Tag Archives: Trump

Moneyland: What does a Jesus-follower do in the era of that dark power?

People are writing such wonderful things these days! But it seems so few people are paying attention! This post has that spirit of hope and lament running through it.

It happened again.  I couldn’t resist starting my new book before I finished the one I was reading. The first one was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration — an old entry on our Kindle bookshelf about how African Americans finally fled Jim Crow in the South. It is so well written, I keep going back to it. But it is so painful I can’t talk about it yet. [NPR interviewed the author in 2010]

I think I heard about the new one, Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World by chance on NPR. I need to talk about that one since Gwen is about ready to head for Ukraine in June and that is where an unusual door opened into the secret world of the kleptocrats who saw a weakness in capitalist democracies and have exploited it to the fullest. Not only are they rich, they have an extraordinary control over the countries they exploit and generally live above the law. Paul Manafort, who opened the Ukrainian door to us here in the U.S. was just inept enough at his exploitation to end up in jail. His boss, Donald Trump, also seems rather inept, but he has no lack of brazen self-interest as he attempts to propel himself into the head of the plutocracy. The next proposed boss, Joe Biden, has a son, Hunter, who has also been in and out of the weird Ukrainian door to Moneyland, so we’ll see where all this ends up.

Moneyland people by art for show.
News from a Moneylander family: Treasury Secretary Minuchen’s father bought Jeff Koon’s “Rabbit” for $91.1 MILLION last week, setting a record for a piece by a living artist.

Meanwhile, the little people, like you and me are totally in the dark about the flow of money in “moneyland.” The author, Oliver Bullough, does his best unravel it for us. For example, if you give to a non-profit supporting a hospital in Kiev the administrator may have a bank account in St. Kitts, like Paul Manafort, or she may have to pay someone who has one or risk the lives of her children. If you want to spread your goodwill to another city in Ukraine, you will have to ride the neglected roads (budget lines pillaged by insiders) and get through countless checkpoints at which the armed forces/police ask for their cut (rule of law is undermined). We experienced this in Zimbabwe, personally, when we were there, Robert Mugabe being the head kleptocrat.

Bullough writes in his revealing introduction:

“It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the superrich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, it’s inaccessible.

This is the place I called Moneyland — Maltese passports, English libel, American privacy, Panamanian shell companies, Jersey trusts, Liechtenstein foundations, all added together to create a virtual space that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The laws of Moneyland are whichever laws anywhere are most suited to those wealthy enough to afford them at any moment in time. If a country somewhere changes the law to restrict Moneylanders in any way, they shift themselves or their assets to countries with more generous laws. If a country passes a law that offers new possibilities for enrichment, then the assets shift likewise….

If we wish to preserve democracy…we must confront Moneyland’s nomad citizens, and must find a way to dismantle the offshore structures that make it so easy for them to hide their money from democratic oversight. They are at least as significant a threat to the rules-based order that we’ve created to make the world safe as the terrorists and dictators we read about every day.”

What do Christians’ do in response to all this?

Image result for christians heads in the sandGet our heads out of the sand

I hope this isn’t overly critical. But aren’t Christians generally known for keeping their heads in the the sand, even though they should feel safer to look around than people living without Jesus? I think I can sympathize with the temptation to perfect avoidance. For most of us, we are happy if we feel relatively safe and we hope nothing changes. These days, the world makes many of us so anxious, we are even more likely to turn a blind eye to what evil is up to as long as we are not on its radar. But that is not the call from our teachers:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:11-16)

We are not to acquiesce to or collude with the darkness, we are supposed to expose it!

I am distressed there are enough blind Christians in the United States to support the smokescreen from the Trump administration that promises protection from the infidels in Iran and an abortion-free society in exchange for spending all our treasure on warfare and indebting the country for generations, while the rich hide their money offshore and the rest of us suckers pay the taxes for it all. If you have a job and don’t feel too hard-pressed right now, at least care about the poor, the most defenseless who bear the regressive weight of the schemes of Moneyland. The Ryan tax cut for the rich and Trump’s incarceration of immigrant children should provide a graphic enough picture of what is in store for the poorest. Surely no Jesus follower wants to collude with that! We should expose it.

Tell the truth

Bullough accuses most of us of not even knowing the truth. But he is sympathetic, since the truth about Moneyland is a well-guarded secret. I appreciate how he offers his book as an antidote. I’m glad he had the freedom of speech to write it. I’d say most of my readers also trust in freedom of speech to change the world. If we do anything to protest, it mostly has to do with speaking, or writing, or chanting in the streets.

It’s when we don’t feel the freedom that things get rough. Here’s an example from the Bible. When King Herod heard about what Jesus was saying, he was a bit terrified (see Mark 6:14-29). Jesus reminded the king of John the Baptist so much, he was afraid John had risen from the dead! He had just killed the Lord’s cousin for daring to speak up about his unholy marriage, among other things. Jesus soon followed in his cousin’s footsteps for telling the truth to the Jewish and Roman rulers who sent him to the cross. As usual, the rule of law was about the rulers. When that is the case, truth tellers need to hold on to their eternal life — they are going to need it.

I think I notice a subtle change in our truth-telling church over the last ten years. As the post 9/11 babies come into leadership, there is less conflict, less truth telling, more ghosting and more cutting off. Jesus tells them, “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” They tend to reply with Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-8).

I don’t know if that applies to you, personally, but the world seems to be conforming to the spirit of the age and truth-tellers could get killed, and do. I think our fear of death is shutting our mouths. We may not fear getting killed, but we think our money will be stolen and our jobs eliminated if we don’t keep quiet. We know education does not guarantee security. We see how the whims of the president can destroy a family’s farm in Iowa in a matter of months. People are thinking, “Who knows what might happen if I make myself a target?”

Jesus’ ultimate answer to Pilate wasn’t, “I tell the truth and that is what changes the world.” Jesus is the truth, the way, the truth and the life. When we relate to him, we relate to his Father. Our reconciliation saves us and changes the world, which brings me to the main thing we do in the face of Moneyland.

Build an alternative community

Some scholars call Ephesians “Paul’s book of the church.” I think it is his book about following Jesus, which never happens outside the church. Jesus followers live a reconciled life as closely connected and interdependent as members of a body. This makes us an alternative to the “fruitless deeds of darkness” mentioned above. If we are Christian in principle but not practice, mostly law and not love, we are sitting ducks for the ways of the dying world or just more ideologues in a power struggle.

Paul teaches:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (4:15-18)…

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:12).

Oliver Bullough might wish his book was so influential people would be talking about it 2000 years from now. May you write something that profound!

We rely on you to be profoundly yourself in Christ and to dare to make an alternative community with us. The resistance we perfect and the transformation we effect depends on being the body of Christ. We are like Jesus before Pilate — we are who we are; we are the truth. We aren’t there to argue, we are there because the world is struggling against God and its true self and we aren’t struggling with them.

Is Moneyland a real place? It is if evil can blind us, if the powers can keep us in the dark with them. Regardless, it is not as real as the kingdom of God where we live with Jesus and one another. Every time we turn toward home and turn away from the deceptions all around us, we are strengthening our true selves, and just that small action speaks the truth in love to a world desperately in need of it.

There is another way: In an age of suspicion develop a trust system

When the birds start singing in spring, my heart starts to remember old, joyful songs, as well. I pause for birds, partly because Jesus taught me to do so: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26). But even if I did not know the Sermon on the Mount so well, the birds would have taught me to trust God. And such trust would have loosened a song of joy in my heart.

This spring, we have experienced an avalanche of the unmelted snow of mistrust on the mountains of lies and greed that characterize our no-trust country. I’m afraid it is all going to melt and flood us by June. You may have stopped watching news channels, but they are all unmoored from the truth. This week the President lied so hard about the Mueller report that his tongue must have hurt. People are not only losing their trust in God and the church of Jesus Christ, they don’t trust one another either.

We are called to develop a trust system

In the middle of that flood, we have a very prescient proverb we managed to get into our collection: We are called to develop a trust system. That means we are more like the birds of the air and less like Donald Trump and we know it. What’s more, it means we intend to build an alternative system to the world’s mistrust, by trusting each other and breeding trust in people who want to stop feeling worthless and claim their honor as trustworthy people.

I was cleaning up my books the other day (they tend to multiply!) and I ran across one I could not remember buying called Smart Trust. It is one of those business books that teach capitalists basic morality as a means to be happy and successful like Warren Buffet. I like these books because they boil down ideas into practical ways we can implement. For instance, here is most of this book boiled down into a 25-minute speech.

And the rest of this blog post is going to boil the book down even further into a few useful paragraphs.

I offer this to you for a couple of reasons. 1) A big reason: Quite a few of us are sucked into the mistrust system the world is perpetrating. We are susceptible to conspiracy theories, suspicious of all leaders and prone to cutting off because no one can be trusted. If that is you, you are undermining our trust system. 2) A bigger reason: Each of us can contribute to making an alternative by staying conscious of our responsibility to build a trust system, which simply begins with trust in Jesus and trust in his people.  We can nurture joy instead of despair. A new world is possible.

Trust builder traits

Covey and his team did some nice business-book research on their topic by finding people all over the world who demonstrate “smart trust.” In their opinion, this conscious, strategic trusting is the defining skill that separates mere managers from leaders.

For our purpose, “smart trust” it is the defining skill that separates a Jesus-follower who can develop a trust system from those who James calls a “double-minded” — who can’t trust and can’t be trusted. Likewise, they are people Jude calls “clouds without rainwater.” If those negative attributions seem to harsh, return to Jesus trying to lure us into leaving  destruction by pointing out the birds managing to trust God in the middle of it.

The authors collected five traits that characterize these trust builders:

  • They choose to believe that trust is essential.
  • They start by developing the character and competence (the credibility) that allows them to trust themselves and be a trusted part of a trust system, in our case, the kingdom of God.
  • They say what they intend to do and assume others also have positive intentions. They make people prove they are untrustworthy, not earn trust.
  • They do what they say they are going to do.
  • They take the lead in extending trust, which leads to a “virtuous cycle” in which others are unleashed to build great things and feel the joy of the good work of faith, hope and love.

I think you can note these traits in the character of our church. We have been building a trust system for a long time. When it breaks down, we can see it, because we normally don’t live in a Trump-like world in which no one can be trusted and the untrustworthy cast suspicion on everyone else. When Trump decided not to cooperate with Congress, it became evident that the authors of the U.S. Constitution, even though they put checks and balances in their famous doc, relied on “gentlemen” to apply it. They expected leaders to at least be concerned about their honor and reputation! When power is more important than mutuality, the “rule of law” is about whoever has the power to enforce the law. When we can’t trust our leaders, we need to find some new “gentlepeople.” We want to be those  trustworthy people, led by Jesus, the ultimate leader.

The example of the Grameen Bank.

The authors piled up stories of trusting and trustworthy leaders from around the world. I think the story of Muhammad Yunus is especially notable. He should be honored, as he is, by people around the world. He is the Banker to the Poor who made a bank built on trust to help the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, initially, get out of their slavery to their lenders. In his system of microcredit, trust is the key. He says, unlike banks who tie up clients in legal knots, making sure they are never out of the bank’s reach, “Grameen assumes every borrower is honest. There are no legal instruments between lenders and the borrowers. We were convinced that the bank should be built on human trust, not on meaningless paper contracts….We may be accused of being naïve, but our experience with bad debt is less than 1 percent.”

Our Debt Annihilation Team is an ongoing experiment with similar intent. They have also experienced “bad debt.” But there has been more joy than confirmation that people cannot be trusted. We extend some relational “microcredit” every time we sit down face-to-face in one of our free-forming cells, don’t you think?

Blind trust or mistrust

Good business books come up with metaphors and charts to make their big points. Covey asks us “Which glasses are you wearing?” Is your lenas blind trust or distrust?  The Proverbs taught us long ago what social scientists keep proving: “As we think in our hearts, so we are” (Prov 23:7 KJV). The “glasses” through which we see people and situations make a difference. The two extremes most of us fall into in relation to trust can be seen in the chart below. See what you think about how you generally work, or how you work in various situations like job and family. How do you work in the church?

The third way: build a trust system

One of the reasons to excerpt this book for you is that their idea of  “smart trust” is a “third way.” And we do love our third ways! These ways are alternatives to the either/or the world usually presents to us. Our alternativity is not just our own way, it is a way of trusting the leadership of Jesus all along our way. Our basic faith in the trustworthiness of the Lord makes us radicals.

This “smart trust matrix” is designed to give us a better pair of glasses so we can see our way into a better place where being trusted and trustworthy unleashes our creativity and joy.

I don’t always get what a four-quadrant matrix means, but they at least get me to think. This one is trying to move me to have some discernment when it comes to trusting people in our trust system. Like Paul tells the Corinthians while he is helping them move through some conflict, I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”  That’s the kind of assumption we want to develop. Paul knows he is talking to people in all four quadrants, but they all need to get to a place where they are on the Lord’s side (1 Cor 10). Quadrant 1 is blind trust; Quadrant 4 is mistrust; Quadrant 3 is no trust. You may need to move through all of them to get to Quadrant 2: smart trust. Or, as Paul would say, we need to develop good judgment that leads to reconciliation and unleashes joy.

The other side of the smart trust coin of course, begins with being trustworthy ourselves. We don’t just inspect other people to see how they fit into a matrix! Being trustworthy breeds reciprocal trust. And even if no one trusts you back, Jesus does. The Lord’s trust strategy is at the heart of what Victor Hugo was working out in Les Miserables when the bishop trusted Jean Valjean with the candlesticks. Viewers have gotten teary-eyed ever since, believing that one person can, in fact, make a difference. Grace works. Entrusting people with grace is the basic strategy of God in Jesus for the transformation of creation.

Jean Valjean becomes a better man and even releases Javert. Over 70 million people have seen Les Mis onstage. They long for a different kind of world where grace makes a difference and people are considered worthwhile. The BBC put out yet another TV version this month. People keep hoping the liars who set off avalanches of mistrust will not win the day! And even the days they seem to be winning are better because of  those who trust God and one another and stubbornly build a trust system where the skills of transformation can be learned.

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

Image result for david brooks second mountain

Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

Wrestling with rumors: WWJD with #WWG1GWA?

On March 20, President Trump retweeted a 2-year-old video of a teenager receiving a zealous pat down by a TSA agent in the Dallas airport while his mother filmed the incident, knowing she would be delayed that much more if she caused any more trouble with the security guards (WP). I don’t want to show you the video, because it just gives it more playtime, and by this time, the video is a meme.

Image result for qanon rally

We are in a season of rumor

But I can’t help talking about the source who belatedly brought the video to Trump’s attention, through a winding path of Twitter celebrities. It shows where he gets his information and makes me wonder why the president, and so many others, are so fond of spreading conspiracy theories. The TSA is branded as an instrument of the over-reaching government and Trump spreads the rumor its all part of a conspiracy.

In general, we are all figuring out what is going on by spreading and assessing rumors. For instance, last week an FB friend asked me if an old rumor about Circle of Hope is true: “I was told you don’t believe in dinosaurs.” She sent me a screenshot of the FB dialogue about us and one person chimed in to verify our “unbelief.” “Absolutely true!” he said. We are in the season of rumors becoming accepted facts. BTW, I had just been to the Natural History Museum in NYC and saw some of the dinosaur fossil record, which I don’t think is an elaborate fake.

I suppose “conspiracy theories” are graduate-level rumors. My acquaintance, Nicholas DiFonzo gave a brief outline of his extensive and helpful research on rumor on this video.

The video Trump shared appeared on a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed, which is operated by a man who pushes QAnon theories. I don’t pretend to know what is going on with QAnon since I just became aware of them. Although, being Anabaptish by persuasion, I’m probably in line with half their motivations. Regardless of my general ignorance, here is one man’s take on who the anonymous Q (and team) are: QAnon for beginners.

The man Trump retweeted has a Twitter bio which includes the phrase “WWG1WGA,” shorthand for “Where We Go One We Go All.” That hashtag is a rallying point for the narrative that ties together the Pizzagate conspiracy and a supposed “deep state” plot to control American politics (WP from last August). WWG1WGA is the main Q slogan.  It’s thought to come from the 1996 Ridley Scott film White Squall about a group of young people caught at sea in a terrible storm. “The Storm” is a common metaphor for Trump’s assault on the Deep State. Trump himself referenced it last October during a dinner with military commanders. People are painting the slogan on walls here and there.

Related image

The Washington Post sneers at such conspiracy theory purveyors, but it is useful to understand them. Once a rumor has been repeated enough and not debunked, it begins to build a worldview. Many QAnon people are persuaded Donald Trump is standing in the way of a cabal of the 1% who are determined to create a global police state that will take away their freedoms, and they are determined to be on the right side of history (an example of America’s doomsday obsession).

QAnon has a religious wing

Apart from the President’s collusion with them, my main interest in QAnon was generated by the following video from the blogger Sean/Cordicon (above). Through him, I learned about the QAnon manifesto. He also represents the religious wing to the movement which emerged out of the ooze of 8Chan. (You can see elements of the QAnon 8Chan  posts here). In the following video, Cordicon is a little disappointed with the marketing campaign for the movement’s seminal book, but he has more instructive things to say about the surprising connections being made with 1st century Christianity.

Sean seems like a sensitive guy, and he is passionate about Jesus. At some point, he discovered a Jesus, promoted since the 1830’s or so, who is something of a prototype for himself: a person who has been denied his true existence by the powers. In case you did not watch the video (who has time for every link in this post!), I’ll tell you that, at one point, he held up the book below about the “Q” source for the gospels posited by some 19th century theologians. He claims this book represents the true Jesus.

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I suppose it was inevitable that QAnon and the Q Source for the gospels would meet and have a baby via the internet.

The Gospel of Q that has captured Sean’s imagination remains a hypothetical document. No intact copy has ever been found. No reference to the document in early Christian writings has survived. Its existence is inferred from an analysis of the text of Matthew and Luke.

James Robinson helped infer it. Robinson was part of the famous Jesus Seminar that began dialogue in the 1980s. He is also one of the main popularizers of the Gospel of Q. He says,

The Sayings Gospel Q is even older than the Gospels in the New Testament. In fact, it is the oldest Gospel known! Yet it is not in the New Testament itself — rather, it was known to, and used by, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the eighties and nineties of the first century when they composed their Gospels. But then it was lost from sight and only rediscovered in 1838, embedded in Matthew and Luke.

After all, Q is a product of the Jewish Jesus movement that continued to proclaim his message in Galilee and Syria for years to come, but from which practically no first-century texts have survived. The New Testament is mainly a Gentile collection, and hence only preserves the sources of Gentile churches.”

The “Gentile churches” got a reputation with a collection of mainly German scholars, not for following the Spirit of God, but for imposing a European, Greek and Roman gospel that eradicated the original Jewish, Syrian Jesus. You can see how this easily morphs into general QAnon thinking. The QAnon people are rebelling against the “new world order” imposed by some “Illuminati,” the same kind of people who buried the real Jesus!

Here’s a little more about the hidden “Q” source for Matthew and Luke. Scholars compared Matthew and Luke to Mark and saw when Matthew and Luke tell the story about Jesus, for the most part they both follow the order and often even the wording of Mark. But, into this common narrative outline, Matthew and Luke each insert extra sayings and teachings of Jesus. And although Matthew and Luke do not put these sayings in the same order, nevertheless they each repeat many of the same ones, sometimes word for word.

The scholars thought it unlikely that either Matthew or Luke could have copied from the other, so how can this sort of agreement be explained? The answer appeared to be that Matthew and Luke each had two sources in common: the Gospel of Mark and another gospel, now lost, a collection of sayings known only as Q. Q stands for “Quelle,” the German word for source. Although no actual copy of Q has ever been found, many scholars are convinced that such a document once circulated in early Christian communities. Here is an essay about it from The Atlantic: The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.

Should we think about Q or do anything about it?

I wrote this piece to try to give some context to what is brewing in the U.S.. You might run into QAnon and think the theories are facts! Rumors grow into conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories become division and wars.

Even more, I wrote to question what amounts to a rumor and then a conspiracy theory that the true, original Jesus has been lost with Q. You might come to think if we strip away the narrative of the Lord’s “supposed” death and resurrection and all the miracle stories, we would see the real Jesus in the wisdom sayings that are left. We would then have the purest Jesus, relieved of the burden of European domination, Greek philosophy and expectations of power.

To be honest, I agree with some of what the Jesus Seminar was trying to do as they searched for Jesus beyond the trappings of His Westernization, even if they were searching from a position of authority with their Western academic assumptions firmly in place and came to spurious conclusions. But I don’t think we need to throw out the “bathwater” of the Bible to find the “baby” Jesus again.

And while I can appreciate that Sean would love to have a Jesus who emerges from behind the veil of the domination system, I don’t think we need to embroil the Lord in the latest conspiracy theory, as if he can be reduced to a LARP. Sean does not think he is in a live action role play, but I’m pretty sure he would admit he has plenty of people jumping on the bandwagon who aren’t as serious as he is. Jesus has often been used as a pawn in some political struggle. We don’t need to collaborate with the latest.

I was drawn to Paul again in 2 Corinthians 10 as a place to ponder what Jesus would do:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

We must not wage war as the world does, not with its philosophies and not with its weapons. That seems sure. We must develop a deep, Spirit to spirit relationship with God, live in an authentic community in Christ where we can discern together, and trust that our meager attempts to understand the truth and tell it will be met with supernatural assistance.

Maybe most of all, I think Sean reminded me that Jesus listens to people, even on the internet, with compassion and openness, ready to honor their value and deepen their understanding. We are all wrestling with rumors. No rumor tells the truth about Circle of Hope and no link on this page tells the past, present or future story of whoever it is from or about. Paul is talking about saving eternal lives, not winning an argument.

Our open hearts and listening ears weaponize our love. Long after the present realignment in the world order is over, Jesus will still be fighting His battle the way he does, with suffering love and a hope that transcends whatever the rebels think they will achieve with their hashtag army. Until that day is done, we wage war, with Paul, with resurrection power, not mere words and certainly not based on our right to bear death-dealing arms. It is a confusing moment in our history, so expending the energy to live in truth will cost us. But as we enter Holy Week we can see again what kind of story we are writing with our expensive love.

Sisi, Bibi, Barr, and Obama: Deliver us from our distress

My loved ones and I were spontaneously constructing our own Psalm 107 as the news forced its way into our consciousness today. I know many of you are tuned out; the daily process of deception and destruction is hard to watch. So you might be distressed I am bothering you with “political stuff.” But I have to remind you, the 1% and their minions in government have taken the power in their hands and we are slowly being bled of our money and morals in the U.S..

Yet we persist. We are a circle of hope and we did not expect the government or the wealthy to save us – at least those of us who have been reading the Bible.

So we moved with Psalm 107’s refrain today in our litany of despair and frustration. We thought of each other and took heart as we joined in:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

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Click for Al Jazeera

Sisi

My friend Jonny was up in arms. According to a report released by Egypt’s presidency, the meeting today with President Sisi was Trump’s sixth since 2016, reportedly more than any other leader.  “Human rights groups have accused the Egyptian regime of carrying out widespread and systematic torture of political prisoners, silencing dissidents and using death sentences to settle scores. Sisi’s government has vehemently denied the allegations.” [CNN]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Bibi

My wife and I sat down at dinner after watching Israeli elections returns for five minutes and said, “I’m not sure we are doing enough for those dear Palestinians we met when our delegation visited.” Trump advocates a permanent annexation of the Golan Heights, moves the embassy to Jerusalem, and essentially meddles in the Israeli election by campaigning for Netanyahu. Bibi essentially calls for a one state, Jewish nation which Haaretz calls apartheid in the making. Even the Wall Street Journal sees problems [WSJ].

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Barr

Meanwhile, Attorney  General Barr went to Congress and would not answer some fairly straightforward question. People ranted. [Rantt]

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

Obama blamed again

As part of his Sisi press conference, Trump again blamed Obama for inventing the policy of separating children at the border and putting them in cages, while he righteously stopped the policy.

Maybe you think NPR is a fake news outlet. But here is what they immediately said about Trump’s remarks:

“Trump’s false claim that child separations were carried out by the Obama administration has been frequently refuted.

‘The Obama administration did not do that, no. We did not separate children from their parents,’ former Obama domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz told NPR in May 2018. ‘This is a new decision, a policy decision put in place by the attorney general,’ which Muñoz said ‘puts us in league with the most brutal regimes in the world’s history.’

It was then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions who instituted the ‘zero tolerance’ policy at the Southern border in April 2018, which resulted in children being separated from their parents who were taken into custody for criminal prosecution.”

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

I sat at dinner and lamented how I had seen a collection of mind-boggling leaders in my day. Maybe I have been one at times, myself. I was tempted to despair, especially since I know so many young people in the grip of the insanity (and I paid a lot more taxes on less income due to Paul Ryan’s tax give way “reform”).

But then I looked over at my dear wife, noticed the good food on my table in my nice house, recalled the wonderful note Howard put on our Coordinating Group’s check-in this morning, remembered how lovely it was to be with Rachel earlier in the day, admired the courage of one of my clients, enjoyed the unexpected public love from one of my friends – the wonders piled up as I gave thanks for Gwen’s signature brussel sprouts.

I can say with confidence:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

Be at rest. God is with us, and with the world through us. Miracles are happening every day.

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

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

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

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

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Proud Boys beating up a protester outside their meeting.

What is happening?

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

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

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Evocative stock image

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we are doing is more important than ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skepticism about leaders

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

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

Virtual extremism

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

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

Endless entertainment

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

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

Accepted polarization

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

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

Distortion as strategy

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

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

No love of enemies

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

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

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

We love what evangelicals were: Let’s be who we are becoming.

When the seminarians cohort met last week to do some theology, Corinne quoted a speech by Fuller Seminary’s President, Mark Labberton (from our mutual alma mater!), as an example of an Evangelical who is struggling with us:

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

He went on to talk about race, nationalism and economics as other notable places where the Evangelical movement has long been off the rails in the United States, noting that someone told him when one Googles “Evangelical” one gets “Trump.”(I tried it. Sure enough, the last three entries on the first page concerned Trump). A Christian is in big trouble when Trump is associated with their spiritual convictions.Image result for evangelical millennials

That kind of “evangelical” is why people leave the church

One of the generators of the post-WW2 Evangelical explosion was Fuller Seminary. Now Fuller is facing decline as the white church causes an exodus of millennials. As a church founded by an evangelical-influenced Anabaptist and twentysomethings, Circle of Hope regularly hears and feels the abhorrence associated with the label “evangelical.”

Carolyn Custis James asks the church what they are going to do about their reputation in the Huffington Post:

What would inspire [millennials]  to return [to the church] if the only vision we offer is negative and isolating? Why would they want to be part of a church that rejects and insults their friends? Is Jesus’ gospel rigid, petrified, and unbending, or is it nimble and robust enough to equip millennials and the rest of us to engage the changes and challenges of every new generation, no matter how unexpected that future may be? Does Jesus’ gospel fill our lungs with hope and passion for his world, or suck the oxygen out of the room? Does it equip us to send the same enduring indiscriminate invitation to a lost and hurting world? Does the twenty-first century evangelical church say “come!” or “stay away”?

To begin with, if you want people to stay or return, how about not labeling them? —  like calling them “millennial?”

We’ve been creatively answering Custis’ questions and many others for many years. At our meeting to do some theology we pondered the question “What’s up with Evangelicals?”

  • We considered how to affirm Evangelicals who keep the faith while jettisoning the label that has been hijacked by powerful racists seeking to control the domination system.
  • We considered how we are not an exclusively Evangelical church, by any stretch of the imagination, but how we care about all the traditional emphases that mark the movement.
  • We noted that while we share some convictions with historic Evangelicals, at the same time we care about the contemplative prayer movement from the Catholic church, the spiritual immediacy of the Pentecostals, the social action of the Mennonites, as well as all sorts of art, thinking and influences from movements that most people have never heard about from all over the world. We aspire to transcend labels.

Jeff Sessions is a good reason to wear the label “Evangelical” lightly

The big “for instance” about Evangelicals came up during our “Ask Me Anything” session on South Broad last Sunday. One of our friends asked Rachel what we are supposed to do about Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a traditional Evangelical interpretation of Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children after they enter the U.S. illegally. Sessions said,

“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (whose dad is a notable Evangelical pastor) summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” – USA Today

What are we supposed to do with that? Let’s be kind of Evangelical about it right now and actually care about what the Bible says. I think it is obvious that Paul is not writing the Romans as if he were Jeff Sessions! Jesus was killed by evil-doing authorities and the Apostle would soon be killed likewise. Neither of them were notably obedient to the established order out of principle. If anything, Paul is recommending in Romans 13 that the church obey the authorities so they don’t all get killed before the church takes root in Rome! Nero will shortly try to get rid of all of them after the big fire (Trump is like Nero). Even a cursory reading of Romans 12-15 reveals a vision that far transcends something as measly as obeying worldly powers as a goal for Christian behavior:

  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
  • Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8).
  • You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (14:10).
  • We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up (15:1-2).

As our dialogue developed among the cohort, I was happy to see us shrug off the label “Evangelical” as well as others plastered on us by the world while affirming the goodness that can be found in most containers (like “Brethren in Christ”). We ended up wanting to help people who  think Jeff Sessions might be a member of Circle of Hope find their way out of the thicket of lies growing up around them. Really, I don’t think any of us even know Jeff Sessions; much less is he one of us. Besides,  the trap he is in makes him about as real as reality TV and he probably knows he is just playing a role — he might not like it either. Regardless, our debt to him is love. And though he deserves contempt, we are not going to treat anyone with contempt. If we are convicted to be more faithful than others, we will bear with the weak and build them up. We are going to overcome evil with good.

Rhett Butler also has some Paul-like convictions we need

I have been in many discussions lately in which the convictions I just described have been labeled as “not enough.” From what I understand of the persistent arguments thrown at me, I am supposed to wear a label from the most recent political fight and defend it. I am supposed to get power and use it rightly. I am supposed to be with the Evangelicals or against them, as if our endless strife were Lord and not Jesus. It is tiring.

So I was glad to find some actual edification as I was zoning out in front of the TV on my day off. I tuned into Gone With The Wind again after flipping through other possibilities —  I love to watch finely-done movies, even if they are philosophical travesties. I only got to the part in the movie where the disreputable but moral Rhett Butler convinces the daring but disreputable Scarlett O’Hara to violate all standards of public mourning by dancing with him at the charity ball. She mildly laments that her reputation is going to be shot after all their unseemly waltzing. He tells her, “With enough courage you can do without a reputation.”

I may have gotten as much from that line as I have from Paul’s letters on today’s subject. I’m not sure why he didn’t write it himself; he surely thought it! As people who take our faith, the Bible, the Church, and its mission seriously, we need a lot of courage these days, because, as one of the cohort noted, “Evangelical” might as well be an “F word;” and Jeff Sessions represents the church on the news! Our reputation is shot with the so-labeled millennials. We live among Americans and they like to fight, not love. They love power, not pleasing their neighbors – even the weak ones seem to wake up every day wondering who stole their power! We need courage! Because I can’t help thinking we were made for this very moment, good reputation or not.

There are a lot of loving Evangelicals (I hope you said, “Of course!”). Their movement has roots in all the serious-Christian movements in the history of the Church. I can be one of them, or not, because I am serious about following Jesus, too. Wherever the Lord is followed, I’m fine. We all have the future in Christ to receive and build; we need to avoid  fighting to do it right now. We are meant to end strife, not conform to it.

That’s not to say I don’t think a good argument can be usefuI! — but I would hardly let one label me. As Paul said (in Romans 13, Jeff!), “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” There are great labels yet to be born, like “There goes that effin’ armor of light guy!”

Trump is a lot like Nero, which brings me back to Paul.

I certainly enjoyed my relatively Trumpless trip to Greece following around the Apostle Paul! It was refreshing and clarifying. The Greeks have a corrupt government, too, they say. So it is no surprise to them that a Donald Trump is taking hold of the U.S. Treasury. But the people who live in the home of democracy, whose ancestors invented all the temple architecture in which Lincoln  and Jefferson are enshrined, were kind of hoping the United States would hold out and not end up that way.

The U.S. ended up that way. I don’t say “we” ended up that way, since I am not elected by the people, or stealing from them, or planning to enslave them in new ways as I undo the fabric of their society, be it ever so  humble. I live here, but I would hardly let myself be governed by Trump in any sense that really mattered.

Like I texted my brother, I consider our branch of the Christian family to be a permanent and long-standing example of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty he was texting about (1 Cor. 7).  I admit I had to go to Google to see who they were — they were the secret society devoted to overthrowing the rule of King George III in the American colonies.  He thinks we should be ready to overthrow Trump — and knowing him, he is only half joking.  He is a rather conservative guy with a daughter in the FBI, but he hates being embarrassed. And Trump, along with his Bible-misinterpreting Attorney General are very embarrassing. I know they embarrassed me in Europe. I literally called myself Canadian a few times.

It was good timing to be following around the Apostle Paul on a long-held dream of a trip. Walter Wangerin’s fictionalized narrative of his life helped, too. Paul had the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero to deal with, we have Trump.  Wangerin’s biography reminded me that after Nero killed his mother five years into his reign to solidify his power at age 21, he was welcomed into Rome as a hero. People in the Eastern Empire thought of him as a god and longed for his return after he committed suicide. That’s the same emperor who executed Paul and Peter. We can’t really tell what people will swallow or even worship. Humankind is messed up. But isn’t it amazing how important Paul ended up being and how comical, if morbid,  Nero seems now!

I was surprised at how moved I was when i arrived in Veria (Berea) and found the small memorial park devoted to Paul’s work there. I was struck by how the simple message of the work of Jesus on our behalf is a powerful antidote to what ails the world and carries a restorative power that no strange ruler can ultimately undermine. As soon as as our wheels struck runway back in the U.S., Jeff Sessions reminded me that I live in crazy land in need of the gospel. Justifying the separation of parents and their children (in honor of Father’s Day, I guess) with Romans 13 (missing Romans 12, obviously), isn’t the craziest thing offered by the latest administration, but it is high on the list. I was happy to be carrying a revitalized antidote with me from Greece.

I had already heard a small voice in me get louder while I was away, telling me not to rest while Trump fills the earth with lies and people believe he is a god. I’m not going to react to Trump every day, that’s for sure; he does not deserve it. Jesus is Lord and Trump probably won’t even live but a few more years.  What I am going to do every day is nurture the alternative to Trump: the church — even if parts of it are walking with the liar in search of the power and safety of American wealth and whites-only power.

I was emboldened to listen to the promptings of the Spirit when I kept remembering that Paul walked into Greece with nothing but the message of Jesus and upended the Roman Empire, eventually. Of course the Romans cleverly co-opted the church, but the truth has been upending Romanizing stuff ever since. I hope our church gets better and better at upending. We don’t have a lot of power, but we certainly have Jesus.

One last picture. Archimedes (287-212 BC) was a genius inventor from the Greek colony at Syracuse. When we were in the Archimedes Museum in Olympia (another ancient extravaganza) we were so intrigued we went up to the second floor. In the farthest corner was a replica of a weapon designed by an Archimedes disciple.  It is an automatic bow and arrow machine, ancestor of the AR-15. If all of humankind’s inspiration is used for better killing, doesn’t the world need a Savior? If people think vague assurances by a couple of liars in Singapore makes us safer, don’t we need a Savior? My answer has always been, “YES!”

We have one. I am glad Paul did so well at introducing him to people. Eventually the word got to me, too. In a world where somehow we ended up with a Nero-like president, getting back to the basics of being the alternative makes an awful lot of sense again.

Standoff: We have treasure to apply to the trouble

There was another standoff on Saturday night.

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

White House Correspondents Dinner

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

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

Trump rally in Washington Township, Michigan

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

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

Will the church completely adopt standoff relating?

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

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

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

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

We have treasure we should not squander

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

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

Trump tempts Jesus-followers with the worst: revenge, lies, division

Last week I found myself saying (at least in my head), “Really? You are going to act in the church according to Trump’s playbook? You are going to remake our dialogue and maybe even our values into replica’s of Trump’s?” I’m not talking about “those people” out in some imagined countrified place; I’m talking about people in my own church going for revenge, participating in lies and creating division in the pursuit of power, justice for grievances and so-called “freedom.”

The postmodern/hypermodern era has been hard on us Jesus-followers. The state overwhelmed us, the corporations outwitted us and the local authorities decided it was best to marginalize us. When you listen to us, we often sound just like the masters we feel forced to serve. Our arguments sound like them. Our outrages mirror them. Our actions support them, or at least give them credence.

According to Peter Beinhart in The Atlantic, “over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans…were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.”

Some people applaud abandoning the dying church for a better rendition (Circle of Hope could certainly be tagged with this!). Others applaud the exodus because they think it will kill off the culture war that has been plaguing politics for decades. But after many have left the church, the warfare has not diminished one bit. It has become worse. A more “secular” population is more tolerant of gay marriage and pot legalization;  but, as Beinhart describes, “it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.”

People often blame Evangelicals for supporting Trump. But not everyone who claims to follow Jesus actually does it (as Jesus made plain before he rose from the dead).  When the pollsters go looking for Evangelicals they find many who just claim the name. One last quote from The Atlantic: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”

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I hope we are the church, not just going to one so the state can label us and pundits can argue about who is to blame for what. But I am writing this because I can’t be too sure. Sometimes we look remarkably like whoever made a convincing argument about what we care about instead of like discerning people eager to express the very word of God.

So I want to note three things today that Trump and his fellow-travelers on all routes of the road to destruction the U.S. is on seem to think is normal — three things things that are trying to creep into our church (and probably yours, too!).

Revenge is never good even if it works

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. —Jesus, Matthew 5:38-9

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. — Romans 12:17

Giving up revenge is at the core of Christianity, isn’t it? Our whole mission is reconciliation!

For Trump, revenge is religion. In 2011, he addressed the National Achievers Congress in Sydney, Australia. He told them the most important lesson they never teach in business school is this: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He tweeted his faith as a proverb in 2013: “Always get even. When you are in business, you need to get even with people who screw you. – Think Big.”  He thought big this week when he pressured Attorney General Sessions to fire acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe days before his pension kicked in.

Sometimes we have discussions that can get rough like Trump. If someone does not agree with you, what do you do? Listen? Or do you make sure they understand the full, moral impact of not agreeing with you? We’ve had people gossip some retaliation in honor of one of the partners in a divorce. Some people have left the church over a comment they never even checked out with the perpetrator — they showed them! One man even told the newspaper about our sins. They were all getting even, and it did not lead to reconciliation.

Lying is for liars

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — Jesus to people without eyes to see, John 8:44

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. – Paul about people who undermine the truth in Jesus, 1 Timothy 4:1-2

Jesus, the truth, sets us free from the constant fighting with people who will say anything to get their way and achieve their self-interest.

Andrew McCabe’s firing caused John Brennan, former CIA Director and advisor to Bush and Obama,  to reply to Trump’s tweets like this: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.” Brennan gives us our vocabulary word for the day: “venality” — the quality of being open to do anything for money or whatever reward you seek.

Trump will say anything. He floods the airwaves with lies. The Washington Post keeps a lie-o-meter that reached the 2000 mark in January. James Lamond in Newsweek says that his lie addiction is also a page from Putin’s playbook. When normal lies don’t do the trick, Putin resorts to extreme ”whataboutism” and broadcasts full-scale conspiracy theories not based in any form of reality. Lamond references the invasion of Ukraine (where MCC began with its first relief effort in 1920). He claims that “after Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Kremlin and its supporters in the Russian press advanced multiple alternative explanations for how the flight could have been shot down, including the possibility that it was an attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, that it was at the direction of the Obama administration, and even that the actual target of the strike was President Putin as part of a NATO-led assassination attempt. These were all, of course, lies.”

He sees Putin’s tactic in Trump: “The White House and its allies are using these same methods in their attacks on the Mueller investigation. There’s whataboutism around the funding of the Fusion GPS dossier. There’s muddying of waters by continually re-raising the Uranium One deal, a manufactured controversy that has been repeatedly and consistently debunked, as well as the fantastical claims of liberal bias at the FBI. And now we are seeing full-fledged conspiracy theories entering the mainstream, throwing around words like ‘coup’ and ‘assassination.’”

Image result for surely you will not dieThis kind of logic is creeping in to how we do theology. I know plenty of people who can deny any conclusion in a discussion by clever “whataboutism” (like “What if Jesus were really an alien?” or “Aren’t Oreos potentially offensive to diabetics?”).  Sometimes, especially when we dialogue about difficult or controversial subjects (which we do!), we have trouble even agreeing on what words mean. There is a power struggle for the dictionary — who owns the lexical rules and whose definitions, “ours” or “theirs” will empower the agenda?

It is a real struggle to “truth” together. People often assume some unknown, untrustworthy thing is happening behind the scenes. The more people whose secret lives get exposed, the more we suspect everyone. Paul calls us to stop lying, since we have put off our old selves and we are now members of one body. We are to stop negotiating with the snakes in our personal gardens — that lying voice that assures us that we are god enough to never die or condemns us enough to convince us it doesn’t matter what we do. It is hard to perpetually sort out lies on the way with the Truth, but we need to do it together.

Protecting our autonomy and rights while dividing up the church is deadly

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. — Romans 16:17-18

These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.  But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. — Jude 1:16-19

Jesus is bringing people together; he is holding everything together. Our instinct, as Jesus followers, is to do the same.

In a completely contrary fashion, relentlessly, Trump sows the seeds of division. Often we get caught up in the same mentality and presume division. Meanwhile, Jesus looks out over the world of beloved people and hopes for them to live together as beloved children.

Again, in the Washington Post, (owned by the richest man in the world) Jennifer Rubin talks about how most Americans agree that Trump is divisive. “From the beginning of his term, President Trump has pitched both his rhetoric and his policies to his base, not to the country as a whole. He has continued his baseless slurs on immigrants (coupled with a Muslim travel ban and crusade against so-called sanctuary cities) and pushed a tax plan that very obviously penalized Americans in blue states. He began his presidency with the most divisive agenda item — repealing Obamacare — rather than one that could have united Democrats and Republicans (e.g. infrastructure). He nominated extreme and unqualified Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials who promptly went to war with their own departments.  He’s done more to accentuate tribalism (from backing failed Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore to accusing former President Barack Obama of sundry crimes and misdeeds) than any president in memory. He’s gone to war with the executive branch (the intelligence community in particular) and any independent source of truth or check on his power. You are either with him or a criminal, a traitor and a purveyor of “fake news.” He’s managed to deepen the country’s divide along ethnic, racial, political, philosophical, educational and geographic (rural vs. urban) lines.” This week he has everyone waiting with abated breath to see whether firing Andrew McCabe is the first step toward firing Robert Mueller and plunging the country into some darkness we can only imagine.

Many people who have been schooled by the cutthroat politics of the last decade or more are much more prone to finding a reason to pull apart than get together. Look at the divorces among us this past year. They are often characterized by the incapacity of the partners to work through real problems and come to a better future together. When the pastors ask everyone to learn unity, some people feel overwhelmed and retreat to some small version of their relationship circle. Try to make a Circle of Hope that can unite South Jersey with Philadelphia on the basis of a common covenant and mission when people are  tempted every day to divide – it is tough!

We will overcome temptation

Are we so unaware that we might unwittingly conform to Donald Trump’s playbook after just a year of his horrible leadership and immoral example? I have to say “Maybe” – I think he is influencing us. And, unlike John Brennan, I am not sure America will defeat him, since America is like him. Will we end up losing our faith over the most godless president ever? I seriously doubt it. But when we live out our faith we are tempted to react to the circumstances in new ways. We are getting barraged every day with the temptation to take revenge, live a lie, and divide up. Some of us are learning to hate, overstate and vacate — and we might even call it self-preservation!

Each of us matters; every action counts; and every drop of those poisons we ingest as the Body of Christ has to work its way out of the system. We get weak and preoccupied trying not to die instead of giving people life. We need to slap the Trump kool-aid out of whatever hand offers it to us. We are a strong body, but we live in a toxic environment — let’s be careful. The church in the United States has great resources — let’s be careful everyone.

 

The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation

Sanchi leaking all over Creation

This picture is the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi engulfed in fire in the East China Sea. On January 6 it collided with a Hong Kong-based tanker carrying grain and eventually sank eight days later. It was carrying 122,000 tons of condensate, a highly toxic and flammable mix of gas and oil products that is nearly impossible to clean up after a spill. The collision caused an explosion that sent thousands of tons of oil spilling into the ocean — at one point the spill was larger than the footprint of the Paris metro. The explosion killed all 32 crew members. It is still unclear what the impact on marine life will be. Globules of oil are washing up on the shores of Japan already. The substance can last in water for months and cause cancer and other complications at low concentrations. This spill is the world’s largest since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. [See Reuters great graphics].

The day the Sanchi sank, the Trump administration was finding out that only one percent of the millions of acres newly opened up for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve were finding interested lessees. It was the first day Trump’s porn star affair became public. It was the day he attacked Democrats over DACA. And it was the day when it was revealed that Russian hackers were attacking the Senate. The U.S. newscasters were almost uniformly uninterested in the Sanchi, distracted by Trump’s skillful manipulation of the media for his ongoing reality TV show. This might be one of those huge disasters you never heard about because you live in the United States.

Creation is changing

Meanwhile, last month evidence came in about the thin Arctic icecap and never-before-recorded high temperatures there. The extended warmth staggered scientists. In February, Arctic sea ice covered 5.4 million square miles, about 62,000 square miles less than last year’s record low — the difference is an area about the size of the state of Georgia. Sea ice coverage in February also was 521,000 square miles below the 30-year normal — an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Sea ice is still growing, but whatever grows now is going to be thin and easily melted in the summer. The new heat released by the open, warming water impacts the jet stream which researchers think accounts for the weird winter storms in the U.S. and Europe.

Despite the alarming evidence, last year Trump backed out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, looking for a better deal. Mr Trump has called climate change a “hoax” in the past – one perpetrated by the Chinese. The President said in his June 2016 withdrawal announcement that the agreement put American workers,  particularly in the coal industry, at an “economic disadvantage.” The Paris Accord “as drawn and as we signed was very unfair to the US,” he said. But on January 10 he said the U.S. might get back in if he could correct the bad deal. He dithers while we needed to get serious twenty years ago.

It is all very bad news for the world, as I am sure you already think.

97% of publishing climate scientists agree that human activity, mainly greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, only 28%-51% of evangelicals (depending on the survey) agree.  We might want to excuse their skepticism to some degree. It is true that some in the  environmentalist movement are so religious about “Mother Earth” that they scare away traditional people. And it is also true that some people promote climate change arguments because they want to make a buck on “green” technologies — they also promote skepticism. And then there is the Trump affect.

Artists call us to care for creation
The Caring Hand — Glarus, Switzerland

Christians don’t uniformly know whether they should care for the creation, for some reason. I think we, of all people, need to be at the front line. If you need help with your conviction, here are some Bible verses that reinforce the point.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

As the creation story goes, God gave humankind a command to tend, or keep the Garden. The Hebrew word for “tend” or “keep” means more than just keep it neat and tidy; it means “to guard” or “to watch and protect.” The other word in this verse that’s very important is “work” or as some translations more accurately say “to cultivate.” It is from a Hebrew word meaning “to serve.” So this verse could read: “The Lord God put them in the garden to serve it and to protect it.” Even if we did not have that verse, anyone feeling the earth with their toes instinctively knows its truth. Even if you don’t love the Creator, you know bad things will happen if you don’t take care of creation.

The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18)

God cares about the creation. Some say he is going to destroy it all and give a new heavens and new earth to his followers. Since it is all going to burn up, why worry what happens to it? Others (like me) say that God intends to restore the earth and reconcile all creation to its rightful place in relationship with its Creator. We are either part of the restoration or the destruction.

Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored. (Proverbs 27:18)

This is a double proverb. If you tend the tree you’ll receive fruit. Are you tending a tree or just pillaging fruit? What’s more, the one who tends a fig tree will probably tend after other things as well. A master is looking out for people who can tend their own business well. That kind of person could oversee a master’s business. We might not be able to tend the world but we can tend our own little corner of it and do what we can where we live. We have a master looking for partners in redemption and our reputations begin in our own backyards.

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

God clearly commanded Israel to not pollute the land. The command here is to never pollute it with the blood of vengeance — sanctuary cities are being established! But even if this is not a direct word about never polluting the earth with carbon emissions and plastics, the principle can’t be ignored. The land must be stewarded and protected from what pollutes it.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. (Psalm 24:1)

In capitalist parlance, God holds the title on Earth and will hold us responsible for how we care for it. We are here by invitation. As we previously read in Revelation 11:18, those who abuse and destroy the earth will get justice. Knowing that the earth is not really ours, we should treat the earth with the respect of knowing it is God’s. The Lord is more than willing to share it with his beloved children.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:49)

Jesus sums it all up with love. We are not excused from caring about what happens to our neighbor because of principle, profit or preference. If you suspect Jesus is just talking about caring for members of the Body of Christ, remember they are severely endangered all across the world due to everything from sinking cities to disappearing polar bears. Not caring is not an option.

One final verse: Psalm 46:2-3, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Bad things are happening, but our salvation is not secured by undoing climate change. Undoing climate change springs from our love and our connection to our Creator in Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made. Redeemed people redeem the earth — or die trying, their destiny secure.

What does “pastor dominated” really mean functionally?

The Good Shepherd — Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome

We poll our Leadership Team once a year or so and they come up with the most interesting and useful stuff! They not only helps us think about ourselves better, they ask questions all sorts of people might ask if they ever got a chance. So this might apply to you and your church. Somebody asked, “What does pastor dominated really mean functionally?”

I am not sure where the person got the phrase “pastor dominated.” It is not like we have a proverb, or a line in the Cell Plan that says “We are pastor dominated” (as opposed to the undominated churches!). I’ve got a feeling I wrote it someplace. Because I have often said it when I was trying to be frank about how we operate. I don’t mean it in a bad way; I want to be pastor dominated. I want to be led. I need the leader.

Domination is almost a dirty word.

But I should use a gentler word than “dominated” shouldn’t I? I like things too colorful, I think (my grandchildren knew my favorite color was red before they asked me). I don’t think anyone in the  Untied States thinks highly of the word dominated, do they? Just look at the definition that comes up on Google:

“Domination” is “the exercise of control or influence over someone or something, or the state of being so controlled.”

That doesn’t sound so bad, right off, since parents obviously dominate their children for their own good, if they are a trustworthy parent. I have been using the word in a parental way. But the Google dictionary immediately uses the definition in a sentence like this: “evil plans for domination of the universe.” That sounds bad.

The synonyms given for “domination” are: “rule, government, sovereignty, control, command, authority, power, dominion, dominance, mastery, supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, sway.” That doesn’t really sound so bad. We need people in the lead and there are usually good reasons we put them there. I was using the word in a more discernment-process way, as if I had a love relationship with whoever was given sway. But the immediate example that followed the synonyms was “she was put off by the male domination sanctioned by her boyfriend’s family.”

Apparently the dictionary writers have never experienced a benevolent power, but have experienced a lot of untrustworthy dominators, especially men! When I was saying “pastor dominated” I assumed everyone was in Christ, who is Lord of the church, and “pastor” is just a function we recognize for the leader, who does indeed “dominate’ us in the sense that we listen to him or her and trust them to bring us together and lead as we have all discerned the Spirit wants us to go. The pastors are precious to us.

I think people don’t see dominators like I do

Of course, if I have a pastor who is dominating for the sake of domination, I am, indeed, in trouble. It is a common trouble, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone who has been around the church for long hasn’t met a leader who thinks leading is enjoying their supremacy and using command and control to exercise power for the sake of shoring up their weak ego or manipulating the system for their self-interest, conscious or otherwise. I have experienced that! I’ve probably done it! How could we not fear having such leaders when the White House staff acts so odd everyday under the leadership of a President who takes historical cues from Napoleon, apparently. If my pastor is unconscious, lazy, or does not serve me or us but serves their own interests instead, it is pretty disastrous. Then the leader of our dominion is a dominator like Google thinks they are, not a servant like Jesus.

I think I should not use the word anymore. But I still have to ask whether we ought to stick with how Jesus puts His own content into words or adopt the way the world uses words to describe its obsession with power. I think the person who asked the question, possibly, and certainly the people who wrote the Google definition are suspicious of everyone with power — maybe because they are are guarding their own! Paul appears to think very differently:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. — Ephesians 1:20-25

There is power and Jesus uses it well. I am not trying to write the ultimate theology of power, here. But if you think Jesus is a ruler like Trump, you are mistaken. I thank God that Jesus is my Lord! I don’t have to diminish the word “Lord” because I am afraid of power or I think I have to resist God’s potential abuse of power to protect my autonomy and my own power! I gladly submit to the rightful king of the kingdom. I submit to his rule. Anyone who leads us is also submitted to his rule, or we are in trouble.

So what about the power to dominate?

The Bible writers talk about power all the time, and Jesus demonstrates what he thinks of earthly domination quite clearly. Paul says:

But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 5:20-21

Isn’t he joyfully saying that it is grace that properly exercises dominion? It is sin and death that want to adjudicate who is wrong all day. If we are sure our pastors will dominate us for evil (or we just want to make sure they are properly suspected and surrounded by controlling policies), who is dominating, and by what power are they attempting to dominate?

We are called to live in trust of Jesus, who has been revealed as the power above all powers, ruling in truth and love. In his light, anyone who claims an inappropriate authority will be shown up for who they are, if not now, then in the end. I share Paul’s praise of Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Colossians 1:15-17

If anything is going to hold together in the church, it will be because Jesus is holding it together, not because we have everyone in properly-defined corrals for their unseemly power. One the contrary, we celebrate the power of Jesus unleashed among us.

So functionally, calling us “pastor dominated” (which I will stop doing, since Google has a lot of power) comes from an egalitarian place, since we are all listening to Jesus and following. The leader has a specific role in the body, not a right to dominate us in some antichrist way. They exercise leader power for our common good. We help them do this. We nurture, correct, encourage and love our pastors into their full capacity to move us, shape us, help us, and  teach us. We set them apart for a special role because we think they are given it by God, not because their innate power deserves it or demands it or because we are so foolish we can’t follow God without them. And that goes for all the other leaders we have unleashed — there must be 100 or more! They all lead because they are loved, not because they are greedy for power.

We know that any one of us might be called out to lead, if it were necessary. Would you do it? Probably. But, after all this, you might be afraid to heed the call because someone might tag you “dominating!” That would be trouble.

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We mostly have opponents because they oppose us, not because we are bad.

A few years ago, some of us were reading Psalm 109 together during our noon prayer time.  It may not be on your top-ten psalms list, so give it a try.

When we read it, we had a groupthink moment and ALL got the wrong impression about what was going on. When we heard verses 6-19, we thought the psalmist was pronouncing a long curse on someone! We suspected something like that was in the Bible, and here it was! It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! We are nice, of course, and we at least keep our curses short.

Sometimes the Psalms feel a little rough to us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. What’s more, a lot of us just don’t trust anyone, so we never share what we really think or feel. So all that angry, vulnerable poetry in the Psalms jars our sensibilities a little. This one seemed VERY jarring:

“May his children become orphans

            and his wife a widow.” (v.9)

Who would say such a thing!! We were uncomfortable reading it. How did THIS prayer get in the Psalms?

Oh, it is SOMEONE ELSE talking

The prayer had started off in a way we could relate to more easily:

 “In return for my love, they accuse me,

            though my prayer is for them.

And they offer me evil in return for good

            and hatred in return for my love: (Psalm 109:4-5)

That we could pray. We’ve all been abused and misunderstood. I’m not very good at seeing it — but I am sometimes hated. I’m usually shocked when I find out about what someone feels about me or says about me, but sometimes I do find out that I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.

We thought what came next was the Psalmist pronouncing a long curse on the people who returned hate for love:

“Appoint a wicked man over him,

            let an accuser stand at his right…

Let his days be few,

            may another man take his post….

May his offspring be cut off,

            in the next generation his name wiped out”

It was going on and on. One of us finally said, “Whew!” Because we usually think – “If it is in the Bible, then it is an example for us.” If the Psalms are a prayer book, this is a wild prayer! But we were more than a little hesitant to say the prayer.

We didn’t understand that vv. 6-19 is a quote of what someone else is saying about the psalmist, not what he is saying about them. The prayer is about being taken out, being hated, being attacked by an evil person. He ends up crying out for mercy:

“And You, O Lord, Master,

            act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,

                        for Your kindness is good. O save me!

For poor and needy am I,

            and my heart is pierced within me.”

My realization after using this Psalm and studying what it really says is this: I can get surprisingly out of touch with the forces that are coming against me! Evil and its allies want me destroyed. You may have the opposite problem and think I am kind of nutty, since you’re effectively paranoid all day — so have some mercy. I had such a resistance to pronouncing a curse that I didn’t see the curse coming at me — even in the safety of my own prayer book!

Poor, needy, opposed — admit it

In Celtic Daily Prayer it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We are even getting used to Trump’s daily lies! We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! Look at how so many have sacrificed children to screen domination and allowed porn to provide a generation’s sex education. When evil does come at us, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice — “Who am I to judge whether any screens or sexual practices are unhealthy?”

I want to love and trust first, but I don’t want to be nice to evil. Even worse, I don’t want to impassively stew in what’s wrong until it cooks me.

So I recommend some appropriate drama today. Let’s pray it together: “I am surrounded! I am needy! Save me!” 2018 could be 2017 doubled, Lord!

Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you who are like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed — so opposed that our opponents might wear us down or throw us into defensive apathy. Lord knows that if we keep harping on mass incarceration there is a domestic army willing to defend itself! We are made good in Jesus and we, because of that good at work within us, are dangerous, as far as the Lord’s opponents are concerned. They just might try to take us out. We just might need a Savior!

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Hurricane Harvey was not the distraction Trump imagined

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Saturday, and is still doing damage. This unprecedented storm could have 3-4 more days to dump rain on the Houston area – up to 50 inches in some areas!

However, even headlines about Harvey have not been enough to make people forget all of the maneuvering that the Trump Administration did on Friday.

Donald Trump apparently thought Harvey would dominate the airwaves so he could do some things relatively unnoticed – like pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, just as he warned he would do in a tweet not long ago. Political technicians call Friday’s ploy a “news dump.” In this case the president was using human tragedy for political gain. When asked about it, former RNC Chair Michael Steele said, “I can’t figure out crazy anymore.” Senate  Minority Leader Chuck Schumer  took to Twitter to accuse the President of using the storm as “cover,” and described that choice as, “So sad, so weak.”

The story of Arpaio’s pardon would not go away, despite the hurricane.  The conservative Washington Examiner, for example, published a very critical editorial under the headline, “Trump, once the law and order candidate, embraces lawless disorder with Arpaio pardon.” The editorial board of the Arizona Republic, Arizona’s biggest newspaper, declared that, “Donald Trump’s pardon elevates Arpaio once again to the pantheon of those who see institutional racism as something that made America great.”

If the administration is hoping everyone eventually forgets about all of this, it does not look like Arpaio is going to help out by fading away. Despite being 85 years old, and having been thrown out of office by the voters of Maricopa County, he says he’s considering running for office because, “I think I’ve got a big political message to get out.” If John McCain’s senate seat comes open, it would not be a surprise to see “America’s Toughest Sheriff” make a run at it.

like hurricane harvey

Why talk about this stuff?

It was a beautiful week last week in Pennsylvania. School is about to start. The church is ramping up to do great things. Why talk about Trump and some discredited racist sheriff from Arizona?

Here is one reason, as The Atlantic pointed out. Arpaio was not convicted of an ordinary crime, but of deliberately disobeying a federal court order and lying about that; but beyond that, during the litigation that led to his conviction for criminal contempt, he hired a private detective to investigate the wife of a federal judge hearing a case against his office.” Judges protect the rights of everyone in the United States – for a while yet. As Jesus followers, we are especially concerned for those who have no voice and few rights: the poor and oppressed – especially when the national sin of racism is prominent.

Another reason: Everyone in the news is teaching us, whether we are listening carefully or not. We are getting an idea of who we are from how our leaders act, even our children are learning about life from them. The news lets us know where we are now, and even more, it helps us discern where we need to go.

Right now, we are being led poorly and we need to go another direction. In all dire situations, in all times, the church needs to show where everyone needs to go. We never need to rely on elected officials to show us the way, but especially now, the leaders of the church should lead us to become an alternative to the madness. Trump is a big wind knocking down things that took a long time to build, and he, like Harvey, hits the poorest the hardest.

Here’s a final reason to listen to the news. Leaders need to listen. That means church leaders, parents, teachers, bosses, everyone. Trump is not listening. He is a textbook on lack of integrity. We need to take note. People may be briefly flummoxed by a narcissist, but they often figure out what’s going on. Even if they don’t fight back directly; they find ways to stop the process. So we will see where this all ends up. But, to be sure, a poor leader is bad for everyone. Beware! If you have responsibility, you need to wear it well. And don’t we all have some responsibility we should be taking seriously?