with our intercession, but we participate in what the Holy Spirit can do. Plus, of course, praying people become more accustomed to their supernatural capabilities and become answers to their own prayers, so that is a bonus.

Art started organizing prayer walks around our new site in South Philly. People are out on the street praying, discerning, letting love flow. When we move through the stations of the cross in our neighborhoods on Good Friday, it will be about as obvious as we can make it that we believe Jesus is dying and rising right here, right now, among us and in our neighborhoods.

3. We form teams that express our passion

The Community Workshop Team decided that lightly or illegally employed people could learn woodworking. The Watershed Discipleship Team saw the threat to the world and to the Delaware River Watershed and decided they could not let the planet die without doing something. The Solidarity Beyond Borders team was revived when Trump stirred up anti-immigrant sentiments and challenged Philadelphia’s right to be a sanctuary, so they got an alliance going with local Mexicans, in particular, and started strategizing.

At this point, we kind of take making these teams for granted. When Jonny was telling someone about them last week, the person was flabbergasted to learn that there are still Christians in the world who do something. Most of them seem to be settled into resenting the obligation to go to church on Sundays (as if anyone could GO to church when they ARE the church!).

4. We make good business

This is kind of new. Yes, it is old, too, because we have had our successful Circle Thrift stores and we partner with Circle Counseling. Both these businesses began as compassion teams. But now we are moving into the next flowering of this idea, it appears.

We bought the new South Broad building thinking we would put Circle Thrift down there. But as it turns out the congregation doesn’t really need all that income to support the building and the space for the store is probably too small. We thought a NEW business there would be better: a childcare business (we’re talking that over tonight). The whole neighborhood is on a waiting list for childcare; we have the talent (if people want to use it), and we think we have a good space.

This development in our thinking about 2212 S. Broad made us think we should KEEP 1125 South Broad, which we had just decided to desert! We are thinking we should keep the store in place and create our long-held dream of a space rental/events business. These ideas presented themselves and we decided to go for it, in terms of planning, at least. Approval is not settled yet.

Alternativity: Holy Week

Lent is a great time to sit around and do “nothing” as we meditate on what Jesus has done and learn the basic spiritual disciplines that sustain our life in Christ. Please figure out how to fast! Learn what is on the other side of silence! Study and pray!

That being said, I don’t want to undercut what our actual spiritual strength might already be. We don’t sit around and do nothing while the world goes to hell in a handbasket (as my mother used to say, for some reason). We build the alternative. We are alternativity, itself! That is a good way to spend every day, especially as we look so carefully at Jesus, the alternative to sin and death, being it and living it during Lent!

 

 

Who knows but that God made Circle of Hope for such a Trump time as this?

Maybe we have some Esther in us. When plots against the Jews were uncovered in the Persian capital, one of the king’s favorite wives, Esther, was well-placed to do something about it. But there were great risks to face! She was one of the Jews being slandered; she was just one of many wives; she was not sure whether she would not be killed if she appeared unbidden before the king. But her uncle laid out the situation to her again: Terrible things were about to happen and she was in danger, as well as her people. He said, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” So she told everyone to fast and pray and said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (see Esther 4).

I will go to Trump and if I perish I perish

Now we will need to “Go to the Trump.” Maybe that has always been inevitable. My twenties began with the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency and ended with the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s We sat on our porch and talked very seriously about how we needed to be ready for the police state to rule us. We told each other we needed to be an alternative community to sustain ourselves in the coming time of troubles, as well as to hold out the light of Christ. There was plenty of trouble, but not the collapse of civilization we expected. And ever since, I have witnessed inspired people fighting hard for the poor, for rights, and for goodness when the government was doing things wrong. There are still a lot of inspired people doing the same thing. But there is also the fruit of this stream of power-mad, self-interested, pure-capitalists that resulted in Donald Trump.

Continue reading Who knows but that God made Circle of Hope for such a Trump time as this?

I am sick of the campaign…but still alternative.

When Gwen and I were travelling around the Poconos last weekend we came across a General Store in Lackawaxen. It had a big sign out front: “We trust in God. We trust in guns. We trust in Trump.“

We started complaining about the state of the country, but then we basically just changed the subject. We’re sick of it. I, in particular, am surprisingly sick of it. I have seen politics as a “hobby” since I was in high school – history in the making and all that, but what is going on now is so broken, I can’t even get serious on that level, anymore.

This presidential campaign is pounding us. How about you? Are you sick of it yet? The proportions of its nastiness and untruthfulness are so huge that I think people might finally wake up and realize that the world is a sin sick place. It has gotten so bad our general denial might be upended! Our leaders are helping Jesus out.  We might finally get to the place Paul hopes people will get:

Everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.  This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:13-16

I know, I know. Many people will just go into deeper sleep: pile into work, buy things, drink or drug, game until they can’t see straight and then buy an Oculus.

But I can’t help but think that many people will actually wake up and seek out alternativity. That’s where Jesus is waiting. There is an alternative: true life in Christ, a new life built together by his followers. I’ve always been serious about that, but now the country’s leaders are making me real serious.

I was singing this old song this morning that answered the longing of Jeremiah as he lamented the condition of Israel in his day — his country was a wreck. “Is there no balm in Gilead for my suffering people?” he cried. The song answers:

There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my hope again.

Jesus the balm.

I do get discouraged. I am not sure what will be left of our safe empire in a few years. I believe I will be fine, but what of all the unsuspecting, ill-financed, debt-ridden people? The children! What about the poor of the Philadelphia region? The prospect of big changes is daunting!

When we used to sing There is a Balm, we thought it was funny to sing “there is a bomb in Gilead” in honor of Israel’s nukes and the ongoing Palestinian oppression that blows up every few years. That’s not so funny these days, since there is a bomb in New York City and New York’s country is dropping bombs on families in Syria adding to the refugee crisis that has created the most instability the world has known in decades. I get discouraged.

But then the Holy Spirit revives my hope again. Sin happens every day – and will keep happening inside us and out. We’re sick. But our work in the Lord is not in vain. My wounds are not permanent. Our sins could not keep Jesus in the grave. I still know we are the alternative, and we need to be: a circle of hope wherever God takes us.

Pushback for Donald Miller wormthoughts

*Photo Credit: Oleh Slobodeniuk, Creative Commons
Alone with God in the forest. Joshua came up with a very different conclusion than Donald Miller last week. Maybe he’ll tell you about it.

Donald Miller recently wrote a blog post on his Storyline blog which is connected to his Storybrand marketing firm (if you never heard of him, fine, skip this post). His post was about why he does not “go to church” very often (an act that Elaine told Nona was basically impossible the other day, since we are the church).

When he “went to church” (still impossible) the music team was great, but he loved the music more than the worship. He just doesn’t relate to God that way. He says: “As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.” Then he highlighted, “ I used to feel guilty about this but to be honest, I experience an intimacy with God I consider strong and healthy.”

These are such “Miller comments” and such influential wormthoughts that I want to answer back. He keeps saying:

  • What I feel is paramount and defining.
  • I used to feel guilty.
  • My own estimation of my experience is how I decide what is healthy.

There is a lot to protest here, but you can do that as you please. I’ll just note that these thoughts are apparently supposed to be liberating. (They certainly are s&#! Americans say!). Miller has been “liberating” evangelicals all over the country for years as he wandered around finding himself and selling books. He made some good points in his youth, but then he became a philosopher and created a marketing firm to keep us listening to him. Somehow, his experience is supposed to be important to everyone he professionally tries to loop into his constituency.

He was really just dashing off some musings about how people learn different ways to feed his blog machine. But he couldn’t resist being a theologian when he told people to Tweet an incendiary phrase that would draw people to the blog; it was sort of a Christian version of Orlando Bloom getting naked so people will remember he’s an actor. He said:

“But I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.”

I doubt that more than 10% of Christians on the planet believe anything else. Why judge them all with your supposedly “personal” belief (shared by billions) that also sets up parameters for a special tribe who believe it like you (you more enlightened person that you are)?

He got what he wanted. A lot of people (like I am doing) responded to his post. So he wrote a follow up to defend himself. He began by apologizing for being “naïve” about how many people he might upset. He said,All I can offer is my perspective, which I do not offer as an answer, only a contribution to a discussion” — the same kind of argument your husband gives you when he doesn’t dare disagree with you to your face but is going to stonewall you. This is all in the name of openness, of course.

He then proceeded to go on a LONG theological rant about people who exhaustively teach “tribal” theologies, setting up all sorts of straw people to knock down. I honestly did not read it carefully, since I fall into a category (ironically) of a person who learns more by doing than by lecture — he wrote that he doesn’t listen to others because he’s not feeling it, but boy can he lecture!

I write mainly to protest the “gospel of me” that is the basis of Miller’s theology. His anti-consumerism consumerism. His anti-marketing marketing. His ex-evangelical but still principle-based teaching. His anti-pulpit pulpiteering. His brand-judging branding.

He’s just so judgmental in the name of being non-judgmental! The blog posts I reference drip with judgment, all in the name of being self-disclosing and so free from any accountability to the larger audience from which he profits. He is on a long list of people who have somehow managed to get a lot of people to care how they feel while providing almost no relationship of any merit that would warrant such a connection.

I long for true alternativity. Genuine faith. Real community. Actual caring. Devoted prayer and mission. I think we are going for that. Miller doesn’t help. I’m sure he has said something, somewhere that is great. But I am sure someone in your cell or your pastor voiced a similar, contextualized, unpackaged idea at some point that you could touch, and dispute, forgive and apply together. That’s better.

About Trump — we can do better

I watched the Trump acceptance speech – all of it. I also watched Ivanka. In Trumpspeech: Not that pleased with the first – Surprisingly pleased with the latter — Believe me.

I live among people who are not happy with Trump. But sometimes I think they are posturing, since they probably have a relative from the South or Middle Pennsylvania (or keeping quiet in Philly, at least) who thinks Trump is great. So they must have some sense of affinity with the guy. Don’t worry if you do or you don’t — It is crazy politics, people, but it is still just politics. And even if the election turns out to be a life and death matter for some people, we are still Jesus followers. Every election serves to remind us why we are glad to have a savior who triumphs over death. I don’t say that in a fatalistic way, just a realistic one. I know Americans think they can control everything so nothing bad will happen or happen again, but how many times does our control system need to be proven faulty until we give up on it?

In the spirit of charity I would like to try a third way to judge Trump – not work hard to take him seriously and gloss over his faults, and not just point out all the lies he told last night and despair over his angry, divisive approach, but a caring way. I want to try an understanding look at Trump from the bluest of cities. Why are people voting for him? And why might he win the presidency? Here are seven things that people  find positive about him:

  1. He understands how irritating the overreaching government is — all the way down to telling you how to speak.
  2. He understands how people are tired of the 1% getting away with everything. Hillary’s emails are another example. He at least admits he gets away with things. People admire how he hoodwinks the system for his own benefit because that is what they have to try to do to get by.
  3. He understands that people want Americans to be Americans. It is a nationalistic country. People don’t want it divided up and don’t want people to call them bigoted when they want a citizenship standard.
  4. He understands why people are mad and scared. It is hard to get by. Every time you turn around someone has their hand in your pocket, mostly the government and those who have the inside track with the government. It is hard to feel safe. People all watch TV all the time and don’t trust anyone to tell the truth, but bad things are happening all over and we know about them.
  5. He understands that people have finally gotten wind that the system is rigged against anyone who is not rich. People want the authorities to “do their job” and lock up people who sidestep the law.
  6. His children are good looking, well-spoken and loyal, even if they did come from three mothers.
  7. He has gotten things done and the government has been a gridlocked mess for sixteen years. Every major decision that is made seems half-baked (Obamacare) or wrong (Iraq).

Jesus followers can see the good in everyone, or at least we can have some empathy for why they think what they believe is good. We love people.

When I was watching the RNC reality show, I kept thinking of what Hillary tweeted during it, “We we are better than this.”

hillary tweet

I am not sure Hillary can do better (unless she can repent of skirting the law and the truth all the time). But I do think we Jesus-followers (at least the ones who are not trying to run the world) can do better. We ought to do better, too, rather than just reacting to politics as if they are the focus of all our hope or the end of the world.

I think we and many Jesus followers are doing a LOT better. If we speak the truth in love and build communities that look and act like we share the love of Jesus, then we can offer people an alternative that is better than whatever is already messing them up. Whoever gets elected is going to need a lot of prayer; they are winning a position that is nothing but trouble — what else is new? But Jesus told us not to let our hearts be troubled with the latest trouble. He still overcomes the world, no matter what the trouble in whatever country. Let’s overcome with Him. Why should people get stuck with Trump and Hillary as if nothing better is available to them?