He pulled up at his parents’ house around 9 on Sunday morning. He knew the coffee pot would have just shut off after two hours of being on, and his mom would have just turned it back on to keep it warm a little longer.
His parents liked to linger in bed on Sundays, reading the paper and drinking their coffee. He longed to linger in their unhurried approach to the day.
He was stopping by because a big decision weighed heavily on him, and he was hoping they could lighten the load. He helped himself to some of the remaining coffee as they joined him at the kitchen table. His folks knew why he was there, but they didn’t press him. They talked about the weather and some of their ailments as they aged.
Had he heard about his high school’s robotics team and how they were doing this year? They knew how much he enjoyed being on the team during his high school career.
They talked about the news a little and asked him what he’d been reading lately. When the small talk seemed about as done as the coffee, they decided to take a walk together with the dog, just like old times. The old boy was slowing down, but seemed to keep pace with his parents just fine, maybe because they were slowing down a little too.
They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp fall air and the colorful leaves. He wanted to ask them what he should do about this big decision of his, but there was something about the rhythm of their steps together, something about the feel of the dog’s leash in his hand where it had rested so many times, something about the sight of his parents’ hands comfortably clasped together with well-worn grooves where they had come together so often, that all gave him pause.
He looked at his parents and smiled, and they responded with loving nods of affirmation, and in that moment he realized that the weight of trying to figure out what he should do had lessened. It wasn’t gone, but he remembered that whatever he did, he wouldn’t be alone.
And then it struck him that underneath the big decision he had to come to terms with, were some more basic questions, like “Do you love me?” and “Are you with me?” His parents’ eyes said it all:
“Of course. Always.”
They rounded the bend toward home and his parents asked if he could stay for lunch. “Of course,” he said, “always.”
One of my pastors and friends, Ben White, keeps reminding me of something I’ve been saying recently. It has to do with the fact that especially in my case as a cisgender heterosexual male of European descent living in the U.S., I usually find myself centered in most of the power structures in society. The history books that have been adopted and used for generations in schools across America, for example, were largely written by people that look like me, for people that look like me, centering us as the heroes in the story of America and thereby justifying our privileged status in society. The furor over critical race theory currently is a desperate attempt to maintain this control over the narrative about our country, because if the full truth were told, the story gets a lot more complicated and the privilege and power that people like myself enjoy must be seen for what it is- unearned, unjust, and unjustifiable.
Some of us are waking up to this reality, and I’m glad. But that old truth just gets even more true here, that “the more you learn, (the more you realize that) the less you know.” As my consciousness has been awakened to the terrible reality of systemic racism and the ongoing oppression I continue to benefit from, I’ve been glad to have opportunity to dedicate myself to the work of anti-racism, and even better, the creation of beloved community and, for Jesus-followers, a more full expression of the new humanity that Jesus calls us to. However, I’m learning more and more every day that anti-racism is just the tip of the iceberg. The powers that be have solidified their hold on society not only through the violence of racism, but through many intersecting forms of violence including LGBTQIA2S+ hate, patriarchy and sexism, colonialism and imperialism, and through extractive and exploitative capitalism that commodifies the bounty of God’s good earth, changing the climate in ways that only intensify the harm of the other oppressions just named.
I Can’t See Where I Don’t Look
There’s something missing from that laundry list of systems of oppression I just named, however, and it’s telling. Of course the list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but a story comes to mind here. My church, Circle of Hope, has been working hard to meet the moment we’re all in during this ongoing pandemic. We believe that we’re called to move with what the Spirit is doing next. We say that “Like any healthy organism, we grow. So we are always preparing to birth a new cell, plant the next congregation and generate the next venture of compassionate service.” As we re-plant the whole church (our “content”) in the new soil of a world changed and still changing due to COVID-19 (our next “container”), we’re reimagining our network of cell groups and congregations across the greater Philadelphia region. Like so many churches, businesses, and civic institutions as the pandemic started, we pivoted to offer as much as we could online. I’ve talked about this before. This pivot enabled our life together to go on when in-person meetings were no longer safe. As we keep saying, our church, with Jesus at the heart of us and cell groups serving as the primary expression of that heart, was really made for such a time as this. We have buildings and use them well to serve our body and the communities around us, but we don’t need them. The church is a people, not a place after all. So as cells met through Zoom and other means and as our At-Home Sunday Meeting became our public face for a while, our church remained remarkably stable over the past year-and-a-half and even grew in unexpected ways.
People like myself and my family, for example, who no longer live in Philly, were suddenly able to be once again included in the life of our body. We also made new friends from all over the country who were able to be included in cells meeting online and in our At-Home Sunday Meeting, and some of them have also become integral parts of our body. What we also discovered was that we had simply been missing an unseen part of our body and members of our community, some of whom had been part of our church for a long time. This was not a malicious omission, but its effect was devastating nonetheless. We simply didn’t have “eyes to see” this before, but I’m so grateful that now we do, or at least we’re starting to. This unseen part of our body is directly tied to the system of oppression I failed to name in my laundry list of them above. That oppressive system is, of course, ableism, and the missing members of our community that we didn’t “see” in the way we needed to before is the disabled community. Our friend Dani is disabled, and a member of my cell is too. Truth be told, the mental health diagnoses I carry as a result of childhood trauma might technically qualify me as disabled too if I wanted to purse that route. I disclose this as an acknowledgment that the disabled community is very diverse and because I don’t want to “other” anyone who is part of this community.
I mention Dani because we’re part of Circle of Hope together and because she is a vocal advocate for disability rights and inclusion. You can hear a great interview with her in the recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, and I was privileged to also interview her for my employer as part of our anti-racism work during Disability Pride Month. In both conversations, Dani said something that was devastating for its poignancy and what it revealed. She said that she and other disabled individuals have been asking for years to be included by being able to work from home, to have widespread telehealth options, and to have opportunities to connect with a faith community through online means. She said they were always told that it’s too expensive or not technologically viable and were given other excuses. She then adds, “As soon as able-bodied people had to stay home for two weeks due to the pandemic, suddenly all those things that she and her friends have been pleading for were available.” She told another story during my interview with her that was revelatory for me. She mentioned that when she’s in her wheelchair in a public space like a grocery store, people seem to respond in two ways. A small number of people will see and approach her and begin asking invasive and unwelcome questions about her disability. More often, though, people will simply fail to notice her so badly that they sometimes bump into her and then are surprised that she’s there. I thought about this as we were talking and realized that it has to do with where we look. If I’m walking around a store, my gaze is usually held at my eye level. This is a decorating “rule” too, that we hang pictures at eye level so that we can “see” them.
Generous Eyes Have an Expanded Gaze
I think the lesson here is that we need to expand our gaze. My privilege enables me to look only where it’s most convenient for me to do so. The world is built for me not only as a middle-class, cishet male of European descent, but also as a relatively able-bodied individual too. If the world is my “house,” all the pictures are hung where I can most naturally see them, even if this places them out of sight for others. Likewise, those others who aren’t like me remain out of sight to me if I do not repent and change my ways by expanding my gaze. I’ve come over time to really appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, seeing it as a “canon within the canon,” the heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we can best follow him. I do it poorly myself, incidentally, but my posture is toward Jesus as I see him leading me in this teaching. So I come back again and again to this part of it in Matthew 6:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
As I’ve noted before, those footnotes for “healthy” and “unhealthy” in verses 22 and 23 reveal that those words imply “generous” and “stingy.” So if your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light. If your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness, and how great will that darkness be! I think part of having generous eyes must mean having a generous, expansive gaze, seeing people for who they really are, where they really are. We can’t just keep looking in all the places we’re used to. When we do, we miss beloved siblings in Christ and our humanity is diminished, remaining old and untransformed.
We Want to be Included in the New Humanity that Jesus is Creating, not Just Include Others in the Worldly and Fallen Systems That We Control.
This gets me back to what one of my pastors, Ben, keeps reminding me that I’ve said. It has to do with inclusion. When I choose to include others, I’m inviting them into a space that I am centered in and retain control of. How could it be otherwise? It’s like being neighborly in my home. I can be as intentional and inviting toward others that aren’t like me as could possibly be imagined, but they’re still coming into my space that is made for me, that caters to me, etc. This kind of thinking infects our theological imagination too. Our intentions may be good, but I think the logic often goes something like, “God is good and loving toward all. The church has historically been complicit in oppression of marginalized groups, and we do better when we seek to include them because we believe that God already does.” But if God already does, this thinking is revealed to be fairly backwards. God is creating a new humanity whether we choose to willingly participate in it or not. In this new humanity, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile…male nor female,” etc. We are one in Christ. This does not erase our other identities, it unites them. After all, if everything and everyone is the same, unity is unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we are all unique expressions of God’s boundless creativity and are woven together into the beautiful tapestry of the body of Christ, then we become a powerful witness to the love of Christ that we share.
So inclusion ought not be about me bringing others into a space that’s made for me and which I control. God has already included everyone in God’s family. We are all God’s children, all beloved, and are all being saved from the power of sin and death. When we really come to understand this, I think we learn that the only choice we have to make in terms of inclusion is whether or not we will include ourselves in this wonderful community that God is making. I cannot exclude anyone from their own belovedness, nor from their status as children of God. I can only keep myself out, really, and there are many ways no doubt in which I have been doing this very thing. So I must pray:
God, help me to repent. Help me to expand my gaze. Give me generous eyes to see all your children where they are, not where I prefer to look. You’re building beloved community and creating a new humanity, and you’ll do it with or without me. Thank you for always inviting me, though, and help me to lay down whatever power I think I have and step out of the spaces that I control so that I can join in the work of cultivating awareness of the belovedness of all. Amen.
This opinion piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks really got me thinking the other morning. I suppose that was the point, so good on her for keeping the dialogue going. What follows is my contribution to it. First off, I should say that generally I agree with her, and even specifically I agree with her regarding probably most of the points I hear her wanting to make. I do think that:
We need to talk about Derek Chauvin.
We need to talk about the life he stole and the people he terrorized and the institutions that trained him and armed him and sent him out on our streets.
We need to talk about Black Lives Matter. About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits. About Minneapolis children gunned down as they bounce on trampolines or ride to grandma’s house. We need to talk about the bigots who punch elderly Asian Americans on the sidewalks and the lawmakers who bully transgender kids in the middle of Pride month.
I think Brooks is spot on here. Police brutality, institutional racism, gun violence, and homophobia are not just worthy topics of discussion though. They’re not mere “issues,” either.
European-Americans Must Not Trade in Abstractions About Others’ Lived Experience of Suffering
For the victims of police brutality, the conversation about it is about lives lost, funerals to plan, and empty bedrooms.
For non-“white” Americans, the conversation about BLM is about living in a country whose institutions continue to act as if their lives don’t matter. The truth of this is indisputable to those who truly care to pay attention.
For indigenous Americans, the conversation about their missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirits is likewise a heartbreaking one about dinner tables with empty chairs, about lost potential and an aching lack of closure.
The conversation about gun violence is arguably the hardest one to have of all, because it has to do all too often with the lives of children cut short, with parents left forever to wonder if they could have done something more to protect their children, and who all too often are left to spend the remainder of their lives tirelessly working to reform and redeem a culture gone mad for its actual, dumbfounding love of guns.
The conversation about anti-Asian violence and hate is often about proud Americans who contribute in disproportionate ways to the common good of this country, while receiving disproportionate exclusion, vitriol, and oppression in return.
Likewise, the conversation about homophobia and transphobia is one that in many ways many of us are just beginning to have, and none too early, but like the others, for LGBTQIA2S+ Americans, it’s a conversation about the many ways they are hated, feared, excluded, and oppressed.
Missing from Brooks’ laundry list of whole swaths of American society that are oppressed by whiteness are Hispanic Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, among others, I’m sure. Our neighbors to the global south have long been exploited for their labor and scapegoated when it suited the “white” majority in the U.S., and our neighbors from the Middle East are usually vilified by many Americans who misread and misunderstand the Bible and use it as a tool to support not only the legacy of colonialism in North America, but its continued expression in Zionist Israel.
So, while all these conversations desperately need to be had, we must always remember that what we’re talking about are people’s lives. Likewise, we must bear in mind the privilege and power differential of the conversation partners. When “white” people, people like me, engage in any of these conversations what we usually have at stake is our wealth and privilege and the ways in which we’re centered by society. To put it bluntly, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve somebody,” and society’s institutions are meant to serve European-Americans, especially cishet European-Americans like myself. So what’s at stake for people like me in conversations about the marginalization and oppression of others is the fearsome possibility of being treated like everyone else, of not being centered and served by society as a matter of course. It’s a terrible thing to confess.
Notice that difference, though. Again in conversations about marginalization and oppression, regardless of where my heart and my intentions might be, my social location places me on the side of the oppressor and among those that force others to the margins. For everyone else, the conversation is about education and opportunity, about livelihoods, about health and mental health outcomes, about life and death itself. In other words, conversations about such matters for people like me are often about abstractions based on the lived experience of others. Because of such a great power differential, one cannot in good faith argue that there are two sides to be considered equally. As Brooks writes:
Sometimes there’s no neutral ground. You stand with your neighbors or you stand against them. The opposite of Black Lives Matter isn’t “all lives matter” — it’s Black Lives Don’t Matter.
Or, as I keep saying, when we say “Black lives matter,” we mean they matter too. We mean society’s institutions so preference and center “white” male cisgender heterosexual lives it’s as if no other lives matter. So we must take a side, and if we stand with Jesus, we stand with the marginalized and oppressed. My pastor Jonny has something to say about this. He writes:
…Paul consistently undoes the patterns of this world in his ordering of Christian households. How he talks about Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people showcases a New Humanity and a new way of doing things. Our church’s work of antiracism isn’t a movement following the world, we are following the spirit. We are renewing our minds, transforming our hearts, resisting conforming to the patterns of this world. We are motivated to find our oneness and identity in Christ. That doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior. There is no such thing as an identity in Christ without divestment of worldly power. An identity in Christ that is not antiracist is a white Christian Nationalist identity that is a perversion of the Gospel. It is a false teaching led by false prophets (italics added).
I Cannot Get to the Whole Cloth of Life in Christ Without Removing the Wholly Racist Clothes I Grew Up In
This reminds me of one of our Circle of Hope proverbs. These are sayings of our church, wisdom we’ve collected over the years that help us continue the dialogue about who we are in Christ. The one I’m thinking of, as I’m paraphrasing it here, goes: “Life in Christ is one whole cloth…Jesus is lord of all, so we have repented of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.” I see this saying as a response to the ways in which European-American Christians have crafted a so-called Christianity in which they could worship God on Sunday, occasionally even in the presence of BIPOC and other marginalized people, sometimes even sharing a common cup of communion, and then turn around the next day and continue actively participating in the oppression and marginalization of their so-called siblings in Christ. In a recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, Melissa Florer-Bixler talks about her upcoming book, How to Have An Enemy, and suggests that such disingenuous and really anti-Christ actions might be grounds for withholding such table fellowship. Again as a cishet European-American male who so often is placed in positions of power and is able to deny others entry to privileged spaces, I’m hesitant to support any further exclusionary act, but I do think Melissa is probably right.
So when we say that “life in Christ is one whole cloth,” we mean that following Jesus is something we do with our whole selves, with our whole lives. Florer-Bixler gives an example of hearing about a church that proudly proclaimed it had ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in their congregation, extolling some sort of false “unity.” If life in Christ is one whole cloth, you cannot worship God with someone one day and then kidnap them from their family and deport them the next. Following Jesus may require that you follow him right out of your job. The same probably applies to Wall Street bankers and others, if I may be so bold. Again, we must choose sides.
I might also say that declaring that life in Christ is one whole cloth as a response to racist, oppressive compartmentalization of faith leads to the realization that life itself is simply one whole cloth. I think this is probably just common sense, when we really think about it. And this, then, leads to a further realization. As Jonny said, “…find(ing) our oneness and identity in Christ…doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior.” If life itself is one whole cloth just as life in Christ is, European-Americans have grown up wearing racist clothes. The racist rot in American society goes to the core. America is a bad tree, and we risk living as bad fruit if we do not repent and put on our new selves in Christ, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Churches like the one Florer-Bixler spoke of that celebrate the intermingling of oppressors and oppressed in their midst like to rush to their supposed oneness in Christ without doing the work of clothing themselves with Christ. Such dressing necessarily leads to repentance and the changed behavior Jonny spoke of. For those living a life in the whole cloth of Christ, racism leads to antiracism or we have discarded our holy garb. My church, Circle of Hope, is undergoing a painful moment in which we reckon with the ways we have yet to fully put on Christ, with ways in which we continue to work at removing our worldly racist garb. We want to put on Christ and we are, but we must not rush it. Some sackloth and ashes are probably in order for a while as we repent of the ways we have often unwittingly but sometimes wittingly, no doubt, participated in the racism that is all around us. We must change our ways, and I have hope that we will.
I must change my ways, and I cling to the hope that I will. I know, of course, that I cannot do it alone though. I did not get into the mess of white supremacy culture by myself, and I will not get out of it that way either. BIPOC members of our church have expressed that they view their participation in our community as being missional. In other words, we European-Americans make up a mission field that the love of Christ compels them to minister to. We need to be saved in more ways than one, and they’re here to help. Let us humbly receive the good news they have brought, that life does not revolve around us, that we can feel loved, affirmed, and valued for who we are without the crutch of false hierarchies, and that there is enough for all if we share with all freely and equitably. Now that’s a gospel word if ever there was one.
(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)
I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:
Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?
All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:
This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:
To The Third and Fourth Generation
I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:
“Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
“…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
“There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
“I was raised to be…perfect…”
She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”
So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.
Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.
‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’
I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.
Another Questionable Death
My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:
In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:
-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents. -Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children. -Obedience makes a child strong. -The body is something dirty and disgusting. -Strong feelings are harmful. -Parents are always right. -Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt. -Duty produces love. -A high degree of self-esteem is harmful. -A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic. -Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life. -A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude. -The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel. -Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)
Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.
It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle
So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.
So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”
It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.
In many ways, we are on the “apostolic edge” these days. I mean we are moving with Jesus into new territory, something like Paul, the Apostle (the “sent one”) telling the Romans: “I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.”
The post continues:
I think Paul’s idea is this: wherever he goes, Jesus is already there. He is just working with Jesus to make him known. We “name” what people already experience as the presence of God. Sometimes we do it in words. Sometimes we do it just by showing up as individuals and as a community who can be seen, known, and loved. There are many edges of our territory (the place we know, the place we have come to so far) where we border a place where Jesus is not named, yet. That’s an “apostolic edge.” And there are no walls on our border!
Extending the Table of Our Dialogue to Unexpected Places, in Unexpected Ways
The pandemic has extended that “edge” perhaps further than anyone might have imagined. Many churches are doing as much as they can online these days because of the pandemic, and we as Circle of Hope are no different. People are finding our YouTube channel and meeting us there, sometimes for the very first time. Our Sunday Meetings are online, for now, and we offer other opportunities for worship, learning, and connection throughout the week, because “Sundays aren’t enough.” The Circle of Hope pastors have a podcast called Resist and Restore, and it usually begins with them saying that they’re “extending the table of our dialogue” all the way to wherever each of us are listening. In my case, that dialogue extends all the way to Minnesota, and through the online “dispersed” cell I lead of people all over the country, it extends further to Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Here’s a picture of a map I made of where people in my cell live:
Speaking of cell groups, as Circle of Hope our primary point of connection is and always has been through our cells– our small groups of ten or so in which “Jesus is the only agenda.” Cells are not a program we offer in some kind of transactional way. We try not to be transactional, and we don’t really offer programs. As we say in our proverbs, “The church is not a ‘thing’ that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us.” So cells are something else entirely. Again, as you can read in our proverbs:
– Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our “agenda.” – Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.
Our pastors have been saying that our church was made “for such a time as this.” Because of COVID, in-person gatherings remain unwise, though the vaccines give us hope that may change soon if the country can get enough people vaccinated before the virus variants take hold. This inability to gather in person is a challenge for most churches, especially those program-based churches whose life is centered on a building and what happens in it. Circle of Hope has buildings too and they offer much to the communities in which they are rooted, but they are not the center of our life together. Being a cell-based church, we could exist without buildings and would still be able to connect with one another, be who we are, and do what we have been given to do. If Jesus is the lifeblood of our church, maybe cells are the arteries that bring that life to all the parts of our body. They’re certainly the way that our body grows, and this is still happening during COVID, even though cells are for the most part meeting over Zoom or other virtual platforms. What a blessing that we aren’t having to pivot away from a program-based, transactional way of “doing church” in a building in order to try something new during the pandemic. We are trying some new things, but we already know how to be the church together in an unprogrammed way outside of a building. Thank God!
Not Just Where to Be, but Who To Be
When my wife and I rejoined Circle’s covenant from all the way in MN in the fall last year, our pastor Jonny said we were out here on Circle’s apostolic edge. Since then, we’ve been working through what that means for us. One thing it has meant is that we’ve felt a real tension between the physical space we occupy in the Upper Midwest, and the life we’re experiencing together with the rest of Circle of Hope in Philadelphia. Right now most meetings are happening online, but what will it look like when in person gatherings are possible again? So we’ve felt a real yearning to also be physically present with the rest of our Circle of Hope family in Philly, and as I wrote in my last post, we’ve been discerning what to do about that. This discernment has been about where to live, sure, but also about what kind of people we want to be, wherever we might live. I think in short that we want to be “Circle of Hope people.” We want to be Jesus-centered. We want to live into alternativity as we embrace life together, immersed in Circle’s cell-planting movement. I’ve long talked about following Jesus by resisting capitalism, violence, and individualism, and Circle has held space for that kind of life for far longer than I’ve been talking about it. It’s no wonder then that we’ve reconnected with Circle during the pandemic, and we are very, very grateful. Likewise, it’s no wonder that we feel drawn to be back in Philly again with the rest of Circle of Hope, and have been actively discerning about making such a move.
So as I mentioned, my last post dealt with this discernment process we’ve been engaged in. A move back to Philly would be our third such move as a married couple, first one as a family with kids, and fourth one for me individually. I said in that post that we were approaching this decision in very uncharacteristic fashion, that is slowly and hopefully in a more communal way, with conversation partners beyond ourselves. We know that when we do almost anything by ourselves, we often do worse than if we had acted in community. We are made for community after all. We are made for mutuality, and as Jesus-followers, for being the church together. Our lives are not our own. We belong to each other, and to Jesus. So we didn’t want our decision making process about moving back to Philly to be driven by the same old impulses, impulses rooted in trauma, individualism, scarcity, and need. Instead, if being in physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope in Philly again represents a move toward the community that we are made for, we wanted our steps leading up to such a move to be rooted in community too. Our conversation partners have been very helpful in this regard, and we are grateful to them. Along the way I’ve realized, with the help of the writing of Richard Rohr and others, that I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion. So I began to wonder what a “second half of life” approach to this decision might be, and that led me to ask questions like, “Is there a gift God might have for us in this? Might moving to Philly and the physical proximity to the rest of Circle of Hope that such a move would afford be such a gift?” I realized then that holding space for these kinds of questions might be the fertile soil in which an answer might grow, if well tended, like a garden. Notice I said an answer, not the (“right”) answer.
When the Time is Ripe, We Hope We Are Too
And over time, an answer has emerged. The truth is that we do feel called to be in Philly, physically close to the rest of Circle of Hope. We’ve already made covenant with Circle again. Circle of Hope is our church. They are our people, and we want to be near them. We are “Circle of Hope people” already. So the only thing questionable for us about moving to Philly is when to make our move, not if. We’ve also thought about our desire to get as “small” as we can, to live in a way that outwardly reflects our stated values of generosity, sharing, simplicity, and abundance. This was especially salient because we had an opportunity this coming summer to rent a Philadelphia house that dear friends of ours own. This possibility made abstract thoughts about making this big move very real and concrete. Our friends’ house is in a neighborhood that is much less affluent than the one we currently live in here in MN, and not coincidentally, much less “white” as well. We’ve talked for a while about wanting to be in solidarity with those that live on the underside of our privilege, and we’ve known that solidarity requires proximity. So moving not just back to Philly, but particularly to our friends’ house in Philly, presented us with a rare chance to really live like we say we mean to. We began imagining what our life would be like there, in that neighborhood. I think we hoped to occupy that “small” space in, as much as we could, a “small” way. We would want to be there hopefully just to love and be loved by those around us there as we do life together as neighbors. We would hope to be humble there, not imagining ourselves to be “white saviors,” but simply desiring to learn from our neighbors and share in their lives.
This begged some questions, though. After all, we have neighbors right here. We’ve cultivated relationship with a few of them and with one in particular it might be said that there’s an extent to which we’re “doing life” together, but there are others that, truth be told, we don’t like very much, and probably more than a few around us that if we knew them at all we might feel similarly toward. We’ve experienced some of our current neighbors to not be very welcoming to people who aren’t “white.” We’ve seen a Trump sign or two around. We might even go so far as to unintentionally categorize some of our current neighbors as “enemies.” Again, this begs questions:
Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?
How can we move into a poor Black neighborhood in order to love and be loved by our neighbors there- who would be different from us in many, many ways- when we can’t or won’t love our actual, mostly “white” neighbors right here and right now, simply because we might hope that we’re somehow different from them? In other words, we have to wonder how wise it would be to move into a poor Black neighborhood in Philly as what you might call “failed” Minnesota suburbanites. We regularly hear Black folks telling “white” people who want to do anti-racism work to basically get their own house in order. Learn their history. Talk to their own people. So we had to wrestle with whether or not we might be skipping out on the work we have to do right here, right now- work that generally speaking Black folks are asking “white” folks to do, because we prefer to do what might seem to be more glamorous work, but which we aren’t actually being asked to do.
The truth is, there’s an extent to which we may not like some of our neighbors here because they look and act like us, and we may not like ourselves here very much. Wouldn’t it be wise, then, to learn to love and accept ourselves, wherever we happen to be now, in all our belovedness, and then out of the wellspring of that love, move to where we feel called, to be close to our loved ones there?
So, then, if we want to get to Philly at some point and be loving neighbors to whoever is around us, we know we have urgent work to do in preparation for that now. Like it or not, we need to work on loving these neighbors here, especially if we don’t like some of them. If we think in a close-knit rowhouse community in Philly we might share resources and live in a genuinely neighborly way, why don’t we start practicing that now with our real neighbors here instead of holding out for our imagined ones there? So, we’ve decided to embrace the good gifts God is already giving us. Thanks to the accelerated use of video technology and other online tools brought on by this terrible pandemic, we are already living a deeply connected life as part of Circle of Hope now, right where we are in MN. We are covenant members, and are in a cell which I am grateful to lead. We share resources, even from a physical distance. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel like I’m “in” the Circle of Hope, centered on Jesus, and for this I am grateful. I and my family want to be geographically close enough to share more deeply “in real life” when the time is right, but for now we are resolved to keep learning, practicing, and preparing for that time, whenever it may be. Perhaps the time will be ripe for moving back to Philly in a couple of years, when our oldest son graduates high school. We hope that by then we will be “ripe” for such a move too, as we continue to develop and grow. For now, we are glad to be on Circle of Hope’s apostolic edge, living as Circle of Hope people right where we are. Who knows what God might do with our continued presence here and what seeds might be planted as we hold space here. Maybe something beautiful will grow. That would be pretty edgy.
It’s hard to believe we’re almost a year into pandemic living, which for my family means mask wearing, social distancing, and quarantining as we are privileged enough to be able to work and learn from home. The reality for my family is that we’ve rarely left the house for the past 11 months or so. In that time, we’ve only bought gas a handful of times. As the pandemic started, we had just bought an old secondhand car so that we’d have two again. We gave it away just before Christmas after it sat idly in our driveway for the better part of a year. Though we now have some seemingly (mostly) safe vaccines and will all get them when we can, we know it will be some time yet before we even know what a new “normal” might be, let alone have any hope of moving into it. The Biden administration may never be able to make up for the year the Trump administration squandered, and now with emerging strains threatening the efficacy of vaccines and the ability of healthcare systems to keep up with more contagious and possibly more deadly mutations of the virus, the world feels more uncertain than ever.
The one bright spot in what feels like all this darkness over the past year has been our joyfully surprising reconnection with Circle of Hope, our faith community in Philly. I’ve written a fair bit about Circle over many years but especially over the past year, and as I’ve said recently, I’m often reminded of how tied up our story as a married couple is in their story as a community of faith. Circle began in 1996, which is the year we were married. Lord willing, we’ll celebrate 25 years of marriage this August. I might be tempted at this point to recount again just why the way I experience Jesus among the Circle of Hope is so meaningful, but if you’re so inclined, you can read about that here and here, for starters. This pandemic is terrible, and I pray daily for it to end. Nothing could be worth all the suffering it has caused, including in my own life as I recently lost my brother during the pandemic. His cause of death may not list “COVID-19” and he had many other health issues, but he had been diagnosed with the virus at one point, and it would be hard to conclude it wasn’t a contributing factor, if for no other reason than because of his experience in an enormously stressed-due-to-COVID healthcare system.
My Pastor Recently Called Me a “Joiner.” See Below.
Still, being immersed in the Circle of Hope again, even from a geographic distance, has brought much sweetness in otherwise bitter times. In September I became a Circle of Hope cell leader again for the first time in about fifteen years, and I continue to lead that cell of folks dispersed around the country. In October we had our “birthday” in the church again as we formally rejoined Circle’s covenant at the quarterly Love Feast. Since then I’ve joined the Circle of Peacemakerscompassion team, with whom I hope to learn much about how to do the work of peacemaking, wherever I happen to be. We attend Circle’s Sunday Meeting online each week; I gather for prayer with Circle folks over Zoom on Tuesday mornings; I read Circle’s Daily Prayer blog(s) each morning; I listen to the Resist and Restore and Color Correction podcasts; and the music of Circle of Hope continues to inspire and move me. In short, we are making every effort to be as immersed as possible in Circle’s cell multiplication movement, even from half a country away.
Nonetheless, we are keenly aware that this season of a big world made smaller by this terrible pandemic is just that, a season. While Circle’s Map for this year includes language about how to keep open the kind of connection that has been made possible for people geographically far away even when some kind of return to in-person gatherings has occurred, I know there’s no substitute for the embodied experience of being the church together (see what I did there?). We can still be a body together even when some of the bodies can’t be in the same physical space and are connecting through a screen, but I suppose for me it’s a little like the difference between seeing ice cream on TV and tasting it in my mouth. Something happens in my brain when I see the image of ice cream on a screen; I can imagine what it tastes like and that is an “experience” of it, in a way, but it’ll never be as sweet. Believe me; I’m not denigrating the virtual experience of community right now. It’s all we’ve got, for now, and that’s even true for the most part for everyone in Philly, but when the need for a virtual experience of the rich sweetness of our life together is over for everyone in Philly, I want it to be over for myself and my family too.
So more often than not over the past eleven months, there has been an ongoing conversation in our household about whether we should move back to Philly. Following Jesus as a part of Circle of Hope is a way of life that embodies alternativity. It means working toward an alternative economy, for example, as we resist the evils of capitalism by annihilating debt, giving away the goods that local babies and kids need, and creating “good” businesses like Circle Thrift that use capitalism to serve people, instead of the other way around. This can also be seen in all the people among Circle that share resources by merging households or creating childcare co-ops, etc. It means resisting the violence endemic to the larger culture too, whether through the Circle of Peacemakers or the Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter compassion teams, or simply through Circle’s historic ties to and immersion in the “peace churches” of the Anabaptist movement. One thorough reading of Circle’s proverbs, the lore and wisdom collected over the years, reveals a snapshot of this alternativity I’m describing, and I say all this because this way of life is meant to be lived…together. I call my blog Proximity, after all. Being close is at the core of the unity that Jesus keeps calling us to and literally embodies in his own person.
It was with more than a little hope and wonder, then, that we learned that our friends and cell members who currently live in Philly would be moving out of state this fall. They live in a neighborhood in Philly that is nothing like our current, mostly “white,” suburban context in MN. It’s an under-resourced neighborhood that is predominantly Black. Our friends’ kids are the only “white” kids at the local elementary school they go to. I’ve talked for years about valuing diversity and about the need to get “small” so that we could begin to experience life from the “under-“side of American empire rather than from our usual position of power “over” those less privileged than we are. Yet we’ve never managed to live out these values we supposedly aspire to. We keep buying houses in the suburbs. We keep racking up debt and maintaining our wage slavery as a result. We keep handing our kids lives in which the biggest problem they face is who got more screen time. I recently said about our current neighborhood that “…this suburban context of safety and comfort is the worst kind of at-risk neighborhood. It puts us at risk of not remembering we need saving, of not being proximate enough to our suffering neighbors to see our complicity in their suffering. Here, we feel very isolated and far from the beloved community.”
We certainly don’t want to make the mistake of glamorizing poverty or really making any kind of judgment, good or bad, about the lives of folks we hardly understand because we don’t know them. Still, I’m reminded of what Dr. King said about the reason why people fear and even hate each other:
“I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in remarks delivered to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa in 1962
We just can’t live separate any more, and so this chance to not only move to Philly and be immersed in Circle again but to live in a neighborhood and therefore in a way that much more closely aligns with the values we aspire to, seems like an opportunity not to be missed.
We keep trying to miss it, though, mostly out of fear. Moving across the country means selling our house, for starters. What if it doesn’t sell at a financially viable price, and in a timely manner? What about our jobs? We both do good, meaningful work for the most part. We both can work from home, and so we have great hope that our employers will allow us to work from home from Philly, but obviously there’s no guarantee. And of course there’s the kids and getting them set up in new schools in a new state in now much less than a year, during a pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, what about COVID? I currently check a lot of boxes for being at high risk for a bad reaction to it, and I’ll be honest, it makes me anxious. Our oldest son, a former micro-preemie born with lung damage (who is otherwise doing great at the age of 16 now, though) may be at high risk for a bad response to COVID too. What about all the exposure risk involved in selling our house, packing, and moving across the country? Will this move have been worth it if one of us dies after we get there? Obviously, of course not.
Yet, many people have moved, even moved across the country, during this pandemic. So, apparently it can be done. Yes, we could pick up COVID as a result of the move, and it might kill us. Then again, we could pick it up right here at home with the next careless package delivery or infrequent trip out into the community. And of course there’s the simple fact that a blood clot or heart attack or drive around the block could take any of us, at any time. None of our days are guaranteed, even from one day to the next. Each one is a gift. Certainly COVID has taught us this, hasn’t it?
Fathoming Our Fallings and Failures
What to do, then? We’ve been wrestling with this decision for a while now. We’ve made plenty of big decisions before, having repeatedly moved across the country. We’ve never been terribly discerning, though. And we’re really trying to, this time. We’ve talked about this with our friends who own the home in Philly. We’ve talked about it with their (somewhat close) neighbors, who are covenant members with Circle. We’ve talked to our pastor from Circle, Jonny. We’ve broached it with our cell, and I’ve talked about it with my therapist and with my Spiritual Director. My thinking about this has even been informed by the latest book I read, Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr’s book is worth (maybe more than) a whole post of its own, but I found it super helpful. Basically he posits that there at least can be “two halves” of life, a first half in which we work on building our “container,” establishing our identity and the like, and a second half of life, which Rohr says most people may not get to, in which we “fill” the container, in which we really live.
Early in the book he says: “When you get your ‘Who am I?’ question right, all the ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves.” Interestingly, not long before reading that, I had written in my journal about our discernment about whether to move or not. I said: “As I tried to meditate this morning, I wanted clarity about what to do, but I know that misses the point. If clarity comes, it will be about who I am, not what to do.” There’s so much great insight in Rohr’s book, but what I’ll focus on now is the part about “home and homesickness.” Rohr suggests that Odyseeus can finally go home at the end of his journey because he has “come home to his true and full self.” Rohr summarizes his writing in this chapter about home and homesickness by saying:
• We are created with an inner drive and necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self, whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line. • We are created with an inner restlessness and call that urges us on to the risks and promises of a second half to our life. There is a God-size hole in all of us, waiting to be filled. God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy. • We dare not try to fill our souls and minds with numbing addictions, diversionary tactics, or mindless distractions. The shape of evil is much more superficiality and blindness than the usually listed “hot sins.” God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church. • If we go to the depths of anything…we will move from “belief” to an actual inner knowing… especially… if we have ever loved deeply, accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, or stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time or beauty.
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, pp. 94-95
I’m struck of course by the notion of our journey looking for our True Self being in the shape of a “spiral and never a straight line.” We’re discerning whether to “spiral” back to Philly to be immersed in the Circle of Hope…for the third time. A spiral, indeed. For Rohr, it seems that “home” too is less about where you are than it is about who you are. Rohr has a lot more to say that I found really helpful, but again that’s fodder for another post maybe.
God’s a Better Parent Than I Am
So my cell met last night, and we heard someone’s story. This is an important part of how any cell forms, when intentional time is spent giving each person in the group extended time to tell their story of their discernment about who they are up to that point. The storyteller last night was talking about their own struggle with making decisions throughout life. As I understood her, she was asking questions like:
Why do we “have” to ask God for what we need or want when God already knows?
What if we ask for what we really want when God knows what we really need, and they’re not the same?
This all came to a head for me in a particularly insightful counseling session this morning. I resonated with my cell member’s questions about decision-making, in part because some time ago I realized that I had to agree with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Some think of the Sermon on the Mount as a “canon within the canon,” and I number myself among them. Like Shane Claiborne and so many others, I think Jesus probably meant what he said in this, his longest speech. I digress, though. For now, I want to focus on the preface to the “Golden Rule,” which, like so much else that Jesus calls us to, is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
After all the trauma in my own life and suffering in the history of the world, and in light of how so many would-be Christians throughout history have used their human-made doctrine of heaven and hell as a rod with which to beat anyone who didn’t tow the line of all their rules and regulations, I finally some years ago concluded that if I was to continue believing in God at all and trying to follow Jesus, I had to believe that God is a better parent than I am. Rohr actually has some great things to say about heaven and hell in Falling Upward, but again I digress. What I want to say here is that I agree with- I believe– Jesus in what he says above. If I know how to give good gifts to my kids, surely God does, and will, too. (Likewise, if I would never consciously torment my children forever because they never said the “sinner’s prayer,” then it’s inconceivable that God would.) God must be at least as good of a parent as I am, or the category of “parent,” let alone ”God,” is broken forever.
“Delight” Was a Hard Word to Say
So in my counseling session this morning we were working with my discernment about moving, and Rohr’s book, and my fellow cell member’s questions about asking God for what we want, and a few things became clear. So much of the impact of my complex childhood trauma has been about my perpetual quest to be “right” (to do no wrong, because doing wrong in my mother’s home was terribly dangerous). I realized this morning that there I was, approaching this decision about moving in the same way. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t want to let anybody down, not my current employer, not my wife or kids, not our friends in Philly whom I imagined might think we were failing to live up to our ideals if we didn’t move into their house, and least of all not myself. I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion.
I realized then that a “second half of life” approach to this would be much less about making the “right” choice, as if that were even possible, and much more about simply wondering what I really want (even if I can’t fully know what I really need) and then wondering if I can remember that I’m a beloved child of God to whom God wants to give good gifts, if Jesus is to be believed. My therapist walked me into a very therapeutic trap when she asked me what it felt like as a father to give my kids what they ask me for. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they need. “Of course,” was my obvious answer. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they ask me for, and again the answer was quick and obvious, “of course.” You can probably see where this is going as well as I could by then. I am a child of God, and was a child of very flawed parents. Nevertheless, as a child of a “good, good Father” and Mother in heaven, do I deserve what I need? Does God want to give me the good gifts I might ask him for?
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
I said above my therapist asked me what it felt like to give my own kids the good gifts they ask me for. I struggled to say the word, but the word that came to mind was delight. I delight in my children, and delight in giving to them. Immediately Psalm 37:4 came to mind, and it struck me like a punch in the gut:
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
This “desire of my heart,” being fully immersed in the Circle of Hope with my wife and boys in Philly, is evidence, I hope, of my delight in Jesus, and faith tells me that God the Father/Mother delights in giving this good gift to me. My therapy session ended with some reflection on what this session felt like for me, what I might be taking away from it. I talked about this notion that God delights in me even as I delight in God. I said that the possibility that a full “homecoming” to my Circle of Hope family in Philly could be a good gift that God wants to give me felt like a little seed of hope. It felt like a seed that had been lingering on rocky ground, but which had finally found its way into fertile soil, where it was beginning to take root and grow.
I got word this morning that my brother in Texas was in cardiac arrest. From what I had heard, he had been having a rough go of it of late. He had struggled with his health for quite a few years. He suffered a stroke some years ago that may have changed his personality some. He had been diagnosed some time ago with the kidney disease that killed his mother (we’re half brothers) and had received a transplant as a result, but that left him immuno-compromised. More recently, he’d been in a very bad car accident that required surgery, a lengthy hospital stay, and rehab. While hospitalized, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then got COVID. He apparently recovered from COVID and was in a rehab facility trying to build his strength back and was preparing for radiation and chemo for the cancer. Over the past few days, I’m told he was in a great deal of pain, though, and then this morning his heart stopped. Word was that he probably “wouldn’t make it.”
Over the coming days I’ll try to do the work of processing, of feeling what I feel, of grieving. Our relationship, such as it was, was nearly non-existent. My mother, of course, was the woman our dad married very soon after his mother died, and my mother was not only my abuser, but I’m sure in ways I probably can’t understand, his too, though he was nearly done with high school by the time his mom died and my parents married. My brother and I disagreed about most everything, and I wrote about our difficult relationship here. As I look back on that post, I’m sure that I was less charitable than I could and probably should have been. I said that however I thought of him, I knew I needed to love him. I wrote about his less than stellar health and how I would process our relationship when he died. It seems that day has come.
I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.
This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.
This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.
You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.
It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.
I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”
This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.
I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.