All posts by Rod White

Seeing the curse coming — redux

This is among the first posts I ever blogged. I am on vacation (again) this week, but I thought I would repeat this, since it still makes sense.

Death of Jezebel — Gustav Dore

The other day when we were reading Psalm 109 during noon prayer, we understood it completely wrong. We heard verses 6-19 like they were the psalmist pronouncing a long curse on someone. It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! Sometimes the Psalms get a little rough for us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. We’ve had to get used to all that angry talk and wild reactions in the Psalms jarring our sensibilities a little – this one, however, just seemed over the top:

“May his children become orphans

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

 

Who would say such a thing?! We were uncomfortable reading it.

The prayer starts 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 I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.

No, the curse is coming at 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! We were 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.”

 

Out of touch with the forces against you?

My realization from a few days of using this Psalm and studying it is I 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!

In Celtic Daily Prayer today, it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! When it does, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice. 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!” Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed. 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 will try to take us out.

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.

This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow.  Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.

So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.

Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,

Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.

Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.

Pastors are run out by criticism

I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.

Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog

Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.

Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.

My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

It is often a projection of the inner critic

Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!

In fact, an inner critic is  hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.

We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.

The internet is an echo chamber of criticism

Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.

Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to  negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.

I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:

I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.

For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”

An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.

What to do?

This piece is not another call to “step up your game.”  It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.

The living water bubbling up in the Nazareth of you.

Nathanael Under the Fig Tree — James Tissot

When Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, he responded “What good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

That response probably made it into the Bible because Philip never let Nathanael forget the look on his face when Jesus, the Nazarene, revealed who he was with a scripture-filled personal introduction. The fact is, Nazareth, where Jesus lived, comes from the Hebrew word for “branch.” Jesus is the Branch growing out of the stump of the Kingdom of Israel just like Isaiah prophesied. Amazing things grow in surprising places, it would seem.

Nathanael did not see the possibilities resident in the out-of-the way Nazareth. The glory in Jesus had not been revealed to him before he dismissed it. And, as I suspect he soon found out, the faith and character Jesus called out in him that day, although they were hidden under his initial scornful response, could be found in the outlying and hidden places in him, and could be chosen and lived.

Finding living water

Many of my psychotherapy clients and friends are not living out great faith in Jesus, but they can certainly dip their toes in living water if they don’t scorn the unlikely places it can be found in them.

Apparently, one of Karl Jung’s favorites parables touched on this truth. It is about the water of life and how it made itself known, bubbling up from a deep well in the earth without effort or limit. People drank the clean pure water and were nourished and invigorated. But humankind did not leave it at that. Someone eventually fenced the well, charged admission, claimed ownership of the property around it, made laws as to who could come to the well and put locks on the gates. Soon the well belonged to the powerful and the elite. But the water stopped flowing. The thieves were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice the water had vanished. But some dissatisfied people longed for it and searched with great courage until they found where the water bubbled up again. Soon that well suffered the same fate. The spring took itself to yet another place – and this thread winds through the story of humanity. It is a sad story, but the wonder is that the water can be found if one searches.

My clients, and probably you, are on the search. Usually, what quenches our thirst for life and love dries up and we become dissatisfied. Or maybe we have been cordoned off within some fence around a dry well, waiting for a bubbling up that never happens anymore.  Or maybe we have been fenced out from someplace which might have what we need by some powerful elite or thieves. Our angst usually intensifies after we have found our place in society and come to the end of the left-brain logic that makes it such a prison. We feel there is more. But we just can’t get to it.

Many people are like Nathanael who can’t imagine that “more” they crave coming from some  “Nazareth.” Many people fail to find their God-given living water because they are not prepared to search inside, especially in the parts of themselves they disown. Nathanael heard “Jesus of Nazareth” and was sure nothing good could come from there. Jesus looked at Nathanael and saw his heart. This is not always the case, but, as a result, Nathanael quickly looked past his ignorance and scorn and saw who he was meeting, and in that meeting met himself.

The Nazareth within

Psychotherapy is not the only place this happens, of course, but it is one place in which people can begin to explore that “Nazareth” place in themselves, even that place that seems as dead as a stump, and see what might be sprouting.

Most of the time were are looking outward with a face that allows us to fit into our family and society. We’re also looking out because we are afraid of what people might do to us if we don’t! When we look in we often retain the same fearful outlook and just find the elements in us that don’t fit in or don’t make us lovable. The fear we have of others also makes us afraid of what the hidden things in us will do to us if we let them get up into consciousness. In some sense we look at the deep places in us as a “Nazareth” — and what good could come of that? You might not think that way, but a lot of people do. It is easy to hear the rattling of skeletons in our closets. We scorn that Nazareth in us.

During Easter week in 1916, Teilhard de Chardin, the famous Jesuit priest and scientist, was in the middle of the Battle of Dunkirk as a medic. He said as he suffered with the casualties, and as he trembled with the earth when bombs blasted out craters, he felt the Presence of Love being wounded. This would certainly be a strange “Nazareth” in which to meet up with living water! But one of his famous prayers was first prayed at Dunkirk: “I love you, Lord Jesus. You are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself.”

That moment when you tasted living water

Not all of us could be compared to a psychological Dunkirk! But we have suffered. We carry the wounds of personal conflict and the corporate memory of all the violence that mars history. It is stuffed into places in our hearts and minds we never want to visit. We also have desires and gifts that have also been relegated to “useless” or “despicable,” since they live in the “Nazareth” we are. It hard to accept the wonder at work in us — to see the wells where the living water irrepressibly bubbles up, and drink it.

The missing keys

The other day I thought I remembered leaving the keys to my office in a door as I went to get something from my car. I went and looked and could not find them — not left in any doorknobs, not in my car, my bag, my desk or anywhere in the office! I began to think I was a fool who had let my keys get stolen by someone who would rob the office later in the night (What good can come out of Nazareth?!). So I sat back and prayed, “Lord please help me find my keys.” I immediately scorned my babyish prayer but stuck with it anyway and retraced my steps. I was back out on the sidewalk when someone called to encourage me. As I stood there talking, I looked down and there were the keys in a very unusual place! Should I really see Jesus loving me via an infantile prayer, through a coincidental phone call, in such a Nazareth? Sure! I am searching for the next place the living water is going to bubble up.

That little example is like what my clients are experiencing as they see into what is buried in them looking for something they know is lost but have little hope of finding and feeling a lot of fear about what will happen if they don’t. The little encounter of Nathanael and Jesus shows the disciple getting a good taste of living water even though he initially had no hope in who Philip had met. He thought Jesus was a nothing and it turned out that Jesus showed him how he was not a nothing. May you have such friends who let your scorn pass and turn around and bless you.

Jesus upended Nathanael’s view of himself by naming the wonder in him, also coming from a Nazareth-like place like him! As a result he saw the wonder in Jesus. When we look in ourselves with sadness or shame, we do well to keep looking. In unexpected places we can find light in our darkness. It is very likely in the sadness and shame we will find Living Water looking for us!

Oak Trees

Just me? Don’t the oak trees seem happier?
Haven’t they soaked up extra green from the earth?
But isn’t that their roots communicating
about this strange, over-cool July breeze disturbing their wet leaves?

I appreciate their lack of worry,
though I can’t be sure of how they’re reacting
to their cousins roasting in British Colombia
or to the tiny whiff of smoke they must smell from California.

I suspect they leave the worry to me
and just grow, taking the best the summer offers
and savoring it; pulling the sun right out of the air,
just swallowing it whole, wearing it, defiant of the future.

They rest in glory, immortal glory.
I’m the one who can block out the sun with a mood.
I can smell imaginary smoke or fear a possibility.
I know I must turn into the green of the morning and feast.

So the trees and I are writing this praise,
sitting together in your forest, in your gift of today:
this sun, this air, this love in which I have always lived,
this endless potential present in each drop sailing off every leaf,

present in me, present in us,
present in grandchildren skimming across the lake,
present in the stumbling church and diseased country,
present when the next disaster or betrayal occurs,
as you well know, Lord, as you well know.

Osheta Moore: When White Supremacy runs the stop sign

I had an odd reaction to a frightening situation the other day. The more I think about it, the more of a parable it becomes.

It was simple, actually. I had struggled to pedal up the steep park path adjacent to Ford Rd.  I got back on my bike after walking a bit, still panting. I slowly rode through the crosswalk on Chamonix. The truck I thought was certainly far enough away to see me was coming up to the stop sign. It slowed but apparently intended to run the stop sign, as usual. I yelled. The driver stopped whatever else he was doing and braked in time for me to push myself off his hood. I wobbled over to the far curb, gave a look back and almost toppled onto the sidewalk. I was furious. The driver paused then sped away.

In her book, Dear White Peacemakers Osheta Moore, who will speak more later, quotes a psychologist, Leon F. Seltzer, talking about my initial response:

“When you experience anger, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a victim, for virtually all anger can be understood as a reaction to what feels threatening or unfair to you.” — like when you expect personal care and community spirit to protect you in the sidewalk but someone runs the stop sign. Seltzer goes on, “In such instances, you feel unjustifiably attacked, taken advantage of, betrayed, violated or powerless. And your anger, essentially retaliatory in nature, serves the function of restoring to you a sense of righteousness and control, even dignity and respect.”

It is a steep road to no condemnation

True. We get angry. Then other feelings kick in. After I composed myself, I rode the short way I had left to go and my anger turned to shame. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what happened. They would say, “You should be more careful! (Stop trusting people in any way).” And I thought they might think but not say, “You might be too old to be left alone on a bike.” And one or two might say, “Did you go over and ball the guy out? You just gave him a dirty look from behind your sunglasses?” A religious voice got in there, too, “Why are you upset? You’re fine.” (Or maybe that was my mother).

I had to pause my self-condemnation to shout, basically, “The truck almost killed you!” I had another near-death experience and I condemned myself for not preventing it and for even feeling something about it. I hope you don’t do such things, but I suspect you do.

Parables don’t have morals, but the lesson I get out of this one is, “If the truck almost kills you in the crosswalk, it is not your fault.” I am prone to react as if I should be some god-like being impervious to assault and responsible to prevent evil. I’m not. A lot of Christians think they should never get angry and go directly to the shame. Sometimes I am angry and do not sin by condemning myself for what made me angry.

Osheta Moore helps us get to Beloved

My story and similar stories got applied in various ways this week.

  • If Bill Cosby is released on a technicality it doesn’t mean you lied about what he did to you or your abusers have a right to abuse.
  • If your boss installed self-interested leaders to compete for your power in the office it doesn’t mean you are a terrible executive.
  • If your wife keeps telling you you are a loser, it does not necessarily mean her feelings should be your feelings.
  • And, if you feel like every time you open your mouth about what you think or feel in this polarized society someone is likely to hold you in contempt, that does not put them in charge of your destiny.

“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. We are free from the laws of sin and death.”

That last truck brings me back to Osheta Moore. Thanks to the Jesus Collective for introducing us to this interesting new prophet among the many writers who rushed to their keyboards while Derek Chauvin’s case wound its way through the system.  I think she may be the best to blossom from all that sowing.

She is certainly taking on the question, “What does one do when the truck runs the stop sign?” It is a live question for Black and other people of color living under White Supremacy enacted by slave-creating capitalism. That semi’s a proven killer. I hope that truck is becoming a reality which more and more “white” people can see, as well, since it is about to run over their souls every day if they don’t dodge it (or don’t stop driving it!). OK, the parable may be getting a bit too stretched. But we are all threatened by this evil construct. Osheta Moore speaks to the White peacemakers to whom her book is written about the anger and shame associated with it:

“I don’t call anyone racist. I think for too many of you, you have worked hard to heal from toxic self-identities: fat, stupid, ugly, poor, lazy, not enough, too much. I began this book with an exploration of Belovedness and practices to help you settle into your Belovedness because I believe that only when you know you are Beloved – simply because you are human – only from that grounded place can you do anti-racism. If you believe you are a racist or you take on all the emotional, historical, and societal baggage that comes with that word, then you’re prone to unhelpful thought patterns like “I’m the worst” and “What’s the point, I can’t change anything on my own” and “I can’t believe my White pastor, friends, family members are still stuck in racist thinking, thank God I’m not like them.” None of these help you be a peacemaker.

When I think about your fragility in anti-racism, I choose to think of it as a fear response. Are you like my daughter who uses humor or bravado to deflect? Are you like my middle boy who gets quiet, retreats, and stonewalls? Are you like my oldest who ignores his anxious energy by barreling ahead, running from the trigger?”

Condemning oneself or others or absorbing condemnation will not solve the problem.  Truth in love, yes. (That’s terrifying enough!). Condemnation, no. (Can’t/won’t deal). When the White Supremacy truck threatens to run me over I blame the truck. Even if I was in the way, there was never a good reason not to love me.

We needed Osheta’s book a long time ago

I wish Osheta Moore had written her book a long time ago. I wish Gerry West and I had written it (Gerry was Circle of Hope’s first Black pastor in 1997). We were writing in terms of white repentance and black forgiveness as a way into reconciliation. We couldn’t see the way into community without those rare actions. We were probably too focused on relationships when the real truck was the system. I wish the CERJ group I trained with had written it (Christians Enacting Reconciliation and Justice); they were mediators and negotiators, Black, Hispanic, Korean and White. We might have been too focused on technique when we needed mercy. I wish the Damascus Road trainers had written it: the Mennonite trainers and consultants who pioneered anti-racism awareness and deeply influenced our foundation as an anti-racist church. They were probably too focused on curriculum and filled with good, old middle PA shame. We’ve all grown a lot over the years. When Gwen and I first named our conviction anti-racism, we usually quickly added, “That’s a project we will probably die trying to complete.”

Members of Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, marched through Center City late Saturday into early Sunday morning looking for recruits.

And here we go. Donald Trump is still unleashing a powerful defense of the White Supremacy on which the U.S. is founded and with which we are all infected, even the Beloved Community, the church. Osheta Moore stares right back at it, standing on the Sermon on the Mount and teaching its third way between the polarities of the world:

“Jesus teaches that those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Anti-racism peacemaking is an invitation to interrogate your defenses, know your fear responses, and respond with nonviolence. White peacemaker, my prayer is you’ll do this nonviolent work within yourself, first by calling yourself a Beloved and then by acknowledging your fragility. Fragility needs to be an idea that’s neutralized. We all have our fragilities….

What would it be like to know, White Peacemaker, that you have emotional tools and reserve to attend to all the uncomfortable feelings that anti-racism brings up? You see, of all the most grounded and generous White Peacemakers I’ve encountered, they have all done one thing: they have, through therapy, dialogue, spiritual direction, meditation, and study, embraced self-compassion and cultivated self-awareness. They have practices that center them and have loving accountability. They’ve laid down the swords and shields that belong to their inner critic and inner skeptic. They’re not thinking of anti-racism as a battle; they are anti-racism peacemakers who engage with curiosity and mercy.”

That’s good theology and generous relating! I still think standing with Jesus grounded in the Sermon on the Mount is the best hope I can offer the world. Being and building the Beloved Community and pushing into the darkness with light together is the deep, deep work the church does in alliance with everyone about to get run over and with anyone ashamed of how meager their resources appeared when death rolled up.

Assert right-brain solutions to left-brain problems — like Jesus

Life caught in the clutches of the left-brain world

Several of my psychotherapy clients this year have, again, taught me to take the Bible seriously. I keep pondering this verse when they are talking to me: “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET)

This assertion scandalizes the people with whom Jesus is arguing. The theory-bound, principle-following, control-oriented Jewish leaders of the time, who, in their own way, reflect the power-mad, bureaucratic Roman Empire which dominates them, are flabbergasted by this no-account Rabbi. He has powers beyond their imagination, he reframes their history in a way they can’t see and, most of all, he lives at home in love with a sense of his endless uniqueness over which they have no sway. Their arguments still seem comical and sad in the face of the Lord’s “I am.”

My clients, my comrades in the church and everyone, really, are caught up in a similar drama. The pharisees of our day are winning. The sense and assertion of our own endless, unique “I am” is very hard to hold onto, even when it feels “right there” and ready to grasp.

Left brain ascendancy

I wrote about Jesus teaching us to have our own sense of “I am” last year: I matter; The terrible, wonderful I AM. But lately I have so much more evidence to support my intuition since I became an Iain McGilchrist fanboy!

I have just been schooled by McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [Summary in The Atlantic]. In that book he makes a fascinating case for why the world works like it does these days, dominated by the limitations of the “left brain.” As a result, the church, in general, and my clients, in particular, are struggling against significant odds to come to a sense of their true selves. We’re having a hard time having a whole-brain experience of life in the here and now. We seem to have lost our appreciation for our intuition about life beyond our present understanding. I applied some of my new insights a couple of weeks ago in my post Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

McGilchrist is having similar troubles. He “admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it” (First Things). We are all under significant left-brain/scientific/
bureaucratic/legalistic/materialistic pressure all the time. We often try to find ourselves within a left-brain view of self and that world that is not big enough for what we experience and intuit.

In the conclusion of his book, McGilchrist summarizes how the “master,” the right brain, has been betrayed by her partner, the left. Here is a taste:

The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. [Lecture on Youtube]

He has a lot of science and history to back up his conclusion. I offer a snippet to note how similar his argument sounds to the one Jesus is having with his detractors in John 8. Jesus is God delimited, submitted, and risking trust. The quote also sounds like an argument many of us are having in our minds and hearts about how to be incarnate as a being with endlessness built into all we experience.

Approach the left-brain world as I AM

Two experiences this week pointed out some common challenges we are all facing as we bump up against the domination of left-brain thinking.

I watched members of the Floyd family last week and marveled at their adaptation to the crazy world of law and media into which they decided to enter. How they became spokespeople for the worldwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has been painful, if inspiring, to see.

As they spoke at the sentencing hearing for Derek Chauvin, talk about justice by the court and media was reduced to minutia about sentencing guidelines and chances for further justice when the case goes to another territory of the bureaucracy about which no normal person really knows. The judge made a point to say that emotion was not going to be part of his judgment, as if to say the outrage and grief of the world did not finally put a murderous policemen in jail. He pointedly diminished the courageous vulnerability of the family as they faced a worldwide audience and an abusive legal system into which racism is deeply baked.

I think many of us who care about eradicating racism face similar problems with the left-brain problems that need right-brain solutions.  The consultants guiding our church’s leadership team through a process of racial awareness has spawned a host of conversations about how this new way to monetize equality has invaded almost every setting we inhabit, at least those who work in a bureaucracy that can be ignorantly racist. Analysis and principle-driven reorientation offers a left-brain solution to a left-brain problem — as if a bureaucracy could gain some self-awareness and a better abstraction would right its evil ship. Jesus was using the circumstance in which he found himself with his characteristic sense of being “I am.” He was present. He refused to relate on their terms.

I had several conversations with clients and acquaintances who do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and its variants. I realized my condo tower, mostly inhabited by Black people, is not lifting the requirement for masks because many people are not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. Twenty-three states have vaccinated less than half the eligible population. In the Congo there is no vaccine to be had at all, I heard last week from MCC workers.

Talk about health is reduced to suspicion about the genetic tinkering of the vaccine.  I am amazed at the research people have done! I continue to find a mistrust of science I have not seen, first-hand, until recently. I mistrust science because it trusts itself so completely. But many people mistrust it because they know it does not love them. Black families in Tuskegee were used as experimental animals and many people feel they dare not forget that. I heard, “What’s to prevent them from using the whole population as an experiment with an untried methodology?” My clients show some breathtaking logic as they are constantly make arguments which make them more and more anxious, trapped in their immanent frame.

When churches, not just ours, are considering how to “reopen” now that restrictions are lifted, they are often thrust into a left-brain argument about justice and equality in yet another way. What about the people who are not vaccinated? Can you really insist that someone get get the shot to be accepted? These endless arguments we have are often subject to the limitations of the left brain. Wisdom is not respected. Community is not an instinct. Love seems unreasonable, since the left brain is only about rationality. Jesus faced some thorny questions all the time, it seems. He usually answered them by being someone acting in grace as he was speaking. He was never a theory.

Isle of Skye

Asserting I AM

Jesus keeps teaching us about how to be ourselves in the grace of God in the face of a world in which the powers mostly believe in themselves. I think the pendulum might swing back, as it has in the past, toward right-brain awareness. And I hope the church, presented by us and millions around the world, will push that pendulum hard by being ourselves in truth and love. Iain McGilchrist seems like a good person with whom to team up in that cause.

He lives on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland — very trendy, but also still off the beaten path. I imagine him as a tweedy philosopher lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire.  I think his sensibilities reflect Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrics to the Skye Boat Song:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Like I think McGilchrist does, my clients often have an old, unnamable tune emanating from their right brain that gives them a feeling that something has been lost. They are on the boat to someplace unknown looking for their lost selves when they come to therapy. They soon recall how their soul imagines sailing over the horizon to someplace better. They can’t help it.

As soon as they let their imagination sail, their left brain often kicks in with innumerable obstacles to why they can’t embark. These days it is all about the “economy” (a left-brain invention assumed to form the parameters of possibility). Then it is all about their own incapacity (often scientifically verified on the internet). Then it might be their situation (racial or education challenged) and their unbelief. The last one is probably primary.

Like the Pharisees degrading the uniqueness of the Son of God, so many dear people I know degrade their own uniqueness as a child of God. Unlike Jesus, they do not matter-of-factly assert it and confront all the other challenges from that basis. Their brain is out of balance with their out-of-balance society. But they know that something more is possible; they can feel it, and they press on.

Patsy Cline leads the way after the midnight of the world

Before she ever met Loretta Lynn or sang Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was in a head-on collision. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of that rainy day in Nashville when she was riding with her brother John on a two-lane road when a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, ended up with a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the EMTs at the scene to take care of the others.

The admitting physician said she was a “gory mess” when Patsy arrived at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing  her right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and her left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. She told a visiting minister about her near-death experience, “All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him.”

Looking beyond despair

Patsy Cline had a complicated relationship with God and everyone else, as most people do who have been sexually-abused by a parent and raised by a raging alcoholic. Singing seemed to save her, even though she put some distance between herself and Jesus. She loved to sing gospel music as a child and recommitted herself to it after the crash.

I have often found her music to be something of a spiritual experience. The pain in her voice keeps me grounded and her perfect-pitch genius transports me. Long after her death in a plane crash in 1963 (a bad year: Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Patsy Cline), I bought her Greatest Hits album on vinyl in 1992 and about wore it out. That album camped at No. 1 on Billboard‘s chart for 165 weeks. In 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame.

The other day I recorded her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” on the international karaoke app, Smule, and have been singing it ever since. I realized the way she sings it turns a clever little song about a lost romance into her own song of longing for love and even searching for God in the mysteries of the night. I think fans love her because they yearn like her, at least I do.

You can get a worship song out of most pop love songs — or at least a song of salvation or damnation, because most of us have jettisoned God and put our poor love-mate in God’s place, which often works out rather poorly. I think Patsy moves the other direction; she puts a little gospel into whatever she sings. You probably do too.

We’re all wandering around in the dark

Right now, the world is definitely “out walkin’ after midnight!” Many of us still feel anxious and bereft – it became a habit last year. We can’t sleep. We are still desperately searching around in a lingering darkness. I can’t talk to anyone without feeling their palpable loss of 2020. One in four of us are mourning the loss of a loved one or acquaintance. The U.S. has lost 600,000 people to the virus! The number of deaths will likely surpass the previous record of loss to the Spanish Influenza. All over the world the stats tell a terrible story, but the grief gives us the true picture. We lost a year, kids lost school, we lost jobs and we lost each other. The church was shown to be a crucial community, since many of us lost Jesus without it.

So this little Patsy Cline song turns out to be a good God song to sing as we are walkin’ after the midnight of the world.

I go out walkin’ after midnight,
Out in the moonlight,
Just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’
After midnight searchin’ for you

I just want to affirm your search. Yes, it feels dark for a lot of us. People are piling into restaurants, but we still feel depressed. It comes in waves. We got disconnected. We’re searching. God sees.

I walk for miles along the highway.
Well, that’s just my way
Of sayin’ “I love you.” I’m always walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for you.

We’re on a new journey. I love the faith of taking a step in the dark as a way to say, “I love you.” I am taking many steps in just that way since I ended my long work as a pastor in my beloved church. We are all stepping out into what seems at least a foggy future every day. God hears. Jesus is searching for us.

I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow.
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me.
And as the skies turn gloomy,
Night winds whisper to me.
I’m lonesome as I can be.

I love the picture of the willow crying on his pillow! Night winds are whispering in the gloomy, dim, moonlit skies. We’re lonely. I often feel lonely after a day of seeing people! I’m carrying some residual loneliness from my isolation and I sometimes feel like a stranger in the new place of the summer of 2021. I don’t think we can underestimate how long our recovery from the pandemic might take. For one thing, people are still dying of the latest coronavirus all over the world! What’s more, there are after effects which are yet to be seen. We’re grieving. We’re afraid. God knows.

I am glad Patsy Cline gave me a song to help me sing out all this trouble before I tried to control it all or just distract myself from it. Maybe she will bless you too on your way into the dawn.

Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

Western Culture has slowly been taken over by the ascendant features of our left brains. The left hemisphere is the powerful home of language and so analytic thought and so science. The sometimes-maligned “right brain” is the brain’s home for the “big picture” as well as the “right now;” it is also, apparently, where our music, empathy and religion are generated.

The Culture War we are in has a lot of wacky features, often personified by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But  the “red” side may have more substance to it, all over the world, than it is usually credited in my “bluer” territory. Science is great, but people feel pushed around by science. Language is the essence of human connection, but when it is forced into the service of making boundaries and punishing people for saying (or thinking) the wrong thing, it does the opposite of connecting. My clients who don’t want to be vaccinated because they don’t trust science or any of the authorities trying to talk them into it (like their therapist!) are often characterized as ignorant fools. I think they may be throwing out their health baby with their rebellious bathwater, but there is a lot of dirty bathwater to consider. They have a feeling that more is behind what is going on than meets the eye.

Is there more going on than meets they eye?

The book I am slowly reading, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is doing a great job of convincing me that my own unease with the way my betters have presented knowledge and have made laws in service to only half our brains. [Click pic for summary]. There is, indeed, more going on than the left brain can see, when it is left alone to dominate.

I want to engage the other half of my brain, the fundamental right half, which has generally been sublimated for the sake of human, materialist achievement. My clients of color and all those lovely, impoverished people I have visited all over the world, even the ones who made it clear I represented “The Great Satan” of the United States (which I did not!), operate in a much less one-side-of-the-brain fashion. They rarely make superb weapons, but they are more in touch with what it means to be human and, as a result, more accessible to God. Do you also feel that you are having endless arguments with people instead of relating? Are you tired of pastors telling you to “Get out of your head and into your heart” even as they make a careful analysis of scripture?

Albert Einstein said there is more than meets the eye of science — and rationality, in general:

“The supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance, and this Einfühling [literally, empathy or ‘feeling one’s way in’] is developed by experience.” *

Einstein accepted his left-brain task of logical deduction and discovered things scientists are still unpacking. He never told anyone how to make an atomic bomb, but his famous equation E=mc2 explained how the energy could be released in one. Sure enough, an atom bomb became the logical extension of his brilliance in our left-brain-boundaried world. This happened even though the revered Einstein led people to see beyond the limits of science and to feel their way back into the  intuition and other wonders that mainly reside in the right-hemisphere of each of our brains.

The Bible had this argument before we needed to argue about it again

Ian Gilchrist, the author of The Master and His Emissary, spends a lot of time piling up the science that demonstrates how a system enclosed within the structure of the left brain might get trapped into thinking it was complete in itself. Try on this quote:

“The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. ** Language in itself (to this extent the post-modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, “unpack” the premises it starts with. But there can be no evidence within reason that yields the premises from which reason must begin, or that validates the process of reasoning itself – those premises, and the leap of faith in favour of reason, have to come from behind and beyond, from intuition or experience.“

Political “progressives,” like those with whom I travel, are often just making a left-brain argument in honor of Jesus. They are just moral agents within the domination system of rationality.

But their justice-loving Bible clearly says:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21)….”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

That is a splendidly intuitive, right-brain piece of poetry debunking the wisdom systems of the world (like modern science) whenever they masquerade as ends in themselves.

You can hear Paul undermining the primacy of language, as well, whenever it creates a closed system. As he says above, his “foolish” message about God’s work in Jesus can hardly find a place to rest in known lexicons! Later on, in Chapter 14, he teaches about speaking in tongues, the language that is “out of the left brain’s mind,” a right brain expression in direct connection with God which short circuits the left-brain control system and logic making.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (1 Cor 14:14-15).

When my “conservative” brothers and sisters want to stick to the letter of the Bible, they are really just surrendering to the worldly project of Europeans who got caught up in themselves and decided they were the central feature of the world, armed with their arguments (and weaponry) to subdue the earth according to their godless logic, describing everything in black and white, including people.

I just wanted to give you a taste of the education Gilchrist is giving me.  I suspect as you read his book you would also feel like your gut feelings were being verified. After all, you studied the Bible, experienced things unseen by human wisdom and may have spoken in tongues! The church is all about music, art, poetry and experiencing all the wonders the right brain is organized to facilitate.

Life in Christ is being squeezed from within the church and without. When Hildegard of Bingen was doing her science, art and philosophy in about 1133 — and leading as a brilliant woman, it was a right-brain outburst that almost got her thrown out of the patriarchal church, which was just starting to get a rationalistic ball rolling. That ball barreled right through the pious Rene Descartes who concluded “I think, therefore I am,” and it rolled right down to the very religious Joe Biden who quickly hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office when he got there to signal that science would guide him. I think a lot of people, many of whom are Jesus followers, feel they’ve been run over quite a few times, themselves.

If any of you resonated with any of this, what do you think and feel? This might not be the best place for a dialogue, but we certainly need one.

______

* Planck, M. Where is Science Going? (with a preface by Albert Einstein), trans. J. Murphy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1933.

** Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that are concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. Wikipedia

What Do I Do When My Leader Seems Half-Baked? — Rehoboam: 8/27/03

[About 7 years into my service as Circle of Hope’s pastor I offered the congregation some teaching I first heard from Janet Hagberg in 1979. It stuck with me. I happened upon this forgotten message on Rehoboam when I was searching my files for something else and thought it was worth repeating, since it is a very challenging time for leaders, inside the church and out, as so much is changing.]

You people are amazing. In our network we have 22 cell leaders and 20 apprentice cell leaders. 4 coordinators of cell leaders. A pastor. 5 PM team leaders. 2 PM facilitators. 9 Mission Team leaders. The list goes on. Lot’s of leaders. Not only is it amazing that we have found so many wonderful, gifted, willing people to lead, you follow them well, you nurture them well, you cheer them on and support them – even when they drive you crazy.

It is the being driven crazy part that we are exploring tonight. Someone wanted to know, “What do I do when my leaders seems half-baked?” It is an excellent and frequently asked question. And it has lots of variations.

  • I’m fifty, my leader is 23, she seems to me like a cookie that was taken out of the oven after four minutes. What do I do with that?
  • I’ve been a believer for fifteen years my leader has been a follower for fifteen months. He looks like a pretty loaf of bread, but the inside is doughy.
  • I’m working hard on my issues and repenting of my sins, the leader doesn’t know about some important issues, apparently, and I’ve heard a few too many things about his sins. Do I report them or something?
  • I am serious about my faith and our mission, I want to contribute time and energy to the cause, but the person in charge seems to be on a perpetual vacation and implies that I am a pain in the neck because she thinks I am being too critical of her lack of intensity. Am I being too critical or am I being criticized?

Do you recognize any of these variations? If you do, then you are not alone. And that’s why there is just a lot to say about this subject. I am not going to talk about all the ways we have structured ourselves as a body to alleviate the stress of having a half-baked leader – which mainly boils down to our reliance on being a team and the accountability and nurture involved in having apprentices and being in cells. I want to answer it at the micro level : what do I do when the leader is half-baked – which, in one way or another, may be inevitable, since we’ve all got a long journey to completeness. Jesus is the fire, but we are the oven, and you are part of that oven. If the leader is half-baked, you may have a part in his or her completion. So let’s start with you and me this time and see where we get.

The Tragedy of Rehoboam

Rehoboam
Rehoboam. Fragment of the wall painting in the Great Council Chamber of Basel Town Hall. Hans Holbein ca 1530

A tragic story about a half-baked leader and what people did about him can be found in the history of Israel in 1 Kings 12. (I know how you love 1 Kings). It kind of starts with the prophet Samuel. You know that he was not too happy to be asked to give the nation a king. He liked the old way of letting God be the king and relying on prophets and judges that were raised up by the Spirit of God in them to fulfill the leadership functions necessary for the people. But Israel wanted to “go to town” like the nations around them and have a king. So Samuel anointed Saul, who turned out to be a disobedient disaster. He replaced him with David, of the great heart but dysfunctional family. David was followed by the famous King Solomon, who was probably the most famous king Israel ever had, as far as being a king of note among the other kings of his age.

King Solomon, by most accounts was a great leader. He was famous for being wise. He expanded the borders of Israel and the whole nation prospered for the forty years of his rule. But there were some flaws. It seems like the more authority a person has the more important his or her flaws become.

Solomon may have had a wise beginning, and may have been very learned, but his method for solidifying his kingdom abandoned trust for God as King and relied for security on the common approach to kingdom building of the time – marriage. (Be careful about what your leaders tell you they need to do for security). Solomon filled his life with foreign-born wives, who were the guarantors of the treaties he was making with their fathers and brothers. What’s more, he let them keep their foreign ways as he moved them into the enormous new palace that he had built at the same time he built his enormous new temple for God. The simultaneous projects, tell you that something might be mixed up right there, plus, they cost the people a huge amount in taxes and conscripted labor. He was a flaming polygamist. The son who succeeded him – some people say it was his only son from all those wives, maybe he was just the oldest one, was the son of an Ammonite princess. His name was Rehoboam.

From the little we learn of him in the account, Rehoboam sounds like an insecure man who didn’t have much direct fathering or king-training. As soon as he is crowned he ruins the kingdom. His people wanted to go with him, but they had a few questions that people always ask their leaders, and Rehoboam answered all of them wrong.

12:1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all the Israelites had gone there to make him king. 2 When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. 3 So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: 4 “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”

5 Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away. 6 Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.

7 They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”

8 But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. 9 He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, `Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”

10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, `Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’–tell them, `My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.'”

12 Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” 13 The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, 14 he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

15 So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite. 16 When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:“What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O  Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home.

If you are a leader, of a cell, a family, a school project, an outing to the Camden Waterfront, make sure to pay attention to what the people asked Rehoboam. It really wasn’t much that he couldn’t supply if he would have relied on God.

People keep asking the same three questions.

Essentially they began with “Do you love us?” “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”

Solomon got caught up in his own grand schemes and ended up enslaving his own people. By the time he got done people were resentful because it seemed like he cared more about himself than them.

They also asked “Can we trust you? Are you listening?” “He asked the elders, “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.  They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”  He did not listen to their advice. He went back to his cronies, which was like looking in the mirror. It was like these guys he’d been playing the grand prince with since he was a kid were hungry to exercise some power. When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home. The ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and Rehoboam spent the rest of his life at war trying to put the kingdom back together again. If he just would have listened to one of his father’s proverbs: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; but he that listens to counsel is wise.” (Proverbs 12:15)

I also think they were asking “Who and what do you serve?” The historian who wrote the story in 2 Chronicles said,  “Rehoboam did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the LORD.” (II Chronicles 12:14). People know when the leader can see a picture that is bigger than herself and her cronies. They can sense when the direction is coming from God or from one’s half-baked maturity. They can tell if you are open to understanding what is happening with the least as well as the greatest among us. They know if a certain action is about the cause or about enjoying the exercise of power or getting one’s needs met through draining the life out of one’s followers. They can tell if you serve or dominate. And that counts even if you are just taking your nieces to the mall.

There are not too many leaders who never have a Rehoboam day. If you get one that is as unbaked as he was, poor lad (although he was 41 years old!) I guess you’ll be wondering what to do. Normally, your leaders around here will be doing the best they can and not feeling like they are all that great at it. They will be serving because someone asked them or someone had to do it, not because they always had an aspiration to give their heart and time to further an extremely difficult cause for no pay, little recognition and the headache of having people ask them penetrating questions about their character. Even so, they will have half-baked days, they’ll have bad ideas and they will undoubtedly not be complete yet. What do you do?

I would take responsibility for your leader like they were your precious first-born child. When they spill the milk, do not slap them around; keep helping them to learn to hold that cup, because they will be dealing with milk again at the next meal. Don’t just leave the spilled milk there to stink, clean it up together – if they don’t want to deal with their stinking spilled milk, make them help you – and let’s go on. My conviction is that leaders are baked; they are nurtured into completeness by caring followers.

Love them

So if the leader is half-baked, for instance, they don’t love you or even God well, love them.

We have had leaders involved in some sins that became as public as their leadership. Getting drunk. Sexual sins. Major lacks of reconciliation with other leaders. And worse things will happen and may be happening right now. In the middle of that, I think our first responsibility is to love. They are having a problem, just like you and me. For instance, right now my parents are both terribly sick and might die soon. Some days I am going to act out of my grief and conflicted feelings about that. Before you decide my actions make me a bad, unholy leader, ask me some questions. When you think a leader is half-baked, talk to them, understand them. Figure out what is baked not just half-baked. They are people, so speak the truth in love to a person, not to your abstraction of what a leader ought to be or to your fantasy of what you would like or to your unfinished business with your mother or father or with the last leader who abused you. The talking will be very instructive. Talk to God about them, too. Prayer may soften your heart to love.

Please notice that I did not say, “Love them by pretending they are baked.” That will do no one any good. I did not say, “Learn to love unbaked food.” I did not say, “Turn off your brain and stop being so critical.” But I did say, “It is easy to see where someone is. And it is relatively easy to see where they ought to be. But love calls us to help them get from here to there, even if they are the leader. If everyone has to perform perfectly for you, they will either fight you or run from you because you are scary. Either way, that won’t help them lead.

Trust them

Secondly, if the leader is half-baked, they are not altogether worthy of your trust, trust them.

Naturally, you’ll have to have hope like God’s to do this. To trust the demonstrably untrustworthy is God-like. After all, isn’t it true, that God entrusts us with his own Spirit and God is relying on you and me to advance his cause of redemption? God’s is an heroic trust. I say that trust breeds trustworthiness. It is true that we give people responsibility and authority and they get too full of themselves and run people over, their natural insensitivity is heightened, they say wrong things, say things that aren’t true, they alienate people. It is true that when my son Ben uses a butcher knife I find it almost impossible to watch, but I trust him with it. And it is also true that I have been known to cut myself, as well. He needs to learn how to do that and he needs a person who loves and trusts him and who has been cut to help him learn better.

If you can’t trust your leader, you may not be trusting God enough to bear the pain of seeing someone go through life as half-baked as he sees you are. Trust God in someone else, not just what you see them doing. Trust God’s precedent, not just their track record. Don’t build a case against them, build a case for them and then help them realize their potential. Your admiration will do more to make them trustworthy than your suspicion and anxiety.

Every leader is going to make mistakes, but we need them, and we need more of them. We live in a trust system so people can gain their fullness and serve us and transform the world. If you hold back all the time, they can’t do as much, and they can’t catalyze us to reach our potential as a body. Can you see how much power mistrust can have? I used to sit in Council meetings and have elaborate discussions about what we were going to do as the church. It seemed like I would end up paying special attention to people who could always find a flaw in any argument and always cast suspicion on the process. I finally stopped listening so carefully. What I had counted as discernment was just mistrust. People wanted to move, but the mistrusters didn’t.

You’ve noticed that I’m turning around every question people always ask of leaders and asking them back at the followers. Do you love me? Can I trust you? Now, Who and what do you serve?

Serve with them

When the leader is half-baked, when you’re not sure what they are serving, serve with them.

It is hard not to serve God when you are surrounded by people determined to follow Jesus. Our leaders either have to bake or flee the oven, because we are not changing our minds. I’d say that most of the time we get the leaders we deserve. If we are apathetic we frustrate them and make them lazy and ambivalent. If we are critical we make them defensive and short-lived, and maybe even cause them to give in and serve us, rather than the Spirit of God! If we follow Jesus first and allow the leader to catalyze and steer and discern the process of the journey, they end up being very valuable to us.

It is true, Rehoboam was a bad leader. He was worse than half-baked. He didn’t love them, couldn’t trust him and he served himself and the God of his own power, and maybe some Ammonite idol his mother brought to town. But while the elders did try a little bit with him, it probably should be noted that the people didn’t love him too well, they did not have a radical trust for God in him, and they never served the cause larger than him. So they ended up with half a kingdom and civil war and eventually a whole boatload of them got carted off to Babylon. It’s not just about the leader.

I think you know that, for the most part. But someone asked the question, and it will come up again, because we are going with the people God calls out to lead us and many people have answered his call. They are shaping us, nurturing us, guiding us, and helping us make a difference in the world. If God is doing so much with the half-baked, what might he say to you if you came before him at the end with a whole plate full of fresh leaders for his people and the cause of his kingdom, baked to perfection by you and your little oven in Philly? I think the Lord would really enjoy that.

Flowering Overwhelm on Memorial Day

The Overwhelm comes upon us,
an angel of death coursing
through the streets like an oily snake
invented for the screen by Cecil B. DeMille.
We can’t tell if it’s real or not.
But we feel it sucking the life out of Spring.
We shut down and cower in our darkness.

Memorial Day tries to jump start Summer
but it’s another rainy day
taunting us with our dashed hopes of
a maskless picnic in the sun.
The Overwhelm rises up like a pool
of sewage in the basement.
We turn the air freshener in the socket
up to high but soon just go to sleep.

In the dark of night I rise with
outrage stuck in my throat.
I imagine ancient Roman wives with flowers
skulking out to the graves of their husbands,
his death day guarded in a private brain cell,
matrons in Charleston fighting for the honor
of inventing her son’s Decoration Day,
women wearing poppy pins from Flanders Fields
and Seeger asking where all the flowers have gone.

I have many reasons to dissociate.
The face of Trump rises like a blood moon
in the nighttime of the Empire,
the church crippled by the pandemic,
and our wan faces blearily, bravely,
weakly attending to one another on screen.
We can barely find the energy
to try a vacation on our one day off,
much less move with the impulse to be
outraged over Armed Forces Day,
Veterans Day, and Memorial Day
tromping around the calendar.

God help us, it is George Floyd Death Day!
At the same time it is San Jose Death Day,
which followed Palestine Oppression Day and
Jews beat-up-on-the-streets of New York Day,
not long after Asian woman pummeled-on-screen Day,
and police killing-filmed Day, killing, killing
at the same rate as this Day last year.
Even the Underground Railroad masterpiece
can’t shake us out of the stupor of the Overwhelm.

Oh Lord, stoke my outrage!
What a colossal waste of flowers!
My God, we are still making weapons!
The police are armed to the teeth
trying to protect our right to carry
and still formally killing the caught killers
not informally executed in the streets.
O my God, how much did they spend
in Afghanistan and on the Israelis
for rockets targeting Gaza apartments?

Jesus, I need to be flabbergasted
and all I can do is throw a poem out there
on a day when people would rather rest in their grave,
avoiding the feeling of death inside,
and just try not to remember for a moment.
Oh God, the Overwhelm is snaking through the streets
and no amount of flowers can mask the smell.