Tag Archives: Donald Trump

We’ll make it through on the third way

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

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

A student exemplifies what is happening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus on the narrow way through the power struggle

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

Love is not THE answer

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

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

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

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

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

Reason is not THE answer, either

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Expressing dignity on the Bethlehem side of the wall.

Jesus doesn’t need to win the argument

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

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

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

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.

Jesus and Me at the Climate Strike Protest

The Youth Climate Strike happened last Thursday. Many Philly high school students walked out of class to make a point. I was with them at noon at the new Love Park. Others came later, after school, to be part of a global day of action coordinated by teens to get adults to combat climate change. Here are Politico’s pictures from around the world.

The movement was sparked by 16-year- old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, whose nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (!) was recently leaked. @GretaThunberg tweeted “Tomorrow we school strike for the climate in 1769 places in 112 countries around the world. And counting.”  Here is  her Wikipedia page — rest assured, my friend, you still exist if you do not have one yet.

The high school people made it work

Image result for Sabirah MahmudSabirah Mahmud is a lead organizer for Philadelphia Youth Climate Strike. She experienced the effects of climate change first hand when she visited the relatives in Bangladesh and got caught in a flood.

We had our own Gretas and a few Garths leading Philly’s strike. Sixteen-year-old Sabirah Mahmud was the lead organizer of the local demonstration. She’s a sophomore at Academy at Palumbo High school  (along with Zach Sensenig).

Mahmud says she wants to go to medical school and travel the world, but last October’s United Nations report on climate change makes her wonder if she’ll ever get the chance. Catastrophic floods and fires could become commonplace in 12 years, among other terrible things, according to the report — that was the mantra at the protest: TWELVE YEARS! The teens can’t wait and the planet can’t wait until today’s students are old enough to vote, let alone run for Congress. The world needs to take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution by 2030 NOW!

It is commonly thought by 2040, the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in 2012. Coal demand is expected to grow 0.6 percent every year between now and then. Last year was especially bad for carbon pollution: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million (for the first time in millions of years). Meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them (according to Foreign Policy).

The speakers said they’d heard from older people in power that radical plans like the Green New Deal would wreck the economy. (Here Vox explains the GND). The younger people countered, often fairly hysterically, “If you’re not planning for a future with climate change, what future are you even planning for?” As we were meeting, they got everyone to text government officials to demand their action and support for radical change. They also called on the City to turn down plans to expand a Philadelphia Gas Works plant in South Philadelphia to produce liquified natural gas.

In Wellington New Zealand, one student’s handmade sign read, “Climate change is worse than Voldemort.” In Sydney, Australia, a banner read, “The oceans are rising, so are we.” (according to Euronews).

More and more people are being mobilized.

During our go around at the Good Business Oversight Team meeting last Thursday morning, Greg said his favorite compassion team was the Watershed Discipleship Team, who have a rather large vision they are whittling down to some actionable goals for saving our ecosystem.

They are not alone. The Sunrise Movement was represented at our protest. They are the same people who orchestrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ appearance during their occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office. I must say, as a person who has always loved high school students, I am thrilled to be led by them in this effort. This is one old person they are not up against.

But they are certainly up against some OLD people! The Sunrise Movement also filmed their meeting with Dianne Feinstein, 85, who has been a Senator since I was 38 (she is worth about $94 million dollars BTW). Her dismissive response to young, but assertive, Magdalena went viral and hundreds of thousands of people have watched it. She responded to the passion of her visitors by debating the specifics of the resolution they were pushing and showing contempt for their audacity in thinking they had something to offer her wizened self. Twenty-nine-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal resolution met with the same reception from old people in the House, only it was from Steny Hoyer (79) and Nancy Pelosi (78).

These officials are just too old to be leading during this perilous time and they just won’t stop — Trump (72) may face off with Biden (76) or Sanders (77)! The kids are afraid these old people are going to move as slow as old people do, doing what they’ve always done, fighting their old battles while Philadelphia neighborhoods are flooded and poor people keep getting asthma from unchecked pollution. In the coming 2020 elections 21 of 33 Senators up for a vote will be 65 or older. Euronews quoted a 15-year-old who was striking saying, “If we don’t do something, it’ll be our lives affected, not the 60-year-old politicians! We need action.”

XR Philly with their easily- understood message.

Some people are springing into action. I ran into Daoud Steele, who has been part of South Broad meetings in the past. He wondered if we might rent space at 1125 S. Broad for meetings of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Last November that group came to prominence when it organized the largest civil disobedience protest seen in the UK for decades, which culminated in the occupation and closure of five bridges in central London. Since then it has grown rapidly and XR branches have sprung up in more than 35 countries.

Deep Green Resistance [DGR] is an even more aggressive organization. It is largely based on the book of the same name by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen (2011). Their principles start where the environmental movement leaves off, claiming that industrial civilization is incompatible with life. Technology can’t fix it, and shopping—no matter how green—won’t stop it. To save this planet, we need a serious resistance movement that can bring down the industrial economy.

What did you think, Jesus?

I think Jesus was into the climate strike.  I’ve written about what I think God thinks and feels about the desecration of the planet before: The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation.

I doubt the Lord was that thrilled with all the anger, threats and lust for power shouted into the mic. Conversely, I suspect he was sad over how many teenagers could come to an event dedicated to saving their lives and stand in little groups chatting and ignoring the whole thing. But he has never let normal human reactions keep him down or make him hopeless.

I think Jesus was happy to see young people doing what young people should do. He was pretty young, himself, when he was instructing his elders in Judaism, undermining the authority of the temple, and turning the other cheek to Rome — which has confounded the powerful and heartened the meek ever since.

I think he was delighted to have people in the United States waking up and doing something. The U.S. is the second largest CO2 polluter in the World, and the first per capita. Daoud and I wondered if the country were entering a cancer-like process in which we were now accepting we had the disease and could have a public grief process and maybe be healed.  Meanwhile, the president tweeted on January 28

“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? [sic] Please come back fast, we need you!” (Here is the Daily Show response).

So there are obstacles.  One sign said, “You can’t comb over climate change.” Yet people in power are certainly trying to do so — as in Andrew Wheeler of the EPA. But hope matters. That’s why we stick together as a Circle of Hope.

That brings up the final thing Jesus probably liked about the climate strike: the kids circled up. They threw off being autonomous, DIY, self-reliant/lonely people in front of their screens, got out into the air on a great, spring-like day, and tried to love each other, love the planet and have a common purpose. They had a lot of the trappings of the church! They just needed a Savior who wasn’t their cause or themselves. But that will come.

Your mixed motives make sense in a complex world

The famous account in 1 Kings 3 about Solomon “splitting the baby” has worked its way into the memory of western culture. If a leader aspires to wisdom they often think of themselves dressed in red as in Poussin’s painting of the event: self assured, ruling as someone raised above the crowd. We seem to agree that a great leader is a hero, giving wise judgment that saves the day.

The Judgment of Solomon, Nicolas Poussin, 1649

Christians, in particular, are so steeped in their principles and holiness that they, in particular, put impossible demands on themselves and often do nothing unless they are qualified to sit on some idealized throne. They question their secret, mixed motives. They let heroes lead.

Is the leader always a “hero?”

The word “hero” is used a lot these days. They appear to be everywhere. You can be a hero if you do your homework! The Black Lives Matter movement ran headlong into the post-9/11 hero proliferation when they stated the obvious: not all policemen are heroes, especially when they don’t have enough wisdom to avoid shooting people.

Deserved or not, everyone is supposed to be a hero in some way. Or how else does one explain “The Real Life Super Hero Project?” (below) Or how does one explain the summer box office (aren’t all the top ten movies about heroism?) — not to mention Heroes Reborn (coming in three days!).

real life superheroes

I don’t think you are a hero if you wear the costume.  To be fair, some people are trying to undo the brute force the costume often implies. But no matter. The transformation of the world does not come because we’re multiplying heroes. Jesus doesn’t meet the usual definition for one, after all.

Nevertheless, Christian leaders often feel bad about themselves because they are not “up front;” they are not a perfect example, or on a throne somewhere. I think their ambition or sense of obligation comes from a misreading of the Bible (but not a misunderstanding of Poussin’s painting or Trump’s posturing!). The Bible is not calling anyone to be Captain America.

Think again about Solomon. When he was presented with two babies, the new king was presented with a test of his capacity. A lot of his authority and reputation would ride on a difficult decision. Plus he might forever separate a family if he were wrong. He could have flipped a coin about the she said/she said argument that was going on in front of him. He could have faked it by pretending he could decide based on fact or law. Flipping or faking, wiser heads in his court would have known, and he would have been undermined as well as the system.

Fortunately, Solomon cared. He did not hide behind a show of authority or look for some legal technicality to dismiss the case. He was honest about his situation, his responsibilities and his ignorance. Instead of going for either/or, he dug down beyond the legal and factual issues into the truth in the women and their relationship. He looked for the love. To do so he recast the whole situation as a psychological test. As a result, one woman revealed her bitterness and detachment, the other her self-giving love. Deep called to deep, the deadlock was broken, the decision was clear and doubts about the king and system were dispelled. It is such a successful moment it made it into the Bible!

The success makes it look like Solomon had it all planned or was not much like the rest of us. He was certainly specially gifted to lead with wisdom, but Solomon did not have a clear target for a smart bomb any more than drone operators in Nevada do. His motives were mixed.  He needed to hesitate and come up with more than the usual. He was cautious. He had to consider the true mother, the baby, his own job security — and who knows what else is not implied by the short paragraph? It is the same for all of us, especially when we are given leadership positions, but always when we take the lead. Our motives are mixed and our situations are complex. Solomon was realistic and brilliantly pragmatic. I admire that.

Mixed motives make sense in a complex world

I think the Republican candidates I saw in debate last week might suspect I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “When all else fails, lower your standards” as I write. Because they uniformly said they could make America great by leading better than the unheroic Barack Obama. They seemed to think they would do everything right because that is just what they do. I doubt it. Men and women who want to do the right thing in turbulent times need more than a soundbite about their high standards to succeed. Especially if you are among the 99% who have little power and less money, your motives will be mixed:

  • how to survive — how to help;
  • how to give one’s best — how to make it into another round;
  • how to speak the truth — how to deal with people who don’t care about it.

In our complex circumstances, given our mixed motives, here are four things I recommend as approaches leaders need to consider:

  • Think more about what you need to do than about your motives (or someone else’s motives). The game is complex and so are you – take your best shot.
  • Don’t think you are disqualified from leading because your motives are mixed and complicated. Life is not on a straight path and many circumstances don’t fit into tidy, moralistic categories – do what you are moved to do.
  • Trust yourself – even when your motives pull you in different directions. Conflict is always instructive and often a key to opportunity. You don’t need to crank up or calm down – learn.
  • Before you lead in making things better, make sure you care. Your motives may not line up like you wish but, if you care, they are probably good enough and strong enough – get some skin in the game and make a difference. You are gifted by God, too.

Your mixed motives are probably appropriate for a complex world. Don’t count yourself out right when Jesus needs you! Even the “wisdom of Solomon” was acted out by a young, needy king who relied on God, not by a self-assured, narcissist determined to control the situation. You’ll do fine.

******************************************************************************************I like a book on this subject that is not about the church but, surprisingly, about middle managers leading business and government. It is worth a read: Leading Quietly by Joseph Badaracco.

Updated from 2015

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Alternativity in the era of Trump, Kid Rock and Charlottesville

Deactivating creates some alternativityMy Twitter account is dead. It was compromised somehow and I started following a growing collection of interesting, and unknown people. I did the first steps of repair – changed my name and password. When that did not work, I discovered other repairs to try. Instead of trying them, I hit the “deactivate” button. You probably have done similar things by now that provide a strange sense of liberation from the web.  I will miss my connections with the Congo and the Middle East; we’ll see if they lure me back. But I won’t miss fame-seekers, marketers and hackers.

I have twinned my Twitter experience with last week’s exploration of alternatives to COBRA health insurance. Gwen retired from her job, so our health insurance was deactivated. We could no longer ignore what had been hidden in the gobbledygook of her pay stub. I plunged into the indignities of the AHCA website for the first time. I was hit, again, with the realization that the one percent has, indeed, managed to extract an extraordinary entry fee for the privilege of using their medical system.

 

Image result for kid rock for senate
Wants to be alternative

My twin experiences end up being a parable for this new era in which we live: the hopefully brief era of Trump/McConnell, Bannon/Kid Rock, the era of survival of the fittest effectively applied to the state-run economy, the era of scarcity among the wealthy and lack of community among the inextricably connected. I fled to prayer this morning when I woke up to it all. We are up against a lot.

False scarcity

Big communicators, like the Koch Brothers, convince people that there is not enough to go around, so you have to fight hard for what you get and protect it. Their evil message trickles into everything, as if we were not sinful enough to think it anyway. People are scared of losing their jobs, their homes, their future retirement money, so they give whatever it takes to stay afloat.

Fear mongering

Now it is threats against North Korea and Venezuela that the mouth-in-chief is piling up in the airwaves — and his approval rating actually goes up! Perhaps his followers in Charlottesville will succeed in creating the same kind of atmosphere that propelled Nazis into power! People are scared of violence, of losing security, so they cut off from people and demand protection.

Colossal foolishness

It remains hard for me to believe, for some reason, that the one percent is really wicked enough to follow the gospel of maximum profit for minimum expenditure as if it were salvation. As Weber famously explained it, the “spirit of capitalism” has profit as its end, profit as a duty, and cultivates industry, frugality, punctuality and honesty as the means to that end. Most Americans, especially Protestants, are completely conformed to this foolishness.

Christopher Carter’s complaints about it all made the rounds of my Facebook friends:

A car plows into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters to the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville. This is evil. And in the midst of it all, our administration (president and speaker of the house) release statements that say nothing of substance in order to declare that they said “something” to those who chant their names at these rallies.

I am not surprised by the racism of white people as I encounter it all too often. I am, however, hurt, and continue to be fueled by a righteous anger by the fact that 58% of Protestants and 52% of Catholics voted for a President whose life and politics are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.

We are in the throws of a theological crisis. Similar to times past when white Christians theologically accommodated slavery, then Jim and Jane Crow and lynching, and then segregation. Too many Christians mistake the individualist freedom of the State with the freedom we find in Christ. For these Christians, the State and the freedom (i.e. entitlement) they find in the racialized oppressive practices of our country, has become their idol. We must call this idol worship what it actually is, heresy. Unless your faith is rooted in the state, bathed in whiteness, and dried on the backs of the poor and people of color, it is incompatible to be a person of faith and support a president who does not speak out against this violence and who’s name is chanted by white nationalists.

What do we do?

We are trying to do it every day, no matter who hacks us or what it costs.

The Bible verse that sums up the proper response for me today should be much more widely applied than it is:

God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-7

The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.

The body of Christ is alternativity

Abundance

Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.

Fearlessness

Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.

Wisdom

Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.

Alternativity

Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.

That sound is Trump tromping on the Paris Pact for Pentecost weekend.

The howls of protest from around the globe are hopefully ringing in the president’s ears. Donald Trump’s executive order to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has been generally decried:

  • CNN: Trump to Planet: Drop Dead
  • The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World
  • Foreign Policy: Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America
  • Esquire: Are You Proud to Be American Today?
  • Slate: We the Victims
  • The Guardian (UK): Trump Just Passed on the Best Deal the Planet Has Ever Seen
  • Washington Post: Trump is Abdicating All the Country’s Moral Power
  • TalkingPointsMemo: Paris Decision Was Driven By the President’s Rage and Fear
  • Arnold could not resist his regular Trump takedown

https://youtu.be/0Xz8VNjMME4

Most of the time, activist Christians just join the howl. There is room for that. But Pentecost, yesterday, promised more, didn’t it? Surely Jesus was fulfilling the beautiful, old promise of Isaiah as the Spirit was poured out during the festival of the first fruits; it was the ultimate demonstration that God’s word waters the earth and brings sustenance – all the way from the seed to the bread seeds provide.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” — Isaiah 55:10-13

Like the trees miraculously clap, it is just as amazing that we have become God-praisers who dare to hope — and dare to act on that hope in desperate times.

Trees Clapping by Brenda Bogart

The climate catastrophe makes it clear that we live in desperate times. We need to repent in order to survive. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping seem to know this. The president elected by evangelical Christians seems to think the 70 jobs gained by opening a new coal mine in PA is worth ecological disaster.

I say “we” need to repent because, whether we like it or not, the United States government has drawn its boundaries around us. But I also can say that “we” of Circle of Hope, probably have a lot less to repent of when it comes to climate change. From the beginning of the church we have been aware and active. Lately, we even have a compassion team devoted to the new concept of “watershed discipleship,” which calls us to live as partners in our respective watersheds, connected to the earth and connected to others who share our bioregion. Long before that new concept, we were going with the old, Biblical teaching of being a tribe inhabiting our place, forming a new community that was not beholden to the arbitrary lines of the political map, but connected as a people filled with the Spirit. We loved trees, but even more, we loved with those hand-clapping trees Isaiah sees — enlivened, as we are, with the new energy of God’s redemptive presence.

One of our friends treated us to Wendell Berry via Daily Prayer not long ago. He also claps with the trees. More than a quarter century ago Berry was arguing, before it was fashionable, that “global thinking” was often a mere euphemism for an abstract anxiety or passion that is useless in the struggle to save real places. “The question that must be addressed,” he contended, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land.” Only love and responsibility for specific places – what native Hawaiians call aloha ‘aina – can motivate us to struggle on their behalf.

Some people are working toward Berry’s vision from the outward in by rediscovering a bioregional identity. That’s great. I come at it from a more Anabaptist approach. In a real sense, I think we are more like the Hawaiians who carry the reality of aloha ‘aina in them. They identify the watershed; they love it; they aren’t created by it. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. The earth does not make us. Like our Cell Plan teaches about being an organism:  “We aren’t waiting; we aren’t merely prospective; we aren’t laboring under the condemnation of some structure to which we need to conform. We exist as who we are. We are being built by God. We feed on the Spirit and develop.”

Image result for watershed discipleship team

Even though we work from the inside out, wherever we are planted, there is little doubt that the movement of the Holy Spirit right now must include “re-place-ment.” Our Watershed Discipleship team is an outpost of an intellectual movement (mostly fronted for us by Ched Myers) that reflects Kirkpatrick Sales’ 1985 primer Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sales defined a bioregional sense of place: “Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.” Ched Myers and others are even more specific, and talk about being “intertwined within a larger system called a watershed” in which the inhabitants are linked by their common necessity and use. In a sense, we are cradled in the basin of our watershed where the organisms are interconnected and interdependent.

I find Myers’ imagery appealing. It fits us and it fits the Bible. Our approach to social action as Circle of Hope has always been to embody it. We are an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, living in our own skins in our own place. While reactive people are howling at Trump, we may join the chorus, but we do so from a place. No one can deprive us of our connection to the Creator and the creation. We are the new creation in Jesus. We have never been subject to the “political geography” of dominant cultural ideation (at least that is our conviction), so when someone calls us into the “topography of creation,” they seem to be describing our native territory.

Trump’s blatant skepticism of climate change highlights a moment when our sense of being grounded by the Spirit in a community living in a discernible place becomes an even more relevant aspect of our mission. As Myers teaches, we are in a “watershed moment of crisis.” Acknowledging a bioregional sense of place helps the unaware become part of the context they are missing. It is time for restoring humanity’s right relationship with creation, which can be clearly experienced in our watershed. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum is often paraphrased to sum it up: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

In the face of humankind’s self-destruction, Isaiah’s vision is one of joy, not despair. The Lord is the Creator. God’s renewing presence waters the earth and makes it like our mother. Everyone is an armchair evolutionist these days, so they think the earth is all we’ve got, so the earth is our mother. From that viewpoint, Trump’s poor leadership is even more horrifying. But we “go out in joy,” knowing that the hope of the world, the hope for our watershed, the hope of our church and our cell is the promise of God delivered in Jesus. Everywhere we turn, we deliberately and relentlessly plant trees and clap with them and in that become spiritual redwoods ourselves.

Anderson Cooper and Truth flummoxed by Trump

Anderson Cooper was flummoxed as he sat in the middle of the fact food-fight he organized for the evening of the worldwide women’s march. The scheduled fight was happening. But he seemed upset that it was a fight between facts and assertions contrary to the facts (or as Kellyanne Conway later named them: “alternative facts“), otherwise known as lies.

For some reason, Donald Trump could not control the itch under his thin skin when he got to CIA headquarters to make amends. He patted his own back for his election victory; then he misrepresented the  size of his inauguration day crowd — he said 1.5 million people showed up, which is not true. What made it worse is that he was exposing his inner dialogue while standing on one of the holy sites of American civil religion, the CIA wall of sacrifice. People noticed his lack of genuflection and said so. So he went even further. Donald Trump told his newly-minted press secretary to get to the podium and keep talking about the size of the crowd. Sean Spicer said that Mr. Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,”  which is not true, as were several other assertions he made.

Any casual observer (like me) could tell that the crowd was smaller than past inaugurations. A NY Times reporter tweeted a comparison shot with one of Obama’s to prove it.

evidence of lies

What flummoxed Anderson and what interests me is the reply to all this hubbub by the Trump-supporter on his panel. She waved to the imaginary crowd of regular Americans behind the camera and said, “They believe Sean Spicer, not you.”

Anderson said, “But the facts are the facts.”

She said, contemptuously, “Nobody cares.”

Does nobody really care about the truth?

Nobody cares! I think she is mostly right — even when it comes to my circle. For instance, we had a procedural tempest in a teapot last week among our church’s leaders, and I have to admit, as far as the general population of our church, it is very likely that nobody would care if we followed our agreements or not. Does anybody care?

It is an era when truth is what you care about. If you want to call climate change a hoax, fine. You want to have alternate definitions of words, fine. If you want to say you had 1.5 million people at your inauguration, fine, as long as you are willing to fight to the death about it. And who is eager to fight with the latest narcissist about their latest lie?

My mind immediately went to John 8, one of the least-appreciated chapters in the gospels, in my opinion — but read it for yourself, of course. There Jesus calls his opponents fellow-travelers with the devil because they believe the devil’s lies. He told them, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Lord’s whole argument with these opponents (who will, eventually, get him killed, as he implied) is based on the fact that they can’t hear him because they don’t know God. He is just revealing God to them. But they believe the lies instead. It is like He is speaking a foreign language when he tells them the truth.

Are we committed to a democracy of lies?

These days, such an argument is even harder to have with Jesus’ opponents, since their philosophy of truth basically says that their assertions are equal with anyone else’s, and it is the majority (or those in power) who legalize what truth is.  What the Bible says, is just another truth. What the woman on Anderson’s panel might say, if Anderson told her about Jesus, is, “Nobody cares.” And that would count as a televisable argument.

I admit that President Trump’s lying already bores me to tears. I am having trouble caring. I loved the pink-eared women getting out all over the world to say, “No” to his character and to the threat of his potential actions. But I have a feeling that in a few weeks they will also lose steam in the face of the chief liar and his cabal of billionaires and be tempted to watch fantasy people fight the power on Netflix. I hope I am wrong. Whether they fight the power or not, I hope our collective boredom has some of the same resignation as Jesus. He told the powers, 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.Trump is just more of the same, only worse.

Elizabeth confronting the lies.

When Elizabeth Warren, the anti-Trump, got up to speak at the gigantic Boston protest, Saturday, she recited her latest version of the eleven commandments of progressivism. Most of them make sense to me, politically and even morally, but it was not like she was speaking from God. I was excited, but that will pass. My spirit was not moved by the Spirit, and that is what I long for. I was not moved to save democracy with her, yet another millionaire supposedly fighting for the downtrodden.

But I woke up today moved to listen to Jesus again and see what he really wants us to do in the middle of a world that is even more attuned to the devil’s lies than usual. I hope I am bored because I just don’t want to learn the native language of the elite.  Come to think of it, Elizabeth Warren reminds me of my ninth-grade French teacher. I didn’t learn French, either.

Hope — an orientation of spirit

It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too.  Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?

It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. just mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s great book

I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to  solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.

Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.

Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,

“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.

I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that  people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”

We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers  do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.

Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.