Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Say a little prayer with Aretha Franklin

Image result for aretha franklin church

Last week I was sitting on my porch at 1pm on a Thursday eating an ice cream sandwich, all of which are rare. A car rolled by with the windows down, playing I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin, one of my favorites. It was still playing in my mind when I went inside to my computer. As soon as I sat down, a chat screen popped up and Jonny told me Aretha had died — he knows I am a fan. So I will probably always remember the day Aretha Franklin died because of that serendipity. And because she has been a companion along my way since I was fourteen. I suspect I have played her album of Atlantic hits 500 times and said a little prayer with her a few times, too.

I was fourteen in 1968 when Respect won two Grammys and Aretha Franklin became a feature on the Hi-Fi stationed in my family’s living room. There were no personal music players or earphones back then so music was a communal experience. My parents did not like Aretha  in their communal experience (just like they hadn’t liked one of her mentors, Mahalia Jackson). For one thing, she was black and they were vocal racists, especially my father, who had competed for sharecropping jobs with black men and jealously guarded whatever shred of white privilege he could muster. What’s more, she sounded aggressive and loud. Even if they didn’t listen to the words and didn’t get it when she spelled it out: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, they could feel her demand when she sang. She threatened the living room. Her blackness invaded my parents’ sanctuary.

I did not get all this completely when I was fourteen. I’m a product of racism just like we all are. So it merely felt like a like a guilty pleasure to rebelliously listen to Aretha, and to allow someone but Perry Como to define music for me. Aretha liked Perry Como, too (I read the interview),  just like she enjoyed all kinds of good music. But my parents did not know that, mostly because she was black and it betrayed their worldview to listen to her. Nevertheless, my relationship with the Queen of Soul grew and my appreciation of her talent and passion deepened.

As it turns out, the famously private Aretha Franklin was hiding all the trauma that would have appalled my parents and supercharged the disrespect they were eager to pour on her. Her parents were separated. She was a teen mother at 12 and 14. Her first husband purportedly abused her. She had two divorces. She was often overweight. She was known for idealizing her life, not even publicly admitting to the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed her as late as last year.

At the same time she was using the gift God gave her to make a huge difference. Had she just given us the pleasure of listening to her great musical talent, however she used it, that would have been enough. But her music became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement for African Americans and women both. And her insistence on doing things that were beyond the labels under which she labored and the track on which her previous success directed her is an example for all of us who feel underestimated or pigeonholed.

Her soulful talent helped me move out of my racist bubble. Thank God. I remember another moment of transition related to the song that came to me through the car window on her death day. I got started with I Say a Little Prayer with Dionne Warwick in 1967 before Aretha recorded it in 1968

I loved Dionne Warwick’s version. But when I heard Aretha’s, I realized that Warwick’s was something of a sanitized version which was more about the cool, cerebral music of Burt Bacharach than about Dionne Warwick. She was just a vehicle for the notes. When Aretha got a hold of it, it was full of passion that transcended the notes and most of the words. At the end of the song, she turns it into an actual prayer and we are all invited into a place that is a lot bigger than pop. So-called white people used so-called black people to carry their assignments long before I learned as a child to think of that as normal. Aretha broke me out of that normality when she led me someplace bigger. She was a leader. And even wounded, she was just bigger than most of us.

I suppose that is why I was particularly moved when she died. Like many other people I eventually tuned into the news channels to see what people were saying about her and to invite her into my living room again, this time to celebrate her with freedom. I found myself shedding a tear with President Obama as her Kennedy Center Performance was repeatedly replayed.

As I listened, I had another revelation that led to this blog post. I loved A Natural Woman when I heard it on Carol King’s Tapestry (which I had on vinyl and basically wore out with many plays). But when Aretha got a hold of it, she added a spiritual dimension that took it beyond the great feeling of a man seeing his partner as the woman she is and calling out the best in her (which I hope we all get to experience many, many times). I honestly think she took the song where we can all sing it to God.

Maybe this seems strange, but when I sing “You make me feel like a natural woman” along with Aretha, I feel God making me feel like my true self, even when I sing “natural woman!” Again, she brought someone larger to the music. It seems like Aretha did not have too many people in her life to make her feel as safe and real as the song sings it. So I think she must have gotten her power in the secret place she kept beyond fame, pain, addiction and racism where Jesus reminded her she was his beloved. May she rest in God’s arms.

Do not be afraid: Your container will be filled with content

I am surrounded by twenty and thirtysomethings. It is a blessing. Serving these people has been the joy of most of my life. I think the spiritual life that follows adolescence and precedes the second half of life might be the most interesting but also the most frustrating and dangerous time of life. So I often feel like I am in the thick of it. We often think of babies as the most vulnerable of creatures. Twenty and thirtysomethings spend a great deal of their energy creating a container in which these dear little beings can survive.  But what about the parents? They are vulnerable, too, and quite often their true selves die before they even get recognized!

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid
Clearly what will be called personality problems depends on who is doing the calling. The slave owner? The dictator? The patriarchal father? The husband who wants his wife to remain a child? It seems quite clear that personality problems may sometimes be loud protests against the crushing of one’s psychological bones, of one’s true inner nature. — Maslow, 1956

Build a container for content

The noble actions of first-half adults are focused on finding one’s place in the world, often as a mate, a parent, an income supplier and a social system builder. The whole era of first half development is a crucial time for growing into our fullness as humans and as spiritual people. But a big danger comes with our development. Our container building can become the only thing we know how to do and we never move on to receive the content to fill up the container! Success, security, some sense of power – looking good to ourselves and others, can almost be our only considerations. We can become containers with little content.

As we often say, U.S. society promotes such emptiness, since our rulers are preoccupied with adolescent pursuits. For instance, they are obsessed with security needs, among other things. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seriously question the enormously high military budget. But that budget is all about the container. The developmentally-arrested president wants to build a wall to contain the whole country and protect it from “shithole” nations!  At the same time, appropriations that reflect needs that are deeper than Maslow’s first two stages on the hierarchy of needs are neglected: education, health care for the poor and everyone else, community-building and the arts. The leaders neglect the need for content in the container. Is often the first cut in the budget, if it is considered at all.

The U.S. is basically an adolescent society and our religious expressions look like it, too. Liberals criticize the church if it is not preoccupied with food and housing [Maslow’s first level]. Conservatives criticize the church if it is not filled with certainty [second level, isn’t it?]. Circle of Hope can get it from both sides as people come to Jesus and his people looking for the basic needs they lost when their lives fractured in this fracturing world. We help them build a container. It is tempting to stay stuck in it and miss the content for which it is intended.

Richard Rohr says, “We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life. But we have to be careful, or they totally take over and become all-controlling needs, keeping us from further growth.” Receiving the content of resurrection life takes faith and trust, which are not that useful if one is anxiously maintaining a container. Thus the most common one-liner in the Bible (365 times) is “Do not be afraid.” We we need to move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and identity. But it is scary to do so.

Do you think we commiserate more with what people fear than we help them not be afraid? How many people are driven from your cell because they can’t compute life beyond their container-building religious ideas? Consider how often you don’t help them figure out how to move deeper. Maybe your cell is stuck at the third step up Maslow’s pyramid up above and does not have an eternal outlook.

Be afraid of the right thing

Being preoccupied with morality, control, safety, pleasure and certitude comes to a bad end. A high percentage of people never get to the content of their own lives! Sometimes you can see the trouble creeping up on us. Areas of our leadership team silo off and don’t talk to other teams. Whole congregations get a sense of their “otherness.” People demand that we make policies about identities. We have to keep saying, “Human life is about more than building boundaries, protecting identities, creating tribes and teaching impulse control.”

Like Jesus said in Luke 12, “Why do you ask, what am I to eat? What am I to wear?” He asks the container-builders who ask such questions, “Is life not so much more than food? Is life not so much more than clothing?” Repeatedly he asks, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world, and lose your very soul?” (Matthew 16:26). And I add, what will happen to your children if all you teach them is fear and practical faithlessness? What will happen to the church if you persist in never getting the content you need to share? What will happen to the world when your adolescent faith burns up in the heat of adulthood?

A thirty-year-old in our church was 13 when the 9/11 attack turned the country even more into a security state. When they were 19 the Great Recession hit and fear and anger skyrocketed. Since the 80’s, a philosophy-shift resulted in the top 20% of the population securing 76% of the wealth. Now, Oxfam says, worldwide, 8 men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest people in the world! Everyday life has encouraged a whole generation to be anxious and fearful. Now Trump is president and each day looks like the foundations in society are being upended. It is no wonder we try to build a wall around ourselves . But our vessels of clay are meant to to hold glory.

Take heart, you were made for this

Jesus tells us to “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is hard to hear him when we are feverishly trying to keep ahead of the eroding foundations under our feet, as if that were top priority. Jesus was less concerned about his impending death (!), about his life-container, than he was about the content of his life. He was less interested in the consequences of his actions than he was interested in revealing to his fearful, controlling, unfaithful followers what a container is for. Life is more than finding one’s own bliss or balance, disciplining and making the most of one’s time, and fighting for one’s rights — all that is for beginners! The bulk of an eternal life is lived in trust and hope. Dying to mere self-awareness, self-aggrandizement, and self-centeredness is the first task of gaining content for the container.

Barack Obama displayed some of this wisdom when he was shown talking to David Letterman the other night. He said, “One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did—was part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, doesn’t have to do with regulations [making a container], it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness [being and receiving content].” He is a hopeful guy and he inspires me to be the same, even when I feel I am in the thick of it. Our containers (egos, churches, and what not)  have holes in them, so we need Jesus to overcome our world and keep filling us with eternal life. But as  long as we are co-workers with the Lord instead of container protectors, we have a chance to become the kind of content that makes the world take heart.

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Mystical hope in a deteriorating world

We founded Circle of Hope in a ripe moment of history and the outcome has been beautiful. A few weeks into the process, we sat in a small circle discussing what our name would be. We ended up with several versions of a name with “hope” in it. But some people did not like any of those versions. A few people (and in a circle of ten, a few is relevant!) thought it was just too much to put “hope” right out there in the church’s name.

Barack copied us?

Maybe they were right to be cautious. Regardless, they were certainly representative of many others, since many people think hope is far-fetched, even dangerous — mainly because they think it is something tied to outcome. If you are a circle of hope you invite expectations that might not be met. So many people are laboring under all the “outcomes” required of them, and under all the “outcomes” that were promised and did not happen. For most people, “hope” is optimistic feeling, or at least a willingness to go on, because we sense things are going to get better. But is that sense about worn out  these days? What if you put “hope” right out there on your poster, like President Obama did, and then everything does not get better like you promised? What if you imply that Jesus is going to get you a job, provide a mate and cure your cancer and it does not happen? Won’t the name of your church just point out the fact that it did not happen?

We had people on our little team whose hopes had been dashed. What’s more, some of them had grown up in the church, where they even memorized Bible verses like in Psalm 116: “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication…I was brought very low and he helped me.” But it did not always happen just like the verse promised. After a while, it is hard to figure out what to do with dashed hopes.

I have memorized some Bible verses myself and I am an optimistic guy — and God has repeatedly helped me when I was “brought low.” Even so, I have never thought it was wise to make promises God was not going to keep, at least act as if God were the Amazon of human need.

Another way of experiencing hope

I am reading a little book that beautifully points out there is another kind of hope represented in the Bible which is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at hope in terms of outcomes. We can see it in Habakkuk 3:17-19 where the prophet dances on the heights even though the land is devastated, or when Jesus offers water inside for outwardly thirsty people in John 4:13-14, or in the “total immersion course” in the school of hope that the book of Job is where he ends up singing Job 19:25-26: “I know my redeemer lives.”

Cynthia Bourgeault calls this hope “mystical hope.” And that is the title of her book, too. Mystical hope has three characteristics in contrast to our usual notions of hope. These usual notions, based on outcomes, are not bad, they just are not complete or entirely useful. She says, in light of the three biblical examples mentioned:

Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.

This kind of hope has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by someone intimately at hand.

This hope bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy , and satisfaction: and “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it produces them from within.

Mystical hope makes a Circle of Hope and allows us to act for good outcomes. This week the pastors passed around a couple of pieces that tested our hope. One was from the Census Bureau.

The map above shows the increase in the number of young adults (18-34) in the United States living at home with their parents in 2015 compared to 2005. The changes in society in the last ten, certainly the last 40 years are staggering. More than 1 in 3 young people lived in their parents’ home in 2015. That is a huge increase in one decade. What’s more, of those people, 1 in 4 are idle, that is they neither go to school nor work. Many people see this as a poor outcome. Are all these people hopeless?

The other piece was about alone and lonely men. A journalist who researchers psychology was pondering the Las Vegas shooting. An apparently completely alone man was the shooter. As a “lone wolf” he is not that unusual among men. The author says:

As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.”

But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?

For many men, the answer is “no.” So, we spend our time posturing instead.

From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that Real men do everything on their ownReal men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

The byproduct is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.

Many woman might feel exactly the same way, of course. And the evil ways of late capitalism has made a perfect environment to create unhealthy, isolated people.

I want to say more about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book in the future. But for now, let me end with a quote that speaks back to twentysomethings who feel that their future is bleak and parents who feel their children are hopeless cases, and to men and women who feel isolated and friendless, stuck in some pattern that feels hopeless. There is something deeper than your situation.

Hope is not intended to be an extraordinary infusion, but an abiding state of being. We lose sight of the invitation – and in fact , our responsibility, as stewards of creation – to develop a conscious and permanent connection to the wellspring. We miss the call to become a vessel, to become a chalice into which this divine energy can pour; a lamp through which is can shine.

But what if we are intended to become this vessel, this body of hope? What if, in fact, this effervescent, “lightness-of-being” energy is the fuel that drives our human life toward its divine fulfillment? What if our insistence on treating it as a rare and exceptional phenomenon is a way of ducking the invitation that was permanently extended at the Samaritan well that blazing midday?

The journey to the wellspring, the to secret of Jesus, the Master of Galilee, is the great inner journey to which we Christians are called.

I am glad we put hope right out there in the name of our expression of the Church. It almost dares people not to meet Jesus. On the one hand, God has produced outcomes that are far greater than we imagined as we sat in a little circle of ten in my living room. We hoped good things would happen and even more than we hoped happened. So that’s great. But what about all that did not happen? What sustained us when we failed, broke up, died, lost faith, were betrayed and confused? It was that mystical hope, that turning toward the living water that energizes us to get up and follow Jesus.

Other posts on Mystical Hope:
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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The saviors I did not ask to receive

On the long ride to the Poconos, the only thing on NPR was the Prairie Home Companion. Normally I can only get so far with the redundancy of Garrison Keillor, but he hooked me with his broadcast for Memorial Day. He was at the Wolftrap in Virginia, near Manassas, the site for two great Civil War battles—and he referenced Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in U.S. history (on the U.S. side, at least). The show was sprinkled with songs from the American war-song book, but Keillor was singing for peace. He was in sync with President Obama, who remembered Memorial Day by visiting Hiroshima and calling for a “moral revolution” to make a world free from nuclear weapons.

One of the songs the cast sang was a soulful rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Keillor led the crowd to join in. Everyone seemed to know it, since this very–religious song is still taught in school. It was, quite appropriately, sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, who I lately accused of misleading the public to think that the United States military power was God’s instrument of policing the world, right down to calling new missiles “peacekeepers.”

This hymn, written by a staunch abolitionist, saw the Union Army as God’s instrument of bringing about His judgment on the evil of slavery (as even Thomas Jefferson concluded was inevitable). Julia Howe’s allusions are all to Isaiah 63 and the book of Revelation, which promise that the day of the Lord will not be pretty for the disobedient. Her song assured the army that the Civil War was a foretaste of the wrath to come.

My problem is not with God’s judgment. I rely on the fact that evildoers will receive what they have been committed to achieving. My great problem is with the rest of the theology she promoted. I think if you ask a random Christian, they will, most likely (and unfortunately), still be headed in the wrong direction she was leading the troops. The problems are in every verse. For instance:

Verse 1: He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

The leaders of armies have been telling soldiers that God is on their side for as long as I can remember. Right now, Daesh is the evil. It was added on to drugs, terror etc. The Union army was told it was God’s sword.

Verse 2: I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp

Very few soldiers saw their camp fire as one before an altar I am sure. But the allusion reminds us that Christians reinstituted an altar worship when Constantine installed Jesus at the center of every town in the Roman Empire, right where the altar to the false gods once stood, often in the same building. But, in truth, Jesus made the body of Christ the temple; altar worship is obsolete – not merely the Jewish altar, but the very idea of needing a place of mediation where men make sacrifices to please God.

Verse 3: I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

I gave you the whole verse. By now, you get it. The song assumes the gospel uses violence for its ends. It teaches that violence redeems. Regardless of the Lord’s own example of nonviolence, the powers that rule the world convince noble-minded women that 13,000 men should die, be wounded or go missing in one day at the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam and those losses should be considered holy, and even the fulfillment of the spirit of prophecy.

Verse 4 — He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;

In the song, the “sifting” is about the latest war. It is not about being in God’s kingdom or another’s; it is about being on the right side of the nation’s history. As you notice from the most recent era of polarization in the U.S., people are still sifting and are still ready to condemn those who align on another side. But unlike what Howe teaches, in truth, Jesus is not presiding over the animosities which run the United States and which threaten to loop us all into an endless cycle of judgment. Jesus died and rose to end that cycle.

Verse 5 — As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

This is where most versions of the song stop (even though Howe included a last verse). It is an appropriate climax for the song, and it is the apex of its wrong theology. The “sacrifice” the soldiers are preparing around the “altar fires” of their encampment is supposedly like the sacrifice of Jesus. The thought is the 10,000 casualties at Manassas will be worth it because the cause is one with the Lord’s.

The problem is that Jesus died and rose so that we would no longer be sacrificing animals or one another to save the world. The old is gone, the new has come. The very thing she is exalting is exactly what He brought down. Yet in the name of Jesus, Howe is celebrating the sacrifice soldiers make to His “truth” that is marching on – they are to believe that this war is for that truth.

Every war song since has said the same thing—dying for country, dying to preserve freedom, dying to protect your brother soldiers, dying to protect American interests, making the world safe for democracy, protecting the homeland from communism, extremism, from people who would destroy our way of life. It is always justified with the most serious, even majestic tones. I have often been told that I could not do things like write this blog unless the sacrifice of brave men had made my freedom possible. Yet I am not free from their sacrifice. I honor their courage and devotion, and I don’t think every choice we need to make is as easy as writing a blog post. But I don’t worship at their altar. They are the saviors I never asked to receive. I don’t believe my true Savior asked them for their sacrifice on the altar of preserving His rivals who continue the way of sin and death—and put it to music.

[I found out that Garrison Keillor wrote the song that moved me most in the show. It is called Argonne. Here are the lyrics.]

Obama runs over Jesus in victory lap

Last night I watched the whole State of the Union address for the first time since I can’t remember. Good speech – even usually-disapproving pundits had to admit that. After forty-five minutes most of us were getting a little tired, but not the president, who is not daunted one bit, apparently, by getting thumped in the last election. He threatened vetoes, did some mild trash talking, said we won’t “screw it up” so no one would think he had too much dignity, and presented a whole list of things he knows Congress won’t approve but which most of Philadelphia (who did not watch the address) probably thinks are already law, since they seem like common sense.  I love Philadelphia.

It seemed like a self-referential victory lap. And since he did not mention drones, banks or Dallas, I pretty much did a lanky jog with him.

The President giving and getting the stink eye last night.

I won’t comment on the whole speech or you won’t read this whole blog post either! But I will comment on the first part and then lament a few things:

Continue reading Obama runs over Jesus in victory lap

Billy Graham and the Unintended Consequences of Exerting Influence

The Cell Leader Coordinators were discussing a recent spate of articles last week. They were all quoting the Pew Foundation’s research on the impact of evangelicals on evangelism in the United States. Then up popped Billy Graham, the evangelical par excellence, in the Sunday paper (most likely fronting for his son, Franklin). I want to talk about the Pew study in a minute, but first I want to dispute with Rev. Graham’s exhortation, which is a good example of what the study is talking about.

For one thing, no 93-year-old should have such a beautiful head of hair. Very disturbing. I will dare attribute it to the blessing due a tireless evangelist.

But as for some other things…

1) When did the American people have their hearts turned toward God? Was it when they considered slaves 3/5 of a person? Was it when they were cleansing the continent of Indians? Was it when they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki? A lot of Americans have been Christians, but the government was not designed too well to reflect their faith, or at least it rarely has — maybe when the Marshall Plan bailed out Europe, or maybe when George Bush decided AIDS was actually a problem. There are exceptions to the godless rule, but what era are you remembering?

2) How people have sex, how families are made, and whether the government can dictate our convictions are important “issues.” But I can’t see why they make this election “critical.” For an evangelist the question should start with Jesus, not issues. Why in the world did you not mention the fact that the person whose stand on the issues your prefer happens to be a leader in a non-Christian religion? There’s an issue for you.

Unless something has changed in Barack Obama’s life since 2008, his Christian testimony is well known. You can watch him say it on YouTube. If the evangelist is going to get involved, one would think he’d vote for the evangelized. Just saying. I’m not matching your thinly-veiled endorsement of Romney with my thinly-veiled endorsement of the drone president. Just saying.

3) For a Christian to try to exert political power in the name of his “definitions” seems so worldly to me! Saying that the Bible “speaks” still seems like a strange anthropomorphism to me. The definitions are not Lord, Jesus is Lord. The Bible doesn’t save me, the resurrected Jesus saves me. Any power we, as the church, exert in the election should come through the example of our self-giving love that we can define for people who are moved by the presence of God’s grace in it.

There is so much that is disturbing here. But I will pray with you that America and the whole world turns their hearts toward God. Some of the Christians will indeed, be turning back.

But I want Pew to talk to you, too.

The October 10 issue of Newsweek is an example of what many publications are printing. The Pew Foundation found that “Nones” are on the rise. That is, for the first time, there are now as many Americans who claim no religion as there are white evangelicals. Both groups make up about a fifth of the population. The number of Americans without religion is on track to surpass the “born-again” population. About a third of adults under 30 don’t associate themselves with any faith, compared with only 9 percent of those over 65. This is not, the report suggests, simply a result of a general youthful tendency toward irreligion. “[Y]oung adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives,” the report says.

Some theorists believe young people are rejecting religious labels precisely because they have become intertwined with so-called conservative social policies. The report quotes Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which argues that as the religious right gained power, young Americans “came to view religion … as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”  You think?

People of the dominant strain of Evangelicals have become the anti-evangelists of the age. Perhaps the cost of full-page political ads all over the country could have been used for better ends. At the end of September the candidates had also expended a lot of money on influence: 1.3 billion dollars on the publically accountable campaign, another 65 million dollars by unaccountable PACs on Mitt Romney’s side. Do evangelists think anything about that?

Narcissism and Telling Our Stories

My recent studies in psychoanalytic theory confirmed nicely what my first individual therapist, way-back-when, knew as soon as I sat down. At one point he handed me a book and said, “You might want to read this.” It was titled “Narcissism.” I take some small comfort in knowing that I am not alone in having my psychology organized in that way.

Many people say that the United States is a rather narcissistic society (notably Christopher Lasch). So I felt comfortable talking to the men about it when we were on retreat last weekend; we all know something about it, at some level.  Narcissists are often merely seen as people who are into themselves. But, in truth, what they are into is anything but themselves; they are more into the presentation of themselves – they are consumed by maintaining the image that keeps them safe from dealing with their shameful insides, the things they don’t want to touch or know about. They maintain their self-esteem by getting affirmation from outside themselves. So they can often be driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, and escape into a grandiose self-conception, merely using other people as instruments of gratification even while they crave their love and approval. Something is missing. If they ever ponder what is happening in their soul, they probably feel fraudulent and loveless.

narcissism poster childTiger Woods became the poster child for narcissism that developed into an extreme version; some say he has a disorder. It is no suprise that he might have developed this way; the United States seems to be full such people. Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama may have at least one thing in common;  they were trained to be narcissistic. Society sets us all up to need to appear special so we can sell our labor. We have all become products in a package. We are encouraged to be grandiose by constant testing and resume-building. The most susceptible of us end up preoccupied with what we should be and perpetually critical or depressed about what we are. Narcissists are terrified of insufficiency, shame, weakness, or inferiority. That resembles the country’s political debate and foreign policy.

Shame is the big motivator for the narcissist — and shame is hard to look at and harder to overcome. Shame is being seen as bad or wrong.  I understand how it can get a grip on one’s heart. For instance, I recently wrote a blog piece that criticized the way my leaders in the BIC were communicating about the crisis in our leadership. I received a scathing letter from one of the general church leaders and it set off a flood of emotion in me. They were trying to shame me, and it almost caused me to stop telling the truth in order to avoid the feeling. Narcissists have a whole collection of ways they defend against shame and the envy they feel of others who seem not to feel it. Here are a few examples:

  • They devalue. They will scorn or ridicule what they envy, or think  they are unworthy of. Watch an episode of Seinfeld.
  • The other side of devaluing is idealization. They have a grandiose sense of self. They don’t merely compare themselves to others; they compare themselves to the best person in their profession and feel horrible in comparison. They need to go to the best school. They know what the best beer is, or can list the top ten microbreweries in the Philadelphia region. They need to wear the best shoes. They read the magazines that reveal the most rigorous workout to achieve the best abs.
  • They end up perfectionistic, which can result in either thinking they have made it or feeling inherently flawed. They have a tough time being forgivably human. They might attach themselves to an idealized, perfect mentor or mate and gain status by being an appendage. But they might also knock them off their pedestal in fury when they prove to be imperfect.

wounds of narcissismThe men’s retreat was full of wonderful stories about growth and pain and Jesus. I told parts of my story of transformation, as well. I said that my story had a wonderful factor in it. I may see my parents as having “whacked” the best parts of me whenever they surfaced like they were playing whack-a-mole. But in my hole I found Jesus. When I was a teen, and all my narcissistic props got knocked out from under me, I remembered Jesus in the deep hole of my depression.

Telling my story was predictably difficult for me. Our whole society is dedicated to flooding the world with idealized stories that create a reality that devalues authenticity. It is hard to figure out whether one is telling a story that is true or “truthy.” We are trained for inauthenticity by watching “reality” shows that have very little to do with reality. As a result, many of us are hesitant to tell a story about ourselves because the best we can do is not be as inauthentic as someone else. When our church decided to call out 100 stories of transformation this year, I don’t think we realized how hard that might seem to people.

Because of the confusing atmosphere in which we live, we are hestitant to ask people to tell their stories. We are hesitant, so why wouldn’t they be hesitant?

  • We are afraid we might turn them into commodities. The 24-hour news cycle is out filming us all the time to provide feed for their image business. Facebook needs all our images and personal history giving to survive. We don’t want to do that to people.
  • So we are afraid that asking someone to tell a story will be exploitive. We’re like a primitive person somewhere who doesn’t want her picture taken because she thinks the camera will steal her spirit. We don’t want to steal others’ spirits.
  • We are afraid that people will feel like they are selling themselves, providing material for a Christian hype machine. The last thing we want to look like is a hype machine!

We try to do things that are “not-unChristian” to be a Christian. We focus on not doing what we are ashamed of, or what embarrasses us in others, or what we envy in others but think will look cheesy when we do it. So it is hard to tell a story about what Jesus is doing and hard to ask someone to do it.

Nevertheless, I think we need to keep trying to tell our stories. The powers that be would like to shut us up. The men at the retreat went into the night not shutting up last Saturday. I think it made a difference.

  • Storytelling helps us to understand who we are and listening to stories gives the gift of understanding to someone else. Vulnerable dialogue is fundamental to love.
  • Our stories are valuable. Even if we don’t really know what we are talking about right now, God thinks our story is valuable because we are valuable to him. We are the creatures he died for, for whom he made a covenant in blood to give us his life. If we receive that gift we are each a vessel in which the Holy Spirit is carried and from which the glory of God is dispensed in this time.
  • Telling our stories is an act of defiance against the powers that sell stories, who want us to be a mere images of some idealized self that is not a gift of God but just a contract with the economy.

Jesus is made known in the human story that acknowledges God with us and that story is continuing to be told in us.

Understanding, restoration, and resistance are in the storytelling. The dialogue is a process of losing one’s false self and taking on one’s true self in Christ.

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Frog in the Militarism Kettle

I had the shocking feeling yesterday that I might be the proverbial frog in the kettle. I am not sure who discovered the facts behind that proverb (some mean “scientist” with a pet frog, I guess) but, apparently, if one puts a frog in a kettle in normal frog-water temperature and then slowly turns the heat up, the frog will not jump out of the kettle. It will acclimate, bit by bit, until it is cooked.

For the last thirty years or so, since Ronald Reagan, I have been mildly upset that the president runs a huge war machine that conducts dubious if not flat-out wrong activities without much debate. Then George Bush ran the machine like a monarch and I got a little hot. Then Barack Obama got elected on the basis of his mild criticism of the military-industrial-complex and now he is, effectively, a nice George Bush. It is like we are boiling in our militarism and no one can turn down the heat.

My shock of realization came during a day when I got to sit around reading and even bumping into a bit of Brian Williams on NBC. The Inquirer had some thoughts about Gary Willis’s book Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State because he was speaking at the Free Library. One thought really caught my eye: No president before Ronald Reagan was ever saluted by the troops. During Reagan’s regime, the heat took a little leap and I was there to feel it. But no one did anything; we acclimated. Willis says that, “In a way Barack Obama is a hostage” to the beast.  “There’s too much invested in the machinery” for any president to dismantle it. It’s a juggernaut composed of the entire intelligence and defense machinery and the corporations that furnish it with weapons, manpower and services.

Then Brian Williams had one of his “Fleecing of America” segments. The C-17 transport plane got on the public radar for a few seconds because President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates wanted to stop making them. The Pentagon has enough of them. But the plane is made by about 30,000 workers in 43 states. So even though the C-17 isn’t   necessary, the congress has them on order for $250 million a pop. The Pentagon’s base budget for planes, ships, missiles, and guns has grown more than 50% since 2000. It is projected to be $107 billion for 2010 alone—a 5% rise over 2009. In the budget for 2010 are 10 additional C-17 “Globemasters.”

So what is a Christian in the militarism kettle with the rest of the hostages, (including the President!), supposed to do?

1. Be outraged. Start by saying “Ouch, it is hot in the kettle. I think we might be boiling!” If all we can do it talk, at least talk. Jesus made a lot of difference just by telling the truth about the situation. Let’s speak up.

2. Rely on God. Psalm 20:7 “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” Perhaps you have grown acclimated to trusting in a yearly 5% rise in the “defense” budget. Let’s defiantly trust Jesus.

3. Discuss some thoughtful comparisons with people. For instance, I have a family member who is among the people with pre-existing conditions who can’t get insurance for less that $1700 a month or so. My calculations are simplistic of course, but wouldn’t refusing to pay for ten needless transport planes free up $2.5 billion dollars? If the government just gave back the money they already took to waste, didn’t even bother with other health-system reforms, but got the money to people with pre-existing conditions,  that would make insurance affordable for half a million people. Let’s generate thought.

4. Pray. Boiling in militarism is a spiritual matter. I don’t think God desires for everyone to die in their kettles. He doesn’t use that metaphor, but the scripture does say in 2 Peter: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” The shocking state of our captivity in our militarism is sad. I don’t really think the president and most of the congress even want to be there; they are stuck managing a monster, and Frankenstein does not obey the master anymore. We need to be saved.

That will get us started. You may have some bright ideas yourself.

For the Cadets on Jean Donovan Day

Last night the president had some uphill sledding to do with his speech to the cadets at West Point. I admit I did not listen very well to every word, since I was also reading a magazine and writing our Christmas letter (sorry Barack). But I did notice that the poor man could not get any applause for the longest time! And, if nothing else, he is a good applause-getter! He finally loosened them up with the sheer power of a great speech. But the cadets didn’t get their hands moving until he complimented them! It was glaring. They were either feeling reticent about showing too much emotion (they were apparently instructed not to smile until the end – attenshun!) or they were reticent about him. But they finally got clapping when they were essentially clapping for themselves!

Am I making too much of this? I doubt it. I think we have been raising people to be aggressively self-centered and amazingly entitled for twenty years, now. Of course the cadets applauded for themselves! I wouldn’t be surprised if the line was purposely inserted in the speech to make sure they would get what they wanted. Why wouldn’t the president be a deliveryman for one’s self-interest?

It may have been more interesting than that. There was a lot of politicking going on in that speech. Obama talks to the cadets, then he turns to the camera and talks to the nation. He turns back and talks to the military in general, then he turns to the camera and talks to the world. He’s good. Plus, he was doing some slight variations on the stock, “We’ve got to pull out the stops and keep the war going” speech that people will be talking about today. The pundits were already being amazed that he was saying “We’ve got to build up so we can pull out.” And John McCain was already doubting that ever having an end point to a war is a good thing. I think his point is, “Even if it bankrupts us and we can’t really hope to dominate them, we need to try.”

It is quite jarring to think about all that when I go to bed and then wake up and realize it is Jean Donovan Day. She was martyred by a Salvadoran death squad on Dec. 2, 1980, when she was twenty-seven years old on a two-year mission with the Maryknoll sisters. She was supposed to be advancing literacy among the campesinos and ended up a disciple of Oscar Romero burying people caught in the crossfire of the government’s attacks on “subversives.” Her famous note to a friend, a few weeks before she was raped and murdered, said: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

Yes, I do want the cadets to care about the children and do unreasonable things to serve peasants. They will certainly find enough of them in Afghanistan! Honestly, I think a lot of the cadets would like to do that, too. So I want the president to help them change the world in the Jean Donovan way. Honestly, I think he might like to do that. So I want Jesus to keep defeating evil for us so we are not so foolish and controlled by self-destruction and the president gets to do what he must really want to do. In the meantime, I hope each of us will honor Jean Donovan today because she knew how to be in league with Jesus in a very practical way.