Category Archives: Life as the church

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.

We’ll make it through on the third way

The two most read posts on my blog last week seem to go together as Trump continues to protest his defeat.

You and I could blame all the troubles we face on Trump, and many do, but I think he is just the wicked weed flourishing in the garden of post-Christian philosophies that have been ascendant for a long time. The unholy alliance between Trump and the Evangelicals, fronted in the media by Jerry Falwell Jr., may have sealed the deal on the demise of influence Christians have long had in the public square of the U.S. [Read Jonny Rashid]. We’ll see. But what my generation has contributed to the next is resulting in some very unchristian skills that may wreck their spiritual growth. People are polishing two self-destructive skills, if my blog stats make any difference: 1) power struggle, 2) relationship cut-off. The two often go together and they are rarely, if ever, associated with the way of Jesus.

A student exemplifies what is happening

A student in one of my classes posted something so indicative about the next generation’s feelings about the church, these days, I want to paraphrase it for you. I don’t know their personal situation, and their identity is confidential, anyway. I only reference them at all because of the pathos and eloquence of their entry, which I paraphrase:

2020 has been full of pandemic issues, maybe it caused my feelings. Maybe it was the political climate and how it related so much to religious alignments/movements. When the class provided place for me to reflect I realized just how much I have changed this year and just how much I differed from many of my fellow classmates and evangelicals.

My journey was gray and chillingly clear, empty. I saw a lack of God where I would’ve expected to see consolation. I saw inauthenticity in so many believers — so many attempts to assuage fear, guilt, anxiety, political failures; by using spiritual phrases and religious words.

I wish I could say I believe the spirit has “guided me or met me” this year, but it feels a lot more accurate to say that I found guidance outside of evangelical institutions and circles way more than in them. I found the spirit in the BLM movement. I found the spirit in political candidates who are striving for change to bring justice to the citizens of this country. I found the spirit in the freedom that deconstruction has brought me — freedom from the conservative/fundamentalist ideals that kept a veil between myself and the reality of life on Earth.

I’m not sure what the spirit is anymore, but I didn’t find it/him/her/them in spiritual and religious practices or studies this year. I found the spirit in stepping out of those places and joining the rest of the world in what they are going through. I found the spirit of Jesus in being extremely honest with myself about what I think, believe, desire, and who I am in general.

I’ve seen and met with many people in the last four years who could write a similar report.

It’s not as if every twentysomething in every era doesn’t have a lot to face; I did. And it’s not as if everyone, in all parts of the globe are not exploring new places inside and out — humanity is a creative, searching bunch; the Chinese planted their flag on the moon last week! But even though life always presents a lot to face, this time in the life of the church in our fracturing nation seems uniquely difficult to most of us.

I admire the student’s courage and openness in the middle of their turmoil. I also lament how they got caught in the power struggle and how they cut-off relationships.

We can live and act according to a “third way”

Our pastors are always talking about these aspects of society and the church:

  • power and division,
  • demands for agreement and dismissals of love.

Sometimes they are tempted into power struggles themselves and some of our members and even pastors have cut us off. It is a generally painful time to be alive. I spoke to the pastors about one aspect of the person’s story to highlight how it is sort of a parable calling us to follow the “third way” Christianity that is emerging all over the word. Here is the gist of what I said.

The student is on an increasingly typical ex-evangelical path, aren’t they? I think there will be many more of these refugees and, while they are unlikely to pile into churches, they will have a narrative that will continue to undermine churches and the way of Jesus, itself. Cutting off is a common trait these days, so ex-anything probably applies here, including ex-Third-Way and ex-Circle-of-Hope.

Everyone in the U.S. tends to have an American-privileged way of seeing the world. The student looks at the church through the lens of that privilege, I think. They can’t imagine Christianity according to the “third way” of the early church before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire (or before it adopted a place of power as preferable to its earlier Jesus-reliant condition).

Many authors have written about the revival of this third way of love — not owning the empire yet fully influencing it with a unique message and with the signs and actions to back that message up. The student is offended by the corrupt church so they cut it off. They find their community in emergent institutions free of the past narrative and supplying a new one. This ever-changing of the guard, the ascendancy of the new power structure, is the predictable way of the world we can trace throughout history.  What the student missed was an honest third way that is not the either/or of the ever-warring world.

The third way was, and is, Jesus centered, community based, discipleship oriented, generously connected but not subject to the ways of the world, in awe of the goodness in people and the planet but not idolizing them or it — all the things our pastors regularly teach. The third way just does not claim the privilege of fighting for power, because, for one reason, it does not have it. For another reason, it is generally despised as a rival to most institutions. And, for the main reason, it has eschewed power as a means it deserves to have under the Lordship of Jesus.  (People write books about this, so I won’t keep going).

I think the student is probably on a good path. They are learning, just like all our twentysomething friends are learning in similar ways. We are all learning what to do in a divided world in which people cut off their loved ones if they fall on the wrong side of politics, in which we wake up to a power struggle every day. I think perfecting, describing and discipling for our successful “third way” approach in our relatively hostile spiritual environment as Circle of Hope is a great service to people jumping ship as well as to those discovering they are drowning.

Jesus on the narrow way through the power struggle

What do you think? Is it a problem when one is praying about love and a scene from “The Crown” and other fragments of pop culture come to mind? I suspect appropriate fragments of the Bible should come to mind! But that is how it was. I have been struggling with love in the midst of the painful binary arguments that fragment both church and society these days as both find it hard to listen to the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, the media is also struggling.

Love is not THE answer

My first fragment was England Dan & John Ford Coley singing “Love is the Answer.” I first heard the song in 1979 when my first son was born. Now you can’t get away from it in the supermarket. Ronald Reagan was running for president. Margret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain. Ayn Rand lost her husband.

When the guys sing “Light of the world shine on me,” it makes their song sound very Christian. That’s how I took it. But, according to Todd Rundgren, the songwriter, it is was just written to be Christianesque:

“From a lyrical standpoint, it’s part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love. I’m not a Christian, but it’s called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it’s still a subject” (Rolling Stone).

You may be a bit Christianesque like that yourself. Dan Seals and John Coley were Bahai at the time. Coley later returned to Jesus. Regardless, love is not THE answer, even if it is a good answer to almost everything. Jesus is the answer and healing, reuniting love becomes possible as an outgrowth of our relationship with God. Abstracted Jesus love is just an argument.

It is odd that we are still arguing about what this song purports. Is love the answer? Donald Trump is a walking poster representing the man for whom love is not the answer. He’s the bad boy from the Margaret Thatcher/Paul Ryan side of the societal binary argument about how to relate. He is selfish. The only thing that matters to him is the deal [see this Atlantic article about The Art of the Deal]. He purports to be a self-made man. He’s a personified argument ready to be the reason for whatever  happens.

Reason is not THE answer, either

That brings up another fragment. I am watching The Crown and it is getting into history I personally remember. The other night Queen Elizabeth was arguing with Margaret Thatcher about the common good, loving one’s neighbor and being the keeper of one’s brother. Elizabeth is not “keen” on how her prime minister is retraining England. Thatcher is famous for saying,

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

There is another unspoken voice in the conversation between Thatcher and the Queen. Thatcher’s sense that there is “no society” comes straight from the Ayn Rand critique of Western Democracy. As Paul Ryan said, we are in a fight between individualism and collectivism; and now we know that is a fight right down to whether you should wear a mask in South Dakota during a pandemic.

Ayn Rand’s influence in the church and in society (whether Thatcher thinks that exists or not) is probably way underestimated. In 2008-9, Atlas Shrugged sold 1 million copies! That’s one million of the seven that had been sold during the 50 years since the novel was published in 1957. Here’s a bio of Ayn Rand.  She was a Russian Jew whose family was ruined by totalitarianism. After they fled to the U.S. in 1926 she soon saw the New Deal providing all sorts of new social benefits and saw big government getting bigger. She began to write, and invented a philosophy she called “objectivism.” It values its definition of selfishness, rejects altruism as slavery, and advocates unfettered, free market capitalism. Here is a tortured rationalization for how the Ayn Rand Institute could justify living off the “altruism” of the welfare state’s PPE funds this year while purporting to expose the distribution of those funds as evil: clip from their site. They insist that altruist, statist, collectivist principles are destroying the country.

When I was in high school, I read some Ayn Rand, most of her novels and The Virtue of Selfishness. When she threw off God, society and anything but Donald Trump’s gut instincts, I deserted her. She’s not all wrong, philosophically, but since she is an atheist, I’m not sure why Christians follow her. Here’s a sample from the Virtue of Selfishness.

Selfishness, however, does not mean “doing whatever you please.” Moral principles are not a matter of personal opinion — they are based in the facts of reality, in man’s nature as a rational being, who must think and act successfully in order to live and be happy. Morality’s task is to identify the kinds of action that in fact benefit oneself. These virtues (productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride) are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality.

Rand’s moral ideal is a life of reason, purpose and self-esteem. But reason is obviously not THE answer, since Kellyanne Conway just used it to construct a set of “alternative facts.” Reason is not the answer, Jesus is the answer. Our relationship with God gives reason a chance to flourish.

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Expressing dignity on the Bethlehem side of the wall.

Jesus doesn’t need to win the argument

One of my favorite proverbs says, “Truth without love kills and love without truth lies.” One side thinks the truth about freedom is worth a few lives. The other side thinks loving the marginalized justifies whatever it takes to defeat oppressors. And on the fight goes, even in the church. In Jesus we have seen the glory of God, full of grace and truth, love and reason. Jesus is the both/and of the binary. He is the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. He’s the end of the endless struggle between polarities.

Ayn Rand has been winning the argument with the baby boomers for their entire adult lives, in the church and out. Now it seems reasonable to be selfish in a good way and seems logical to let unfettered capitalism run over everyone who can’t exercise their “God-given freedom” fast enough or well enough to keep up with the economy. You can see how this argument goes round and round, as Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, said he was willing to sacrifice his life to the virus if he could save the economy for his grandchildren. It seems that love was his answer, but the economy had a reason of its own. Rand would not approve of him sacrificing his life for anyone, but she might approve of surrendering to the  “fact” of the virus and letting the weak (or “losers” in the Donald’s parlance) die their death.

What started all this was an old song squeezing into my meditation. As it turns out, love is not the answer, but love is sure my problem. I don’t want to give it up just because I live in the middle of a constant argument — potentially despised by one side and deserted by another. I am trying to learn the Jesus, third-way love, walking a narrow path right down the middle of the binary arguments of the world which just go on and on. For some, that endless argument seems to pass for eternal life, whether anyone wants to live it or not, or just a feature of a pluralist society, whether a society exists or not.  I am grateful that Jesus promises and demonstrates an eternity worth living in a community worth building.

A few words from Bruxy Cavey on the basis for the Jesus Collective

Bruxy Cavey was excited the other day when the pioneers of the Jesus Collective met for their monthly “hub” meeting. He rushed into the zoom room to meet us direct from recording the audiobook for his rewritten and repurposed best seller, The End of Religion. I’m the rep to the Jesus Collective for Circle of Hope, so I got to listen to him riff on the themes of his writing. He’s great at giving voice to what moves churches from around the world to form the Jesus Collective. Many of us are hungry for a Jesus-centered life together.

Jesus Collective meeting
On my first trip to the Meeting House

Bruxy is the main teacher from one of the few Anabaptist  megachurches: the Meeting House in the Toronto area. He is onto what we, as the Circle of Hope and others who read this, have been onto for decades, only he says it better and sometimes bolder.

I want to share some of what he said last week. I won’t try to quote him (I was just in a zoom, after all), and I will expand a bit, but I want to offer you the gist. Here are some examples of his teaching that I think will get your spiritual juices flowing.

  • You can’t bolt the Old covenant on to the New. Paul clearly teaches that the Law is a tutor for life in Christ. But plenty of church people apply the whole Bible as if nothing ever developed both in the history recorded in the Bible or since the book took shape. As a result, they use Old Testament ethics and examples like Moses or David to justify violence, patriarchy and all sorts of things that undermine the message of Jesus. In Jesus God birthed something new from the old, just like he is doing in us as individuals and a church. We need to move with that new birth.
  • The previous mentality noted is an example of what Cavey calls a “religious spirit.” He says having a religious spirit is like spiritual hoarding. Perhaps most people are not threatened by what is new – they just never let go of the old. They ponder an old worship style like a hoarder ponders a stained piece of Tupperware the cleanup crew wants to clear out. Risking change is not easy, but it is much easier when we live in relationship with a loving God who personally guarantees the future. We should boldly imagine the end of what we are doing now so we fight the temptation to perfect what is passing away, or fight yesterday’s battles when new foes demand our love and courage.
  • The Anabaptists were the radical reformers when many Europeans wanted to get out from under the corruption and warped theology of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. These radicals were good examples of letting go of the old and grasping the new. The main Reformers wanted to always be reforming. But as it turned out, they freeze-dried and shrink-wrapped their faith around statements and catechisms written in the 15 and 1600’s. Unlike them, the Anabaptists were organic and Spirit led. The scriptures were a beginning point for them, not an end point, because they were following the risen Jesus and doing the word. Over the years Anabaptists, like our Amish friends in Lancaster Co., lost their change-the-world passion and spent their energy trying not to engage it. They preserved compassion, simplicity and peacemaking, but they also became preserved as sort of a curiosity. Every movement has a shelf life. It cools off like lava flowing into new territory and hardening into something quite permanent. Bruxy wants us to break open tradition and let reformation flow.
  • Early radicals believed the risen Jesus spoke to the church in the scripture and in the lives of their covenant partners. Their “community hermeneutic” made the voice of Jesus clearer and louder — when individual Spirit-receptors come together they amplify revelation. They weren’t looking to go beyond the Bible. But the Bible says: I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I am leaving; for if I do not leave, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). There is more access to God now that Jesus is not walking in a body with us and the Holy Spirit multiplies ways to connect to God. A few hundred could follow the man; thousands could, now billions can follow the Spirit.

I’m excited to be part of a movement that wants to get out from under the hardened lava of Eurocentric/Roman Empire Christianity. Not that I don’t deeply admire all the wonderful people of Europe and North America who have followed Jesus with abandon — they are the salt of the earth right now, too. But the Jesus Collective, including Bruxy Cavey, represents what is coming next.

On December 10 I will represent Circle of Hope at a brief ceremony inducting the first partner churches who will form the Jesus Collective. Some of you reading will be there from around the world. I am honored to be a part. I know there is always something new to grasp. Even Circle of Hope, which was designed for flexibility and change, has ways that can get solid. We could lose our fire and stop flowing. But Jesus has sent us the Helper and I doubt we’ll ever get hardened enough to be impervious to her persistent grace.

We’re listening, Lord: Post-election direction for keeping faith

You gotta find a way to forgive each other. Gotta find joy in your existence in spite of that feeling.

I feel encouraged to discover that many people share my sense of what has happened in 2020 and what we need to do about it. I wrote about it last week.

My friend, Michiko, wrote this on her Facebook page

Don’t be lulled. 70 million people still voted for racism, homophobia and white terror. The work is only now begun. We must heal the spiritual wounds wrought by genocide and slavery, which as Dave Chappelle likes to say “was only 3 people ago” or we will repeat this process. [SNL this week] I like this message [below] because it’s been resonating with what I believe God is saying to me which is…throw spiritual water on the fire, speak the history back to the earth, let her absorb it and reconfigure it and put out the flames of hatred, human classification and human division. This is the work I feel called to do.

I think all of us probably have some variation on her calling. Can we all agree to:

  1. Throw spiritual water on the fire?
  2. Live in creation and not in our classifications and divisions?

Michiko’s friend, Spencer Clayton, spoke a creative sermon after the election that was on a similar wavelength: When your faith is misplaced –1 Samuel 4:1-11. He says:

Stay vigilant. Our actions add up.

Three things that can happen as a result of misplaced faith.

1) If our faith is not in God, we are putting ourselves in danger.

    • Jeffrey Epstein put his faith in money and political connections, but it did not save him.
    • Young people put their faith in their health but Covid-19 kills people as a result.
    • Symbols are not God. Applying your ignorant ways harder in hope of a better result could be deadly.

2) Premature celebration can attract attention that invites even more challenges.

    • Trump declared victory before the votes were counted. He stirred up opposition.
    • Democrats advertised some radical plans and invited opposition.
    • Moving in silence is often better. Let your character and actions speak, not just your advertising.

3) Results of our misapplied faith are often much worse than we needed faith to address.

    • Plenty of pastors asserted that Trump would win easily. Paula White, one of the president’s spiritual advisors, has become famous for her televised prayer for Trump’s God-ordained victory. The parodies of it abound. As a result, the church becomes a joke and evangelism becomes very difficult.  People feel like Christians are crazy.
    • Be careful in public.

I think it is a good time in the history of Eurocentric Christianity to finally listen to historically marginalized people and hear what they have been saying all along. Now that mostly a bunch of old “white” men have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an inconclusive election it is time for the church to return to Jesus. We can get over Donald Trump, Paula White and our lust for power (from political conservatives clear to revolutionaries) and come up with what Jesus wants to come up with.

It is still all there in the Bible:

  • It is living water poured on the fires of hatred.
  • It is the stones crying out for the restoration of shalom in creation.
  • It is faith in God and not all the others things empire-lovers cherish.

Like Michiko and Spencer say, the work is beginning. Let’s get reoriented now that the results of all our societal nonsense are becoming clear. The church will survive and we will carry the seeds of transformation into the new territory we are entering. The Spirit of God will not abandon us.