Back to the workplace and back to church meetings: Thoughts on re-entry

Everyone is talking about going back to work. For a lot of us, “going to work” during the pandemic has meant going to a newly-repurposed room in the house or to a card table in the living room. For many others, like nurses and delivery people, nothing changed except to become harder.

Now things are beginning to change. One of our friends suggested we give a workshop on returning to relationships, now that they are vaccinated. Connecting feels awkward. And we feel awkward about feeling awkward. So here is a first attempt to add to the conversation about re-entry.

Avoidance

The social anxiety many of us are experiencing, even when we see grandma again, has to do with overcoming the avoidance we installed during the shut down. We avoided getting sick for a long time. We were told to avoid people, so we arranged our lives to do so. We hid ourselves behind literal masks — normally we just use psychological masks to stay safe. But we adopted a further barrier between us and what could hurt us. That deliberate avoidance is not going away instantly.

When we want to overcome anxiety, it helps to “sneak up on” the thing we are avoiding. We can gently approach the situation or thought that scares us and undo the fear step by step. When we feel anxious about seeing someone we can take a deep breath, remember what we want, and note what we fear. Then we can do that behavior we decided ahead of time we would like to do, like hug someone, or shake their hand, or tell them we are still fist bumping, or wave to them and tell them we will call them later to catch up.

Robin Ware will tell you all you need to know — for a price.

What about church meetings?

Pretty soon, we will be asked to meet in person, again. All our congregations have tried it at some level. Being asked to attend a meeting will call on each of us to have an opinion, make a decision, and enact a behavior we have been avoiding. Religious gatherings were one thing the government could easily point to as exactly what should not be happening if we wanted to avoid spreading the coronavirus. I think the following understandings will help us all make it back into face-to-face community.

Leaders need to get some buy-in. Sorry for the capitalist metaphor (we’re deeper than that). It describes the emotional and time resources we need to commit to “re-open” the church (as if you could close it). The leaders need to demonstrate their  understanding that while all of us have experienced this crisis, we have not all experienced it the same way. Some of us have conditions that increase our risk of serious COVID-19 infection and will still be reluctant to return to the meeting. Others may be eager to leave online church meetings, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Sensitivity to this reality is a must. Quite a few people are reluctant to get the vaccine and their reasons are not all political. While we can’t expect our leaders to come up with a uniform agreement or a set of behaviors for us, we can expect them to consider all of us who need to come together in love as we are. We’ll need to help them.

We need time to adapt. Our buildings have changed while we were gone from them. Our habits have changed. Our outlooks have changed. The pandemic year may seem relatively brief, but it had a traumatizing impact. Responses to trauma embed themselves deep in our brain. It takes time to re-order mental habits [a favorite video about that]. We were forced to adjust one way, now we will be invited to adjust again. I did not say “adjust back” since that is not going to happen. Faith, hope and love survived the pandemic, but the ways we express those traits will never feel the same as they did. It will take time to figure out how to express them now. We will need to rebuild. Rebuilding will be advanced after we get back into our buildings. We can help the church adapt by participating in our dialogue with faith, hope and love and not with further fear and avoidance. The church cannot really be responsible for how fearful we are. We will need to walk with Jesus ourselves to overcome that.

Re-acclimating is not just a job for the leaders. We’ve been away from one another for a long time and a lot has happened. The people in my cell experienced a ton of change. The cell itself changed to one that included people from three states! Is it even possible for that cell to start meeting face to face? The leaders are going to come up with a communications strategy that allows us to share a common page for re-entry and considering who we have become. But they can’t think of everything. We are all going to have to do our best to speak up and to speak up for others. Just imagining how we retain the remote connections we have made online and organize public meetings is quite a task! We don’t want to wear out our pastors as we demand they “wait on our table,” even though we put it in Oregon! Jesus will maintain our love, but we will all need to exercise it.

We’ve always been about what is next. I hope we have a leg-up on people who might be tempted to restore what the pandemic stole from them. Personally, I am working on starting from here. Like any other year, I have losses and I have gains. I am messed up and I am a lot wiser. I had some failures and had successes. Unlike people who have no hope, we Jesus followers don’t just inventory our years as if they were investments. We tend to bloom where we are planted. Circle of Hope quite consciously accepts that we are the presence of the future, not a retread or an improvement on the past. I think I have learned a thing or two about myself and the world during the pandemic and will probably learn some more from it. I believe Jesus will use it all for his glory. Another round of resurrection is imminent.

A new song: “Immaterial” by Sophie as food for prayer

This week I have contributed the posts for Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: Water. I thought I would entice your to share the joy I found in them by putting the first entry here.

Today’s Bible reading

Let this be your basis for this time of prayer:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

For there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all

— this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. – 2 Timothy 2:1-7

More thoughts for meditation

I honor of the 2021 Grammys the New York Times published a compendium of the “19 Songs that Matter Now” celebrating the artists who “got us through a pandemic year.” These artists may not have done anything for you and you might not even know who they are. Most, if not all of them, were not trying to use their talents to reveal Jesus or worship God. So what are they doing in Daily Prayer

Today’s reading gives a good reason to listen to them. We should pray for everyone. There is one God and one mediator who wishes everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. The seven of the nineteen artists the Times noted this week represent humanity in a pandemic. They are influencers who have a message in a time of great change. For the first time, people who are religiously affiliated in the U.S. dipped below 50% this year — that makes for 52% of the population who could use our prayers.

What’s more, these artists inform our prayers. Music is usually quite visceral, so they may cause your “fight or flight” instinct to kick in. Christians are well known in the U.S., after all, for fueling a culture “war” — they fight. And they are also known for being avoidant,  ignorant, and unrelatable — since they took flight. So you may feel like exercising either response when you hear these songs. But let’s try praying the truth in love in response to them, instead. This week of daily praying together could hone our love into a confident response to a world that is newly challenging.

Sophie and her song

Suggestions for action

Sophie died in Athens in January after climbing up on a rock to watch the full moon and accidentally fell.  After that, her influential dance/electronic album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” again began to climb the popularity charts.

In the song “Immaterial” Sophie declares gender as a material form to be a dead concept, one defined in one’s mind, rather than by any biological construct. She says once we get away from the dysphoria, the years of feeling “wrong,” the thoughts of never being happy, we are entirely our own mold to design, regardless of any concept handed down by Western European standards of living.  Some people embrace her song as the anthem of a whole new world.

Meditate with Francis’ basic prayer: “Who am I, Lord? And who are you?” 

Pray for people who believe everyone is entirely their own mold to design. Being free of Eurocentric domination is good for Jesus followers, too. But we don’t need to throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of worn out philosophy, do we?

Pray for love that creates an atmosphere in which everyone can work their difficult way through life with Jesus in the center of the journey, not just themselves.

See the whole week at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: Water.

The cross in the night

I needed a new taste of your cruciform love
as I lay awake feeling at home
but entertaining all those homeless thoughts of loss
which are always looking to move in.

I received a word from the poet, C. Day Lewis,
pondering the day his son left home.
Oh, he would be at dinner, but gone, nonetheless,
finding his way among friends. He said:

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How self-hood begins with walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

At every table I eat a bowl of letting go
and feel hungry as I find my way.
On your icon across the room you are loving,
vulnerable in your passion.

I have a lot to learn of the cross in the night
as others feel free to sleep away —
or so my piece of broken heart often tells me
as I resist learning love from you,
as I hear the voice of love in me.

 

C. Day Lewis poem in full.

The way of the heart: Doubting the primacy of the mind

Several of my clients have told me they have a broken heart. Others said their chests pound with tension. They lay awake in bed feeling like they will burst. Others feel like they are going to have a heart attack and possibly die. One said crying uncontrollably works a lot better than the breathing techniques I suggest.

Let’s spend a few minutes letting our hearts and minds be at rest; we need it.

heart vs mind

We have heart problems.

At the recent CAPS Conference, Eric Johnson revealed how unacquainted with our hearts most of us have become. The modern and postmodern eras became increasingly subject to the “mind” as the central feature of human psychology and experience. Scientists thought they were overcoming many centuries of describing the heart of us with the word “heart” by asserting “mind.” But “heart” persists, since that common-sense description of our core experience is built into all the languages of the world (except for scientific language, for the most part).

  • Take heart.
  • Follow your heart.
  • She has a heart of gold.
  • He wears his heart on his sleeve.
  • We had a heart-to-heart talk.
  • He is heartbroken.

We all know what these things mean.

The brain scientists tend to ignore the “embodied metaphors” we learn as children in favor of their “more adult” cognitive bias. Psychology is supposedly the “science of behavior and mental processes.” If you use the everyday term “heart” to describe psychological dynamics it makes you look quaint and scientifically naïve, if not just a bit stupid. But just looking at the fact that stress is related to heart attacks would argue for a whole-body approach to wellbeing, even one centered on the 40,000 neurons clustered around the heart.

The way of Jesus is heartfelt

the heart has its reasonsThe dominant psychological term in the Bible is “heart.” It occurs over 800 times. For instance:

  • “Be wise, and direct your heart in the way” (Proverbs 23:19).
  • “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
  • “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
  • “Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

The psychology of the way of Jesus has been shaped by how we see the heart:

  • “The heart is restless, O Lord until it finds rest in You” (Augustine, Confessions)
  • “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, Larger Catechism)
  • “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #277)

Since psychology aligned itself with the modern scientific method many critics have argued it leads to a truncated and reductionistic view of human beings. We are uniquely constituted by our beliefs about ourselves. So a distorted sense of our psychology can, and does, impoverish us. Psychology might malform us in the name of science. So when my client tells me his chest feels heavy when we talk about his anxiety and shame, I don’t tell him, “It’s all in your head.” His feeling also reaches back to his first experience of himself as a child and how he has related and considered himself and God ever since.

The way of the heart

the way of the heartPsychologist, priest and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen, consistently used the word “heart” to mean our access point to God through contemplative, listening prayer and active obedience. His little book on the desert fathers and mothers, The Way of the Heart, has been a foundation for prayer for many of us.

The way of the heart helps us come to God with all we are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes; our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings; our family, friends and enemies – all that makes us who we are. With all this we listen to God’s voice and participate with God speaking to us in every corner of our being.

As people have become vaccinated in the past weeks, I have repeatedly heard them describe a “weight being lifted.” As the George Floyd murder trial grinds on, mass shootings hit the news and attacks on Asians become known, many people feel deeply infected. Our hearts ache. It is no wonder we describe our experience that way. The “heart” is the secret place in us where our spirit, soul, mind and body come together in a unity of the self. There is no such thing as a disembodied spiritual heart. Our joys and sorrows happen in time. We are restored in Jesus so we can love God, neighbor and self with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27).

The way of the heart sends us on a quest with a lot of questions. The main one is “Who am I? What is at the heart of me? Can I trust my heart? Will Jesus really give me a new heart?” Even if we are quarantined we only need to look at the TV to live a very challenging life.  Nouwen says the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity or power; it is self-rejection, doubting who we truly are at the heart of us – the beloved of God. When we believe the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, or define us as a series of chemical reactions, or condemn us to whatever society labels us, then we might be steered any old way.

Johnson and Nouwen have encouraged me to sink into that scene at the Lord’s baptism when God demonstrates how she feels about humans bearing sin and death as he says, “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.” It is that heart-to heart moment we continue to incarnate as we also come to God as we are in our own time and dare to open our hearts.

The end of Christian supremacy: New hope for resurrection

After our great sunrise meeting in the park on Easter I ate all sorts of delectable things I had missed for a long time. It seemed like a good time to exercise off a few pieces of candy, so Gwen and I took off for our nearby forest path. On the last leg, we went by Treetop Quest, the zipline and ropes course fun that opened not too long ago. I wondered what all the cars were doing parked along Chamonix Dr. on Easter Sunday. Treetop Quest was not closed for Easter.

I think you need to be a pretty old Christian to be surprised at what is open on Easter Sunday. My grandson kept looking at his father’s watch to see if the family brunch was going to end in time for him to make his soccer practice…on Easter Sunday.

The end of Christian supremacy

I had a job titled “youth director” for much of my twenties. Just for a reference point, Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter as president in 1981 when I was 27. Not long before then, I had an unforgettable conversation with a high school girl about the resurrection of Jesus. She had never heard of it. She literally did not know what the word “resurrection” meant, for sure. I remember going home to Gwen and talking about this experience, after I changed a couple of diapers. I told her this was the first rivulet of a flood of newness coming upon us who were used to our environment being saturated with Christianity. Jimmy Carter, the real Christian, who later went on to prove it, was replaced by Ronald Reagan, who’s soulmate, Nancy, consulted astrologers for auspicious times for Ronnie to do things. Reagan beget Bush who beget Trump.

I should not be surprised about Treetop Quest being open on Easter or that atheists and Muslims often protest when the government persists in putting up Christmas trees and, even worse, Nativity scenes in December. The big news in the social scientist sphere last month was that the regular census of religious adherents in the U.S. showed for the first time that over half the country are not church members.

Let’s be clear, Gallup has been measuring “church membership” for 80 years and plenty of megachurches do not even have a way to be a member, formally. One’s attendance is their membership; being on the mailing list or fundraising list is one’s membership. But plenty of long-lived churches have seen a decline in their membership; it is minus 25% in Philadelphia’s region in the last decade. Non-college graduates and unmarried individuals showed the greatest decline. Declines were proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates. Those groups have the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults.

All this data might be more about how people do not affiliate than about the prevalence of Christianity. It might be about how people are freeing themselves from heretical American theology and fraudulent church systems rather than deserting Jesus. But my anecdotal experiences of a rivulet of unbelief among high school students in the 80’s became a river among Gen Xers in Philadelphia in the 90’s. It feels like a sea change in the 2020’s. Christian supremacy is dying in the United States. It died a long time ago elsewhere.

Resurrection in post-Christian culture

My historical heroes are Desert Fathers and Mothers, Benedictines, Franciscans, Anabaptists, Wesleyans and others who always took the Jesus way between church factions fighting for or submitting to political power. Even when fighting for social justice I never thought winning the fight was anyone’s final solution. So I remember sitting in the front yard with my buddies back in my twenties, plotting what we should do now that Ronald Reagan was ushering in a new godless era – how’s that for prophecy! The part of the church that decided to defend Christian supremacy eventually helped elect Donald Trump! As Dr. King taught us, it is good to be on the “right side of history” – that is, to keep making history in collaboration with Jesus. I still find great joy in being on that quest.

I am happy the church is finally more like a minority group in the United States. For one reason, it is very clarifying. You can’t assume someone even knows it is Easter. “Christmas” is fully superseded by “holiday” and thinking Sunday is a day of rest, or special (besides being the weekend) makes one weird. I forgot about my cell meeting one time after it became another TV show last year — and I was in charge of it! Suddenly, being an actual Christian takes some effort when it is uncommon to be one. That effort is so good for us.

Parents now need to nurture faithful children rather than just send them to church. My parents were early adopters of post-Christianity. They probably would have been great modestly-believing church members if they had been able to get along with hypocrites. I could “go to church” as an act of differentiation. But no one would just send a kid to church these days; who knows what might happen to them? The children won’t hear about the resurrection in school, so they’ll need a parent. Our situation already sounds more like the Bible, doesn’t it?

The writers of the New Testament represent a tiny minority from a tiny part of the Roman Empire. They are not going along with what was going along. Jesus calls his way “narrow.” The broad way is leading to destruction, as in global warming and the cultural captivity of the church, among other things. Their message leads off with the incarnation of God and ends up with his resurrection. They never talk about going to church or taking over the government — they are the church and eventually undermine the government. Their message is so strong it keeps rising from the dead. American slaves get it, toss the faulty vessel in which it arrives and come up with their own improvement — they are still the most Christian element of the U.S. population! The liveliest parts of the 21st century church are in all the places European Christians brutally colonized the world in service to their idols. Jesus overcomes the world.

Being in the treetops on Sunday has a lot of merit and running around after a soccer ball could be a good thing. People have decided to follow Jesus under worse circumstances. Like I said, their master might not let them learn how to read or their colonizers might organize conflict between the people groups you just spent generations to reconcile. Jeff Bezos might spend his billions figuring out how to get more out of you. Another pandemic is not unlikely. In the face of all that, Jesus followers keep saying, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” echoing that first minority group writing the Bible:  

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

A passion: Deaths and wonders

At times last year, my spiritual director must have felt he was riding a bucking bronco when we met. We sold our family home of 25 years, totally rehabbed the new condo, which was probably the most disastrous rehab we ever experienced, then said good-bye to my hired role in Circle of Hope – mostly during a pandemic and an election circus! Maybe my director was fine, but I still feel like I may have hit the dirt a few too many times. Fortunately, I have some rodeo clown friends and a cowboy family to pick me up.

When I drag in, looking a bit dusty and dazed, my director will often respond to one of my stories with, “It’s a ‘passion.’” He does not have a ready definition for what he means by “a passion,” and I am not much for defining spiritual experiences anyway. But I think I might understand what he means more all the time as I experience the little deaths that lead to new life. As I endure the indignities that accompany the joys of transition, my life keeps teaching me. Like Paul says:

And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:30-32)

What Paul is doing is a “passion.” He writes with a passionate heart about risking it all on the hope of resurrection.

Facing death is normal Christian life. It is so wonderful we can face it in the distant future with confidence. Most most of us think we’ll be alive a lot longer, so that confidence is easier and no less comforting for being so. It is also wonderful we can face the “wild beasts” in the present with confidence. That’s usually more difficult and often feels comfort-challenged.

In Paul’s story above, the enigmatic reference to “wild beasts” probably refers to the riot started by the silversmiths in Ephesus who thought Paul’s gospel would wreck their lucrative trade in honor of the religious power, Artemis, who ruled the area. I wish I were more like Paul, but at least I know what it is like to face power struggles with blinded people who think Jesus is no more than an alternative fact, at best. You undoubtedly have such struggles, too, at whatever level you struggle.

In facing what seem to us like death-dealing forces, we are like Jesus being attacked in John 10. His opponents are ready to stone him, and he says, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” I think my director would call that moment “a passion.” In the face of the violent, judgment-wielding world, we speak the truth in love. If we die that day, just a little or for the last time, we do.

The Elements of Holy Communion — Jacques Iselin

The death and wonder in the communion meal

It does not seem accidental that bread and wine are central to how we understand the crucifixion and resurrection this week. They are symbols of transformation. The grapes are crushed and reduced. When they “die” their inner juice and flavor are released. Then in the darkness we wait for them to become new wine. Likewise, simple flour with a little water and salt becomes many variations of bread. Add yeast and the whole lump of dough expands and becomes new. In the transformation into the food that feeds us there is a death of the old and the wonder of the new.

When our own transformation passion is working in us it is a bit more traumatic, isn’t it? It is painful for us to feel crushed, even when we know the newness is being released. And we don’t like being expanded, or stretched, even though it is the process of welcoming that wonderful fullness for which we have been longing all along. And when it comes to being the bread of life with Jesus, that can seem like a bit much.

Last week, when I saw my director, I could not tell if I was stuffing my pain or dampening my wonder. Both actions would be good ways to try to avoid dying that day. Pain reminds us we are going to die – severe SMH. I want to shut pain out. And wonder reminds us of why we don’t want to die – severe FOMO. I want to keep wonder in. Yet I don’t want to wall off my heart. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,  becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Paul actually said that in Philippians 3, but I say it too.

Our passion in the Holy Week

I don’t want to die. But I certainly want to live. So I always need a Lent to teach me about passion — the Lord’s and mine and ours. I keep learning that living is giving – whether Jesus is about to be stoned, or Paul is fighting wild beasts, or we are facing societal breakdown, or we face all those other breakdowns: mental, physical, and relational. I don’t mean we give because we are afraid to die, although that may be where we start. I mean we give because we know we are alive and will live forever. It isn’t, “If I give I will live.” It is, “I give because I live.” I like living. Giving is living.

This week is all about how dying leads to rising, how living is giving. As my Lenten guide, Alan Jones says:

We are made in the image of God who gives himself away. [We are made in the image of God who gives herself away]. The mystery of that self-giving is what Easter is all about. The closer we get to our destination the closer we are to the crucifixion. Holy Week and Easter are not the only times when we remember God’s Passion for us. They also invite us into our own passion. Lent is a long period of reality-testing that questions our view of ourselves and the world. (In Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home)

That testing has surely been happening to me. Maybe we have all been experiencing a pandemic-long “lent” that is testing who we are and questioning the world in which we live. If so, maybe a big resurrection is about to dawn. I hope so. The Holy Week calls us to show up and endure the process, especially if we missed the rest of the season!

The situation in the country is giving us lots of opportunity for a reality test. But my experience seems more acute than an assessment of where society should be going. My daily dying won’t be something that works back on me from what is happening in the world.  I’m already happening. Resurrection is already loose in the world. My profound actions will not make it happen. To the contrary, my grapes are being crushed and the yeast of God’s Spirit is expanding me.

Some days I don’t think I can die any more or rise any more. Perhaps when I feel that way my wine is taking some time to ferment and my dough is resting. But by this time in my life, I often know that despair might signal Easter is coming. Ready or not, a resurrection is imminent, as surely as the daffodils are coming up to bloom and, as a church, we keep turning our faces into Spring.

Does it take too long to make a good friend?

The other day in my Jesus Collective “hub” meeting (kind of a cell), Jeremy Duncan of Commons Church in Calgary, helped us with the topic of the day: loneliness. I won’t tell you what he said of course, since I’m sure you don’t quote people from your cell without them knowing about it either. I just wanted to give him a shout out since he sent along the article I’m using.

We were talking about how lonely many of us have been! Covid exacerbated all the other things that keep us distant from the relationships that give us life — like our friends! Remember hanging around with your friends? That was great. Remember the hang out time after the Sunday meeting? I can’t number how many people have told me they miss that. Even the ones who avoided those chips and cookies miss knowing the opportunity was there to avoid! We need each other.

Have enough friends?

Depending on how you look at it, you probably don’t think you have enough friends, and that may be true. The difficult news is: you’ll have to take the time necessary to develop them if you want some. That’s where the article I want to share may be helpful. In the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (not kidding, it is a field of study), Jeffrey Hall published this study in 2019: “How many hours does it take to make a friend?” You can Google the title and read the whole thing.

The short answer is it takes about 300 hours to make an intimate friend. If you spent all your waking hours with someone, that’s about 18 days. You can see why many of our closest friends are or were the ones we made in high school and college when we had more disposable time and we had proximity through school activities and possibly through communal living. Soldiers and people who go on mission trips will often say they made lifelong friends in a highly concentrated time. I lived communally for eight years with a group of people in my twenties and most of them are still dear friends.

Close friendships require tending of course. So you may feel distant from old friends now that you spend so much time with your mate or with nurturing your children or are swallowed by your job. Concentrating on building friendships may feel like a chore you never quite get to, not a joy. But do you ever have enough friends?

Levels of friendship

Friendships are a key predictor of happiness. The Department of Labor said in 2015 that Americans spend about 2 hours a day watching TV but only 41 minutes, on average, socializing. (No, I don’t know how they get these figures). You might have spent even more time on TV and less time socializing when Bridgerton was on, even though the whole show was about how they hang out and make friends (and enemies, of course).

The famous Dunbar work on social networks, of which we are fond, tested with how many people each of us can maintain “a coherent face-to-face relationship.” The findings? — about 150-200. That’s one reason we decided to maintain congregations of about that size, so we could be “face-to-face.”  Having more relationships usually means we spend less time with intimates (and proportionally less time with everyone in the network). So even though our congregations are small, you may feel stretched by your connections when you include your family system and people in your employment setting and neighborhood. It is easy to feel over one’s limits.

So the first lesson here is: You may have enough friends. Dunbar gave a wide definition of the word “friend” and it might encourage you to use it as a way to look at your circle. Here are the labels, in descending levels of mutuality and trust: support clique, sympathy group, friendship group, clan, and acquaintances. See them as concentric circles with the support clique in the center. They are all “friends” from “best” friends to just being friendly. The support clique (1-5) is usually comprised of mates and kin, but may also include “best friends.” The sympathy group subsumes the support clique (reaching 10-15 people) and includes good friends. The former categories are part of the following: sympathy group/clansmen reaching around 40-50 (this probably includes people in the church), and acquaintances 120-150 (which probably includes, church, neighbors and workmates).

You may not have developed as many intimates as you might like. But you may have quite a few friends if you want to see them that way. We often sift through people according to the intimacy we desire instead of enjoying them at the level they are. If you are a perfectionist about love, you are probably unhappy.  And you certainly don’t see others like Jesus sees you.

Within these groups, given the proximity and opportunity for contact, some people will possibly “click” and friendship will develop. Like I said, we make rapid assessments of who is a possible friend when we meet people. If we follow our desire to connect, we decide to spend time with them. We’re usually connected within 3-9 weeks. After four months, other new friends are less likely to develop since that space is occupied in the limited time we have. So we could know people for years and not become friends then meet someone new and be connected in 6 weeks. I think God makes our hearts bigger. But our general equipment is likely similar to what Dunbar and others describe. If you have a few good friends and it seems like people on TV have more, don’t let them make you feel bad. You can make more, but chances are, you are doing OK.

Friendship takes time

If you feel lonely and want to make friends or want to make more, it will take time. And I suggest to take the less-than-ideal relationships you have as the blessings they are rather than hold out for “falling in love” with the friend you have always wanted.

I think it is time well spent to make as many acquaintances as possible and allow ourselves to let as many become friends as possible, even count all those acquaintances as friends and potential intimates. Jesus calls all of us friends, after all. But just saying everyone is your friend, doesn’t make them an intimate. It is possible to have a lot of acquaintances and no real friends, and we need them. We need to access the opportunity and spend the time for deep friendship to happen. All the other people in our network are fine where they are too, and we love them as they are in the context of our relationship as it is. But we also allow for deeper things to occur. That’s why we love our retreats. It is one of the few times we spend a lot of relatively unstructured time bent on relating. New friendships are built and old ones maintained.

The recipe is simple and we know it instinctively, but I am knee deep in a sociology article and they are proving what we know. 1) Being and making an intimate takes time. 2) The time must be voluntary. Intimates are less likely to be made during work or school hours, although attraction may begin there. You could become friends because you fight aliens together professionally like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But you would be more likely to become my friend if you called me up and we fought aliens together in your backyard. Then, when we were hiding in the shed, waiting to blow them up with the bomb we made, I would have a chance to tell you about how my mother hated aliens and you could tell me about why you think you stutter, etc. After we saved the neighborhood, we’d probably have our arms around each other and we would joke with your husband about what happened when he got back from the store. By that time I’d be part of the 10-15 at least. It takes time. It takes talking. It takes common experience to make friends. My cell has spent a lot of time together by now. We’re obviously better friends for it.

I think these kind of stats are funny. “The chance of identifying someone as a casual friend rather than an acquaintance is greater than 50% when individuals spend about 43 hours together in the first 3 weeks after meeting. … Casual friends become friends somewhere between 57 hours and 164 hours over 3 months….The chance of transitioning from friends to good/best friends is greater than 50% after 119 hours over 3 weeks and 219 hours over 3 months. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hours. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hours of time spent.” I would not measure how fast my love is developing, however. Measuring intimacy usually just ends up with feeling you don’t have enough. Receiving the love you get and letting it be enough for today is more satisfying. Our desire will always push us and may create the opportunities to connect we need. But it can also make what we already have seem insipid if we are not moving along with Jesus

Unless we despair of belonging, we want to make belonging happen. This post may make you ache or it may point out how you shut off that intolerable ache. Your mom may ache when you don’t call. You may ache because mom is gone and will never call again. We all know that people have an inner circle and we may long to be in it with someone. We may or may not be welcome there, for whatever reason. But let’s not get mad at each other for wanting to be connected. We all want that. A lot of people probably love you. And they are, at least, understandably lonely for a friend, just like you are.

Light in my darkness: Common life, mystery and the moon

I found out my old computer had a built-in microphone the other day. I told my wife of my discovery and she said, “Yes. They have microphones.” She was not as embarrassed about me as I was – or at least she did not say it. I supposed she thought I knew what I was doing when I set up my external mic all those times. My computer darkness is rather deep it would seem. But I got a little light.

In similar fashion, my supervisor criticized a technique I was using. I would not say we had a “spat” about it, but I sounded a bit testy when I mildly implied he did not know what he was talking about. Afterwards I regretted seeming even a little defensive. He was just doing his job, after all. Later on, I was reading an assigned text and realized the author used the same kind of technique I was using. That was kind of a twofer experience. I saw the darkness of my defensiveness and then received another kind of light when I was affirmed. Now I can use two techniques. If I am on my game, I feel OK about wandering around in the dim light before dawn, luxuriating in the moonlight, assuming sunrise is likely.

moon in the darkness over Philadelphia

Darkness is the seedbed of light

What I am learning again is that my darkness is often the field where my light grows. The fertile darkness of Lent so many of us avoid is redolent with the spiritual humus where light grows. I live in a high rise to the west of downtown, now. The moon rising over Philadelphia often wakes me up in the night. It teaches me. As you can see, last week the moon of God’s light and love rose in my darkness a couple of times and woke me up. Thank you Jesus for more salvation

Although we often sing of “the light of the world” we might want to give that image a little boost of terror. If we actually saw God revealed in full glory, the brightness might make us want to tear our eyes out. Remember, we can’t even look at the sun straight on without damaging our eyes — as Trump was surely told that time.

Light does not always feel like a blessing. My blindness regarding the operation of normal computers by normal people recently came to light. I felt ashamed. My supervisor shone some light and spotlighted how I was not going with the program. It showed how vulnerable I feel when I do not appear perfect. We often “seek the light” when we are in much more dangerous and destructive places. But we may not see it or not really want it.

We may be so blind or feel so threatened we embrace darkness as the true light. I can easily imagine me telling my wife, “Real computer users use external mics.”  Sometimes the more enveloped we are by darkness, the less likely we are to give up the belief we are in the light. Nothing prevented me from saying, “That supervisor and his cronies are damaging people with their one-sided teaching!”

The yearly pilgrimage through Lent lead us into our real darkness and ends with a promise of real life in the light. You will have to test that out, of course. My experience, and the Bible, tells me that the darkness I fear, which I would like to sleep through, is the place I find light.

Our deep darkness this Lent

This year the darkness in the U.S. could really help our Lent or just swallow us up. Vaccination and daylight savings time has certainly lightened my step. But the deep darkness afoot could lead to the deeper light of God. Two major events have occurred during this season which might be seedbeds for glory to grow in us.

Members of the Floyd family at memorial after settlement was announced.

The George Floyd murder trial is beginning. I will never forget the picture of that poor man being murdered on TV and the eruption of anguish and fury which followed.  I wonder if we Christians can follow Jesus through the Lent of this trial without being swallowed by the ideologies swirling around it.

The Nobel Prize committee called Doris Lessing, after awarding her the prize for literature in 2007, “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.” That she did. When she emigrated from Zimbabwe, she was not overly impressed by the shallow people in charge of the deep causes for which she worked.

When I came to England, I found the Left could be dull persons shouting at meetings boring me to death with their egos. With words. Verbiage the more outrageous the less it meant. They hated art. In time, I came to fear they hated people as well. Living lives of frenzied emotionality  based on the sufferings of other persons in countries about whom they seemed to care very little except to find them convenient for certain neurotic needs of their own. (Via Kate Millet in Flying)

When I see the Floyd family walking around the scene of George’s death, considering how to invest their $27 million monetized justice, I have to pray for Jesus to be their light and to save us all.

Another strange darkness during Lent is the big, bright Covid-19 relief bill which the Republicans all voted against. I think that party has tried to present themselves as heroes in a culture war against godless people who will force your child into a multi-gendered bathroom and such. But, in fact, in opposition to the moralists screaming on the street, they have embraced an anti-fundamentalist “openness” of their own, and invented a religion based on Donald Trump’s lies and the willingness of Q-Anon people and Senators to swallow illusions. The United States is pretty much the home of do-it-yourself religion by which people arrive at their individual beliefs. Trumpism may be the full flower of that dark path.

Robert Bellah is kind of old hat by now, but he nailed where the U.S. was headed. It got there under Trump.

There is a fear in our loose-bounded culture that strong belief in anything, particularly in the area of right and wrong, means one wishes to coerce others into sharing one’s views. (More in Uncivil Religion)

When I see the Senators devote themselves to division and infect us all with enmity, I have to pray for Jesus to be their light and to save us all.

Such a rich, deep darkness around us that so many see as light! Isn’t it the perfect atmosphere for Lent?

It takes a real Lent to cultivate light in the darkness

Will the pandemic end by July 4th and our normal illusions be restored? Will the economy rebound without an inflation crisis so we can return to its domination? We’ll see. But it would be a missed opportunity if we did not ask the questions in Christ. The darkness of this Lent coming to fruit in the trial of Derek Chauvin and the ongoing power frenzy in the government is a fertile field for light to grow. Most of the time we like staying dim. But we’ve been in the dark a long time. If you at least see the moon, I would meditate on the sun it reflects. There is light.

A few suggestions for how to get some rays:

1) Be an obedient moon, yourself. Know you reflect God’s light, in Jesus. Let that light sink in and follow it. Have a “single eye.” You are not God. Find yourself in relationship to the Creator.

2) Give up any individualist view of religion. The sun rises on everyone, not just people with whom you agree. And you don’t rise at all without Jesus. Keep questioning your private judgments. I recently found out old computers also had microphones. Who knows what else I have yet to learn?

3) Accept that your choices matter and be responsible for what you do. Be seen for who you are in Christ and be free from the shame that leaves you in the dark. If you are defensive, you are. If you are affirmed, accept it.

4) Build community. We are all reflections. The light comes to us all. We are all struggling. Love and reconciliation will always be what shining means. If you are at peace with those near to you, wonderful. It will be easy to find someone with whom you, or Jesus, are not.

Old people don’t sleep as much. When I was young, I slept with a bat under my bed to fend off intruders in the dark. Now I am up in the night relishing the moon. The purposeful darkness of Lent might generally scare you to death – just look at the four demanding admonitions above! It is for serious humans. While I think the times are scary, the moon keeps rising in the night in different quadrants of the sky and in different permutations, always waning and always growing. Though the night is very dark, light grows there if we welcome it and live in its glory.

Trail in an unknown forest

an unknown forest

Off a road we never travelled,
the empty lot for the trailhead parking
seemed eager for a visitor
on a mild day in March.

Bits of snow lay untouched on the path
and painted the forest floor in patches.
The sunshine felt as new as the trail
after months locked indoors.

The rocky way relied on blazes
and our old feet relied on memory
of many hikes over many years, those
with less expectation of falling.

There are wonders to be seen.
Inside and out there are vistas.
Now the tree growing out of a rock
seems like a personal statement.
Now the stone like the Stone Table
has a deep spiritual history.
Now the slab like a stage
is pondered from erotic to sublime.
Now the muddy flats speak of
foreign places and mysterious art,
while the destination creek flows
with thoughts for the future.

It is always striking how the way into
the unknown of a new forest seems long.
How far is it? Should we keep going?
How can we gauge the effort this takes?

Yet the way back through the now
familiar landscape, dotted with experience
like patches of snow, seems short, soon to
embolden an unknown route back home.

Just a bit of courage to try
a new path and the interior landscape
feels the breeze of a spring thaw
where it is frozen with fear and doubt.

Though the pilgrimage of Lent seems long
in a year so hard and fraught,
so many days it seems like a short way
back to the home You make for us.

And even when my courage seems so small
and the mud of spring annoying,
You move me to stay on the way of the heart:
that old unknown end, always a familiar new end
marking the trailhead of hope.

The way of significance: Our Lent pilgrimage through the media debris

Is it just me, or does your mind sometimes seem like a collection of sound bites and tune fragments stored up over decades of media saturation? My brother told me that even though his voice changed, with age, from a remarkable tenor to a mundane baritone, he was still a valuable member of the cover band because he could remember complete lyrics to all the old songs. (He also plays several instruments, I must add!). The rest of us are stuck in an ever-growing collection of undifferentiated mental debris — reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean plastic “gyre” I am fond of talking about, bits of stuff floating around in our heads.

The pandemic is waning (Lord, hear our prayer), but our media consumption is probably not. Entire new islands of media pollution may be forming right now! I know I have been filling my limited brain capacity with even MORE stuff. I think two favorites, Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland were a lot like Lent — somewhat depressing subjects, calls to change and grow, and road trips. In the case of Lent, our “road trip” is like drawing back the curtain on a movie about our spiritual pilgrimages and seeing whether we are actually moving or, alternatively, trapped on screen, appearing to move by watching images move.

Can I keep moving through this mess?

I am trying to stay on pilgrimage, even though it is perilously easy to permanently stay at my latest point on the map. The courage it takes to keep growing is daunting. Wandering around with godless Frances McDormand in Nomadland felt vicariously heroic, free and honest. I did not like her or her life, but it sure looked more authentic than staying trapped in some subdivision like her prospective mate ended up. I have felt trapped a lot during the pandemic and it is easy to just stay trapped until someone sounds the all clear. Don’t you periodically wake up and see yourself sitting in your cage munching fake food, listening to fake news and fake exposés of fake news and inexplicably funding Netflix? We need to force ourselves onto our personal pilgrimages for Lent.

My Lent book, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home by Alan Jones, is helping me stay on the road. And, in my case, it is helping me write an elegy for my own past, as I move on into what is next. In the chapter I just read, “The Road that Leads Nowhere,” Jones is highlighting how our many choices as Americans has basically ended up with us not making any choices. He says, “We get lost spiritually precisely in proportion to the casualness of our choices.”

Does being in the band have meaning or am I just filling up my time? Should I explore my past and figure out how I got on the road I am on or just watch others doing that on the screen? Is the terrible thing I am experiencing pushing me out on the “road” or shall I push that energy back inside somewhere? Shall I keep writing this blog or decide I need more readership to be relevant? Shall I let the Lent story draw me into the eternal story about going home or shall I just stay trapped at home? You can tell I think everything I have talked about so far is filled with significance.

It always takes risking significance

Jones says, “Our smallest actions and decisions can be fraught with significance and have serious consequences, [because] the same energy that made the sun and the stars came into play, and the result was you. You matter and your choices matter. If you lose sight of that, you get frozen and lost. You are not an accident. To discover that is already to have recovered enough passion to turn you away from a dead end and toward life.”

I rarely think relating to Frances McDormand or Glenn Close on the screen is a dead end. Although their stories were filled with roads to nowhere, they are helping me with Lent, as we speak. Getting something out of the screen rather than it just sucking the the life out of us is hardly automatic. Christians often hide the fact that we are in the screen’s “tractor beam” just like everyone else, being dragged places we might not choose if we were more conscious. My cell group always has great suggestions for what to watch next; it is one thing we all know. None of us need to risk significance, we can just sit there and make choices with our remotes.

The series I have been recommending is another import on Hulu from the Brits, Larkrise to Candleford. The show is about a village girl and her townie relative experiencing the 1890s as everyone begins to move into the modern age. All the innovations of the next era crowd into village life and cause people to choose about things they don’t want to think about. As a result, people hang on to the past or jump into the future, with poignant personal and relational consequences. What I like about the series most, however, is how we can watch people from the past take their lives seriously. We let people from the past do these things we long to do. I like shows like Larkrise (calling Call the Midwife) because I long for the characters’ experiences. The past is clearer in memory than it was when it happened, so nostalgia is comforting. But I honestly think more people in the past felt their lives had meaning and their choices made a difference. Such significance seems harder than ever. Wasn’t it just last week that Trump claimed he won the election at CPAC? Didn’t Republican Senators just extract compromises in the Covid Relief Bill and then all vote against it? It is hard to take life seriously in a reality like ours.

Choosing against our illusions is hard

We make fun of people in the simpler past. But we also suffer from a twinge of envy when we weigh our lightness against their heaviness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says people in the past engaged in “something and not nothing; hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequences, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically name ‘True.’”

I can still remember the jingles of True cigarette commercials from my first stage of media saturation as a child. Of course, they are on YouTube:

My book for Lent and my latest show choice challenge me to be true and make true choices. Shall I do something hard (like have a serious marriage) or stay soft? Shall I do something that is meaningfully part of God’s creation or keep acting like what I do has no consequences as long as I do not harm someone else according to the law? Shall I just accept the absolute b.s. of almost every TV commercial or get furious that “True” cigarettes were and are an abomination that subvert the very word “true” and disgrace the Way the Truth and the Life?

My father died of emphysema and my mother chronically suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. Fortunately, smoking and the addiction and health disasters that go with it are on the decline — but not fast enough for me. American cigarette producers got thwarted at home so they marketed worldwide. Worldwide tobacco use and addiction is just now reaching a peak and heading for decline. True cigarettes were introduced in 1966 when I was twelve. My Dad was at the height of his cigarette smoking. I was just beginning to refuse to collude with his habit. There are a lot of choices I had to make or avoid. I wanted Dad to love me. But I did not want to accept cigarettes to procure that love. I made many compromises I am still pondering and repenting.

Lent is a great season for repenting, which is basically a choice to go another way, to go home. Lent is a season that lures us out on the road, away from our addictions and resistance, and makes us susceptible to cooperation with God’s grace. As a result of making any of these true choices, we’ll probably uncover many of the false ones that tie us up, especially in our relationships. So we will repent and even feel better.

We try to get by with unhealthy habits, especially in unhealthy relationships, by not making a choice or by choosing everything. We don’t really want to do anything that has “long and dire consequences” like refusing to be codependent with someone who is killing themselves spiritually and otherwise or like making the commitment to hold a church together. To do so, we would need to risk going against the flow. What has society created? — a no-fault, guiltless world. How do policemen keep killing people with impunity and governmental grifters get away with breathtaking corruption? How is it that it is so easy to blame and hard to forgive?

Even in the church, reconciliation often means not having to say you’re sorry because no one will admit you (or they) are that wrong or even that significant. We avoid conflict by not recognizing anything for which repentance is required. That makes for a very soft response to an increasingly hard world. Are we getting used to being little Trumps demanding our right to choose whatever we want – even if it does not exist? I know it is terrible to imagine, but are we little Trumps starring in our own show, making up our own reality, and daring everyone to tell us we lost the election? Did we watch TV long enough for that to be a possibility?

I hope not. That’s why I wrote to you, since you are the kind of person who steps into Lent every year and lets it take you somewhere true.