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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
People who identify as Americans entered the July 4 weekend humiliated as almost never before. They had one collective project this year and that was to crush Covid-19, and they failed. Confronted with a crisis, most couldn’t even put on a mask.
America the wounded electorate
Last Wednesday, the U.S. had about 50,000 new positive tests, a record. Other nations are beating the disease while the U.S. infection graph shoots upward as sharply as it did in March. This failure is leading to other problems. A third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to the Census Bureau. Suspected drug overdose deaths surged by 42 percent in May. Small businesses, colleges and community hubs are collapsing.
Most Americans are not in denial about the last three months of turmoil. According to a Pew survey, 71% are angry about the state of the country right now and 66% are fearful. Only 17% are proud.
Even better than not being in denial, many Americans are reacting to the turmoil in two positive ways. There are unforeseen shifts in attitudes toward race. Roughly 60% of Americans now believe African-Americans and other people of color face a great deal or a lot of discrimination and live under the threat of random police brutality. People have been waiting for a white backlash since the riots, or since the statues started toppling. There isn’t much if any evidence of a backlash. There’s evidence of a fore-lash.
Second, Americans have decided to get rid of Donald Trump and much of the world is breathing a sigh of relief. His mishandling of Covid-19 hurt his re-election chances among seniors. His racist catcalls in a time of racial reckoning have damaged him among all groups. His asinine July 4 celebration of maskless thousands worshiping at a shrine to white supremacy at Mt. Rushmore will, if God answers my prayers, be the last time we witness that.
What’s the core problem with Americans? We’ve been preaching about it for 25 years, now. Damon Linker identified a piece of the problem in his article: “It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.” For many people, Linker’s insight amounts to a revelation Covid-19 delivered – even to Jesus followers whose Savior calls them to love as he loves!
You can add a lot more core problems, of course. Just read the Constitution. I’d add autonomy, preoccupation with identity, capitalism as a way of life, acceptance of the fruit of Empire, militarism, economic slavery, and selfishness touted in Congress as a virtue. They all lead to a gnawing sense of inauthenticity – it is so deep people project it on each other all day. In 1970, in a moment like our own (It was wild; I was 16), Irving Kristol wrote, “[People] cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.” David Brooks said last week, “A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country — how Black Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work — and none of it makes sense. None of it inspires faith, confidence. In none of it do they feel a part.”
Our thoughts on the upcoming election
Since I became a Christian in the 70’s, I think it is safe to say that at the end of every year of knowing Jesus, the United States has made even less sense. At this point I won’t even call myself an American. None of it inspires faith or confidence. In none of it do I feel a part. I am at home in my alternative society led by Jesus. That mentality was central to the convictions I brought to the recent dialogue we had about the upcoming elections. We were trying to contribute some theology to what people need to think about when they face November. Do we have (or need to have) a definitive view on elections?
I hesitate to sum it up, since it was a rich, generous discussion, even on Zoom. So even though people rarely use my blog to dialogue, maybe they will add some things this time. What I will try to do is bullet some “takeaways” from doing theology. These are my takeaways, if not mostly my thoughts – this is not a report on what everyone said. You heard my point of view, already, and I think it is a New Testament one. Most people were in my ballpark, so I want to follow that theme as a way to help you look at participating in the election with the Americans.
In 2016, we took communion on election night to remind ourselves that Jesus is our true leader. (We also collected some theology related to that election). We were acting along with the spirit of Dr. King, who says the church is not meant to be the servant of the state or the master of the state… the church is meant to be the conscience of the state.
Participating in politics is not as easy as being for or against. We have a responsibility for others that does not allow us to “wash our hands” like Pilate. We should suffer, not hunker down in an ideology and give up wrestling. We cannot make a law and give up the messiness of grace. We must not moralize instead of accepting the winding road everyone is on toward their destiny.
Politics is an endless, inconclusive, mostly redundant process. The church is a big tent. Put those facts together and it makes sense to have provisional opinions and flexible actions. We have people in the church who feel the fear Trump elicits. We have people in the church calling out people for not being true believers in their liberation movement. Everyone should be invited into the safety of God’s love so they can check their own motivation and be in dialogue even about an election. Our videos on how to discern might be a good place keep pondering these things.
We should not feel a great burden about being integrous in relation to a corrupt system. It would be nice if we lived by a rule and whatever candidate we offered looked like Jesus so we could give an actual alternative. (This would be a “rule” as a “way,” not a standard or authority). National elections tend to rob us of our awareness of local connections – the media undermines our conversation as a church and with our neighbors. Maybe we should make sure to prompt all our cells to have some real dialogue so they are not dominated by the media powers.
We have misgivings about appearing “partisan” but also about abandoning duty to speak plainly about matters of consequence. We are committed to the truth even to the point where we would hope to be willing to die for it if necessary. But we don’t want to steamroll people who are also trying to figure things out the best they can — sometimes in good faith, sometimes not.
When we guide each other about voting, we want the guidance generated up, not down. We don’t need a guide distributed by the “authorities;” we all need to actively discern the spirits together. We would more likely come up with something like a Yelp review of candidates. The Poor People’s Campaign might be a good example of a group who has a way to assess what’s important.
It is a privilege to vote. What about voter suppression? We could help solve the issues of voting. Maybe a compassion team could organize for this. We spent some time admiring how we let teams form to do what inspires them. We should pray for our compassion teams so their attempts to lead and inspire us actually work as part of the body, not just their interest group.
Why do we participate in elections? Do we do it to get power or to influence the powers? One person said, “If I got the power I might be just as screwed up!” We would like people who help us influence to do it withprophetic imagination — imagine newness. (Here is Bruggerman on On Being). We want to breed a new way of thinking in line with our alternative way of life. Kendra Brooks is a nice local example of coming up with another way.
Love is always central. If what we do will feel polarizing, we need to be loving in our presentation and follow up with people who feel injured. Try to win the right to be heard. We should try to know what people think or might think and let them know we acknowledge that and care — we will listen, not just talk. We don’t want to lose people to Jesus by seeming “too political.” We should honor their process if they are not where we think Jesus is going yet.
The book Exclusion and Embrace could help people relate across boundaries. An embrace does not dissolve the individual; it is an object in itself. The embrace is where goodness happens. We should be obsessed with getting to the hearts of people. That’s our tier one. Until we get there, we may need to change some behaviors on tier two. People get killed by corrupt government. The train might run over them and we might need to lay on the tracks, embracing the experience of the victimized.
Solzhenitzyn’sadvice for living under dictatorship was “Just never say anything that isn’t true.” As we think about our involvement in politics, it is helpful to distinguish between influence and integrity as two possible ways we can act morally. They are both ways to think about “doing good.” Influence is about the use of power. It is the coinage of the democratic political process: organizing yourself into a bloc in order to increase your power and leverage that power in order to bring about the (ostensibly good) outcome that you want. Integrity measures our actions not by what is accomplished but only by what is good or true — speak the truth because it is the truth, not because it is going to influence a political process. The distinction between the two is a matter of the soul. We can learn to have integrity — even unto death — or we can learn to have influence. If our integrity influences, that is great, but we don’t count on that. The disorder we feel when talking about politics is because we have gotten sucked into a way of seeing the world that is informed by power and influence rather than integrity.
We are thrilled with the possibilities of police reform and a new (hopefully effective) awareness of the scourge of racism. The chart above is thrilling to a guy like me who has been waiting for the tipping point for a long time. May all our years of work bear fruit.
Our excitement tempts us to live on the “second tier” of life in Christ, the practical, relational interchange with the world around us — especially when our hope for change is activated. As a result, we can miss the deeper, “first tier” of relating to God in a transcendent and transformative way. Since so many people have thrown God out of reality, it is tempting to relate to them according to the worldview for which they are fighting, rather than joining with them in social action as our true selves in Christ.
Paul and the first church definitely did social action. The first churches, though they were a tiny, sometimes persecuted minority within the Roman Empire, started a movement that eventually overran it. Much of the church’s favorable reputation grew out of their alternativity: how they shared, how they loved, and how they managed to accept people of all classes and backgrounds into a dynamic whole.
But I don’t think they were doing “social action” in the way most of us think of it. Paul does not have an idea of “social” or “action” in the way we do. For one thing, he did not know about the conceptual frameworks of the Enlightenment that spawned Hobbes and Rousseau arguing about the essence of the social contract and the state of nature without God. And I don’t think he had any democratic sense of his rights or responsibility to influence society as a whole.
Paul’s idea of social action, like all his ideas, started with his faith in Jesus. His motivation came from the Holy Spirit. His hope came from his trust that he lived “in Christ” which defined his present and guaranteed his future. He certainly does not have a theory of social action under which his faith is subsumed. I don’t think he ever imagined reforming the Roman Empire. His only power resides in the apparently powerless love of Jesus.
As Circle of Hope, we are sometimes unclear about the source of our action when we operate according to a sense of society donated by European rationalists and all their followers since their heyday. We sometimes start in tier two, even forget tier one altogether, when we relate to others and try to make a difference in the world. I think we should be more serious about our faith and about the revelation in the Bible whether it seems to “work well” or not. We should hold on to Jesus and revelation whether people label it as unacceptable speech or not. What Paul has going works a lot better than what we usually do. And what he builds will last a lot longer than the results of the latest power struggle.
The two tiers of our present social action
Our Doing Theology team is still mulling over the rich dialogue we had about our approach to the coming election, so you’ll probably hear more about that before long. Until then, my mind has been drawn toward mulling over a previous dialogue we shared about Paul’s two-tiered outlook, as you can see by what I just said. In case you haven’t heard about this piece of theology, we reported on it and saved the material at the Way of Jesus site.
David Brooks, of all people (my strange new “friend” from the conservatives), got me thinking about how we are engaging in the present transformation of the police, in particular. He wrote another interesting piece in the New York Times last week. In it, he crystallizes a view of the social justice “religion” that is quite alluring to many of us. You can see it all over our mapping material this year, and also see people questioning it. Brooks says one of the five crises the U.S. is facing right now is:
“Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.”
I don’t feel like I need to agree with David Brooks’ reduction or not. But I can accept his sound bite of a viewpoint and listen to it. He might be on to something.
In tier two, I think Jesus followers are out on the street demanding real reform of the oppressive institutions that have grown up since Ronald Reagan, an end to half-measures regarding systemic racism, and economic justice that rightsizes the rich and their corporations. But I hope we all come to that social action from tier one, where we know Jesus is the way to the real revolution and know these power struggles are not the deepest response we have to what torments humanity. We come to society with the humility not to impose the latest ideological purity but to trust God in others to bring things to right.
Many people in the church have been damaged by powerful teachers handing down provisional solutions to sinful conditions as if they were mandates from God (like women needing to wear head coverings, or the Bible coming to a final form in 1611, or priests needing to be celibate, or America being a haven for righteousness – the list goes on). They make tier two into tier one. In the ultimate example of that grab for power, the church lost the miraculous influence it had in the beginning by taking over the rights and structure of the Roman Empire.
I want to be part of the church where it is not an outpost of the Empire, where it does not reference the Empire when it thinks of itself – for it or against it as if the nation or society is the ultimate context. Being free of that world would be authentic tier one living. To be free like that requires a preoccupation with listening to God and others. One thing I always love about our mapping process is how it brings up the need for discernment as a way of life. We need to listen to the voice of our Savior like sheep listening for their shepherd so we can find our way through perilous times and foment transformation along the way. Such discernment comes to us in many ways, not least of all in the voices of our partners in Christ, both present and gone before, so it is readily available.
The discernment we gain as we make our map, rarely gets boiled down to an ideology or something that seems simple. Love for God has an eternal “open end” to it. Love for others has a provisional sense of creating what is best together. So our listening is never shallow enough to merely win an argument or take power in the establishment. Besides, the resurrection of Jesus won the argument and “Who’s in power?” wasn’t the question, it was already a given.
I have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”
We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”
Those messages need to be countered:
You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
You don’t matter because you are better.
You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.
You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.
It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.
You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.
You matter because you ARE.
The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.
When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.” That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.
I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.
Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.
I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”
Feeling the truth about me
We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.
But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”
How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.
I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.
We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”
1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.
2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.
3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace.Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.
I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.
In 1982 I was 28, Ronald Reagan was president and we hated Exxon. While we were doing theology the other night, I learned another reason why.
In 1982 Exxon confirmed the consensus among scientists about global heating with in-House climate models. The company chairman later mocked climate models as unreliable while he campaigned to stop global action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
The CEO of Exxon at the time was Lee Raymond (who was succeeded in 2005 by Rex Tillerson, recently Trump’s Secretary of State). Raymond was one of the most outspoken executives in the nation against regulation to confront the climate crisis. Speaking out against the Kyoto initiatives in a 1997 speech in China, he said that costly regulations and restrictions are a bad idea, especially when “their need has yet to be proven, their total impact undefined, and when nations are not prepared to act in concert.” He also questioned the science behind global warming and said the greenhouse effect comes in part from natural sources.
Although we were mainly learning to do theology together around a stimulating topic last Monday, we could not help but wonder what the church should do about the impending disaster — to a great degree foisted upon us by massive corporations who care more about immediate profits than the environment. The disaster may be stoppable or it may not be, but Jesus followers never rely on effectiveness before they express their goodness. So we couldn’t help but get practical.
As it turns out, we have lots of ideas about what to do. Jeremy Avellino gave us an overview of the issue and fellow members of the Watershed Discipleship Team began leaking their list of ways we can turn ourselves into a reputable alternative to carbon-spewing Americans.
For instance, Jeremy is an architect building homes that are more than sustainable, they can a actually hope to replenish the earth — so people can do that! Many of us can influence our workplaces to do good to the earth. We can influence the government to pass and enforce laws and rejoin international treaties. We can vote for the best leaders to deal with the crisis. Our friend Shane Claiborne reportedly uses Trip it to measure his carbon footprint since he travels so much.
More relevant, probably, is we could start or join boycotts of some of the greatest menaces to the planet. For instance, Jeff Bezos recently pledged $10 billion of his vast fortune to address climate change. The money, which will fund the “Bezos Earth Fund,” will then be granted to scientists, experts, and organizations working on various issues, both small and large. That’s not bad. But Amazon has been one of the slowest of the U.S. tech giants to go green, and its business, by its nature, is a pollutant. In the face of giant corporations, we could boycott, buy local, or buy less.
Apart from what millions of individuals must do, we focused more on what the church can do. The Watershed Discipleship Team will unveil their suggestions for the church, soon. Maybe we should bring our own plates to the next feast after disposables are banned. Maybe we should contribute to the solar fund in order to transform our buildings into a benefit, not a drain on the planet — 40% of global heating issues stems from how we make and inhabit our buildings. From small things to large we could add up actions to make a difference. And even if we thought they did not make enough difference we would still be doing good just to do it, and that makes us different.
But will people do what we should do?
I’ve been on an environmental bandwagon since I first learned to hate Exxon. Nevertheless, people still keep “discovering” the evil being done to the planet — and they are in my own church! Why are most of us relatively ignorant and mildly engaged in one of the most disastrous possibilities ever to face humankind? And I will extend that question to include Judas again. How did he come to know the Savior face-to-face and then turn around and betray him so he would be killed? How could he collaborate with the evil powers? How can we?
I don’t think we are all bad. We should not underestimate just how hard it is to be an actual Jesus-follower in this era. We are fighting hard in our little slice of the Kingdom, but we are not winning the battle. People are more distracted, anxious and traumatized right now than they were last year. And they are not all learning to turn to Jesus, they are mostly turning inward and finding some small sense of security in curating a shelf full of attributes they choose to make up their shallow selves. If we want to do big things we’ll need to be deeper people. If we want to make a difference, we’ll need a community with a culture different from the world that protects Exxon’s capacity to kill us.
Here are three things a lot of us will need to do if we want to grow a big, influential group of Jesus-followers who make a big difference – and even if they don’t make a difference will still like doing the right thing.
Get out of your pod
Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way present-day people imagine themselves as insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces. More and more, we decorate the inside of our pods – our individuality and the identity group we choose. Philosophically, the buffered self is one result of living in a closed, physical universe, what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” Within that mental construct everything supposedly has a natural/scientific explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world.
If we don’t get out of this frame, we are not going to change the world. Jeremy called it the ocean we swim in, the warming, acidifying ocean. But when we try to breathe new ways, it feels like dying — and it is dying to our old selves.
Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity and personal implications. We were doing it rather well the other night as we did some theology. But it was not easy, and we hardly had the whole church doing it with us. More and more people live in a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners? [See the first half of Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble for further description, but skip his application].
As we were talking about what to do about the climate crisis, I felt a protest emerge. Who are we going to get to do these things? Past models of discussing faith have almost all assumed a dialogue partner who is active, attentive, and aware of the costs of changing – a conversant whose world is thick, not thinned out by constant distraction. I thought we were talking out of that past model when we were getting practical. But people can’t even take the time to read and write emails! How are they going to apply a big, new thought?
As we move deeper into an age when people sleep with their phones, we can no longer make the assumption they can pay attention like they used to. Who is going to take themselves seriously enough to trust God and develop the depth to be a serious player in the climate crisis? We all need to do something together, but can we get six hundred people to all take out their headphones and listen to the proposal – much more effect it? If we go with love more than truth we will probably move more people. If our leaders create an environment where we can soak in what is good rather than just hear about it, we might end up with deeper people. But just producing a good idea might go nowhere.
Be a chosen one
All beliefs are a matter of argument, these days, and who wants to argue? Contested belief points us inward, rather than outward, in our search for some ground of being. If the external world appears to be an endless series of options, from deodorant brands to philosophies, our temptation is to withdraw to a safe, seemingly stable world – the inner world of ourselves. Our identity and our ability to choose its features becomes the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow Jesus, we may do so because of an inner conversation we have with ourselves (our buffered selves!) not with the living God or God’s people.
Our immersion in diversion and consumerism makes it easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs. It makes us less likely to devote time to contemplation. And it makes conversations about faith seem like more exercises in superficial identity formation. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us. As a result, religious labels—whether None, Baptist, or Buddhist—become not much more than a form of self-expression on the level of a favorite store, a college choice, or our musical preference.
All our proverbs and practices lead somewhere else than this sad look at humanity. We know an alternative way. But will we take it together? If we hope to form a lively response to the climate crisis we can’t just be against Jeff Bezos or for him, we need to be the chosen and beloved people of God, who have our own way through the troubles of the world and provide solutions and hope from our endless resources of grace.
Tarot has been having a “moment” for a few years. I wandered into the moment when I watched an episode of something in which an old, dying woman read the cards for her new, young friend. It was a movie moment reflecting the present tarot moment — watching an old story using the old deck-full of stories to draw us into the drama of a life unfolding — and normalizing the latest emergence of this mystical method for finding guidance.
I hope this is where the tarot moment is leading. According to Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer, “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself…It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.” Hopefully, it is like a mirror that can lead to deeper reflection which opens up clogged or burned spiritual pathways so people can ultimately see Jesus for who he is.
There are many Christians who are sure meeting Jesus is not what is going to happen if someone gets into tarot. The practice is associated with divination—unlocking the secrets of the future by occult, supernatural means. Divination is prohibited in the Bible, even when people in the Bible are doing it! Paul exorcised a woman used for divination!
Tarot cards were originally just a deck of cards, but some mystics, psychics, and occultists began to use the cards for divination. Many people still use them this way, and that is how they are popularly understood. You can meet diviners on YouTube. They promise to access spirit beings to find out things about one’s life or future. Usually, the practice of reading tarot cards starts with the questioner cutting the pack of cards or sometimes just touching it. The psychic or card reader then deals out some cards, face down, into a pattern, called a “spread,” on the table. As the cards are overturned, the psychic or reader constructs a narrative based on the cards’ meanings and their position on the table. The narrative has always placed heavy emphasis on fate and “hidden knowledge.” Jesus has a better way.
Writing a new story
People are looking for a new story, their own story, in an age when making new stories from old ones is a primary industry – at least in the dying Western empire. So tarot is very intriguing, since each tarot card is a story in itself. The experience of a reading is like connecting one’s story to one in progress. And reflecting on or telling about the experience is an interesting story in itself.
There are so many apps for tarot! Using them results in many stories. One woman downloaded Galaxy Tarot and casually got to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. One day she was killing time before a phone interview for a job and flipped over the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them. “It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement. What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’” She went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work, but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”
The apps meet a need — and people will pay to have it addressed. The “metaphysical services” industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influences that create culture, according to Goop, #wellness.
Another woman said, “I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I ‘believe’ in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?”
Another said: “I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime. It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said tarot helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.” If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Some see it as empowering for traditionally disempowered Christian women. Which is why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards.
The Guardian notes the increased popularity of tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women. People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”
A brief history of tarot
Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a card game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (slaves who became sultans) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations and figures of people you’d likely see in a Mardi Gras celebration..
Sometime between 1750 and 1800, French occultists reimagined the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests. For them, the cards combined multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong top note related to the Kabbalah. These decks were the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.
When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts (above). The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include the familiar cards: Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune often prominent.
The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much in the unlikely mystical origins as it is in the cards’ ability to wallop you with elemental symbols. Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The cards are crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. They elicit stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones. Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater, has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle YA novels.
How does the church relate?
“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”
This truth does not mean people will use tarot in a mature way and not be drawn into harmful connections with spirits who hate them. But it does mean people can find ways of discernment in a myriad of ways. We (meaning Circle of Hope) affirm seekers of all kinds, coming from all the corners of the earth and have a wide view of how we each find the truth and our personal way along the Way.
“The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why”, says Amelia Tate. “My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet. “ She quotes an expert saying, “’Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,’ says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.”
People who feel they are alone in the world to find their way have an even more anxiety-provoking path ahead than everyone else. If they are separated from family and the church, or the past in general, then practices that promise a spiritual moment and some mystical direction which don’t require too much thinking or relating can be very attractive. Jesus offers an immediate connection, too, but it is not as controllable as tarot can be. A connection with Jesus, though filled with wonderful moments, also requires an ongoing relationship with God and his people and a lifelong openness to spiritual growth and service. So it might seem very demanding, if immeasurably deeper. It is possible that people are drawn to divination because they never met a Jesus-follower who loves them and is not the stereotype they fear. Our cells have repeatedly been easygoing places to make relationships that undo their prejudice and make a difference.
Amelia Tate ended with, “Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.”
I can feel what Amelia is saying. And I can imagine how she would feel totally out of place anywhere she can imagine as Christian. I do not have a conclusion that can encompass everyone who is navigating the perilous seas of our time like she is. But I think a lot of them are alone on a raft of their own making. Our community, loving and accepting, is a safe place to explore their yearnings. A lot of people are permanently skeptical, or so they feel. Hopefully, our teaching maintains our dialogical character and our love provides an invitation to imagine with us, not withdraw into suspicion.
For some, tarot is a comfort and a way to know themselves and their direction better. For most it is a moment, a stepping stone into what is their deepest and truest self. I think it would be better to skip it altogether, especially if you are prone to depression, anxiety or other illness – you’ll get a better “reading” from your therapist or cell group. What’s more, the practice could be dangerous, since it has been connected to divinization for centuries; delusions abide there, as well as spirits who are out to harm us. People have recovered from such entanglements, but it is probably best to avoid being entangled to begin with, since we all have a path laid out for us by Jesus.
I was surprised by how much is out there about this subject! Maybe the fad is already waning, since even I am aware of it. My exploration encouraged me nonetheless, since I uncovered many good-hearted people searching for love and meaning as well as many people trying to provide wisdom for starving people. I don’t think the cards have easy or clear answers for them. But neither do I, as a Jesus follower. I tried to think of some “card” from the Bible for all the seekers I uncovered that might inform their search. I landed here:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).
The greatest truth and love are found in the Father’s lap. Life is not revealed in the cards. If you use them to meditate on your journey or to find direction, listen for the Spirit bearing witness that you are God’s beloved child with Jesus leading your way through whatever you face.
Those attractive, young British Royals who had that great wedding, Harry and Meghan, are figuring out a way to do their duty but get their child out of racist England. Many people are appalled at their “cheek,” and ashamed of them for not “keeping a stiff upper lip” in the face of daily assaults on their “mixed” marriage. Systemic racism is a poison with a long half-life.
The English invented the slave trade, it is said, but it was left to their descendants, the Americans, to perfect its form. The “Founding Fathers” wrote it into their precious Constitution and the country’s original sin still permeates everything that goes on, no matter how often it is revealed and rebuked. The Founders may have had their problems with slavery, but their compromises sealed the sin into the future.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (@wilsonhartgrove) tweeted on Jan 4: Trump didn’t preach Jesus at #EvangelicalsForTrump; he preached #SlaveholderReligion.
God has given me power.
Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.
I have not been able to get that well-phrased summary out of my mind. It is like a new memory verse for me. Only the Bible is the slaveholder’s Bible, which has as its goal protecting an economy that is based on slavery. “Slavery for the good of all” could be its motto.
Wilson-Hartgrove has been touring and teaching from his book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. He was in Dallas at a Red Letter Revival doing a good job of challenging the racism at the heart of evangelicalism [report]. He says throughout American history, two versions of Christianity have competed for the loyalty of believers—slaveholder religion and the freedom church. He began to realize that dualism when he was appointed a Senate page by Strom Thurmond and discovered the Senator’s ardent opposition to all Civil Rights Acts. At a key point in his life, Wilson-Hartgrove then encountered William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. “He began to teach me about a black-led, faith-rooted freedom struggle.”
He learned how slaveholders and their allies used the Bible to support their arguments in favor of slavery and of an economic system dependent upon slave labor. Some evangelicals might still use the Bible to justify the kind of capitalism people take as elemental to faith in the U.S. But most people don’t think it needs justifying, it just is. And they are thankful when the 1% exercise their power to create jobs.
Wilson-Hartgrove also learned about “the freedom church that was born on the edge of the plantations.” Meeting in brush arbors for worship, African-American slaves identified with biblical stories about how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and liberated them from exile in Babylon. “There has always been a struggle between slaveholder religion and the freedom church,” he said.
The freedom church was not invented in the United States, of course. It is a struggle repeated in every generation of the church. As we have often taught in Circle of Hope, after the Roman Emperor Constantine co-opted the church, the “freedom church” people had to constantly confront the domination system his successors and imitators determined to institute:
God has given me power.
Those who challenge my abuse of power are against God.
When I have power, everyone benefits—& those who say they don’t are ungrateful.
Kissing the Pope’s ring or bowing before the God-anointed sovereign with absolute power were among the things they resisted. My heroes, Francis of Assisi and the Anabaptists heard the gospel just like the American slaves did. Many others took great risks to be their true selves in Christ.
Racism (and all the other oppressions that intersect with it) is a spiritual problem that requires “soul work” to solve, Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Deep healing is needed. To be segregated from our neighbors by racial divisions and economic inequities makes it harder to know God. But as we listen to one another, we draw closer to one another and closer to God.”
Staying a freedom church
In a few days, Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WIND will begin our annual time to pray in light of one of our distinctives as a church: Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel. In a profoundly angry and divided region we are attempting to be the next generation of the church who holds out the light as a freedom church.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
When Paul wrote that he certainly had physical bondage in mind, as his letter to Philemon demonstrates. In that brief letter he tells a slaveholder it is incumbent on him to receive his slave as “no longer a slave” in Christ, which would certainly imply owning him no longer, since they had a common master. Likewise, we must all be, regardless of identity, vigilant on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to the evil instincts of the oppressors in the United States, who are backed by the world’s largest arsenal, the largest economy and a government devoted to the preservation of themselves as the heads of it all.
But, Like Wilson-Hartgrove would agree, Paul mostly had the spiritual problem in mind when he wrote the Galatians from prison under arrest by the great Empire of his time. He knew that people are used to the slavery of sin and death and need a daily reminder to throw it off and not take it on again. Jesus the Christ has set us free. No matter if society imprisons us, it can’t take away that freedom. If it abuses us or even kills us we stand firm in the freedom of eternity. [I can’t get enough of this topic].
Paul’s teaching is bold because he also knows we are afraid. I am afraid to write this piece, since people who are desperate for freedom will critique my convictions, in some small or big way, and criticize my lack of appropriate action, or just use the power of the pen to condemn me for being who I am in the eyes of the evil world. I also fear the slaveholders who block my way to freedom every day with their controlling laws, oppressive capitalism for the rich, and immoral politics and policies. Among those slaveholders are the evangelical leaders who consign their flocks to follow Trump for political and economic power, both full of spurious promises, who have divided up the church and made people ashamed to be or become Christians.
Nevertheless, once again, at the beginning of the year, I am moved to hold on to my freedom and resist the yoke. This blog post is a small expression of my resistance. Community in Christ is possible. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Faith, hope and love are not dead. Our little outpost is just part of the outpouring of the Spirit pushing against the barricades of the evil powers. We are not the only alternative to those forces, but we are certainly an amazing one. If we die trying to be that alternative, that will be a good death.
So who knows what is going to happen next year? The financial markets are getting scared – and you know what fears drive Americans the most! People continue to get more divided as the President masterfully feeds lies to fears.
I keep offering the same response to people who still want to argue about it all. While Donald Trump is monstrous, he is not new. His ilk runs Turkey and Russia. More germane to my topic, his ilk tormented Jesus and lied to get him killed. Jesus did not mince words with them:
Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” – John 8:43-47
I don’t want to unpack everything in that passage right now. But you probably need to do so. Because Jesus has been lied to death in our era, too. [Aren’t people Lying to you about Christianity?]. Whose desires are you appeasing? Do you believe there is any truth? Do you know what Jesus says, much more believe it? Can you hear what is from God? There are a lot of questions here.
Why are we so storm-tossed, even in the church?
I mainly want to bring up the social aspect of all this lying that is making it hard for some of us to go home and visit the folks, much more challenge us as we look at the future. Be honest, the folks at home might not be reading blogs. They might not even approve of Philadelphia, or at least what you are doing in it if you were born here. Even if you are feeling uncomfortable with the disconnection you feel, I think we should acknowledge there might be more reasons we are getting divided up than the other side is filled with morons.
The other day YouTube offered a video when I popped in to find something else. I actually wanted to see it! I guess I have “liked” enough things for it to feed me what I desire. The best thing it came up with was this video of a “liberal” woman discovering why she was having so much trouble with “conservative” people by reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Here’s the video:
I love how this women opens up her mind to understand how Trump appeals to people who do not share the dominant ethical foundation of her background or territory.
I spent a couple of pages on my dissertation talking about Jonathan Haidt because he can help therapists navigate ethical territory without being appalled by how their client sees things so differently than they do.
Then I spent some time translating Haidt’s social-science-bounded work to help us build our community in Christ. We are generally boundaried by the same kind of bias the woman described in the video. So I wrote a couple of posts to help us think a bit more inclusively:
I offer the discussion to you today because I think we are headed for some big trouble in the country in the next few months. I hope we can speak into it as Jesus-followers, not just go with the turbulent “mainstream.” We need to pluck people out of the maelstrom/mainstream and give them a safe place on our “third way.” Our way is a journey through the future on which we generously accept where people are at with some understanding and offer them the truth in Jesus which will save their lives and give them a new place to stand.
To provide that place we will need to resist giving in to the temptation to despise grandpa as a demonstration of our righteousness and avoid castigating people for being on the wrong side of history. As the women points out in the video, much of what masquerades as a reasonable argument is a passionate defense of unconsidered reactions. They are the same kind of reactions that caused people to call Jesus a liar and caused Jesus to tell them they were following the devil. A simple agreement we might make together for navigating the treacherous waters ahead and saving people from the flood would be to not follow the devil!
Shutting down and not engaging is not loving. Taking political sides and damning the enemy is not true to Jesus. The way of faith, hope and love is the third way and we have already created an alternative space to share it. I hope we will maintain some awareness of one of our proverb (and the tagline for this blog): Truth without love kills and love without truth lies. We can stand in such a both/and space because Jesus is standing with us. We need to “behold” him there, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).