Category Archives: Life as the church

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.

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.

Wrestling for the blessing and becoming one

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (2012), Edward Knippers

One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:

So Jacob was left alone.

You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.

What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.

Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 

Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.

When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.

Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]

So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”

The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,

“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’

I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?” 
He answered, “Jacob.” 
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.

Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”

He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.

Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.

Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!

Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.

“In Christ” is where I find a Jesus lens

At the Partner Summit of the Jesus Collective we were sent off into Zoom groups (God save us!) to practice “community discernment.” Nothing could be more countercultural and more appropriate. We did not have the capacity and environment to do it (it was Zoom, people) but we did have the audacity to try it! We zeroed in on what it means to see the Bible and the whole world with a “Jesus lens.” This is a primary characteristic of the Jesus Collective movement – not just seeing through the lens of theology, politics or personality, but seeing our way to life as the living Jesus show us, alive in our midst. Sounds like the Bible and sounds unlikely, right? I was glad to be there.

Searching for a Jesus lens

I thought many people provided good, left-brain, conceptual arguments for their views on the Bible. Others came with other views, so we had quite a few views. We were mostly practicing discernment. It is not that easy! We were not assigned to come up with a definitive piece of theological and relational understanding via Zoom. But I imagine most people were as stimulated as I was.

After all the input, I came away thinking a Jesus lens is not going to be much use unless it is derived from being born again into Christ, living in Christ, and seeing the whole world encompassed by the love in Christ. Here is a key verse for me.

In Christ Jesus
you are all children of God through faith,
for all of you who were baptized
into Christ
have clothed yourselves
with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one
in Christ Jesus.”  — Galatians 3:26-28

I think the common, simple New Testament phrase “in Christ” is a forgotten starting point for mutual understanding. In the portion above, Paul is speaking to the Christians in Galatia, reminding them of their new identity since they placed their faith in Jesus Christ. To be “baptized into Christ” means that they are identified with Christ, since they left their false selves and are putting on their true selves in Christ. When we respond to the Holy Spirit’s drawing we are baptized us into the family of God — “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).

I think many people with whom I travel are often missing their sense of identity “in Christ.” They aspire to go there, but it is not where they come from. They conceptualize it, but they are suspicious of feeling it. They love Christ in the Bible, but don’t seem to have the Bible’s sense of loving Christ in the here and now. The New Testament is filled with references describing Jesus followers “in Christ:” 1 Peter 5:14Philippians 1:1Romans 8:1. NT Wright can tell you a bit more

Now is the time to live in Christ

I am talking about a theme that interested me in a Zoom discussion, not making a report on data. So don’t think I am coloring the Jesus Collective, please. I just think many of the people to whom I was listening may have struggled with finding a common Jesus lens because we could not agree where Christ is outside of ourselves, individually, from “my personal point of view” or “in my opinion.” I think most of the group were sincerely coming from a place where Christ is, in them.

In this age, most of us practice identity politics by habit, even though the idea didn’t really enter our societal imagination until the 1980s. So we present ourselves according to our sense of identity, usually based on our place in society: gay, Black, white, Canadian, Goth, engineer, etc. Nowadays the idea of identity is refined by the academics until no one feels safe until everyone has tagged themselves as a “cis white male he him his,” or whatever labels you.

It is easy to apply such hyperindvidualism to the Bible. You could read it this way:

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature
in Christ. — Col. 1:27-8

Many people see one important thing in Paul’s statement: Christ in me is my hope of glory (that is, my hope of sharing God’s life and eternity). Meanwhile, the “mystery” Paul is talking about was made known to a group, not just me. What’s more, Paul is teaching “everyone.” And the goal is maturity “in Christ” not Christ maturing in me. I am not the mystery even though my right brain, at least, is organized to receive it.

I’m making one of those binary distinctions: is it Christ in me or is it me in Christ? It is both. But I think the mystery that was revealed is that we are welcomed to live in Christ. If you are tracking with me, I hope we are meditating on living in Christ together, so we can see with a Jesus lens and create environments where Jesus is known, not just thought about or turned into morality that looks like our present set of principles.

What is being in Christ?

The immediate “mystery” Paul was talking about in the previous passage is this: the Gentiles are also included as fellow heirs of God with the Jews. The ultimate mystery is this:  everyone living in Christ experiences hope as life wells up in us. (More from Pete Enns on mystery)

One could read the following portion individually: “Christ dwelling in me is the mystery revealed to me.” But, more accurately, we could read, “Me living in Christ is the mystery.”

For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love,
may have power,
together with all the Lord’s holy people, 
to grasp
how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,
 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19

  • Being in Christ is being restored to one’s place in the family of God, the Creator of familiness.
  • Being in Christ is sending down roots into love, the humus of reality that grows humans.
  • Being in Christ is being one of God’s people as a primary identity
  • Being in Christ is entering the spacious environment of grace that is beyond human understanding

I need to kneel, I need to be strengthened in my inner being, I need power to grasp the gift I have been given, I need to be filled to my fullness. But none of this happens unless I am in Christ. Christ is in me because I am in Christ. That is the mystery of my remaking.

Help for processing the pandemic: Our mental health has taken a hit

Click pic for Forbes article by Jessica Gold

Jesus followers do not have different mental health issues than everyone else. They may be more likely to use spiritual bypass to defend themselves, but they are mostly experiencing the same kind of trauma everyone else has been experiencing during this endless pandemic.

The mental health impact of the last year is a topic on the minds of many people. Especially health-care providers! Leah Blain (who inspired this post) came up with a checklist for the Inquirer last week – all the news outlets have to have one. Because our poor mental health is big news. People who do research keep verifying the troubling reality. During the pandemic depression and anxiety have increased – a lot! More people have sleep problems. Intimate partner conflicts and violence have grown. Alcohol and substance abuse have increased. And the new addiction on the block, screen addiction, has taken over territories it was just influencing before. All these issues are not going to disappear overnight.

We hope this is really getting over with

The pundits were wringing hands and blaming people for less job creation than predicted last Friday. We’re all taking the pulse of the country because we suspect more shoes are about to drop and more loved ones and loved things are about to die. At the same time, now that the age for vaccine eligibility is going down, many of us are looking forward to a post-pandemic life without masks and social distancing. I flew out to see a relative in Seattle already and went to Disney! I’m an early-adopter. I’m ready to visit friends, hug loved ones, have meetings in person, and much more.

Jumping into change injects some hope into our daily lives. But it is tempting to focus on the positives even when true recovery from the deadly 2020 is going to take some re-envisioning of the future and some processing of the past. We’re not there yet and we’re not even sure what “there” is or even sure what just happened! I try to help people emerge from trauma and trouble every day and it only seems “easy” in theory. In fact, change and recovery takes quite a long time for most people. As we emerge from the valley of the shadow of death, it will be important to consider how our experiences over the last year might be sticking with us and recognize when we or our loved ones need help.

View of the sunset from the cave inside in Thasos, Greece.

It will take some time to emerge

We all need support every day. But then there are days when we really need support. Those days are now. The full impact of a major stress event or trauma usually is not felt until weeks or months after the initial event. I often hear from clients that the grief they did not process in the brief time they were given right after the death of a loved one rose up later in disguised ways. It often appeared as part of the collection of distressing feelings that brought them to therapy. The pandemic is still stressful; it has been traumatic; we are suffused with grief (or avoiding it).

The particular stressors that came along with the pandemic resemble the kind that come with a military deployment more than resemble those that come with a onetime blow like a natural disaster or an act of violence. The prolonged stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, and, in many cases, trauma, kicked many of us into “survival mode.” We adapted. Most of us will need time to transition out of our high anxiety gear. For others, “survival mode” kicked us out of gear and we will need time to transition out of our depression or dissociation.

I think everyone with a soft enough heart will be dealing with the massive massive impact of massive loss – and not just the loss of time and maybe livelihood. As many as five million people in the United States are estimated to have lost at least one close relative  or friend to the coronavirus! Loss and grief are everywhere. As of January, 60% knew someone who has tested positive, 33% had a family member or close friend who had become seriously ill, 19 percent knew someone who had died. Those numbers continue to increase. That is a lot of people experiencing grief or hardening their hearts against it. Grief often comes in waves and can take time to work through, even under typical circumstances. The profound impact of so many of us being forced to grieve in isolation, often not able to say farewell to loved ones who died alone, is as incalculable as it is heartbreaking.

And let’s not forget that all this stress, trauma, and grief is occurring alongside racial trauma, political unrest, and other pandemic-related stressors that affect millions worldwide such as food scarcity,  unemployment and the loss of schooling.

It will take our whole “village” to recover. You can get things started by considering what you need to do to process your experiences. Just experiencing something happening to you is not necessarily “processing” it; it is more likely being processed by it. As we are coming out of this terrible season, it would make sense to go to your journal, if you have one, or just get a piece of paper and write down some ideas you think would help you to transition into post-pandemic life. You are probably wounded in some way; what would it take to heal? Just suggesting that process may have spurred some of us to look on ourselves with compassion. That’s important. Answer the question: “What steps can I take to get started on this new life we are all making?”

How could a professional help?

Many of us don’t feel like we have a lot of capacity to do much for ourselves, right now. We’re hopeless and helpless — and so tired! Professional support could help. But a bit of courage to address emotional and behavioral difficulties in our cells, families, friendships, and marriages would also help.

If you notice any of the following changes in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help:

  • Anger, irritability, or difficulty getting along with others.  I’ve heard from a number of people that driving in Philadelphia has become even crazier than it used to be. The roadways seem to be one place where we are angry and can’t get along.
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much. The pandemic has a way of exacerbating what was already present. Your unhealthy sleeping habits may have become more pronounced and now you have a chance to see them. For some people sleeping is a way to avoid mental pain, so it indicates some need for action.
  • Social withdrawal.  I can note this in myself. I had a day full of phone calls from friends and relatives the other day and I felt a bit bored and wanted to go back to being alone. I relished those phone conversations, but they overwhelmed my underused capacity to connect! People, like me, keep talking about how we all acclimated to forced avoidance and it will take time to get out of it. Sex with partners has dropped off during the pandemic, too, even among married partners, as pornography and other solo sex practices have increased. It is worth taking steps to reconnect in intimate ways, too. It will take time.
  • Mentally beating yourself up.  Being left alone, actually or philosophically, this year put us under a lot of personal responsibility. A lot of us have been subject to a great deal of self-criticism. I think you can see our self-loathing projected onto our unkind politics in small groups and nationally. We are not kind to ourselves or each other and we are out of touch with our loving God.

You probably note some of these troubles at work in yourself. They are like an atmosphere in which most of my clients are experiencing their journey toward awareness and healthy choices these days. Given that the social contacts that help us solve our problems are frayed right now, you might like some professional help. For some of us, some brief therapy to help us change our minds and behavior might be great. For others, a deeper season of working with the realities that surfaced in this bizarre year might be in order. Most providers are providing teletherapy, which is an effective alternative to the more organic and deeper office visits (Circle Counseling website).

Take care of yourself.

I wish that good-bye phrase above would begin to replace “stay safe.” I’m toying with the idea of committing to saying, “God be with you, till we meet again” like our ancestor incorporated into the language. We’ll see. Regardless, it would be great if we have a season of reaching in and out, and reaching to God for an outbreak of renewal. Let’s have a mutual project of taking care of ourselves.

If you’ve stopped showering, habitually eat comfort foods that don’t comfort, have stopped calling people who love you, etc., pick one thing you can change over the next week. Then build on what changes one step at a time. Start small. Get dressed and/or get out of the house each day. Or add fruit or veggies to your meals. Make a list of people with whom you’d like to connect and call one. If you’re vaccinated, what prevents you from going out to dinner?

Social support is probably the most important predictor of recovery after a trauma. Now is a great time to tap into your support networks, check in with friends and family by Zoom, text, phone, or in person. Make the church come alive again! Invite other reluctant people to get into your cell and begin in-person meetings – we can do them outdoors for the pre-vaccinated. Re-introduce yourself to the neighbors. Consider how to get back into the office.

Most of all, don’t do anything that is not drenched with the grace of God, if you can help it. Cooperate with Jesus in how you treat yourself — you are the beloved of God. It has been a long, tough year, and it’s going to take time to reemerge and recover. But we will get there. We’re even more likely to get to renewed mental health if we do it together, with Jesus.

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.

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.