Category Archives: Building community

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

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.

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.

John Lewis: “Love is the better way.”

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In 2016, John Lewis led a sit-in on the Senate floor to demand common-sense gun-control. He did not get what he wanted, but he never gave up. And he never gave up his remarkable love as he did it.

I watched almost all of his funeral last Thursday. I was repeatedly moved by the saint being honored in Martin Luther King’s church.

I even praised George Bush

I was flabbergasted by George Bush’s tender speech. In the spirit of John Lewis’ “love first and let the rest follow” Christianity I ventured a rare Facebook entry to be amazed about Bush. I just felt like saying something not-quite-nice-but-good about a man about whom, Lord knows, I have said about a million extremely negative things.  I was taken up by the way of love.

I am not sure how people found this FB entry, since they did not comment on my next entry about St. Ignatius (who has plenty to criticize, as well). But they countered my little love with quite a bit of hate for Bush. In their defense, the bombers who flew over my Facebook page were probably just standing up for what they believe in. I think they were trying to make sure George Bush was not exonerated by being likable, which is his go-to. I did question their love, but they also reflect my hero in their stubborn refusal to give in to the lies that are destroying the beloved community. I’m not sure they are building such a community with their judgment, but at least they are on some frontier shooting at its enemies.

The better way of John Lewis

John Lewis had a better way and it made me cry to hear about it, even from George Bush. Lewis let his little light shine right to the end. When he knew he was dying, he asked the NYTimes to print his final words, and they did. Obama essentially riffed on Lewis’ exhortation in his eulogy. Here’s part of his parting words:

I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself

I have no faith in the American state. And I think democracy based on capitalism is absurd. But I do know what Lewis is saying when he says “beloved community.” And the fact that he wouldn’t give up until the godless American government reflected it is beautiful. I have given myself to a much smaller goal: that the church of Jesus Christ would be a beloved community that contrasts with the world as it demonstrates the heart of its alternativity. One would think I have a much easier row to hoe than Lewis was given. Some days Facebook mocks me for my hope, but I don’t think we should give up. Lewis didn’t:

In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

I wish he would  have mentioned Jesus in there. But MLK and his crew did not want to leave anyone out — and everyone is made in the image of God, after all. Their relentless love and their nonviolent pressure had core values that everyone could understand, whether they were committed to Jesus or not. I think it is clear that their values require resurrection power to implement and sustain, since John Lewis died in the same year as George Floyd. But ascending into generous inclusion is a lot better than the usual descent into our present hate-filled particularity.

Thank you Jesus for John Lewis and thank you John Lewis for being Jesus among us. I hope people listen to you even more, now that you have received a lot of media attention. The church should lead the way to truth and justice as it lets love guide it. In  Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, Lewis said:

“It was no accident that the movement was led primarily by ministers—not politicians, presidents or even community activists—but ministers first, who believed they were called to the work of civil rights as an expression of their faith.”…“Religious faith is a powerful connecting force for any group of people who are working toward social change.”

I am grateful for his example. Love is the way. As he demonstrated, it didn’t even matter if the society changed, since it did, but it also didn’t. Self-giving love will always be the core value of the way of Jesus no matter what we face next, right up to the end.

 

5 rules for life in the pandemic: Help for church survival

Next month the pastors are calling the church to consider our “rule” of life as followers of Jesus. You might like to pick up Ken Shigematsu’s book, My God in Everything, and start reading now. I love it when postmodern people rediscover ancient patterns to grow healthy faith. They give me hope for the world. And we could use some hope right now.

Americans are having a tough time living by any rules at all when it comes to the pandemic. As usual we’re dividing up over something as simple as whether wearing a mask is necessary. I know what I am about to say might not be true about you (at least I hope not), but as a society, the individual freedom to kill seems to be trumping our responsibility to save. As a society, the Americans perfected the world’s largest killing machine — their arsenals and armed “services;” I don’t think anyone would dispute that violence is a core characteristic of the U.S.A. But that trait characterizes the people as individuals, too. The society is debating whether policing means the right to make split-second decisions to kill Black people, especially, and whoever else challenges state-sponsored violence. We’ve been debating whether everyone should be allowed to carry weapons into Walmart. The wild Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is more popular in the U.S. than the NHL or NASCAR among 18-34 year-olds. All this goes to say that Americans lean toward lawlessness when it comes to relating to anyone but their small circle, and white people, especially, tend to think death is “collateral damage” when it comes to protecting their way of life.

Contrary to Disney’s decision to open Disney World, the coronavirus crisis is not over. But some things have changed. To start, lockdowns are ending because cases are low or falling in some areas or because state leaders decided to move ahead despite the risk. Testing has increased, giving us more indicators of community health. Plus we know a lot more about how the virus behaves, how to treat it, and what activities pose the highest risk.

Since life on permanent lockdown isn’t sustainable, public health experts are beginning to embrace a “harm reduction” approach, giving people alternatives to strict quarantine. These options — like forming a “bubble” with another household or moving social activities outdoors — don’t eliminate risk, but they minimize it as people try to return to daily life. We need to have some new rules about how to go about the week.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen as communities open up. The most likely scenario is that virus cases will continue to surge and fall around the globe for the foreseeable future. In the middle of that uncertainty, churches, in particular, are dividing up over when it is safe to do things in person (as are thrift stores and counseling centers!). Will our church and its enterprises survive the pandemic? Will our friends and children know more about harm reduction strategies than Jesus in a year?

Jeremy Cohen, right, first approached Tori via drone, during self-isolation in their respective Brooklyn residences. Then he donned a bubble so they could hang out in person.

5 rules for life in the pandemic

It is a blessing that Jesus can hold your hand as you figure out harm reduction. It seems we have learned to live with masks and social distancing, as well as new rituals of hand-washing after handling packages and touching surfaces. We need some basic rules to minimize risk and still have a life going forward. Here are some ideas for the church culled from public health leaders [thanks to Tara Parker-Pope] that might give us tools to make our own decisions about being the church in person.

  1. We need to know the present health of our state and community

Gwen and I are considering a trip to Vermont in the fall. When I started researching places to stay, I was informed there was  a criteria for entry into the state. I would need paperwork to prove I was not infectious and sign a self-certification! That was sobering. Philadelphia county does not presently make the cut for numbers of cases allowed in one’s home territory to prove I am not too great a threat to Vermont.

To gauge our risk of coming into contact with an infected person, we need to pay attention to two important indicators of Covid-19 in our area : the percentage of tests that are positive, and the trend in overall case rates [Philadelphia] [South Jersey]. When the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests stay at 5% or lower for two weeks, that suggests there’s adequate testing to mitigate transmission and you’re less likely to cross paths with the virus. The lower the number the better, of course. Right now PA has a 5.4 rate but Philadelphia County has about 1500 active cases compared to Vermont’s sense that 400 is the mark to meet.

  1. We need to decide the extent of our “corona bubble”

After three months of being locked up together (or alone!), the safety zone of our apartments or family circles is driving quite a few of us “mad.” We’re widening our circles to include the extended family and friends. The prime minister of New Zealand started calling this extension a  “corona bubble.” Now we need to agree on safety guidelines for our bubbles. The arrangement requires a high level of trust and communication.

Some cells are already experimenting with being a bubble and negotiating the level of social distance their meetings require. More anxious members want to know the number of “leaks” their bubble has — such as trips to the store or office, play dates, children and teens who see friends, or housekeepers and nannies who may visit multiple homes. Others don’t really care, or are unaware of the dangers.

Communication is the key to these arrangements working out. If  a person is not going to face instant judgment about leaks they are less likely to hide them. Our activities are going to change all the time — schools are on the way to reopening, there should probably be more protests. So our arrangements need to be flexible. Is the church important enough to us to learn how to have this level of dialogue? Or will we wait and see what we’ve got when the powers-that-be sound the “all clear?”

  1. We need to think of ourselves as managing an “exposure budget”

During a pandemic, every member of the household should manage their own exposure budget. (Think Weight Watchers points for virus risk.) You spend very few budget points for low-risk choices like a once-a-week grocery trip or exercising outdoors. You spend more budget points when you attend an indoor dinner party, get a haircut or go to the office. You blow your budget completely if you spend time in a crowd.

The initial crisis response is over, if some states ever had one, and we’re moving into  long-term management. There is a lot of work on a vaccine. But it is unlikely to be ready by January, even if people keep promising it. We need to have a long-term plan about how to limit our exposure and still have a life. Gwen and I want to see the grandchildren. But it might make sense to stay away from Home Depot as a trade-off. It makes sense to go over the week and assess what the budget should be and how many risks we are actually taking.

  1. We need to keep higher-risk activities short

We need to be together and will be together again. Let’s not forget. Until then, we are blessed with any number of ways to connect: phone, the dreaded Zoom, the now-expensive Marco Polo app, email – and people used to write letters and feel close to people at a distance. Budget in connecting, however possible or inadequate, before depression makes you even more isolated.

When you are going out into some risky territory, it might be a good rule of thumb to ask, “If an infected person happens to be nearby, how much time could I be spending with them?” It takes an extended period of close contact with an infected person, or extended time in a poorly ventilated room with an infected person, to have a substantial risk of catching the virus through the air, it is said.  Keep indoor events brief. For a few more months we can move social events outdoors. Wear a mask and practice social distancing. Here’s some guidance about time of exposure.

Brief exposure: Brief encounters, particularly those outside — like passing someone on the sidewalk or a runner who huffs and puffs past your picnic — are unlikely to make you sick.

Face-to-face contact: Wear a mask, and keep close conversations short. We don’t know the level of exposure required to make us sick, but estimates range from a few hundred to 1,000 copies of the virus. In theory, you might reach the higher estimate after just five minutes of close conversation, given that a person might expel 200 viral particles a minute through speech. When health officials perform contact tracing, they typically look for people with whom you’ve spent at least 15 minutes in close contact.

Indoor exposure: In an enclosed space, like an office, at a birthday party, in a restaurant or in a church meeting, you can still become infected from a person across the room if you share the same air for an extended period of time. There’s no proven time limit that is safest but it is best to keep it less than an hour. Even shorter is better. We went to Michael’s to get some framing done the other day then I was appalled that my 70-something brother went to get a haircut! I find it difficult to figure out what is appropriate! Dr. Erin Bromage suggests we consider the volume of air space (open space is safer than a small meeting room), the number of people in the space (fewer is better) and how much time everyone is together (keep it brief). His blog about timing and risk has been viewed more than 18 million times.

Circle of Hope’s mapping process is helping us decide how we want to live as the people of God in a pandemic. If you read every link in this post, your personal decision might be better informed. But I doubt you would be certain about what is the right thing to do. As the Bible teaches us so well, our behavior is going to be a mixed bag and we’ll need to accept one another. Read Romans 14 and 15 again and learn to accept the one who stays quarantined too long and the one whose behavior seems to risky. I am learning to accept that I am at risk as an older person (albeit a fairly healthy one) and I might die. I have friends my age who have already survived an infection, but I am preparing not to survive, as well. Businesses and churches are in the process of dying. It all feels terrible. But along with physical risk management, I am also managing the spiritual risk I am facing. I will live forever, but I would like to be living that eternal life now, not when the pandemic is over.

Faith Christian Church - Andy's Blog

  1. Unfortunately, we need to keep up the precautions and make some rules

I’m surprised how many disparaging remarks I have heard about Florida this week. (Well, half of them might have been from me). My friends skipped their beloved month down south (but my pastor went south to enjoy the tropical storm!), since the whole state decided the President had the power to declare the whole pandemic a hoax. Thus, they are setting infection records.

Here’s the common sense about precautions, so far:

  • Keep your mask handy. Wear a mask in enclosed spaces, when you shop or go to the office and anytime you are in close contact with people outside your household.
  • Practice social distancing — staying at least six feet apart — when you are with people who live outside your household. Keep social activities outdoors and keep indoor activities brief.
  • Wash your hands frequently, and be mindful about touching public surfaces (elevator buttons, hand rails, subway poles, and other high-touch areas). Gwen put hand sanitizer in my van, since I touch my face all the time.
  • Adopt stricter quarantine practices if you or someone in your circle is at higher risk.

When will precautions allow us to “open” the church? Actually, if you have any decent theology at all, you know the church is open 24/7 if it is filled with God’s Spirit. We can’t be closed because we are it. But it sure would be great to have meetings and to serve people face to face in the community! We need each other. We don’t know how to do more than online meetings, at this point (so don’t miss them!!).

But before we start thinking about when to get in a room together (or outside, as we might), would you start thinking about how Jesus wants to you take care of his church? What rules your life? What is your rule of life – the desires and disciplines that form your behavior and fill your schedule? Your rule matters more than ever to protect our lives and our church. We need each other to take some precautions in regard to our tender faith — our own and one another’s. We are not subject to the pandemic in such a way as it defines us – that is, not really. We need to help one another get through this with our faith, hope and love intact, not just our bodies.

Andres the refugee: Lessons in powerlessness from Honduras

Way back in the 90’s I took my first MCC immersion trip to El Salvador and Honduras. It was before cell phones worked well, so I had one scratchy phone call to Gwen in two weeks – that was a first. I remember the trip as my baptism by fire into the reality of white supremacy and empire thinking. This week that memory has seemed important.

When our group took off for San Salvador, I thought I was a rather “with it,” comparatively-activist kind of guy. I wanted to go to El Salvador before the war was over. I was already upset that the U.S. was complicit in all sorts of evil deeds and had hidden a titanic military base at Soto Cano. I felt a lot of love for people in Central America, especially since I came from Southern California where Spanish speakers were childhood friends. I soon found out I was less with it and loving than I thought, but that’s how I started.

We talked to Army officials, U.S. Embassy reps, church leaders, activists, and MCC workers. We met Jon Sobrino, were forced off our bus by eighteen-year-old soldiers with automatic weapons, and took a ride out into the far reaches of Honduras, almost to Nicaragua, where a village had waited up into the night under the one, public lightbulb to greet us. It was a very educational trip. But the most lasting memory has to be of Andres.

Mesa Grande Refugee Camp — Wikipedia/Linda Hess Miller

My upending memory of Andres

I admit that this incident is one of those that may have a lot more meaning than the facts deserve. I was having an “aha” moment, so who knows what really happened? We were in a refugee camp in Honduras for Salvadorans who had been driven out of their homes by the war. They expected to be gone until the soldiers passed on, but that never happened. Many years later they were still stuck in a strange limbo. Some had come as children, literally naked. One person who had fled with nothing but the clothes on his back was Andres. In his imprisonment, he had become a Christian and the catechist for the camp. We were meeting him because he was one of the leading people who should be seeing a group of well-dressed “dignitaries” from the United States.

He was very kind and very hospitable. We sat in his house made of cast-off scraps of wood. I still remember being fascinated as I watched chickens walking in and out of the walls. This sweet, godly, respectable man kept enlightening me as they pecked about. We might as well had come from the moon, as far as Andres was concerned. He had never been to San Salvador, the capital, from which we had just driven. I think I asked him if he ever wanted to own a car. He said he had not considered that, since he had never been in one. (That is one of my memories that makes me wonder if this really happened. Did he actually say that? You’ve never been in a car?). The longer I got to be with Andres, the more I loved him. My preconceptions about him began to fade into the background the more he talked – preconceptions like, “Surely he would want a car” and, “Surely he would like to go to the capitol city”). He was happy with his house and honored to be the catechist. Unlike all his visitors from the U.S. that day, he was content. He did not have big ideas about how to make everything better, and made me a bit ashamed of myself for cluttering up his honest, simple life with my expensive sandals.

Eventually, we were finished with our overwhelming two weeks and sitting in room in Tegucigalpa for the final debrief. At that point in my life I was especially not a crier. But when it came time for me to share, I uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I feel so helpless,” is what I remember saying. Maybe I was just feeling, “I can’t do anything.” I had come to Central America equipped with health, energy and assurance that I could be a part of something great. I would end the war, figure out rural poverty and go back to the U.S. equipped to organize great things to resettle refugees and effect reconciliation. Instead, I was sitting beside the road in Teguci-whatever crying out to Jesus. When He called to me, I told him I wanted to see. The scales of my “imperial gaze” were not removed, as of yet, but I certainly felt blind.

A few, certainly not all, of the lessons I need to learn

As we were in the middle of the always-overdue crisis over racism and police brutality in the United States last week (white supremacy, imperialism, militarism, inequality, etc. etc.), my mind turned to Andres and the things he began to teach me about being powerless and changing things, way back when.

1) People get along fine without western culture

I had never seen just how huge my list of assumptions about reality actually were until that trip. I thought I was a Christian – and I had been in trouble for how radical I was! But the Bible looked a lot more like Andres than like me. Whenever invisible people become visible to the rulers, it is always disturbing. Andres still disturbs me. I never really knew I was a ruler until I sat on a three-legged stool he made out of firewood in his house and realized he was getting along fine without me and my late-capitalist culture, or whatever it is that’s happening.

2) Not everyone wants to trade community for commodities

How in the world can one be so wise and content with a chicken walking through one’s walls? I could not keep my eyes off that chicken! Later that day another refugee family invited several of us to dinner. We shared a soup featuring their one potato as they happily watched us eat it. We investigated to see just how coerced they were to do this, but we were assured they really thought it would be a hoot to entertain us. Is it more amazing that we were flabbergasted or that they shared their potato? Even as a Christian, I am still tempted to have an economic answer for everything.

3) “Poor” people often have ways to get along in the shadow of the monsters that rule them just fine and don’t need instruction from the monsters when they finally deign to see them.

The world has always been full of monsters. Jesus announced their doom when he rose from the dead after they killed him. I was so full of power, I really wanted to fight those monsters. But after that debrief, I began to think that witnessing to their doom by embracing resurrection in their shadow was my best hope at having a life in a world where Bill Barr is Attorney General. Ever since, I keep trying to find a way to live an alternative in Christ in the shadow of the doomed monsters. They are passing away, after all, and what they thought was the Lord’s powerlessness will upend them forever. Plus, even they need a place to which to escape after they have killed and raped and despoiled the earth. I sat with Andres and felt like I deserved to die from my complicity with the monster from the north, but his gentle ignorance of my political plight and deep wisdom of our common spiritual future comforted and directed me.

4) Fighting it out for justice as if it amounted to percentages of a limited pie doesn’t make sense unless you want the pie.

We’ve been having the endless argument again this week after the looters smashed up corporate windows and messed up too many small businesspeople, too. “Thou shalt not steal” vs. “It’s not stealing; it’s just a bit of reparations for what was stolen.” Everyone is stealing, as usual, because in our society we live in a capitalist box. It seems to me that God is knocking on the box like (decidedly white, admittedly) Jesus in the famous painting, standing at the door. Behold, if there is not a better life than succeeding in the capitalist free-for-all, the vortex of injustice, that’s sad. Andres couldn’t have cared less about my car. How did he get so happy without a car? How did he seem so wise without knowing about my 401K? How could he know anything if he was not prepared to fight off the monster lurking in Soto Cano?

I take heart that the protests seemed to get free of the violence this weekend and turn into the morality that is uniting people around the world. But economic inequality is not going away any time soon, if ever. I’m glad I’ve met people all over the world, who don’t follow that inequality around, but follow Jesus instead.

5) There is an alternative that Anabaptists like to talk about but rarely find in North America.

I am happy we talk about the Third Way, and we (I mainly know about Circle of Hope) represent an alternative in a lot of ways. But we spend an awful lot of time sorting out the first and second ways, or whatever binary the media loves to amplify. I admit, I love to fire up my computer and read all the news every day. I might spend more time on that than time in meditation most days! I know an awful lot about the awful Trump, tromping across the street to run humanity-loving Episcopalians off their own porch. I suspect Andres never had a computer.  He missed the endless arguing; he missed the moralizing about moralizing, fury about fury and, exclusion over excluding. Maybe I am over-idealizing him, but I remember him as being strangely at peace. I not only want that peace, I want to make it.

I know I am making “points” as I go along telling these little stories. I’m not trying to tidy up my experience or yours – not really. It’s more of a confession. If you are a so-called white person, you probably have some of your own confession to make. So I am not trying to whitesplain anything, just trying to learn old lessons better. My lessons are not final and it would not be surprising if they aren’t the ones you want or need to hear. So let’s be friends. I just thought I’d tell you about a good man in the middle of nowhere who was driven out of his home and ended up in a refugee camp. He learned faith and it made him remarkable to me. Maybe he had an easier situation in which to learn faith at that point than we have in the belly of this beast – good for him. But maybe we can do it, too, instead of biting and devouring one another in reflection of the monster.

I think MCC made a decent investment by baptizing me. I certainly became better friends with the refugees of the world and with a lot of other people I probably would have continued to otherize. We are so preoccupied with stealing in the U.S., the country has ended up with a lot of stuff. When we ship it off to people with one potato periodically, I feel like some justice is done. Even better, when we get to know them and figure out our whole way of looking at things may not have much of a Jesus lens, love gets a chance to bloom. Then I feel we might be able to see a little bit.

Love in the time of Covid-19

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning … to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera. ”
– Gabriel García MárquezLove in the Time of Cholera

So what is love in the time of Covid-19?

Marquez notes that we share physical love from the waist down, so there may be a lot of quarantine babies after CVS runs out of birth control.

But he also notes that there is spiritual love from the waist up. And that is what I will concentrate on since that’s what Jesus concentrates on.

Being in the middle of what must be the strangest social circumstance we have ever experienced will test us in many ways. But the biggest test is always to love. Joe Biden called us to a “war on the virus” last night in the debate, which justifies all sorts of ways for the authorities to “save us.” I hope they do. But even if they save us from the waist down, what will we be after our quarantine from the waist up?

I came back from my trip from the epicenter of Covid-19 infection in Seattle and shortly departed for a trip to the home of the CDC in Atlanta. At my conference down south the discomfort among the good Christians palpably rose until people started evacuating. The speaker called the attenders of the last plenary a “remnant.” I had intended to vacation a bit afterward, but the sites we had scheduled to visit began to close down. I found myself closing down.

And I began to wonder. Even if I wanted to care for people with Covid-19, would I be allowed? What if, like the storyteller in Marquez’ book, my love was not actualized at all and I had no choice but to keep it or lose it? Will the quarantine be like a cleansing, enriching fast, a refinement of love? Or will I spend all my time figuring out how to amuse myself so I can let go of the suffering of being locked up in the middle of death?

Resurrection in the time of Covid-19
John 20:11-18

Take some suggestions from Jesus

Last night a good number of people got into the virtual meeting the pastors gave us. I think the expressions of love in the comments were as moving as what our leaders offered. But the vast majority of us did not show up. So begins my wondering about how the love of God survives in the time of Covid-19. What would Jesus do to keep it alive?

He would come for us in love

He did that and he is still coming. Alive or dead, we will be with the Lord if we love Him. Likewise, we should come for others. People are going to isolate from the waist up, too. Don’t let them. Go to them. We certainly have enough ways to communicate these days! But if they don’t answer, you may have to dare to track them down in person.

He would risk his life to love

You know he would risk his toilet paper stash and would give people some bread. That’s a given. But people may get sick from Covid-19 and not receive decent healthcare. And they may be the people you don’t know that well, or who aren’t savvy enough to keep themselves safe. They may be people who did not follow the rules and are now facing the consequences. I hope this does not happen, and our huge, national wealth comes to the rescue. But we may need each other as the church and others may need us who can’t stand the church.

He would take time to love

People are calling this time of quarantine a great Sabbath. That is such a good idea! It would be a good time for making love, if that’s possible in your life. Much more, it would be a good time to be in love with God. I mean “in love” like in a territory, like in Pennsylvania or in New Jersey — at home in love, hunkered down in love not fear — forced to live in your home, which is the love of Jesus.

Maybe some of us will have more time away from the eyes of the boss to spend with God, meditating on how we might face the remote chance of dying and how we will be hearing about death for months. It would be a good time to not just watch Frozen 2 again (Disney’s Covid-19 gift to us, for a fee, on Disney Plus) but to watch our feelings and thoughts as we meditate about life and love and death and about whether we actually receive the promise that we will rise again.

After years of waiting and looking for love in all sorts of substandard places, the hero of Marquez’ book has his lover alone on a boat. They raise the yellow flag that means there is cholera on board and no one will let them come to port. They are condemned to be alone with their love. Marquez thinks love, itself, is the end of all good – worse points could be made. I think Love, himself, in Jesus is the end and beginning. And I wish you a quarantine deeply filled with that relationship as you travel through this time on your quarantined boat with your Lover, first, and then with all the others He has given you and leads you to love.

The leader’s plow: C.S. Lewis seeds our imagination

As Circle of Hope, most of us pride ourselves in generously allowing people to try out the deepest expressions of their true selves. We like supporting their good ideas and especially enjoy seeing people taking on leadership through our cells and teams. We’ve even raised all our pastors up from within our ranks to their present service!

Last week one problem with leading came to the fore. It had to do with “plowing.” I told the pastors the C.S. Lewis quote below “appealed to me because you all have the terrible and joyful task of plowing. But plowing always means the disruption of the surface so that the deeper, richer soil can be turned over. The earth should not feel violated when it is readied for multiplication, but it does. It is hard to be the ‘violators’ all day.”

plow up that surface

Lewis is the master of the apt metaphor and the following quote from Mere Christianity is a good example of his genius. For every leader of the mission of the church, he pictures a grassy expanse, perhaps like all those huge lawns in our region for which the air-cleansing trees were sacrificed. The lawns are like all the self-chosen identities of the people the leaders serve — identities the people carefully mow and weed until they, too, resemble  suburban lawns, each guarded by security cameras collecting data on intruders. The Lord which every leader of the church serves plows up those artificial interior landscapes so they can be penetrated with truth and love, and so they can bear the fruit of knowing God again. There is little doubt that most people feel the “plow” as a violation and see the wielder of the plow as a violator.

See what you think of this little gem from Mere Christianity

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is what Christ warned us you could not do.  As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.  If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.

He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. — C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Mowers can become plowers

It is encouraging to see that Lewis understood, even in the 1940’s, how distracting life is. I think he could imagine, even then, how our phones would wake us up every day and start notifying us to manicure our personal lawns. He could imagine a day of “fussing and fretting”  blowing into every corner of our consciousness until we could hardly be interrupted from our distractions. How sad to be stuck polishing our egg when we were meant to fly! — or stuck mowing our useless lawns when our souls were meant to sow the world with the seeds of real food and “gather fruit for eternal life.”

All Jesus followers put their hand to the plow. But the leaders, who are catalyzing our ongoing reformation, building a transformative community, and liberating our united action have a commission to handle the plow that keeps us from returning to the wilderness of an artificial, spiritually-unproductive landscape. They plow up the grass and plant a farm that grows life in Christ. They have to deal with causing the suffering they do when they stick their blade into the hardened earth of our false selves and sin. They have to deal with the alarm they cause when they tap on the shells of the birds who should be learning to fly.

I’m not sure we will every feel good about our hard earth being violated or our thin shells being penetrated.  But I do think we can feel sympathetic to and thankful for our leaders: cell leaders, team leaders, congregation leaders, and church leaders, as they dare to play their vital role in catalyzing what the Spirit is doing to make us new and to redeem the world. As the writer of Hebrews teaches, when it comes to our leaders, we should “Let them [lead] with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful for you.” I can see how hard we make it for them sometimes. And I know they think it is hard to wake up every day with the plow right there beside the bed and all that hardening earth to face.

Oscars 2020 teach the virtue of being the best supporting

In SNL’s Weekend Update the guest commentators have traditionally stolen the show ever since Roseanne Roseannadanna. It was no different last Saturday when Chloe Fineman got us ready for the Oscars with her unhinged impressions.

The Oscars always have a lot to teach us Jesus followers

As Roseanne Roseannadanna might say, “You can always learn SOMEthin.” And the Oscar broadcast was full of lessons. The Cadillac commercials appealed to predators and the Rolex commercials disguised themselves as tenderhearted. I flipped to TCM when the breaks got too long and Judy Garland was hamming it up with Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band — later in the show Judy won another Oscar! It was a year for impressions. Janelle Monae lit up the stage as a queer, black, woman Mr. Rogers — then lit up the front row with her crystal gown.

My biggest lesson came from the first award given: for Best Supporting Actor. On the one hand, it resembled the presidential race: old men and Pete Butigieg, or rich people and the rest of us: Tom Hanks (63) worth $350 million, Anthony Hopkins (83) $160 million, Al Pacino (79) $165 million, Joe Pesci (77) only $50 million, and Brad Pitt (only 56) $300 million.

On the other hand, it was an amazing collection of great actors doing what they do. The first three did amazing impressions of famous people. Joe Pesci did not act like a crazy gangster. And Brad Pitt still looks like Achilles in middle age. There were lessons in all of that. You can always learn something.

Image result for best supporting actor 2020 nominees

We need good supporters to put on a good show

My favorite lesson came when I looked at the line-up for Best Supporting Actor and thought, “The lead actors might have been afraid to be upstaged by these guys.” Except for The Two Popes (which I recommend), I think they were all upstaged.

I think all these actors relished the juicy parts they got in relation to the players who got top billing. Like some of us noted during the Second Half of Life retreat last Saturday,  playing a great part for which we are well suited can be quite satisfying — maybe even more satisfying than trying to survive the leading roles we’ve been handed in the family or on the job. Brad Pitt had never won an Oscar for acting so this was a nice frosting on his cake. But Hanks won two in the 90’s, Hopkins has one, Pacino has one, Pesci has one, all from the 90’s. I think they were probably happy to get a juicy part whether it resulted in praise or not. Who else could have played Pope Benedict better than Anthony Hopkins?

One of the participants in the retreat reminisced at how he had sort of wandered into his starring roles that made him such a great supporter of the church. He had never followed the “best practices” career counselors pass out.  Instead, he had always taken positions that would allow him to stay planted in Philadelphia and stay connected to Circle of Hope. That worked out well for his career, contrary to what passes for common sense, and worked out very well for Circle of Hope. Just like a movie needs good supporting actors (and the 500+ people on the credits) to tell a good story, the church needs good supporters to show Jesus to the world.

We all need support and we should feel good about giving it.

When Eugene Peterson rendered Matthew 6 in The Message paraphrase of the Bible he used an acting metaphor:

The World Is Not a Stage

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Perhaps the old guys acting and running for president just can’t get off the stage. But it is at least possible that they have reached the age or maturity when they just like the craft for the craft itself and not the applause.  Jesus is calling us to let the inner connection with God sustain us no matter whether we are recognized for our prayerfulness, or not.

We will be rewarded for our often-unobserved, supporting roles. Like Paul teaches the Colossians:

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.

Paul may have been the “star” apostle who became immortalized in the Bible. but he would not have gotten very far without Barnabas. And Barnabas would never have been there for Paul if not for the unknown person who brought the good new of Jesus to Antioch. In the age to come, that unknown person might be rewarded with a greater chunk of our common inheritance than all of us. But just like Joe Pesci is probably not feeling too bad about his paltry $50 million fortune, we probably won’t regret our part of eternal glory we get to share after we play our supporting roles in the unfinished work of Jesus.

Can we feel good about our parts?

Some of us feel terrified we might be called upon to lead or to be too noticeably necessary. Some of us feel terrified we will end up looking useless or less-important than some shiny newcomer. We all have a lot to learn. But wouldn’t it be great if we all felt good about the parts we are given to play in the body of Christ? That wonder is certainly a place where we need a lot of supporting roles filled by players eager to do their best for the joy of the work.

We need good leaders and it is a blessing to have them. But we only need enough of them. We mostly need people in supporting roles: making and sharing the money like my career-blessed friend, figuring out how to put up the South Broad sign (eventually) and make Circle Kids viable (as was also happening yesterday). We need a lot of people who feel good about praying because praying is good and serving because our Master is good. Even the narcissists who end up getting Oscars are usually quick to point out that they would not be getting an award unless a whole dedicated team loved making movies. A church feels flat and proves useless unless it has a lot of people who just love Jesus and his people and can’t resist doing good whether anyone cares about whether they did it or not.

That kind of lesson is especially a good one for me, since I have just been given a supporting role to play. I doubt that I will ever feel like Al Pacino about it, but some people have suggested I might feel my way into some Mr. Rogers rather easily. Mostly, I am just glad I get to be in the process because I like giving my gifts for the work of God’s people in this crazy era. For Christ’s sake we need to get together and make a difference about climate change and the ongoing mass incarceration of African Americans — not to mention the ruin of the church under the thumb of Trump! Some people wonder if I miss my leading role. Sometimes I do — two months won’t undo 20 years.  But mostly I relish the juicy part I get to play supporting the wonders we continue to work. Circle of Hope is like a beautiful, odd woman in a shiny gown in the front row of the Kingdom — I find her irresistible.

Create an environment: “Caught not taught” is inevitable

Tested in their environment
Blunt and Corden in Into the Woods

OK, I admit it, I have Barbra Streisand on my ITunes playlist. Her The Way We Were album caught me and my college roommate when we were falling in love with our wives and she’s been around ever since.

One of my favorites is her rendition of “Children will Listen” from Into the Woods.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn

Children catch wonderful things from being around their parents. They have an uncanny ability to strain out the best in us. But sometimes they miss what you wish they’d catch while they are acquiring all your bad traits. Sometimes they catch psychological diseases you caught from your parents. Yet, quite often, there is enough love and trust in the family for them to become someone much finer than who could have been predicted, given their environment.

Image result for children learn what they live poem

The environment matters

You may have seen the poster above  titled “Children Learn What They Live.” I admit I chose that particular rendition out of hundreds in the image search, for one main reason. I like the fish trying to get some attention. What’s more, there are chicks swimming around, which intrigued me, since their feathers get saturated and they drown quite easily, and if they survive their swim, they are likely to catch hypothermia.

Converse with fish, if you must, but do not throw your chicks in the water.

Careful the posters you put on you walls
Children will inspect them

Or at least their grandfather might.

The beginning reads If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If they live with hostility, they learn to fight. We know that is true, at some level. If we did not learn it at home, we were certainly taught it in school or at work. It would not be surprising if your well-schooled inner critic were at work right now. Whatever psychological machinery monitors your hostility is probably at work in the background, too. Maybe you scorned Barbra and hated the poster — you can tell I have gone through a bit if I imagined that!

You could sum up the rest of the poem with: If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect. If they live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live. Most of us also know this is true at some level, even if the feeling seems like it is a fish trying to get some attention, meaning kindness seems a bit imaginary, but somehow very important.  If we were making a poster, we’d want to include it. Our love relationships in the family and otherwise tap into our spiritual memory of creation as being a nice place to live.  Hopefully, such love softens our hearts so we can be saved from the world as it is, which might get even less kind in 2020.

As soon as the children leave our loving embrace, they will walk outside, or watch The Avengers, or listen to the President, or learn that they are just a data point on the spreadsheet of corporate stockholders. People are not picking up kindness and respect from the environment right now. To the contrary, people keep telling me they are running into the inner Trump-demon in people.

We create an alternative

The children of God also catch things from their environment. They live in a spiritual ecosystem called the church. Even though the church teaches all the time, I think most people are moving with what they catch. Like it or not, faith is more caught than taught. We wish everyone were listening to their pastors and other teachers (I’m writing a blog post, for Christ’s sake!), and that happens. But if any true reshaping is going on it is going to look a lot like the social system in which people are swimming.

Since we know faith is caught as much as taught, if not moreso, Circle of Hope has always described how we develop Jesus followers like this: We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.

We are an alternative environment to the one where Donald Trump can move everyone with a Tweet barrage and where fear dominates most of the hours people aren’t sleeping. It is a lofty goal to think we can create an environment that images God like we do, but it is absolutely crucial to keep trying. God’s children also learn from from living with their spiritual parents and siblings in Christ. Who we are and what we do probably has more influence than what we say.

The Bible includes dialogue about “caught, not taught” in many places. In the following examples from the Old and New Testaments you can see parents wrestling with children who forsake their history and families, and see parents who are doing a terrible job at creating an environment of love.

  • Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s  teaching  (Prov. 1:8).
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

Mother’s teaching should be about the mystery of God’s wisdom. The main instruction of the Lord is to “love one another as I have loved you.”

As the church, we are often the first place someone is invited into a love that holds them and a wisdom that launches them. Our environment is a place of living water into which people can dive or just get their toes wet as they navigate their spiritual journey. Just being dipped in it changes one’s view of destiny.

How do we respond to our deteriorating social system?

We need to create an alternative environment. Americans often begin and end with fighting over their democracy as if it will save them and the world. That delusion might be the main problem for Christians growing up in the U.S. Empire. We think and feel power, or the loss of it, all the time. Everyone needs to learn something else.

Especially during Advent, we should all try on the new clothes of our new lives in Christ:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

We are citizens of the kingdom of God, right now, and the fullness of heaven will be ours before long; that is our hope. We are a circle of that hope, and you are probably part of a Jesus-environment where you are, too.

If we are products of our environment, then shouldn’t we do all we can to make that environment nourishing and not negative? Of course! Don’t give up. People need an alternative. We all learn what we live. And, in word and deed, we teach what we learn. The children we raise and the children of God Jesus has raised will mimic the model they are supplied. At the very least they should have the opportunity to catch some wisdom and love from someone bravely tending a garden (complete with demanding fish and endangered chicks, perhaps) in which to walk with Jesus and from which to bless creation.