Tag Archives: hope

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.

Image result for cedric kyle first reformed
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.

Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

Last Saturday, I kept running into hope and it made me cry.

  • As I rolled in to the Good Business Oversight Team summit, Pie Jesus came on my player right when I was thinking about the epidemic of heroin-induced deaths in our city and country. My grief over the loss of hope among the victims (and now their families!) made me a dangerous, vision-impaired driver!
  • Then I went to the Love Feast and felt the worship team and the covenant-makers stoking our hope as they expressed theirs – we were, in fact, a Circle of Hope. It made me weep with joy.
  • Before we went to bed, we tuned into Netflix and watched the last episode of season six of the most Christian TV show ever: Call the Midwife. The sweetness of their hope in the middle of a changing world and troubling family situations unleashed my own hope – and the tears.
hope
Click the pic if you want to see the scene

What a wonder it is that so many of us are drawn away and turn away from the death-dealing world and find God “right under our noses” so to speak. We’re often like Dorothy waking up from her vision and realizing her heart’s desire was in her own backyard all the time and among those who love her.

As Cynthia Bourgeault ends her book Mystical Hope she tries to sum up her profound teaching about finding hope right under our noses, while rolling down Washington Ave, and especially in the moments of love we give and receive. She is teaching us to find hope in a new way, not as an object of desire, but as the subject who is as near as a turn of heart. I am going to quote quite a bit of it for you:

“I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, the that ‘electromagnetic field of love’ is the Mercy – and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.

Hope’s home is the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life – a quiet strength beyond anything we have ever known.

And since that strength is, in fact, a piece of God’s purposiveness coursing like sap through our own being, it will lead us in the right way. It sweeps us along in the greater flow of divine life as God moves – and in the western religions, God does move – toward the fulfillment of divine purpose which is the deeper, more intense, more subtle, more intimate revelation of the heart of God.”

Long before we know Jesus, we have had experiences of being swept up in the flow of God’s good purpose. This “quality of aliveness” was called “righteousness” in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 23: “He restores my soul; he guides me in the paths of righteousness.” Unlike how many people read that couplet, the psalmist did not mean we should stay within the lines of a moral template so we will succeed at building an ideal replica of God’s kingdom and be justified by it. The poet was reminding us we live in a Spirit-charged “force field” (as we might picture it), a force field in which everything we do must move in order to come to fruit. The inner and outer need to sync up: our souls are restored and our feet are guided; as Jesus says, we become good trees that bear good fruit; as Psalm 1 says, we are good trees planted by flowing streams of righteousness.

In the New Testament, Paul calls this territory “in Christ.” In Christ we find that quality of aliveness we need.

To [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ….I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. – Colossians 1:27-2:10

“Christ in us” and “us in Christ” is the Mercy, that place of assured understanding, that mystery that continues to unfold as we experience it in our hearts “encouraged and united in love.” Christ in us is the “hope of glory.” In Christ we come to “fullness.”

Paul sounds a lot like Cynthia Bourgeault as she piles up metaphors and viewpoints, circling in on the mystical hope she can feel better than describe. Her everyday way to “in Christ” is meditation that turns her in toward that golden kernel of her true self, protected and saved by God. In a somewhat seamless movement, that everyday prayer then turned her out to write her book, knowing that no self-giving love is wasted in the world, not on her and not on us, either. Our prayer, especially the prayer of meditation, is not only what saves us from the world, it is also the key thing we do to save the world. It is our way to hope, our way to become a circle of hope, and our way toward encircling others with hope.

I have enjoyed sharing these five posts inspired by Bourgeault’s book. I’d love to hear how your own prayer was encouraged or developed as a result. Let me know. If you missed one, I think you can find them all by searching for “Cynthia Bourgeault” with the search bar.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
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

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: 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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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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Hope — an orientation of spirit

It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too.  Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?

It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. just mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s great book

I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to  solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.

Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.

Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,

“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.

I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that  people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”

We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers  do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.

Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.

The Golden Globes stoke my hope

The embarrassing Ricky Gervais usually convinces me to skip the Golden Globes award show that aired last night. This time, Viola Davis looked so spectacular she was a good reason to tune in. As it turns out, there was another reason, as well. Did you notice a theme running through the nominated dramas?

CAROL
1950s married women find unexpected love and complications.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Furiosa frees sex slaves.

THE REVENANT
Vengeance in the frozen north. Hugh Glass frees a native sex slave.

ROOM
Sex slave and her son escape.

SPOTLIGHT
Sexual abuse in the Catholic church is finally exposed.

I am not sure what is going on. But if the movies reflect our reality at all, we appear to be very angry and sex is not working out for us. We have been abused and our imaginations run to the most heinous of situations. Our master movie makers are creating stories that focus on the horrible. We are desperate for connection, but not that hopeful.

Continue reading The Golden Globes stoke my hope

Seven mental ruts where unhappiness runs: Offramps from the Bible

There are things we think and do that everyone knows lead to anxiety and depression. Even though they are somewhat obvious, we still need to list them periodically so we can retrain our rutted brains. If you feel stuck in self-destructive behaviors, unhealthy relationship patterns, behaviors dictated by fear, or you feel like changing your life is a hopeless cause, then one place to start is meditating on changing your mind. If you are a cell leader or a people helper, sympathizing with what is making you feel uncomfortable around someone rather than reacting to it might help them find an alternative way of life.

Our minds can be just as rutted

Here are seven things we might say from the depths of a mind rut for which we need an off ramp. Following each statement are some of those basic things the Bible writers teach as good for making our ways straighter and smoother.

Continue reading Seven mental ruts where unhappiness runs: Offramps from the Bible

Cut off and screwed over — learning reconciliation and communication

I’m kind of enjoying the geekiness (no offence) of Pentatonix these days. So let’s start out with them. They do a cover of Gotye’s big song of 2012: Somebody That I Used to Know:

Apart from telling a good story, Gotye and Kimbra summarize in song what so many people experience every day: being cut off and screwed over. Those are common ways NOT to relate. But a lot of people have experienced so much abuse and have had so little opportunity to recover, that they don’t know how to relate another way. They’d like to love, but they are always getting cut off and screwed over. Let’s talk about that.

In the song, Gotye’s character sings about how she “cut him off.” That’s a common experience in relationships that is worth noting. We could talk about how someone refused sex or did some emasculating thing (another time, maybe). But I want to talk about how people try to disappear their intimates to manage their fears. [More here]

When Kimbra’s character comes into the song, she’s talking about something just as relevant: how she feels screwed over. She is so glad she got free of his unprocessed manipulation! And she doesn’t mind telling him so. Maybe you’ve been there.

The song demonstrates two relationship traits common to people when they are not safe in Jesus and are not aware of the frailties they need to have healed. These two common traits are sinful ways we kill love.

Getting cut off happens. 

It feels terrible. Gotye paints a vivid picture of it.

  • Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
  • But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
  • Have your friends collect your records and then change your number

That last line hints that that he may have caused the cut-off himself, since who sends their friends to get their stuff or who changes their number unless there is some kind of weirdness going on? Were there constant texts? I heard about that a few times lately. Friends did have to send their buddies to retrieve their stuff because the ex might go off.

This movie actually exists
This movie actually exists

I have a friend who has perfected the cut-off. She says it – you do me wrong I cut you off, you’re dead to me. Most of us would not say that; we’d just do it [even legally with restraining orders]. When we are threatened, we disappear people. We make them nothing. So a lot of us feel cut off. You might feel like a relationship is bleeding right now and you are emotionally wounded.

I am not going to do a big Bible study to respond. I think it is enough to say that our preoccupation with Matthew 18 around Circle of Hope is important because people have been cut-off and have cut people off. Cutting someone off is the common sinful way to deal with “problem” people and with our own troubled feelings. We cut them off. In an abusive and abused, violent society the laws are all about protecting victims (who are numerous). So the society even teaches us to cut-off.

That’s the problem Gotye’s character has in this song. What he did not do is presume that he was in a relationship in which all the parties are sinners, including himself, and that reconciliation was going to be a constant necessity. He actually says in the song that they discovered that they did not make sense, as if that’s how relationships work – like they are supposed to magically make sense, or the interaction is supposed to be so effortless that they never don’t make sense.  That’s very unlikely.

Christians relate with reconciliation in mind. They know they need to be listening for God to make sense of things. They know that their loved one needs to be loved, not to make sense according to some tiny idea we have of what makes sense. I know so many people, including myself, who have spent entire evenings arguing about how their interpretation of what happened an hour ago makes more sense than their mate’s interpretation! Reconciliation is more important than everything making sense.

Getting screwed over also happens.

It is a terrible feeling and Kimbra paints a vivid picture of it.

  • You “had me believing it was always something that I’d done.”
  • You did not talk so I was “Reading into every word you say.”
  • When we broke up “You said that you could let it go”

That last line has a lot packed into it (which is one of the things that makes this a good song, isn’t it?). Between the lines she is saying, “Now we are broken up and you are still obsessed and angry. That points out how you had been simmering with anger the whole time we were together. I was trying to make that work for you. So I basically screwed myself in your honor. And that makes me angry!”

screw in chipotleSorry to keep using the word “screwed.” But this song is basically about sex. They don’t really get to intimacy. Being used for sex is part of the woman’s pain, I think. “Having sex” in our language right now is not necessarily a term of endearment. “Fuck” is one of the meanest things people say. We “get screwed over” a lot. Sex is often a violation and we are mad about it. A lot of people talk about sex as if they need their rights protected, like they are so shallow that intimacy can be regulated by state law or something – or maybe they feel so hurt they think there ought to be a law.

Kimbra could have helped herself if she had just had one small rule of communication: “Don’t read between the lines.” Clear communication includes the recognition that the other person hasn’t actually said something until they have said it. If you think their body language means something, ask them if it means what you think it means. Don’t react as if you know what they have not articulated. Conversely, communication happens when a person has responded to what you say in such a way that they confirm they heard what you said. Just providing a lot of information and expecting people to find it is not enough. We’re tempted to treat each other like we are websites – “I already laid out all the info, search it.  I don’t need to talk to you because I posted it on my timeline. It’s on my blog.”

There is actually a little incident in John 14 where Jesus has to negotiate this process of communication with one of his intimates. Philip says, “Just show me the father. “ And Jesus is a little exasperated. He says, “Haven’t you heard the words of the father in me? Haven’t you seen the miracles?” I suppose Jesus could have cut Philip off at that point. Or he could have remembered Philip’s cluelessness as an example of all the ways his disciples had screwed him over. Instead, Jesus humbly communicates it again, as clearly as he can. Philip is not required to “read between the lines:” “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” The Lord humbly, clearly communicates.

Christians know that truth and love are hard to communicate because they know how hard it is for them to receive the truth and love of God, who is the source of truth and love! So we are patient with our intimates, and with everyone else. We know we are hard to understand; we know the other person is hard to understand — they don’t even understand themselves! Why get all hacked off when they behave as confused and as detached as they are! Help them! Listen to them! Speak clearly and in love!

There is hope

kimbra unpaintedMy favorite part of the video is at the end, when Kimbra stands apart and loses the paint of this unloving relationship. She kind of returns to the state of being naked and unashamed like Adam and Eve were before sin messed them up and they got separated from God and each other. She gets out of the damaging matrix. Now that they aren’t locked in some sinful way to relate, maybe something better can happen. Hopefully, they both learn to practice reconciliation, not just self-defense. Hopefully, they learn to communicate, not just react in some pre-verbal way.

I don’t think Gotye intended for me to get any hope at all out of his sad song. But I am way Christian. I really wanted that woman’s unpainted self to get out of that messy video, so I took it that way.  Why not? Jesus is doing the best God can do to call us out of the condemned and condemning ways we relate and into real love. If we let him be present and don’t suck up some bogus narrative, if we don’t cut him off, if we let him communicate, we have a good chance of being restored to love ourselves and even having great intimacy — and great sex.

Summer 2010 flicks reactions: Hang on to your hope

The literature of the age is film, and a believer needs to study. It is a pleasurable study, especially when the actors or the material are as well-tuned as recent offerings have been. I give you three films today, because the tsunami of the thoughts they are channeling will likely lap at your threshold whether you watch them or not.

Salt

Related image

In Salt (undoubtedly so-named so there can be Salt II, as in the arms treaty) the force-of-nature who is Angelina Jolie carries a chase movie through sheer force of will. She is a Russian mole who was planted in the U.S. as a child, awaiting activation by her evil “creator.” Needless to say, she kills all the bad guys in a fit of redemptive violence – which is still a false myth, no matter how many times it gets filmed.

I walked out of the theatre (in the blazing heat) and said, “Note to Angelina. Do not let your however-many-you-have-now children EVER see what Mommy does for a living.” A couple of her murderous looks scared me, and she is not my mommy. Even more, the depth of American paranoia scared me. We can see a terrorist behind every bush and we are sure the government is crawling with ineptitude and corruption. If one is not as lithe as Angelina and in shape enough to sprint through an entire movie, they are doomed. It is all up to you, you brilliant individual. You are the master of your fate and you may need to kill them all for everything to work out all right (or to at least get to the sequel).

Inception

In Inception Leonardo di Caprio wants to get back to his kids. But first he has to implant a thought in a billionaire’s brain and let go of his wife who is living in the depths of his unconscious where he condemned her to exist when he implanted the notion in her deepest unconscious that reality was not as real as the subconscious worlds they traveled together. (Oh, it is much more convoluted than that!) It is the Matrix, meets the Wizard of Oz meets some movie with Barbra Streisand as a therapist.

I walked out of the theatre (in the blazing heat) and said, “THAT, was awesome, I don’t care if I understood it or not.” Apart from the amazing visuals, people will love this movie because they are so in love with their own psychological process. There is a definite parallel with Salt, in that Angelina had what amounted to an “inception” as a child. Plus, the movie Inception is questioning whether the technology might exist in some place less-regulated like Mombasa or Japan  that can invade our minds. We’re paranoid about the technology and lack of security (and I think we should be), but we are also so fascinated by our own unknowable selves that we might sign up for Leonardo to explore our dreams and make his exploration into a reality show. We don’t want to “go there” but we are still self-absorbed.

The Kids Are All Right

In The Kids Are All Right five great performances illuminate the ultra-postchristian family for us. Nice lesbian mothers are dealing with the fissures in their long relationship — like sex and unrealized dreams. They meet up with the sperm donor after the teenage kids find him. Painful hijinks ensue. Hollywood is going to tear down any notion of what is now called the “traditional” family if they have to spend every cent they have to do it. Again we see the struggle we are all having with technology – this time the results of lab-produced children. Plus we are again thinking about our dreams, and the limits of our capacity to realize them. One of the teenagers in the film resents being the pawn in the “perfect lesbian marriage.”

I walked out of the theatre and said, “That was cute. I am amazed how good Annette Bening looks without make-up.” Propaganda comes in pretty packages these days — we do love our pills candy-coated. One of the things I noticed, and appreciated, was the way the filmmaker focused on each of the five characters and showed how they were dealing with the moral implications of what was happening in the family. The relational disaster happens and everyone changes for the batter. I enjoyed the hope.

Hang on to your hope

Hang on to your hope if you go to the movies — because someone is out to get you! You may end up as a player in the battles of the unseen forces. They may invade your mind. A technological glitch from your past may rise up to wreck the present. Everything is definitely out of control. I think most Christians I know are being swept along with these same reactions to our era as everyone else. The story-telling technology is the main force that sweeps them, even if the realities they portray exist or not (and I am not even talking about Glenn Beck channeling the realities of his Mormonism).

The only real hope we have of standing against the flow, or at least of surfing it to the end instead of drowning in it, is to get up every morning and secure our connection with the Reality who grounds us in eternity, who won’t leave us alone to stand against the forces washing up on our doorsteps. Jesus saved us and will save us, no matter how big those faces and stories on the screen appear to be. We are that reality in our body; we express that reality in what we say and do. And I believe, in the end, all the other fantasies that try to undermine Jesus will fade into nothingness in his light, just like a door to the sunlight opening up in a dark theater.

It’s a Depression: How to face poverty

The story goes that one of the young brothers among the desert monks went to an elder and asked, “Would it be right if I kept a little money in my possession, in case I should get sick?”

The elder, seeing that he wanted to keep the money, said, “Keep it.”

The brother went back to his place and began to wrestle with his thoughts, saying “I wonder if the elder really gave me his blessing. So he went back and asked him, “In the Lord’s name, tell me the truth, because I am upset over this money.”

The elder told him, “Since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep the money, I told you to keep it. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now this money is your hope. If it should be lost, would God not care for you?”

 That’s the question, isn’t it? “Will God care for me?” In a depression that is even more difficult to believe.

The gift of poverty 

We sometimes talk about the spiritual gift of poverty that is implied in 1 Corinthians 13:3: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” and spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

If you have the gift of voluntary poverty (like the monks in the quote above were working out), then maybe the economic depression we are in feels like an opportunity to trust God and you are excited to see what happens. For most of us, however, we are more likely to be slogging it out in our more typical spiritual capacity. No doubt we long for greater gifts. But, for now, we are trying to do what we must do in the face of difficult circumstances.

poverty
MoMA | Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936

What to do when we face poverty

It is a good time to revisit what we are called to do when we face poverty. There are some basic ways we typical believers are taught to live:

1) All believers are called to live free from the bondage of materialism and undue attention to personal comfort (Matt. 6:19-24, Luke 12:33-34, 14:33). The goal is to never be burdened with material things and never to be a burden (1 Thess. 2:9). This does not mean individualism or self-reliance, but it does mean personal responsibility.

2) Some people may be called to special divestment of wealth because possessions are a stumbling block to them (Mark 10:17-23). This does not mean that having possessions is wrong. But it does mean that possessiveness can control us. We may also be called to divest ourselves of our high expectations for our wealth and success and reduce ourselves to following what God has for us rather than what the “invisible hand” promises. This expectation may be more controlling than the possessions themselves.

3) Not all giving and not all poverty are examples of the gift of voluntary poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-4, Rev. 2:9). We may need to admit that we need help – that we are involuntarily poor. The greatest antidote to poverty in our society is sharing, and sharing is probably the antidote we are most reluctant to use. Share housing. Share incomes. Come up with joint projects to make money. Individually, we may not all have enough to live on. But, chances are, as a church we have more than enough to live on.

Rely on one another

If we do not help one another, we may not get a more miraculous act of help from God. We often rely on God to move the godless mechanism of the “economy” to help us, instead of relying on his own body – and we are upset that we are not helped. Likewise, the body often has very little imagination for how we are connected financially and we end up sending people to “the world” for help, relying on people/powers who don’t care about Jesus to care like Jesus! In this era of reduced circumstances, we will need to return to a Biblical view of ourselves. For that necessity we can give thanks for the depression.

I think we need to seek a dramatic filling of God’s Spirit in our church, so we can meet the challenges of this day. The first Christians are a good example of how this can happen in a group of people. When the Holy Spirit filled them they followed the Lord’s example of

  • owning nothing that tied them to this time and place and
  • distributing what they had to relieve the burdens or meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).

Right now, we are seeing an increased call upon our compassion fund for food and shelter; I am delighted that we store up money for that use. Many of us already share housing and even incomes – that’s good. Our convictions and skills may be even more necessary this year – because it is an economic depression.

I believe God will help us. Even if we don’t obey him, for our sake he becomes as poor as we are. But to be blessed, we must become poor in ourselves to be rich in Him.

A Fast with Shalom House

We had a great blessing-of-a-feast last night – turkey, all the accoutrements, Gwen’s famous (or should be) dessert punch, amazing friends and comrades. Now for the fast.

The people of Shalom House have called for a fast today. Our friends over in their West Philly outpost are proactive peacemakers who just seem to get more devoted, creative and assertive all the time! They bless me. At our feast last night, as we toasted 2009 in various ways, someone got us to raise our glasses to the great triumph of shutting down Colissimo’s Gun Shop. Mimi even went to jail over that! In an age where, somehow, the “right to bear arms” has been interpreted as the right to flood the street with weapons designed for personal “shoot outs” and spraying the neighbors with semi-automatics, thank God for young women who don’t take “no” for an answer.

I invite anyone reading this to fast, in some way, with the people of Shalom House and their partners. Don’t eat a Christmas cookie for a couple of hours or send them a check for $50,000 – whatever works for you. And PRAY! This is what they are doing: “In this season of advent, of expectation, we at Shalom House are feeling the expectation of new community members.  We are feeling the burden of the longing for Peacemaking efforts to be multiplied among us.” They want to do more and get more house members to do it with them! Thank you, Lord!

As part of their suggestions for what to do as we all pray with them today, they offer a quote from a great peacemaker we should never forget, Oscar Romero: “I do not tire of telling everyone, especially young people who long for their people’s liberation, that I admire their social and political sensitivity, but it saddens me when they waste it by going on ways that are false. Let us, too, all take notice that the great leader of our liberation is the Lord’s Anointed One, who comes to announce good news to the poor, to give freedom to the captives, to give news of the missing, to give joy to so many homes in mourning, so that society may be renewed as in the sabbatical years of Israel.” Someone still longs for jubilee! Someone is not so worn down, defeated, overwhelmed by evil, discouraged by hope-that-ends-up-in-increased-troops-to-Afghanistan, that they can’t still apply themselves to the cause of redemption! Thank you Lord! That is also a feast, and a great motivation to fast and pray.

Get off your ass and ask: Othniel and Acsah

The Bible

And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.

One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs. Joshua 15:16-19

I ask you.
No selfies in Acsah’s day, but this might be a good snap.

I have a special fondness for young couples starting out together; so this little bit of history in the book of Joshua is kind of irresistible to me. Othniel went on to be the first judge of the judges of Israel. But at this point, he and Acsah (name your daughter that!) are just setting up their own household. They seem to have been a visionary, ambitious pair. That is what I think, at least, when I envision Acsah and Othniel going back to Caleb’s house to get a better deal on her inheritance. All she had was desert and no water — but she had irrigation plans! It appears that she was pushing Othniel, “Go ask my dad for more!” But as soon as they got there, she jumped off her donkey and asked herself! Caleb undoubtedly knew he had a special daughter; he may have seen “that look” in her eye as soon as she rode up and immediately asked, “What?”

She got her water.

The Prayer

You may think it is too much to make a lot out of these little snippets of the Bible. That’s OK. But see if this moment doesn’t make a good prayer for you, anyway. Here is how it works.

We go to our Father and he sees us just as we are. He says, “What can I do for you?”

We say, “Do me a favor, since you know I’ve been given desert. I need springs of water. Give me also springs of water.”

He gives them.

It is something like that. Try praying it. Should I say, “Get off your ass and ask?” Probably not.

But we need to ask because we have some desert! Should we just take what we appear to have been given and make the most of the desert?

  • I’m talking about the spiritual desert — not feeling it personally, no faith, hope, joy, love, just a gnawing sense of need.
  • I’m talking about the relational desert – the friendship circle or marriage feels dry, makes me want to try a new city or a new mate.
  • I’m talking about the political desert – Philly has lots of water but it has lots of trouble: too much violence, too little money in its coffers, too much injustice and corruption.

Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” John 7:37-8

The vision

Being one woman, going to her father for what she needs and ending up with living water flowing from her in the middle of desert places – that seems to me like the best result of all. Taking her husband with her and irrigating as much territory as she can touch seems to be a life worth living. Acsah couldn’t help but ask. Do you do that anymore?

Maybe you think coming to Jesus and asking for living water is entirely too easy. Snippety. You are into much more complicated things. That’s OK. I have nothing for you. I think I get tinier all the time — just a child going to my Father in the place I know to find him and trusting him to give me what he has for me.

Do You Get Harry Potter?

As of today Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince has grossed $461,318,990 worldwide. Gwen and I contributed to that last week at the over-priced Bridge Deluxe near Penn (but how nice to walk to the theatre!). Do you get what is going on here? Just what is selling all these tickets? I have not been able to get into the books and I have been caught looking at my watch during the movies. What is the attraction?     

There is something going on. A bazillion people are concerned that another youngster is threatened by unseen forces and fighting overwhelming evils. Is every movie required to have this plot this year? — By use of some kind of magic (a transforming car, the Starship Enterprise, etc.) young people enhance their developing, misunderstood awesomeness to overcome the evil with the help of their friends, but not at the expense of their own self-esteem and uniqueness.

This propaganda is getting to be old hat. But, if the trailers are any evidence, the expression of it may be getting darker and even more dire. I felt quite educated by the previews before Harry Potter started lumbering into its 2-1/2 hours. I can’t remember them all. The next Twilight was one of them (Bella leaves vampire boyfriend with werewolf boyfriend; danger ensues, but will true love save even the undead?). 2012 was another (John Cusack and Woody Harrelson survive global catastrophe). And there was a creepier, Potteresque something I can’t remember. I was not encouraged, but perhaps enlightened.

This generation has some high expectations of success and happiness and it secretly blames insurmountable, possibly evil, forces for the inevitable shame they feel about their deprivation. That is my lesson du jour. Voldemort gets Dumbeldore killed. My boyfriend wants to suck my blood. We’re all about to be killed by a natural disaster and only John Cusack will survive. Anxiety. Fear. Unfulfilled dreams. Pass the prozac. Or please, pass the gospel. You people need a savior; Harry’s wand is not making it (and it is make-believe, anyway, btw).

The other strand that might be running through these movies is this (OK, this is lesson du jour deux): “I really want someone to love; I want community.” — Life-long school chums who are as weird as I am and know me, and accept me, as I am; the boyfriend who is wild and crazy but who will resist killing me (he’s so awesome) and may kill others for me; the brave survivors who restart the world from their little tribe. Connection, Hope. Restoration. Pass the church.

Being consumed: Maybe not what you think

A consuming fire?

I have been pondering these two scriptures this morning. They seem to go together.

 “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-9)

 “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

            When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
            And Moses said, “Here I am.”
 (Exodus 3:1-4)

Our God is like fire.

  • He burns for goodness and beauty.
  • He burns against the corruption of his creation.
  • He burns without consuming the bush, and burns in us to fire our imagination and unshakeable hope.
  • He burns to consume his enemies and cleanse the situation for new creation.

So I think there is a good way to be “consumed” and a reason to avoid it.

not consumed

Wary of being consumed

The Christians I hang with are wary of being consumed. I think they have a large-context reason to be wary and a smaller-context one, both of which are well-taken.

The big reason they have become afraid they will be consumed is because they live in consumer culture where it has become one’s civic duty to figure out how to buy a Chrysler. This morning, for instance, I decided to actually look at my copious spam email, sent to get some little bit of my buying power and hopefully get my name on a list for future endless attacks. “Sasha” was offering me pictures of herself. “Mohammed Townsand” was offering Viagra. “Mrs. Mariam Coleman” was offering a donation of $2.8 million dollars from her Kuwaiti Christian husband’s estate. “Evelina Inge” offered me access to the #1 internet drugstore. Those were the highlights, likely to be repeated tomorrow. We are invaded with so many predatory demands to consume, it is no wonder we have developed some thick armor.

The second, more localized, reason to be wary of being consumed is that church structures are often big ideas promoted by aggressive leaders that need troops of drones to perform the duties associated with them. The “mega-church” model for church is modeled on the shopping small, in which everyone can find a place for their self-interest to be satisfied. Producing a Christian mall takes an army of dedicated “needs”-meeters. So one can have a demanding job for 60 hours a week and then be asked to have another one in your spare time and call it being the church. The church is so adapted to consumer capitalism in our country that everyone in it is required to produce some product for further consumers to consume. So everyone just keeps getting consumed.

We burn but are not consumed

There are good reasons to avoid being consumed. When a person enters the church with a shopping list of demands and looks at you like you are the sales clerk, a deeper conversation might be required before you automatically launch into trying to satisfy their desires. They do not have a God-given right to consume you. You are not a product. You are not a donation to their cause. People often have a general wrong idea about the world. If they apply it to you and you go with it, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are being nice.

On the other hand, the bush was on fire, but it was not consumed. We can be so aware of “having boundaries” that we also become unavailable for being on fire! We can get so we are wary of God consuming us. But when the Consuming Fire lights us up, we are not consumed. Much the contrary, the Fire behind creation shines through; we have more substance than what we previously thought of as substance. So when that same person comes at us thinking we are the Christian salesclerk who is supposed to have whatever product they need, we can call their name, by God’s grace (“Sasha, Sasha”), and be a connection with the One they really need.

If one is a burning bush because the Consuming Fire lives in her, please do not leave someone wandering in the foothills of Horeb. You will not be consumed if you offer someone the Lord. Even if they shake your tree or pick at the branches of your bush looking for what they don’t need, you’ll be OK. If we rely on the Lord, and not just our ability to produce the fruit someone thinks they’d like to eat while ignoring the fire calling their name, we’ll be OK. The Lord burns with His own goodness and it has become inexhaustibly available to us in Jesus.

Let’s Talk Back to the Loneliness

Take a look at the famous picture of Buchenwald concentration camp. Many of us have seen the picture. But you may not have known that the famous author Elie Wiesel is actually in the picture. He is circled in red.

 In his 1981 novel, Testament, Wiesel creates a character who represents Jewish intellectuals killed by Stalin in 1952. Stalin’s mass murder outpaces Hitler’s by millions. In the story, the man is encouraged by his prison guard to write an autobiography, since it might contain further confession. Although it seems like a hopeless task that none of his loved ones will ever see, the man writes it in the spirit of the ancient story about one of the Just Men who came to Sodom. “Night and day [the Just Man] walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening; he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One June a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man. ‘Then why do you go on?’  ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’

This story has many applications for the many different people who read this blog. The application that touches me today has to do with how lonely some of us are. Apply it to that. Keep acting on your gnawing aches, your feelings about being unloved or trapped, your fears of always being isolated, your self-condemnation and devaluing. The loneliness must not be allowed to change you.

I wish I had a universal solution to the universal problem. I just have one fact and two suggestions.

God is with you. You are not alone if you are turning to God who is turning to you in Jesus, God-with-us. I know God is not the same as us, so he won’t offer skin and phone calls and someone who can respond to the look on our faces. I’m not going to say sticking with him will fulfill all our desires. But we can experience deep togetherness with God, and experiencing it often frees us to connect to others. “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’” (Heb. 13:5-6)

Let God turn loneliness into solitude. This was Henri Nouwen’s advice. All of us are alone, since we are unique. No one feels, thinks or acts exactly like I do. So we have a lifelong issue about being alone to deal with. Our aloneness can turn to loneliness or solitude. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling desperately to others and resent their absence. Solitude helps us respect the uniqueness of others and create community. Solitude, where we meet with God and discover ourselves, is a cleared-out space inside ourselves, and a quiet place we find outside our busy schedules, to pray, to listen for discernment and to experience grace. When we are lonely, we must turn to God and let loneliness become solitude.

Allow yourself to keep trying. We have to talk back to the loneliness or it gets the last word, it ultimately changes us. Let’s hold on to the connections we actually have, whether they are what we truly want or need, yet. And let’s not denigrate the therapists, church leaders, pastors and other professionals who care about us, even if they don’t seem like the intimates we desire. Let’s keep working at being a member of the community. The church is a community that is often so diverse, so unique, so fluid, that it takes time to form and effort to keep. Even when it does not meet all our emotional needs it is still a place where we belong and where we are likely to find some love. Keep building it, not just expecting from it. The world can be a lonely place, we must keep building a community that is lovely, or the world might change us.

I hope I have not been overly dramatic by using a concentration camp picture to lead into this topic. But I feel the sense of imprisonment a few of my friends feel – they are being hemmed in by their loneliness and whatever they try does not seem to help them escape. Don’t give up! God is with you. You belong among God’s people. May you experience more solitude in your aloneness than loneliness.