Category Archives: Life as the church

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.

The parable of the man saved by trash

Thank God it is no longer February! That was a hard one. But it is still Lent; it is a pandemic. Despair in is the air, in the country and in the church.  If you think you are drowning or barely keeping your nose above water, I have a little story for you after a few paragraphs.

Despair threaded its way through my feelings last week, too. A further reason, as if I needed one, was this: I kept encountering Christians hemmed in by the trash theology to which they were committed. I mean the kind of thinking that invited Trump, the unbeliever, to lead much of the Evangelical church as if he were Cyrus the Great now freeing Christian exiles. I mean the principle-based thinking that consigns devoted people to understanding the Bible as the end of faith when it is just the beginning. I mean the hierarchical thinking that constrains people to makes excuses for the church leaders who do them wrong, to the point where they can’t even feel their own loss or trauma without feeling guilty for having any and for not following the spin the leadership puts on their power plays.

Pollution in the ocean of grace

Maybe I am just despairing because I never seem to keep my mouth shut about these things and feel displeasing, as a result. I was in a class in which our teacher was giving a very effective presentation about being aware of power in a spiritual direction relationship. During the subsequent dialogue her students were sincerely self-aware of all the ways they might be at fault. They were ready to learn of any way they might cross a line that would diminish someone’s autonomy or impede their free choice. I thought controlling our little dyad with a commitment to “freedom” might be too small a context, reducing it down to something I could control might be a bit grandiose; it might betray some unprocessed philosophy. So I had to get in my two cents worth, as well, appearing a bit too passionate, I’m afraid (as passionate as one can get in a Zoom session, at least). I said something like, “Our teacher got interested in power because Jean Vanier was exposed for taking sexual advantage of his directees, among others. What’s more, an authoritarian president unleashed a wave of threat in the country and a return to unveiled white supremacy!”

My righteous anger kept simmering until I read a little news story that became a parable of hope for me. Even less-than-complete thinking might be a means of salvation for our miracle-working God — Lord knows I am not complete! So I want to share the story with you, along with my interpretation. You are probably clinging to some bit of trash theology in a sea of confusion, threat and chaos yourself. And I think we all probably feel very small in a very big ocean every day, even when there is no virus to fear.

Here’s the story

Before I start, let me remind you.  While the legislatures rush to spend time on restricting rampant voter participation, the Pacific Ocean is quickly filling up with plastic. In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Pacific Ocean was “crying out in despair.” Scientists warn the pollution crisis could leave more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Those two more cents being offered, here’s the parable.

Pitcairn Island

According to the Washington Post, a supply ship called the Silver Supporter left New Zealand on Feb. 8 for the 3,000 mile trip to the Pitcairn Islands (famously settled by mutineers from the Bounty in 1789). About seven days later, the crew discovered they were one member short. Their chief engineer was missing.

Around 4 am, during his watch on the night shift, Vidam Perevertilov from Lithuania felt hot and dizzy. He went out on the deck for some fresh air. Apparently, he fainted and fell overboard into the dark waters without a life jacket. He had trouble keeping his head above water as the sleeping ship steadily moved away. But he summoned enough energy to swim over a mile to a black object he could see on the horizon. The object turned out to be a detached buoy, a big piece of sea rubbish.

He was gone for six hours before someone sounded the alarm. The crew members studied Perevertilov’s work logs to try to pinpoint the coordinates of where he was last certified as on board. Distress calls were made to surrounding ships, and the French navy assisted in the hunt. A French meteorological service mapped a possible drift path. The ship’s captain continued to hunt for the missing crew member by steering the ship back and running various search patterns.

Despite his determination to pull through, as the hours slowly passed Perevertilov began to lose hope of ever being found. For sixteen hours he bobbed up and down in the cold and dark and then in the searing heat of the morning. He found himself using his final moments to reflect on his life.

Weak with dehydration, skin burning, and giving up hope, he was shocked to spot the Silver Supporter in the distance. He waved his arm and yelled for help. A passenger on board heard his cry, describing it as a “weak, human shout.” Everyone thought it was incredible someone heard a voice. The man’s ecstatic family thought the whole rescue operation was almost impossible to believe.

His son said his father’s will to survive was strong; even at 52, he was fit and healthy. When asked about the piece of trash he found, Perevertilov said he left the fishing buoy exactly where he had found it — just in case it was ever needed to save someone else.

Not a real island

I forget that God does a lot of good with “trash”

Don’t forget that he left the trash as he found it when he was found.

This story changed my mind about all the poor believers I lamented. Perhaps they had been overboard a long time and were about to give up. They swam toward some promising trash theology that kept them afloat. (I won’t go in to how relative my judgment of “trash” may be). They got spiritually dehydrated and often got burned, but it was better than drowning. In fact, the trash saved them until the big ship came and rescued them, brought them on board for healing and took them home. I can hear the Apostle Paul saying to me, “Would you despise the trash that saved your brother? Isn’t your sister’s life worth more than your estimation of goodness?” Well, no, I wouldn’t and yes, it is. Jesus is made known by a leaf in the forest, a small voice on a mountain or a Presbyterian sermon. A fine acquaintance from my youth started his journey of faith by pausing for a televangelist while flipping around the channels. God’s love is unrestrained.

I decided, once again, that I can afford to be a lot less critical of the dangerous debris floating around on the ocean of the collective unconscious. A lot of people have a will to live and not even trash Christianity can keep them from meeting God and growing into their fullness. I may be right to point out that the ocean of God’s grace is crying out in despair because it is polluted with a huge gyre of plastic, unnourishing, detrimental religious thinking.

But listen, there are all sorts of faint voices crying out and waving their hands for help. God sees. I should open my eyes, and my heart, as well.

The Lent story and your story: Precious gifts for listeners

I woke up early last night, in the deep dark, flooded with stories. I have experienced a downpour of precious heartfelt tales in the last few days. I have one more segment of a weekend retreat with budding spiritual directors today. Much of what we have done centered around practice sessions which our teachers and colleagues devoted to experiencing God with us. “We beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.” Our stories are meeting God’s.

The first night of the retreat I woke up with a pain in my calf. I could go back to sleep, but I can still feel the  ache of the Charley horse. This night I am awake with a heartache. Some of the stories I heard contained heartbreak, some great joy and depth. But all the stories stretched my soul. I heard further stories from my family and my cell. I remembered some significant events from my own story. And I entered into the yearly retelling of the Great Story of Lent, which dares us all to become grounded in our own telling as we look into the eternity Jesus has opened up for us. Lent stretches us all.

Romanian Lent story
Click pic for Romanian ritual associated with Lent

The Lent ritual can ground us

We need to go on the Lenten journey each year for several reasons.

1) We are not who we were last year and we need to keep moving toward home. Our personal story linked to The Story needs to be re-viewed and edited.

2) The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus has to be played out in our bodies. We need to feel it in our bones as individuals rooted in the earth, fully present, here and now. And we need to feel the story in the bones of the body of Christ, our church, also anchored in a place and in a time. Like Jesus is an incarnation of the Spirit of God, in him we also embody heaven and earth. The story of Jesus is an example for us in how we are to retell that union day after day. Lent draws us to do the telling.

In his famous book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat neurologist Oliver Sacks told the story of a woman who had lost her sense of her body. We all have a sense of knowing where our body is. But she said, “I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself. It has no sense of itself.” We can all imagine the commitment it took to regain whatever sense she could of being fully herself. It began with telling her story to her loved ones and doctors and remaking connections. It seems to me that Lent always comes just in time, just before our sense of reality is swallowed up by other forces. We can lose our sense of ourselves in Christ. I can only imagine how 2020 swallowed up your life. I know I have come to admit it was probably the most difficult year of my long life. Lent challenges me to enter the story again and find my footing on the old path which is, again, new to me as who I am now, getting a sense of myself.

Telling our Lent story keeps us going

Alan Jones, in his book on Lent, Passion for Pilgrimage, says,

We need a song to sing, a story to tell, a dance to dance so that we know where we are and who we are. But we seem to have lost the art of storytelling and dreaming. Singing bits and pieces of what we know and telling snatches of half-remembered stories are better than nothing. The more we sing and tell the old, old story the less we will be satisfied with psychological and spiritual junk food, with false and temporary means of embodiment. Individually and collectively we feed on junk food – we hum snatches of tunes, dance a few steps, tell the fragment of a story. All this keeps us alive but barely. The Church invites us into a painful and passionate process of discovering who we are by the telling of story. It offers us the kind of food that will make us into a true body with others….Lent creates the space for us to dare a little in the direction of passion. We begin daring to hope for a homecoming. We already know scraps of the tune. It is now a matter of listening to the same old story to catch all of it.

I suppose for a few of my readers (and certainly for people you know) a resistance to Lent is well-formed. We always resist change or we would not be able to maintain the evils we do to ourselves and others. Even though we love what Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17, RSV), we still experience this newness as a kind of suffering. We don’t want to tell the story of how we feel disembodied for the shame of realizing we are not perfect. We will not go home, like the prodigal son in the Lord’s story must, because we would have to remember and tell the story of where we have been.

Image result for schitt's creek redemption

Lent gently but firmly insists that we find meaning in the empty spaces within us which are surrounded by the damaged and deluded senses that form our reality. Lent is a story, again and again, of how God emptied herself to become one with us, to reopen a way to our fullness. In that same chapter Paul says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God breaking in like that shined a painful light on how empty it is to find our meaning in 80 episodes of Schitt’s Creek. But isn’t it also amazing that fragments of goodness in that junk-food show lead us to turn our attention to something deeper in us and deeper in God! For those listening, a redemption story is being told every day.

Lent is our story meeting God’s

I don’t know about you, but it often feels like the deep, dark night of the world to me. I ache. I wake up with stories on my mind. Granted, I am kind of a professional story holder. But I am sure you experience the same kind of suffering as you relate to yourself and others and you run into the parts of your story and others which no one wants to remember, much less tell. To that achy place of resistance, Jesus is coming. I love how we open up a whole season of the year to welcome Him.

Lent is the disruption in the schedule that meets the disturbance of our souls. In that passionate place, Jesus meets us and saves us – a first time and again and again. The story of how Jesus saved us and saved us again needs to be told again this year. The story of Lent, how God loved the world in Jesus, didn’t condemn it, and opened up the way to freedom from sin and death for the whole world has many ways to be told again, and needs to be told. If you resist even the idea of that passion, you must have a soul. And that soul has a home waiting. The story of how you get there is precious.

We need each other: I welcome that

Sometimes my clients tell me, “I wish I did not have to come to therapy/spiritual direction. Why can’t I just do these things on my own?!”

Shortly after my church got going, Will had similar questions:

It is frustrating, isn’t it? We have to learn new things and unlearn old things. It takes time.

Zoom doesn’t cause the right trouble

It does not just take time to grow, it takes discipline. We don’t change unless we get troubled. Spiritual disciplines are all about purposely troubling ourselves to cooperate with our transformation. For instance, I wish I had to get in my car today and drive to my spiritual director’s house for our appointment. That way my schedule would have to trouble itself to center around the preparation to make it there on time and so face the problems associated with seeking God and attending to my inner work. Zoom is OK and it also causes some good trouble, but I miss getting dressed presentably, taking the anticipatory trip and then riding home with good things from God to chew on. All that trouble makes me feel like I really did something — because I did.

I have rituals that do not bring life

I not only need to honor the time and discipline it takes to grow, I need to protect the rituals that habitually steer me the direction my heart wants to go. Unfortunately, this year we have established all sorts of new rituals forced on us by the pandemic. Like starting most conversations with “You’re muted,” and “Can you hear me?”

But here comes Lent, the mother of all rituals, to present an opportunity to get out of our terrible new ruts. I started in January, actually, with a lockdown-sloughing diet. That feels good, like I actually care about myself. But today I am definitely driving clear back to West Philly to the best shop in town to get my “fastnacht,” diet or not. It is a ritual. Then I plan to get into Lent, pandemic be damned. I’ve got to get a life! Our pastors are theming Lent in a very straightforward way, as you can see by their “ad” below. That sounds good.

Lent is not just a solitary pursuit

Our personal disciplines and ritual-keeping are important. But what we need most of all to keep us on track for spiritual development is each other! We need other people to help us and move with us – not just therapists and directors, but all those people we are frightened to need. It is no shame to need someone to help us see ourselves and know God; it is just reality. Somehow, we think we should be perfectly self-sufficient. Maybe you think that is “freedom.”

If you could be healthy and happy on your own, you would be. (And if you think you are, God bless you!). Most people are not. Rather than wondering why I need to see a therapist or spiritual director, or be part of a cell, or worship and learn with the church, or read another book, or get up before the kids get up and pray, we might ask, “Why wouldn’t I need all those people to feel truly alive?” Even when I am alone I am with God I bring all the ways others have blessed me with me!

Individual growth is often painful and all too slow. It just is. What’s more, we can’t see ourselves or grow without others to love us and help us along the way. That’s just true. Even if it scares you to feel weak and dependent, why don’t you welcome those feelings during Lent? That might be revolutionary!

The welcoming prayer

My pastor introduced many of us to Thomas Keating’s Welcoming Prayer last Sunday during our meeting. I think it might make a good ritual for anyone who feels ashamed of not being who they aren’t or not being where they think they ought to be in life. Your “emotional program for happiness” might be all about achieving autonomy, being free, or becoming unhurtable. During Lent you might have enough time, if you disciplined it, to get to know God dying for you in Jesus, subject to our sin and death and rising into the fullness of love.

I’ll leave Keating’s prayer with you:

Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it is for my healing.

I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.

I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.

I open to the love and presence of God and
God’s action within. Amen

We must bring the Now to now

Image result for valentine on a melting glacier

I suspect Valentine was a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in his ways and position, 
when the authorities made their new law 
and thrust him into his new, secret obedience to Love. 

He once handed off his cross to the younger ones. 
But it quickly came around the track to him again. 
He was no longer the future but the now — 
the eternal now he knew so well beckoned him Home. 

And he brought that Home to his home. 
He brought that Now to now. 
He lived Eternally in the face of the powers 
who pretend to have the power of death. 

I know my Valentine is a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in her ways and position. 
Yet the authorities still make their laws 
and thrust the young into choices which question all their love. 

What will You have us do with this baton we see, 
coming quickly to us across the melting glaciers 
in an age of lies when the evil go free 
and the machines bind the hearts and minds of the children? 

We must bring our Home to our home 
and bring our Now to now, 
and love Eternally in the face of the powers — 
prove they do not have the power of death 
over those who listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow. 

Take care of the common good: Meritocracy is a sham

I am going to end up at the stop sign above in a minute. But I am going to start by listening in as the elites have a belated chat about ethics.

Some academics are talking about the “meritocracy” — the idea that people rise and should rise to the optimum level of their value in the system. That is supposedly how things work in a capitalist democracy from being accepted to college to being promoted on the job.

What became of the common good?

The debate about whether meritocracy is a real thing (or moral if it is) mainly comes down to assessing what people think freedom means. Americans have a long infatuation with the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, just “doing your own thing” [Theme song] as long as you “do no harm.” But they waking up to the reality that such freedom is directly related to the lack of solidarity in American society. It has occurred to many people (long about when the Capitol was being stormed, perhaps) that a society with no shared ideals or mutual affection isn’t the happy place they once assumed it would be. If people think freedom means independence at any cost rather than a sense of worth and connection that allow for self-determination, we are in trouble. And we are in trouble.

I was there for the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spawned identity politics. I decided to follow Jesus so I have endured the increasing hostility to religion since then. I became untraditional, so I had to note how I added to the general contempt for tradition. I’ve lamented the market deregulation that created a whole layer of entrepreneur cowboys and megarich predators (I admit learning a lot from them). All these factors, combined with Reagonomics (which beget Trumponomics), legitimated greed, widened inequality and encouraged Americans to forget their collective identity. And all this development was certainly a shot at Jesus, who had been tempering the godless instincts of the country all along.

So I am happy I ran into Marty Moss-Coane interviewing Michael J. Sandel about his new book: The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good?. I always love it when elitists catch up with Jesus. The gist of the book is in his Ted Talk video below. But here it is in a few sentences.

We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

If Sandel were speaking as a Jesus-follower his book would be great preaching. He’s focusing on truths which much of the church has forgotten along with much of the society. But these truths have been in the Bible all along.

You have value as yourself

You are not what you produce or whatever fame or notoriety you achieve. You are not worth what your bank account or economic rung on the long climb up the stratospheric ladder toward the 1% might imply.

My clients need to be instructed never to look up “celebrity worth” on Google. Otherwise they might find out that Mark Wahlberg is worth $300 million while they can’t afford a new phone. Moreso, they need a constant push to turn away from the voices in their heads that accuse them of being of no value. Christians, especially would do well to consider it a sin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s free gift of life and grace, as if Jesus were stupid to die for them.

You do your work for the common good

Dr. King famously said the refuse workers in Memphis were just as important as doctors in the prevention of disease. Our newly-named “essential workers” are not paid like they are essential but we are at least recognizing that the whole ship goes down if they don’t make it float. We all help build whatever there is, or we are in the process of tearing it down.

In the church, that must be one of the top ten pieces of truth that make us the salt of the earth. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good and every part of the body of Christ is indispensably worthwhile. We need each other.

You did not get where you are because you deserve it.

When we are all autonomous, we are each condemned to make it on our own. Many of my clients are so condemned. Their parents did not want to bother their uniqueness by influencing them too much or even parenting them. They come to me as free-range children. Or their parents made it plain that it was crucial that they live up to their potential and rise to the top like the cream of the crop they are: “You can make it if you just believe and keep trying.” Now they are failures or fakers to the core.  How many TV ads tell us we need some shampoo or Cadillac because we deserve it? Most of us know that is not true, but we go with it anyway because that is common sense to Americans.

In the church many people let the elite run the place because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes they feel unworthy to speak — won’t talk to the pastor because “They are probably too busy.” Or they won’t get involved because it would take them too much time to be important and they can leave it to someone better suited. So even in the new, pluralistic, untraditional churches (like Circle of Hope) the idea of meritocracy organizes us and people feel the need to honor success.

I’m not saying there is no value in monitoring whether we meet our goals; I’m just saying we must not monitor them in service to shame or fear based on some strange sense born in the godless “economy.” Anything we might call success is a gift of God like everything else; and any goodness I enact is just a fraction of who I might become in Christ.

Our better angels

The other day I was nearly hit in the crosswalk while I was on the last leg of my please-get-me-out-of-the-house walk (I’ll be looking like Marky Mark in no time!). After I was not hit, it hit me. Abraham Lincoln has been quoted to death recently for a good reason. Just like Lincoln, Joe Biden is talking about the common good all the time. Barack Obama liked to talk about the rule of law. Donald Trump liked to talk about Donald Trump. But Biden is a breath of fresh air to me because he thinks Americans can build something together and take care of each other.

If Biden is wrong, that’s the right way to be wrong. He even has the Chinese talking about our mutual “better angels.” The reason you stop at the stop sign isn’t because the police are going to catch you if you don’t or because you need to dominate the intersection instead of those other losers. Stopping is always a nod to the common good right there in the middle. We all pass through it and leave it safe and sound — or wreck it (and squash me!). Stop signs assume people are decent enough to stop at them. I may run a few of them before I am done. But I dare not forget that such an act runs over the common good when I do.

The meritocracy, while being a sham in reality, has a thin layer of logic to it covering a core of self-condemnation waiting to be realized. The Apostle Paul realized the great merit he had achieved as a law-keeping Jew had no value; it was his partnership with Jesus that made him someone. Any merit we have will eternally start there. Any difference we make will start with acting out our common love in Christ for the common good.

Top Ten Posts for 2020

Thanks for reading in 2020!

Visits to my blog grew by about 25% this year. That’s kind of fun. 

Everyone who writes a blog makes their top-ten-most-read list at the end of the year because we want to see if we can get more people to read our stuff. I write because I like to and I have something to say — not just to get attention. But I would still like you to subscribe and experience my hopefully-nurturing, educating stuff.

Before we get to me, here’s a top ten video from an odd guy I relate to:

Here’s my top ten most-read blog posts, starting with #1

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?
My generous but skeptical take on the boomlet of tarot interest gets read every day.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?
I put my spin on a popular internet question. PA is full of guessers.

Cornel West: We’ve got a love the world can’t take away
Cornel West was so great with Anderson Cooper I wanted everyone to get a transcript.

Show up for your kids: Let go of your “helicopter God”
Anxious parents trying to protect their kids are developing anxious kids who can’t trust God.

Dahleen Glanton: White people, you are the problem
A journalist from Chicago tells it like it is about white privilege.

Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment
I adapt some common knowledge, which we still need because everything is STILL canceled.

Will people grow up before the church gets wrecked?: Eliza’s question and Janet’s answer
We wish everyone would develop a taste for the both/and of spiritual growth in the Bible. People on their earlier journey often need things a bit more “this or that.”

5 rules for life in the pandemic: Help for church survival
I collated some common understandings of how to practically help one another survive.

Turning: The basic skill of spiritual survival and growth
This was actually written in December of 2019, but it was in the top ten for 2020 so I put it in. I think turning really is the unadvertised spiritual lesson we forget every day.

In this world you will suffer: The Lord’s unloved promise
2020 was so full of suffering for all of us, we need to keep daring to talk about it – since Jesus saves us through it and in it.