Better

The scene from my prayer cell this morning.

“It’s Hidden in my Heart”

How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
12 Praise be to you, Lord;
teach me your decrees.
13 With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
14 I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
15 I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
16 I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word. Psalm 119:9-16

I offer the scripture above as some context for what will follow. Here’s a little more context, from Circle of Hope’s proverbs:

From Circle of Hope’s proverbs. We must be doers of the word, and not hearers only, but that is a group project.

Now hit the “play” button below and listen to a song Circle of Hope adapted for worship, and then I’ll talk about it below.


As you can tell, this is a recording of live worship at one of Circle of Hope’s Sunday Meetings. Here’s the lyrics:

I’m not the same

Your word has changed me

It is hidden in my heart

My life has a fresh start

 

I’m walking out freer

I’m walking out stronger

I’m walking out better

Better than when I came

 

Oh, it’s getting better

Oh, it’s getting better

Oh, it’s already better

Better than when I came

Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, has a great post this morning about worship and its potential to unlock deep memories and create change. I appreciated it much, and found it resonant with what’s been happening within me of late. As I’m writing here about worship through music and I used the term “resonant” just now, I was struck that this term has multiple meanings, including those scientific and musical. One of those meanings is this: “a synchronous gravitational relationship of two celestial bodies (such as moons) that orbit a third (such as a planet).” So resonance has to do with being in sync, and this is exactly what I’m talking about.

I was ready to sync up with Rod’s post this morning because I was awake into the wee hours of the morning listening to the song above and a few others that I’ve come across while exploring what Circle has shared via archive.org. Here’s one search result of all kinds of content they’ve uploaded including worship music and sermons, but I don’t think this is exhaustive and may not even include the song above. Here are a few of my favorite such songs and gifts for growing:

Some of Circle of Hope’s various musical offerings.

Rod’s post references some of the latest brain science regarding where our brains store basic memories and how we can access conscious emotions. It reminds me very much of what I’ve learned about trauma and the kind of trauma therapy that I’ve been engaged in over the past year, EMDR. My very crude understanding of EMDR- and why I’ve been undergoing it- is that traumatic memories (and, perhaps, their associated emotions) can get stuck in the “back” of the more “animal” part of our brain, where instincts like our fight or flight mechanism reside. EMDR activates both hemispheres of a person’s brain while they “reprocess” traumatic memories in the hope that those memories can “move” and no longer be stuck. I know in my case the Complex PTSD I live with as a result of my emotional abuse as a child can cause “emotional flashbacks” in which suddenly I’m feeling something that is bigger and maybe unrelated to what is actually happening in the moment. In those moments when I’ve been “triggered” by something that somehow reminded my animal brain of the trauma that I suffered, my behavior is driven not by what I want to do or who I hope to be, but by an instinct to protect myself due to an “unconscious predictive model” or “emotional schema” that my brain has created. Here’s what Rod said about it, citing the research he was learning about:

At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic.  They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.

According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.

What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days.

I’m no expert, but I think this “reconsolidation” has something to do with the “reprocessing” of traumatic memory that is the focus of EMDR. Anyway, Rod goes on to say:

What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.

Rod says that worship can be just such a transforming environment, and it’s no surprise that this is included in the lore of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. Under the section titled, “We are meant to go deep with God,” they say:

◉To have a full relationship with God, one must live in an environment where worship can be learned, the spiritual disciplines gained and spiritual warfare fought.

◉ Prayer is the key to fulfilling our mission of transformation.

◉ Solitude and silence are crucial tools for experiencing God’s presence.

◉ Without worship, a person shrinks.

I’m Not the Same

Without worship, a person shrinks, indeed. I’ll be honest, I deeply miss the kind of authentic, embodied, soul-stirring worship through music such as what Circle of Hope regularly engages in. The evangelical, suburban, Assemblies of God mega-church of my youth may not have had great theology and I often criticize it from the safe distance of time and miles. BUT- they routinely created an environment in which (musical) worship at least could be learned, and I think I learned it. My childhood was terrible. I enjoyed “white” privilege in the “Bible-belt” south, of course, but it wasn’t fun. My mother abused me; my father enabled it; there were financial problems and most of my growing up was in a trailer park, and the other “Christian” kids at the “Christian” school my parents sent me to bullied me mercilessly. I developed a debilitating stutter that only made things worse. And yet, over and over again I met Jesus in worship, and it filled my heart with joy. After each such experience, I walked out “freer, better, stronger,” and “better than when I came.” I wasn’t the same. God’s word, hidden in my heart/limbic system, had changed me.

I can, of course, only speak with (meager) authority about my own experience and how God touched and moved me. But I have been touched and moved. I was the teen who went away to some youth group overnight experience at which there was musical worship when we arrived. I was standing in a row with my peers where maybe we didn’t have seats, and I got into the worship. My eyes were closed, my hands upraised, and maybe there were tears. I was communing with God. Only after the song or set ended and I opened my eyes did I realize that I was standing alone; my peers had moved off to stand at the side of the room. I don’t remember; I may have felt embarrassed, but the point is I was into it, and I think it made me better.

So I “caught” worship in that way as a kid, and I definitely experienced it in our two stints in Philadelphia as a part of Circle of Hope. Just listening to “Better” above (please do give it a listen), I’m struck by a number of things. The worship leader introduces the gathered church to the worship environment they’re creating together. In typical, blessed Circle of Hope fashion, he invites each person to connect with God personally and to recognize that as they do so they’re also connecting with one another. It’s “corporate” worship- meaning “corpus-” worship as one gathered body. He mentions that they’ll be singing in different languages and using instruments from around the world. It shouldn’t surprise you at this point that this an another expression of one of their proverbs, that “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Not only does Circle talk about being members of the “transnational body of Christ,” they also speak about the “great cloud of witnesses” and routinely remember that they are part of the “transhistorical” body of Christ. You can see that in action here. Finally, the worship leader mentions an aspirational hope that they’re going for, and they sing like it’s real, present, and happening right now. Regardless of life’s circumstances, Jesus makes things better, and you can tell just listening to that moment captured in the recording. Of course, that feeling doesn’t negate the many ways in which the world is broken and in need of healing. In fact, some say the “best thing Circle does” is take part in God’s redemption and reconciliation project through their many compassion teams:

 

In Memoriam

My dad’s body at his viewing. He died nine years ago today.

So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.

As I’ve written recently and for a while, my relationship with my dad was complicated. Here’s what I said about him in that recent post:

As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.

It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.

Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”

Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.

So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.

Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.

So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.

And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.

Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.

What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:

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Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.

His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.

Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.

As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.

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My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

The Ocean of My Soul

Circle of Hope Audio Art‘s second album, Patiently Impatient, has been a gift for growing that keeps on giving. Another song from this album, “Come Rescue Me,” was featured in my last post, and I’ve called Patiently Impatient my “pandemic playlist.” I think the whole album is worth a (repeated) listen. It features a variety of musical styles and is sung in multiple languages in typical Circle of Hope fashion, since one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs is that: “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Here are the lyrics from “Ocean,” embedded above:

Jesu, guidance. Now I know what love is

Compass, Kindness, all that I need in You

 

I will sit in silence and contemplate the things I don’t know

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

the ocean of my soul, the ocean of my soul

 

Jesu, lightness, now I know what life is

Center, Likeness, all that I see is You

 

I will sing in silence and contemplate the things I can’t know

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

Here are the notes from Circle of Hope for this song included on the Bandcamp site for the album (linked above):

Sometimes hymns and songs can be so personal to the writer that most people singing it do not connect with the sentimentality or content. Declarative passages about what the writer felt like or what they are promising to do can be a stretch to connect with. While this piece has that personal touch and describes a journey, see if you can latch on to the imagery of learning about life and love from Jesus. What does this personal connection inspire you to consider in that prayerful space?

The imagery does indeed evoke a prayerful space. I’m reminded of the book that I also referenced in my last post, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. Laird suggests that it is through prayerful silence- the Christian practice of contemplation- that we truly meet God. Or, perhaps better put, silence is the space in which our unbroken connection to God is revealed as the “ground of our being.” It is through silence that we remember ourselves as a “branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” Here’s that helpful page again from Laird’s book:

From Martin Laird’s classic on Christian contemplation, Into the Silent Land, page 140

Laird says that we can’t not be silent, that it “is naturally present.” As I’ve come to understand it, silence is the space in which noise appears- the noise of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, desires, and distractions. But the space, the silence, is always there.

In that Silent Land, a great vastness opens up. The Circle of Hope song above describes it as “the ocean of my soul” in which God swims. There is something primal, elemental about this space in which we are always connected to God if only we can slow down and still our minds and hearts enough to know it again. I’m reminded of Paul’s writing in Colossians 1:15-23:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[a] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

My Body Keeps the Score. Spoiler Alert- Love Has An Insurmountable Lead

So it is in Jesus that all things were created and all things hold together, and in the Silent Land we re-member this as we are re-collected. I’ve talked before about how our bodies “keep the score.” Our bodies have a memory; they store trauma, trauma that our minds may not even remember. But our bodies know, and for some of us it is a lifelong journey to seek healing of this trauma in our body’s deep memory. Yet though our bodies remember pain and trauma, they also remember love and light. God declared his creation “good,” and our bodies know this too, and knew this first. So our bodies have an even deeper memory that knows, as Circle of Hope sings in “Come Rescue Me” (also from Patiently Impatient and referenced in my last post), that “you are the light, life to these bones.” In the Silent Land our minds become quiet so that our bones can tell us this.

The Circle of Hope song at the top again says that “You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul.” I suspect Jesus may have been speaking of something like this in John 14:5-21:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[b] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

In the Silent Land our bones remember that it is in Jesus that they have life, that they hold together. Likewise, just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him, so too through the Holy Spirit is Jesus in us, swimming in silence, in the ocean of our soul.

This ever present unity with God at the very core of who we are enlivens us to see Jesus in one another and to live like Jesus did. Again, going back to “Come Rescue Me:”

For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”

I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.

Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and the life he gives enables us not only to live like him, but to die like him, for the way of Jesus is of course a way that leads to the cross- and beyond it- to new, resurrected life.

In These Dark Times, the Fire Shut Up In My Bones…Is Love

These are dark times, or at least the darkness is a little more obvious to most of us now. I only have to look at Facebook or turn on the news to be reminded of this. Some will focus on the darkness and feel the need to tell prophetic truth to the powers-that-be, calling them to account for their sin. This is holy and often thankless work. But I, too, feel a “fire shut up in my bones” which I cannot contain. What moves me these days…is hope. In my family we talk a fair bit about following Jesus these days. I’ve said for a long while that if Jesus doesn’t absolutely change one’s life; if following him isn’t an act of devotion given to this One whose love has indeed proven mighty to save, than it’s not worth it. How could it be? Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?! Jesus calls us to be meek, merciful, and pure in heart. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to give to those who ask of us and pray for (and gather, I dare say) only enough bread for today, trusting God for what we need for tomorrow. Jesus calls us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, and to not be anxious about any of it. According to Jesus, this- this teaching– is the narrow gate that few can enter. And putting this teaching into practice is the house built on rock that can withstand the storms of life. In these stormy days, “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said. They are the ones living Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and they give me hope.

They give me hope that the Jesus Way is possible. It’s possible when we take time to enter the Silent Land, where we remember who and whose we are. In silence, the ocean of our soul, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. In the Silent Land we can plumb the depths of God’s great love for us, and it will invariably overflow into love of neighbor and help for those who are suffering. And somehow, mysteriously, by entering the Deep Memory of the Silent Land my brokenness and trauma are healed as I participate in the healing of others. My healing is terribly important, because “hurt people, hurt people.” So I must pursue it. But how do I find it? How do I find my (healed) life? The Jesus Way provides a clue, perhaps. Jesus enters our suffering and suffers with us even to the point of death. So following Jesus means that we too are called and sent to love others in this co-suffering way. We are invited, really, to lose (give up) our life. And that’s how we find it.

A Chronic Would-Be Rescuer Confronts His False Self

Come Rescue Me

Hit “play” on the video above and listen to one of my new favorite songs, written by Rachel, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. The song was recorded by the people of Circle of Hope and included on the Patiently Impatient album from Circle of Hope Audio Art. I’ve been aware of the album for some time but must not have really listened to this particular track before, or if I did, it didn’t hit me in the way that it has recently. Whatever the case, I encountered it again during one of the first online Sunday meetings for Circle of Hope during the pandemic. Here are the lyrics:

Come Rescue Me, be my retreat

I feel alone, darkness seems strong

I need Your touch, Your promise of peace

A Hope for my weary eyes.

For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”

I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.

You are the Light, life to these bones,

I am Your child, You rescue me.

I especially appreciated the way the song was sung and interwoven with words from the community about what they were receiving from God during that online meeting, as COVID-19 began to really take hold in the U.S. You can see that below:

Beautiful, isn’t it? Since that meeting, I’ve had this song playing perpetually in the background of my imagination, a balm during these troubling times.

This morning it came to the fore of my mind as I was following along with this morning’s Circle of Hope Daily Prayer(s). I wrote in my last post about Why I (Still) Keep Talking About Circle of Hope and how the pandemic has counterintuitively lowered barriers to participating in the life of Circle of Hope, in my case from afar. Part of that participation has meant really following along with the Daily Prayer: Water blog. I try to fully immerse myself in that observance each morning, but have actually also been reading the Daily Prayer: Wind blog too. The “Water” blog is described as being “encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith” (so perhaps for folks who have been following Jesus for a while, like I have been very poorly trying to), while the “Wind” blog is described as “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Like I said, I really try to immerse myself in the “Water,” but recognize that the journey of faith is perhaps seldom very linear, and sometimes I need a little “Wind” at my back too. One thing I like about “Wind” is the way it continually introduces readers not only to Jesus and the life of faith, but to Circle of Hope and the life of that particular community, whose “gravity” I continue to feel the pull of.

What Have I Done? My “False Self” Keeps Making a Mess of Things

So again that brings us to this morning. In today’s “Water” entry, titled “What Have I Done?”, we continue learning from a children’s story by Mercer Mayer, Herbert the Timid Dragon. Today’s part of that story helps us to see how even our best efforts to live into who we want to be can go horribly wrong when we haven’t reckoned with our “False Self,” which is described as “a way of being in the world that doesn’t match who (we) want to be.” When this “False Self” drives our behavior, we can be misunderstood and relationships can be damaged. We get scared, and we “jump right back into…old patterns” that do not reflect our “True Self.” In the “Suggestions for Action” section from this morning’s entry, it says:

To discover our true selves and to draw close to God (intertwined actions) we, too, need to learn through taking new action, meeting failure and fear, and starting to identify our patterns of living (like running to hide) that may need to change. It’s a conflict.  What have I done? is the inevitable question we all ask as we seek to know God and ourselves. On this journey within, we first discover how we are not who we think we are, and we are surprised in the process. Many spiritual seekers have called this, the discovery the False Self: the habits of thoughts, feelings, and choices we make unconsciously, trying to make ourselves safe and happy. (For more on this, see Invitation to Love by Thomas Keating).

Pause now and ask God to help you see beyond your current understanding of yourself. Let yourself remember failures you’ve known or times you have felt misunderstood by those around you. Instead of dwelling on the pain/guilt/shame of these memories, see if you can catch any patterns that those failures or conflicts might reveal about how you “do” life or how you pursue happiness. Jot down whatever floats into your awareness.

As I reflected on the times of significant failure in my life, and especially those times when I felt misunderstood and hurt, I did indeed see some patterns. It’s not like I haven’t looked for such patterns before. I’ve had years of therapy, including almost a year most recently of EMDR. I know how much my childhood trauma so often drives me into the “back of my brain” as I seek attachment and approval in inappropriate ways, which inevitably results in being misunderstood and hurt. Still, when I did this work again this morning, it struck me in a new way. I think one of the reasons is actually because of yesterday’s “Water” entry. The “Suggestions for Action” from yesterday made the following invitation:

To know God and know our true selves, we can make a good start by listening deeply to our hidden wishes. What do you wish you could be?  The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are important. The longings we often turn away from, perhaps because they seem childish, are important.  Pause and invite your wishes for yourself to come into your mind. Maybe you’ll remember a childhood memory of what you wanted to be and do.  Don’t dismiss these. Welcome them. Look within them to see what they might tell you about yourself that you have forgotten. Write a brief summary in your journal.

As I reflected yesterday, I was reminded that when I fled Texas and the abusive upbringing of my youth and went away to Gordon College, I wanted to be….(wait for it)….President. Just what we need, right, another “white” male President? Thank God that didn’t pan out. Still, at the time, my intentions were good, I thought. I wanted to help people, and thought that position would give me the best chance to help the most people. So I enrolled as a Political Science major and completed three years of that program before “life” happened and I eventually graduated from another school with a different, more “utilitarian,” degree. I’ve told that tale elsewhere. What I wrote down from yesterday’s reflection, though, was: “Leaving the trailer park for college to be President was a continuation of the seeking attachment/approval through rescuing that I had been branded with as a child, but on a grand scale.”

I’ve written extensively again about my childhood trauma and how I was “parentified” from a very young age, particularly in regard to my mother. What I continue to learn, though, is that as emotionally infantile as my mother was and as much as that demanded that I learn how to “care” for and even parent her, my father’s role was in some ways even more complicated. As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.

It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.

How Jesus Rescues

Upon further reflection over my 4+ decades of life, it seems pretty obvious. My biggest “failures” in life (I have several in mind)- the times when I’ve felt most misunderstood- I can now see more clearly as times when I was trying to “save” somebody. Some of these efforts were more “successful” than others, but always I can see how I was trying to do what I thought was a “good” thing, but in a (very) wrong way. And this is where today’s “Wind” entry comes into play. As the post explains how Circle of Hope tries to “resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit,” there is a lengthy quotation from Eugene Peterson. Peterson is talking about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and he supposes that each temptation can be interpreted as a way of doing something good. The temptation to feed himself when he’s starving by turning rocks into bread is an invitation to also feed others who are hungry. The temptation to throw himself down from the temple and be rescued miraculously is an invitation to evangelize, to demonstrate the good news that Jesus embodies. The temptation to worship the devil and thereby receive the right to rule the nations is a chance to finally have the world be ruled justly (by Jesus). Thus, Peterson says:

In the three great refusals, Jesus refuses to do good things in the wrong way. Each temptation is wrapped around something good: feed a lot of people, evangelize by miracle, rule the world justly. The devil’s temptation is to depersonalize the ways of Jesus but leave the way intact. His strategy is the same with us. But a way that is depersonalized, carried out without love or intimacy or participation, is not, no matter how well we do it, no matter how much good is accomplished, the Jesus way. We cannot do the Lord’s work in the devil’s ways.

The “Suggestions for Action” from this “Wind” post are:

If the devil thought he could dominate Jesus, how much he must think he can express himself through us! We need to take a daily inventory. Am I trying to do good in an evil way? How unconsciously am I part of something that claims to be a good way but is not the Jesus way? This will take some meditation.

I’m struck by the word “participation” from the little bit of the Peterson quote that I copied above, and I’m reminded actually of another Circle of Hope’s “gifts for growing,” a recent episode of the Resist and Restore Podcast, in which part of the time is spent wrestling with the question: “How is God being with me in the midst of suffering and tragedy better than God protecting me from suffering and tragedy?” This question really gets at what I hope and pray is one of the central tenets of Christian theology, namely that if the Way of Jesus is anything, it is a way of co-suffering love. We see this most clearly in Jesus, who saves us from ourselves and from the violence and destruction of the world we’ve tried to make without God, not by scooping us out of it so that we can go to Heaven when we die, but by entering it as one of us and suffering its effects with us. In Jesus, again as Eugene Peterson put it (this time in his Message translation of the Bible), God “put on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Fully embodied, God-in-the-flesh humbled himself and subjected himself to everything flesh experiences, “even death on a cross.” This is how Jesus, the Suffering Servant (nay, Slave) rescues us, by suffering with us. This suffering led Jesus all the way to persecution and death, and beyond it, to the resurrection life that we are invited to live into in this season after Easter.

In the Silent Land, I’m a Ray of God’s Own Light, a Branch on the Vine

“This will take some meditation,” indeed. Some initial observations are that (obviously, I know) I need to stop trying to rescue people. I know of course that I can’t even save myself (from myself, no less). I am perpetually as much in need of rescue as anybody. And Jesus is my rescuer. I’m grateful for this season of late, especially as Circle of Hope in their Daily Prayer blogs and in their online meetings has been inviting us all to keep watch throughout the day with breath prayers. I had been struggling for a while to develop a practice of meditation using a breath prayer and had been greatly helped in this by the Martin Laird book Into the Silent Land (another Circle of Hope recommendation). Here’s a page from that book that I’ve found most helpful:

From Martin Laird’s classic on Christian contemplation, Into the Silent Land, page 140

As I try to hew close to my practice of contemplation, I am reminded that I am “a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” I have already been rescued, and this rescue helps me to see that part of me which has always been rescued. On the very next page from the one copied above, Laird writes:

“That’s right,” cheered Father Alypius. “Thoughts keep coming back because that’s just what thoughts do. But if you look directly at the thought or the feeling and ask who is the chatterer, who is suffering, you won’t find anybody, you won’t find a sufferer. There will be chattering, sure. Suffering, sure. The thoughts coming and going. Don’t look at the suffering, the anguish, the fear. These are objects of awareness. I’m asking you to look into the awareness itself. Not the objects of awareness. These have dominated your attention for decades.

When, through contemplation, I can be still long enough to know that God is God, that Jesus is the vine and I am a branch that knows no distinction between branch and vine, I can see all my thoughts and feelings for what they are, weather on the mountain of my awareness. I am not the weather. I have thoughts and feelings; I am not thoughts and feelings. I am a ray of God’s own light. This awareness, which requires daily practice to cultivate, “frees me from the need to be free of what others do to me,” and it helps me to remember that I don’t need to rescue anyone in an unconscious attempt to rescue myself (or either one of my parents).

There is, of course, still suffering in this world. But the world-to-come is already here because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and as we participate with Jesus in his resurrected life, we have the sacred privilege to do good things in the right way, the Jesus Way. We can suffer with those who are suffering just like Jesus does, by being close to them. Just like Jesus interrupted the world’s cycle of violence forever on the cross by receiving the world’s violence without retaliating, we too can follow him in this way. Here’s a picture of someone teaching us what that looks like:

(AP Photo/Bill Hudson) (6305031269) Hat Tip to EJI

The Civil Rights Movement is instructive in this regard. Much ink, obviously, has been spilled regarding this from voices far more learned than mine; so suffice it for me simply to notice that while many “white” people were the perpetrators of racial oppression, injustice, and violence, there were a few who mobilized to join their black brothers and sisters who were suffering, not to rescue them (because the “domination system” was and is still very powerful), but to learn from them and suffer with them. For some, this resulted, like Jesus, in suffering to the point of death.

Such co-suffering love is the “fruit” of a good tree, a tree that has matured to the point of bearing fruit. I pray to bear such fruit some day. Meanwhile, thank God I have a rescuer. Thank God my failure and fear can show me those parts of me that still need rescuing. May I learn their lessons so that, armed with my True Self- a branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light- I can get on with the “family business” of reconciliation and co-suffering love. It’s urgent work.

 

Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

The exterior of Circle of Hope’s first meeting space, circa 1996. Personal Photo.

I’ve often said that I think Circle of Hope basically “ruined me for any other church.” I’ve written before about why I keep talking about Circle; so forgive any repetition here. Circle is a “cell group” based church, begun in 1996. Kirsten and I joined just a few months into its existence and just a few months into our existence as a very young married couple, and quickly became part of a cell. It was among Circle nearly 25 years ago that I first learned that the church is a people, not a place, and that therefore it’s impossible to “go to church.” I have a powerful story to tell about how our cell cared for us when I was involved in a bad car accident, including sharing resources in a very generous way. Anyway, the basic theory of a cell church is as follows. The “cell” metaphor comes from how the human body works. Crucially, cells either multiply or die, and as they multiply, the body grows. According to cell church theory, and very much as evidenced in practice among Circle of Hope, this is how the body of Christ can (should?, I dare say) work too. 

The way Circle does it is that each cell has a leader, an apprentice leader, and a host. In your cell, “Jesus is the only agenda,” meaning that a cell can wind up organizing itself however it decides- they can talk about the last sermon, read a book together, whatever- but the “point” of the cell is to deepen their relationships with one another and especially with Jesus. Usually each person has a chance to as vulnerably as possible tell their stories, and then the group makes a covenant- spelling out details like when to meet and where and what their format will be, including how long to meet. There is always an end date because written into the DNA of the cell is that it will multiply or die, as I spoke of above. When that “end date” arrives, the cell can agree to extend its time together, but not indefinitely, because then the group becomes something other than a cell. More on that later. Anyway, as you live your life together as a cell, your life is changed! Centered on Jesus, you grow to really love these people and know them. “Iron sharpens iron,” as it were. So you talk about it. You tell your friends, loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers about this life you’re having together, and you invite them not to “go to church” with you, but to experience life together with your cell. The bar for entry is low- you don’t even have to be a Jesus-follower yet, but chances are you’ll want to follow him too, in time.

So cells grow, and when the circle of ten that is the usual size for a cell becomes a circle of, say, 12 or more, the cell multiplies. All the while the cell leader has been meeting with and mentoring his or her apprentice so that when the cell multiplies the apprentice becomes the leader of the second group and takes on his or her own apprentice, the original leader takes on a new apprentice, and the process begins again. The multiplication process is hard, of course. No one wants to see some of the group members move off into the new cell that is being birthed, but it seems to me that this is a necessary part not only of cell multiplication but of discipleship and healthy psychological growth. The letting go of the members of your cell that are going into the one being birthed allows for differentiation and appropriate attachment in which we don’t “need” one another in a clingy way, but instead cherish and love one another while standing on one’s own two feet.

So as cells multiply among Circle of Hope, new leaders are constantly being cultivated, called, discipled, and unleashed to lead- all within an organic system of trust and accountability. Within the cells, discipleship- and healing- is happening too not just for the apprentice cell leader, but for everyone. All have opportunities to discover and share their gifts. And the Sunday meetings (the “worship service”) are joyful weekly family reunions as folks see others they were in cell with before and new friends are welcomed to check out the weekly celebration of the life together that is happening throughout the week in the cells. Here’s a picture of one of those early weekly “Public Meetings:”

An early Circle of Hope Public Meeting. The interior of that exterior shot above. Personal Photo.
And here’s the “bulletin” from one of those early meetings:
A COH “bulletin” from 1997. My copy.

Among Circle, as cells multiply eventually congregations multiply too so that no one congregation gets too big for face-to-face relationships, and so new pastors are called out from among the people of Circle too. Of course, there is training and accountability and a discernment process that happens with this, but it’s simply beautiful.

Likewise, with Circle, you don’t “join the church;” you make a covenant. This usually happens at a quarterly Love Feast, when all the congregations and cells get together. A current member who has covenanted with Circle and who has been basically discipling a person who wants to join, stands up and introduces the new member-to-be, talking about their relationship with this person, that person’s relationship with Jesus, and often describing their life together in a cell. Then the new member-to-be gets to share why they want to covenant with Circle, and then anyone can ask questions of them, and then usually they are accepted into the covenant. This too is beautiful. Here are some photos from an early Love Feast, held at a park. (COHers, look at Rod and Gwen!):

An early COH Love Feast, held in a park. Personal Photo.
Another personal photo from that same Love Feast.
And here is a photo of an early version of the Covenant:
The COH Covenant. I’m not sure of the date. My copy.

Circle of Hope’s Gravity Still Holds Me, All These Years Later, From All These Miles Away

Speaking of leadership, the cell leaders lead the whole church with all its cells and congregations. There are “leaders of cell leaders,” called Cell Leader Coordinators. The Coordinators give oversight to the pastors, who lead the congregations and help cast the vision for how Circle is following Jesus together. Likewise, the pastors keep the dialogue going among the church to protect its “gravity.” I think of this language around gravity as an apt metaphor for what keeps me compelled and captivated by this vision all these years later and all these miles away. I think one of the most beautiful things that Circle does is its “mapping” process. The “map” is more than a document, but it is a document, that spells out where Circle of Hope sees itself in something like one, five, and ten year intervals. If Circle is a people on a mission together, the map says what that mission is. Or pick a vehicle metaphor. If they’re rowing a boat together, the map says where they’re going. Either way, we’re talking about movement, and that’s how I see Circle, as a movement. The map is not dictated, top-down, by the “people in charge.” Crucially, because Circle is organized in ever multiplying cells, Circle is ready-made to discern together- all of them- what the Spirit is calling them to next. So when the yearly mapping process begins, time is spent in each and every cell listening to each and every person for what the Spirit is telling them about where God might be calling them. This assumes that even broken, traumatized people (and many of us living in American empire and subject to rapacious capitalism and the lie that is “whiteness” are indeed broken, traumatized people) have God’s Spirit within them and have something to say about it. That information is collected by the cell leaders and passed on to the pastors and Coordinators, who distill and refine it for common themes. Then, there is a meeting for all covenant members where what has been heard is presented as a vision for those time frames mentioned above, and they vote on it. It’s simply amazing. Everyone has a chance to be heard. Everyone is honored for the Spirit of God within them, and the discernment they engage in is truly mutual. This is the antithesis of a pastor-driven or program-based church, and again the gravity of it all still holds me, even all these years and miles away. Here is the cover of the Map from 2004:
The cover of Circle of Hope’s 2004 Map. My copy.
I should mention too what all this results in. Even all those years ago, the people of Circle of Hope were buying old buildings and rehabbing them (themselves, mostly) to turn them into multi-purpose spaces that could serve as meeting places for congregations but that would also house thrift stores, for example. Today Circle runs several of them. These stores not only serve their neighborhoods by selling cheap goods, but give opportunities to give jobs to those that might otherwise struggle to find work. Here’s another photo of COH’s first meeting space, with some of that rehab in process, in this case making space for what I believe was Circle Counseling‘s first office:
Rehab in process in COH’s first building, making space for Circle Counseling. Personal Photo.
Additionally, periodically Circle has a “BGX,” a baby (and kids) goods exchange. Here’s a photo from one of their recent ones, taken from the Facebook page linked above:
One of Circle of Hope’s free Baby Goods Exchanges (photo credit here)

This is open to the neighborhood where a congregation meets and parents of kids of all ages bring their kids clothes and goods that their kids have grown out of, and everybody swaps. So assuming enough people come and the age ranges of clothes and goods offered covers the need, everyone leaves having given something to a parent of younger kids, and having received something from a parent of an older kid. This mutual sharing of goods is free, of course, and is an incredible gift. Speaking of sharing resources, Circle has a “debt annihilation team,” in which members pool resources with a little “seed”/starter money to pay off each other’s debt. One of Circle’s former pastors wrote about it in Sojourners magazine here. Within the Debt Annihilation Team, all of everyone’s contributions are focused on one person’s debt until it’s paid off, and then the next persons’s, and so on. Members covenant to stay in the group long enough to pay off every member’s debt, even after their debt has been paid off. This way, everyone’s debt is paid off much sooner than they could have otherwise, and there is teaching and accountability given as part of the group to prevent future capitalistic “debt slavery.” This is an incredible, beautiful gift. Going back to Circle’s use of buildings, they are also used as art spaces and concert venues, among other things. And as just one more example, lately Circle has been organizing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One way this is expressed is in recognition of the way POC are over-policed and disproportionately incarcerated and then held in jail due to the cash bail system; so Circle periodically helps to raise funds to bail out Black mothers around Christmas time, so that they can be with their kids.

As should be clear, the people that make up Circle of Hope are a people on a mission together with a captivating vision for where God is leading them. Need more proof? Like most good movements, they have their own music, art, proverbs, and rhythms of life. This rhythm of life in the form of the (two) daily prayer sites that they write and maintain are especially on display now, during Holy Week, even in the mist of the pandemic of COVID-19. Each day of Holy Week folks are invited to pray together by making a sacred space in their home and place an object in it in keeping with that day’s theme, and then share on social media if desired. People can “keep watch” throughout the day at the usual monastic times of 9am, noon, and 3pm by saying a breath prayer together, and then each night there is an online evening prayer time that is offered (because everything is online due to the pandemic, an unfortunate fact that has fortunately made it possible for people like me to re-connect from far away).

I should highlight again those “proverbs” I alluded to above. They are ever growing and sometimes changing, but below are some of them from some years ago, including some that go back to the beginning of Circle of Hope and my connection to them. These proverbs helped to form me as a Jesus-follower early in my adult life and captivate me even now. Here’s how I remembered and applied them to myself in 2016:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible.”
  • “The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it.
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.“
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege.
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks.”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth.”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person.”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
    • “We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind.
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “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.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

Traumatized People Make Bad Choices. I’ve Made More Than My Fair Share of Them.

You might ask, then, why did we leave Circle- twice, and the second time under not the best circumstances? I’ve been learning a lot recently about trauma and its effect on the brain. A great resource for this is Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s seminal book, The Body Keeps The Score. Here’s a good summary of some of his work. Before I continue, I’ll give you some of the writing I did for the recently edited “about” page for this blog, where I wrote:

Let’s get something out of the way. I am a childhood trauma survivor. The trauma I experienced was “complex,” and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I contend with daily is complex as well. That matters because trauma- especially complex trauma experienced from birth (and even in the womb)- dramatically impacts how the brain forms. So these days I understand that for someone with Complex PTSD like myself, I can frequently be driven into the “back of my brain” where the fight/flight/freeze mechanism drives behavior and higher thought (which is centered more or less in the “front of my brain”) is shut off. This response (being driven into the back of my brain) can be “triggered” by almost anything, and it almost never leads to good outcomes, especially relationally. So my therapeutic work now is focused on trying to essentially “hotwire” my brain. I’m grateful for the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which posits that the brain can change throughout life. New neural pathways can be formed even as adults, and these new pathways can work around old ones that trigger a trauma response.

All of this is important because so often my own behavior is incomprehensible to me, when I’m in the front of my brain, that is. Why do I repeat the same mistakes relationally throughout my life? If I believe as we read in the Bible that it is our duty to “owe nothing to anyone,” why do I rack up debt, work hard to get out of it, and then do it again and again and again? One clear answer is trauma, and this reminds me of the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 7:15 that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” From what we know of Paul’s life, he was undoubtedly a trauma survivor, among other things. Of course, I’m not a clinician, but just as Paul was limited in his understanding of the world by the first century context in which he was rooted, I too am “limited” by the context that I bring to the text, and Paul’s words here sound awfully familiar. I can relate. In the passage Paul refers to various laws “at war within him,” one of them being the “law of sin.” There’s a lot to unpack there and voices far more authoritative than mine to listen to when doing that theological work (some of which will be referenced below), but for now I just want to notice that I often feel the same way- every day I do the opposite of what I want to, and however we conceptualize sin, I know that trauma and the brain’s response to it is part of the picture.

So the short answer of why we left Philly and Circle twice, and under not the best circumstances the second time, is because I’m literally “brain-damaged.” Arguably both times but especially the second time we left, I was in the back of my brain and was responding to an emotional flashback. I wasn’t really thinking about what would actually be best for me and my family. It’s not a decision I’m proud of, but (again, literally) here we are. The question now, as always, is what to do about it. During this Holy Week and despite and because of the tragedy and trauma of COVID-19, I’m grateful for all the opportunities to re-connect with Circle online. Thanks be to God for that small good in the midst of all this bad.

A Brief Meditation on Violence

A “sword” (actually, AK-47) that Shane Claiborne and others have beaten into a “plowshare” (image credit)

Today on the Nomad Podcast I heard Shane Claiborne say that it was the belief in the early church that when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed all Christians forever. I’ve heard this argument before (maybe from Shane, with whom I share Philadelphia roots, including in Circle of Hope), but it’s what he said next that brought tears to my eyes. He then talked about something that is a frequent conversation topic in my home and with my boys especially, the myth of redemptive violence. He said if ever there was a test case for the myth of redemptive violence, this is it- Peter defending the only truly innocent person that ever walked the face of the earth, Jesus. I then made the connection that may have been obvious to others but somehow escaped my visceral awareness at least, between the redemptive in the “myth of redemptive violence” and the redeemer, Jesus. When we talk about violence as somehow evil, regrettable, or bad- but as the lesser of two evils or as necessary to prevent a greater evil- we’re talking about the myth of redemptive violence. I think what we’re saying is that the use of violence is somehow redeemed by its necessity to restrain a greater violence or a greater evil.

What is missed in this argument is that if redemption is the end that the means are to bring about, there is no substitute for Jesus, and it’s terribly ironic that we would even try. One way of viewing the cross, after all, a way I increasingly prefer, is to see that on it Jesus absorbed the violence of the world without retaliating, thereby breaking the world’s endless cycle of violence forever. When we then take it (violence) up again, we commit a double offense. First, we (hopefully) unwittingly re-start the violent cycle the cross was meant to put an end to, and we commit idolatry by substituting a sinful tool for our savior, hoping  that the tool (violence) can put a stop to sin (in the form of other violence), when in truth only Jesus can do that.

As we then try to find ourselves in the story of Jesus we forget who we are. We are not to be counted among the crucifiers; we are to be counted among the crucified. We don’t wield the violent Power of the state to restrain evil or for any other purpose. On the contrary, we take up our cross and follow Jesus to certain death. As I’ve also heard Shane say, we can’t simultaneously love our enemy and prepare to kill them (by taking up arms).

Lord, let us hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Good Consumers are Bad Christians

Tom Petty in The Postman (image credit)

Dear Person I’m Close To Who “Loves Jesus and ‘Merica Too,”

First of all, wasn’t Tom Petty great? If you missed it, my salutation alludes to his song, “Free Fallin’.” Back in my more “fundagelical” days at Gordon College, an upperclassman once told me that he believed the music of Tom Petty would save the world, as it was blaring out his window toward the field outside our dorm. Maybe he was just trying to be provocative, but who can forget Tom’s memorable turn in The Postman (image above)? Anyway, there’s some growing tension between you and I as we share life together these days but have what seem to be wildly different values and mutually exclusive ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. So this is what I would say about all this to you, if I could.

I do believe that we have a common commitment to following Jesus, but what that life of discipleship looks like and where I think Jesus is heading is very different for me from what seems to be the case for you. For example, I don’t believe that the Christian life is primarily about escaping hell for a better life in heaven after we die. I believe following Jesus is about joining in the family business of reconciliation and renewal. Heaven isn’t someplace we fly away to when we die; heaven is the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned, and at the end of time we don’t escape to heaven; heaven comes to earth. Jesus said the kingdom of God is upon you; it’s right here, even now. For those who would fully follow Jesus, heaven (the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned) has already begun.

This has dramatic consequences for how we live right now. My family and I are not trying to hunker down in a Christian bubble and wait for everything to burn. We’re trying to live as if the God of the universe has already saved us, and nothing can separate us from his love. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We will not be afraid of immigrants and refugees, for example. Everyone with white skin like ours are immigrants to this land, and there’s a sense in which all citizens of heaven are immigrants to that land too. As Jesus followers we are called to welcome strangers and to love neighbors and enemies alike. We will do so.

As Jesus followers and citizens of heaven, we know that we cannot serve two masters, and we know that we must look with clear, unflinching eyes at the truth of our history. An honest look at U.S. history, for example, cannot end with the conclusion that the U.S. has been mostly good for the world, with a few faults along the way. The U.S. is an empire very much like Rome in Jesus’ day, and an honest, unflinching look at the witness of Scripture reveals empire as a primary force that the people of God are called to resist.

Go here for a description of this image depicting U.S. empire. It’s “rich,” in more ways than one.

In the U.S., and- because of U.S. colonialism and domination- therefore throughout the world, capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand as the tools of empire, used for the purpose of ordering the world in opposition to the will and reign of God.

Capitalism forms people as consumers who endlessly envy what some neighbors have and fear what other neighbors lack and might take from us, thereby making the poor especially our enemies. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says this best, and this is one of my favorite passages from his book God’s Economy:

 

Meanwhile, the worldwide U.S. driven economy is consumer based and has been for some time. It would collapse if we stopped buying stuff. Therefore desire is manufactured in us along with the stuff that we’re constantly being taught to desire. We window shop at the altar of our screens, and will click “buy” the moment there’s enough funds in the bank or in our credit line. This makes us good consumers, and bad Christians.

Capitalism would not be possible without violence. It is a system that was constructed violently on the backs of slaves and through land theft from and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and it is maintained violently as wars are fought over oil (and someday, no doubt, water) and through the everyday violence that keeps some people rich and many more people very, very poor.  This everyday violence can be seen in the militarization of local police forces and in a culture that fetishizes gun ownership and thereby makes every protest and horn honk a situation rife with deadly potential. Everyday violence is seen in the availability of good jobs and pay for some, but not others. Everyday violence is seen in the imposition of contrived scarcity. Capitalism assumes a world with scarce economic resources rather than the abundance of God’s economy and provision. When resources are scarce, self-(ish) interest is incentivized because if I don’t get what I need and want, somebody else will and it may no longer be there for me. So in such a world there is only so much good land and only so many good neighborhoods and jobs.  In a scarce world, if I share what I have, I have less and what I’m left with may not be enough. So I must take and keep what’s “mine,” by force if necessary. In a scarce world, it’s easy to value things over people. In a scarce world, the poor become an enemy because they might want what I have, and might take it.

Jesus lived, ministered, died, was resurrected, and lives on today to save us from all of this.

In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. The God who created the universe once rained bread down from heaven and made water flow from a rock. Jesus, the true bread from heaven, teaches us to pray only for today’s bread, not for tomorrow’s, not for next week’s, and not for the “bread” we’ll need when we “retire.” Notice, first of all, that it’s our daily bread. It is shared. It is never mine. Because it’s our daily bread, “the one who gathers much does not gather too much, and the one who gathers little does not gather too little.” Such a system is not based on self-interest, but on other-interest. Sharing and redistribution is implied. If my status as a male of European descent literally affords me privilege in the world’s economy so that I’m able to gather much, I must do so to be sure that the one who does not have such privilege in the world’s economy does not gather too little. My “much” plus their “little” in the violent, capitalist system of the world becomes our “enough” in God’s economy. So then, our primary orientation in the world is toward sharing, hospitality, and generosity. Everything belongs to God, and as a result every economic decision I make is as a steward of God’s resources, not the master of my own.

We must do everything within our power to live according to this truth and to teach it to our children. The house I live in, therefore, must be one of frequent shared meals with others, especially those with fewer resources. My house must be a house of hospitality, with a bed ready to share with the one who may not have one. God’s kingdom is upon us, after all, if only we’ll live like Jesus really is Lord here and now, not Trump, not Putin, not Hillary or Obama or anyone else. Jesus is our President. Jesus is the head of our International Monetary Fund. Ceasar’s face and inscription may be on the coin of the land, but Jesus made the metal the coin was printed on. As God has given out of God’s abundance more than enough for all of us, let’s give back to God what belongs to God, which is everything, but especially our lives and allegiance. With Jesus as Lord, the poor will indeed always be with us because we are the ones who share God’s bounty so that the poor do not remain poor long, and we rich do not remain rich long. Let’s resist capitalism and the violence that created and maintains it, and so let us live like God’s kingdom really is here. Amen.

I’m the Hateful One

The image above is an actual one from my brother’s Facebook page, as are the images below. When he isn’t re-posting brainless memes about Hillary’s emails, abortion, the Supreme Court, and how being politically “liberal” in the U.S. is some kind of mental illness, my brother is praising “America” uncritically…

…bashing the “mainstream media…”

…or offering vague religious platitudes…

Hopefully this would go without saying, but calling political “liberalism” in the U.S. a mental illness presupposes any number of things, including that such a political persuasion is so inconceivable that the only way to make sense of it is to believe that there must be something wrong with anyone so persuaded. It also presupposes that having a mental illness is some sort of character flaw, and that this “flaw” makes your political persuasions less credible. Aside from a passing “hello” by speakerphone while talking with others I think on Christmas day, the last interaction I had with my brother was via a now defunct Facebook account. He had re-posted something inflammatory probably having to do with immigration, and I (I thought) gently challenged the facts of the argument he was repeating. I don’t recall attacking him or making anything personal; instead I kept coming back to the facts of what he was saying (or not), expounding on the actual history related to his argument, which very much undermined the point he was trying to make. He responded by saying I was “full of hate” and then unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. I quit Facebook altogether a short time later.

Today I have another Facebook account with a new email address that Kirsten and I use solely at this point to relate to our local faith community. So with that Facebook account I can see my brother’s profile and posts, most of which are public, and occasionally I indulge the impulse to look at them. Sadly, it is more of the same with him these days. He claims he didn’t vote for Trump, but obviously supports him. It would be unfathomable to him that, as a friend of mine says, every Christian who voted for Trump and still supports him after all he’s done in office is in “unrepentant sin.”  He says he’s following Jesus and working for the kingdom of God, but is so devoted to a “conservative” U.S. political ideology that it’s hard to distinguish his secular politics from his faith. He would probably accuse me of the same on the “liberal” end of the U.S. political spectrum. I would like to make the case that while that may have been true of me in the past, it is no longer. The failure of the Obama administration to live up to its own ideals, and the subsequent “election” of Trump, have served effectively to remind me of where my hope lies and what I am to expectantly work for- the coming of God’s kingdom, which is not of this world. Even as Trump separates refugee children from their parents, denaturalizes those already granted citizenship, and discharges members of the military who were promised citizenship in exchange for their service, it is nonetheless true that it is Obama who came to be known as the “deporter in chief.” It is Obama who ramped up drone warfare to unparalleled levels, handing off this death dealing apparatus to the Trump administration. It is Obama who fought hard to improve the economic outlook not of the poorest of the poor around the world and in the U.S., but of the “middle class” (which is to say nothing of the elites) who helped get him into power and keep him there. For all these reasons and more, it didn’t take long for me to be disabused of any notion that the election of Obama, however historic it might have been, would usher in God’s kingdom any faster.

In the end, it was evident that Obama was just another tool of empire, effectively used to mostly perpetuate the status quo for the powers that be. Now, it is undeniable (though some will try to deny it) that things are demonstrably worse under Trump and are getting worse still. Nonetheless, it seems clear now that we could not gave gotten to Trump without Obama. The domination system will have its way regardless of which U.S. political party is in power. For all these reasons, “our hope must  be built on nothing less” than Jesus and his kingdom come.

That said, how, then, shall we live? I understand the partisan nature of almost all media. Some lean “right;” some lean “left.” (Almost) all are driven by the profit motive, and so serve the anti-Jesus powers that be. That is, they serve Mammon. That said, I believe my brother has been almost brainwashed by Fox News, Breitbart, and their ilk. He’s constantly lied to and shaped by the stories he’s told so that he will remain a good foot soldier for the cause of “American” exceptionalism and a kind of faith that (from where I sit) seems mostly about escaping hell, being nice, and earning your own way in “the land of the free.” For the record, to my knowledge, my brother doesn’t have a job, but I digress.

He might say that, to whatever extent I still tune in to MSNBC or watch Democracy Now!, I have been brainwashed by a steady stream of stories about Trump’s collusion with Russia, his constant scandals, his efforts to be the un-Obama which have the effect of rolling back many initiatives that might in some small way help the poor or marginalized, etc. I should mention that there’s a false equivalence there between MSNBC and Democracy Now! since MSNBC is definitely for-profit and Democracy Now! is not; still, my brother would say both lean “left.” He would call any reporting about Trump ties to white supremacists “fake news.” I would say the same of “birther-ism.” What, then, can we possibly have to say to one another?

Perhaps more importantly, why am I writing about this? I’m realizing that I’m angry at my brother, at least at some unprocessed surface level. His wild accusation toward me and abrupt ending of our relationship, at least on Facebook, stings, and this isn’t the first time he’s done this sort of thing. As our dad was dying, I led the way in really paying attention to what was going on, having frank conversations with the doctors, etc., and so was the first to advocate that hospice care should commence and no longer productive medical interventions should stop. I contacted a hospice agency, and started the ball rolling for services to start. As this was progressing, my brother and sisters (they’re all much older half-siblings) began paying attention and talked with one of the doctors separately. They said they believed they heard that doctor saying that we weren’t “there” (ready for hospice) yet, but in the event that things would progress to that point soon, they set up hospice care with a different agency. Along the way, they accused me of basically trying to kill our dad. My brother led this charge.

A very short time later, a new report from the doctor confirmed that treatments were not working and future treatments were not likely to. In other words, it was, indeed, time for hospice. My brother (and sisters) apologized to me, but it rang hollow, and I suppose it still does. Since my dad’s death 7 years ago, my subconscious at least has been trying to work all this out…in my dreams. I’ve dreamed, for example, that my dad had chosen to be cremated, and it was common practice for the family of those being cremated to place the bodies on a moving conveyor belt that leads directly into the furnace in which the bodies are burned. In my dream, I’m placing my dad on the conveyor belt…while he’s still alive. He does not seem alarmed about this, but my siblings are frantically trying to save him as I’m literally apparently trying to kill him. In another dream I had just a few days ago on the occasion of what would have been my dad’s 86th birthday, he’s dying, and he asks to come live with Kirsten and I and our family in the home in New Brighton we just bought…so that he can die there. We agree to this, but the only accessible bedroom (on the main floor with easy access to the front door, kitchen, living and dining room, a bathroom, etc.) is occupied, as indeed it is, by Kirsten’s mom. There’s a lot to be unpacked in both of those dreams, but going back to the first one, it clearly is related to my brother’s accusation I described above. This, I suppose, is no small part of why I may have some anger that I haven’t fully dealt with yet.

Be that as it may, I came across a saying recently (on Facebook, of all places) that I found revelatory. It goes: “I sat with my anger long enough, and she told me her real name is grief.” I read that and felt like I had been punched in the gut. How much of my anger is really grief related to un(fully)processed trauma? There is so much to grieve, after all, just in my own lifetime, which is to say nothing of the unprocessed trauma I carry in my bones as a descendant of British, German, and Russian Jewish ancestors. In my own lifetime, there was the loss of my childhood as I was parentified at the hands of my abusive, emotionally infantile mother. There was the fracturing of relationships among my dad’s first family after his first wife died and he married my mom. I do have siblings, after all, but their mother’s death and my mother’s abuse as she basically commandeered their family is a trauma from which none of them have ever recovered.

I know I can’t change my brother; yet I continue to find myself angered by his ignorant (to put it charitably) rhetoric, even though none of it is directed at me. His public support for Trump enables a would-be despot who is literally doing real harm to folks the Christian faith my brother and I purportedly share are called to love, serve, and be hospitable to. My brother’s castigation of those who don’t hold his views as “mentally ill” is demeaning to those who actually have a mental illness and betrays the feebleness of his point of view. If you can’t defend your opinions by citing actual (vetted) facts and hopefully with an appeal to what’s right and just not only for you but for your neighbor; if, instead, you have to resort to character assassination and bigoted attempts to destroy your opponents’ credibility, you probably need to rethink your opinions. All that said, no one could tell him any of that. He would deflect, defend, retrench, and probably lash out blindly. So it does neither myself nor him any good to talk with him about this, and we’re not exactly on speaking terms; thus, here I am blogging about it.

It probably goes without saying that the least, if not best, I can do here is to refrain from indulging the impulse to gawk at the car crash that is my brother’s Facebook feed. More than that, one of the appeals I would make to him, were we to ever have a constructive conversation about any of this, is to the notion that as Jesus followers we are called to love our neighbor (even/especially our globally poor ones), and as Jesus followers we are called to love our enemies. So however we might think of someone, our duty is to love them. Of course then I must apply this to myself. If, being brutally honest, I would think of my brother more as an enemy than a friend, my stance toward him should be the same. I must love him. What does that look like in this situation? We’ve never had a “regular” relationship. He’s nearly 20 years older than I am. He’s never taken an interest in me in the form of maintaining contact with me, checking in on how I’m doing, or otherwise being in any way invested or involved in my life. Does loving him mean that I should be the better man and make such efforts toward him, even if unreciprocated? I don’t know. Might loving him mean that I simply let sleeping dogs lie and grieve not only the loss of our father but also the relationship that I never had with my brother, and likely never will have? He’ll be 63 this year, and his health isn’t stellar. Shall I simply wait until he dies, and then wrestle with whether to make the journey to TX for his funeral, to formally mourn a man I hardly knew- and who certainly never really knew me- who therefore was never really a brother to me and who mostly acted in unloving ways toward myself and others?  I suppose time will tell. What I know for sure is that whether he’s an enemy, a friend, or something in between, again I’m called to love him. Now I just have to figure out how.

The Trappings of a Very Privileged Life

A.J. Muste (image from the public domain)

I’m probably a bit late in seeking to chime in on Trump’s latest immigration atrocity (including, now, his administration’s efforts to discharge immigrant members of the armed forces and to mobilize a “denaturalization” task force), and I don’t think I have anything substantive to add to the conversation, especially as a middle-class (by USAmerican standards) “white” male. Still, I’m reminded of something that A.J. Muste (pictured above) is reported to have said. According to Wikipedia, Muste “was a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist…best remembered for his work in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.” In other words, he’s my kind of guy. I heard it reported that Muste, while demonstrating during the Civil Rights movement, was asked if he thought his demonstrating would change the country. He said that’s not why he was doing it. Instead, he said, he was “demonstrating so that his country wouldn’t change him.” I think the same logic applies here too. I’ve said before that I often write to discover what I think. Perhaps I also do it to remind myself, if no one else, of who I am. I do it, on the rare occasion I do these days, not because I think my writing will change the country or even a single other person’s mind, but instead so that in these perilous times “my” country doesn’t change me. I started this post two weeks ago, and said then that I don’t know how you can observe the pictures and stories in the news of late and not be moved by them. I certainly am. Kirsten had asked me then how I was doing, likely referring to the pain and swelling from my torn left meniscus (I had surgery on a torn right meniscus a couple of years ago; now I need it on the left), which was recently exacerbated dramatically by all the heavy lifting and physical labor I’ve been doing to get ourselves moved into our new home and then to get Kirsten’s mom moved in too. She might also have been referring to the stress and fatigue of all those transitions just mentioned, especially related to integrating Kirsten’s mom into our new home and figuring out all of the “new normals” that go along with that; she could have meant any number of things. What I told her was that I was feeling alternately sad, angry, and determined. Interestingly, that range of emotion is probably appropriate for all of the circumstances outlined above, not the least of which is Trump’s family separation (and now, indefinite family detention on military bases) policy.

 

The cold calculation of Trump’s policy is, indeed, infuriating. This land is not my land, or your land, or anyone else’s. The indigenous people of North America regard it, unless I’ve misunderstood, as sacred unto itself. Christian Scripture speaks of it as “groaning” in anticipation of its own redemption. There is an obviously alive quality to it that gives one pause when thinking of it as, indeed, an “it” rather than an “other.” Regardless, for (some of) my ancestors to claim this land by force, commit genocide against its native inhabitants, cultivate and develop it with slave labor in order to turn it into the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and then for their descendants to have the gall to hold it by force and draw lines and erect boundaries in order to decide who can come here, and when, and under what circumstances is an affront altogether worthy of my anger, sadness, and determination. Whey they enforce these arbitrary “laws” with a “zero tolerance” policy that rips babies from their mother’s breast and separates children from families with no plans or infrastructure for ever reuniting them, it is all the more galling still, especially because there is a causal link between our relative affluence and safety here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and the poverty and violence in other countries that would cause some to undergo the dangerous trek to get here in order to seek asylum. (See, for example, this now 4 year old story that only begins to explore the U.S.’ destabilizing and impoverishing effect on its southern neighbors.)

 

And I can’t help but see a causal link between all that and what’s happening in my own home. As I alluded to above, we have a new home. After spending the past year working so hard to “get small” by giving up as much power, privilege, and possessions as we could so that we could get closer to experiencing life from “under” the oppression of the dominators (of whom we are a part) rather than “over” it, which is our default stance given our inherited “white” privilege and economic power; after coming to learn that solidarity with those under the oppression of the dominators requires proximity to them; after realizing how selfishly we had been living for so very long and making all the changes necessary to get out of debt and move into position to be radically generous and hospitable once we had done so; after all that, here we are as home”owners” again with a house in the ‘burbs, smartphones, two cars, etc. Granted, our second car before was a very expensive one with a very bad loan that we would have spent years repaying, but with the help of our faith community we paid it off and sold it, and our second car now is 11 years old with over 140,000 miles on it which we paid for all at once in cash. Still, we have all the trappings of a very privileged life.

 

And traps they most certainly are. We cut short our plans to be fully debt free (except for student loan debt, which we may die with) by the end of this year when Kirsten’s younger sister moved away, leaving us as the only viable family nearby both able and willing to give care to Kirsten’s mom. Then, the owner of the house Kirsten’s mom has been living in said she needed to sell it, and suddenly we found ourselves springing into action. Kirsten’s mom has declining health and mobility, and it just seemed to be obvious that we should try to get into a house that she could move into with us. She has lived with us before; so we knew there would be challenges, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. One of  the commands of Jesus that we’ve come back to time and again over the past year in our journey of “getting small” is his directive to give to those who ask of us. We felt ourselves being asked, even if implicitly. So we got ourselves in a position to give. When we found a small house with a finished basement and attic that had been divided into 6(!) bedrooms with three small ones in the basement that our little family of four could live in; one main floor bedroom with a bathroom and the kitchen and living room nearby that Kirsten’s mom could live in; and two more upstairs bedrooms that could serve as a guest room and maybe an office, we believed we had found a house that aligned with our values of radical generosity and hospitality, even if it was in the ‘burbs and would make us more proximate to the dominators than those dominated. The house is still very close to our faith community, and by all accounts it’s a modest home (by “white” USAmerican standards). Its footprint is small (though there is a big back yard); there’s nothing “fancy” about it. In fact, it needs some work, but our hope is that it will serve us well as Kirsten’s mom lives with us for now by allowing us to still be hospitable and generous, and in the future, it could give lots of options for communal living.

the house in question

So by the grace of God and in recognition of our “white” privilege, we secured a loan, bought the house, and moved in. Since then we’ve worked tirelessly to get it ready for Kirsten’s mom: painting her room with multiple coats; ripping up carpet and refinishing her wood floor; replacing a door I had broken while ripping up carpet; replacing the main floor bathroom vanity, sink, and faucet to make the bathroom more accessible to her and then dealing with the resulting plumbing issues; replacing some non-functioning kitchen appliances; and the list goes on. Kirsten’s mom moved in now a few weekends ago. She’s coming from a three bedroom house that was entirely full of just her stuff, and moving from that whole house with all those rooms into basically just a bedroom in our house, and a smaller one at that. She’s made a genuine effort to pare down and give away some of that stuff she had, but our now shared home has still been awash in the sea of all the stuff she brought, and daily it’s been a struggle to bail out. Part of the “paring down” process she’s engaged in has involved offering random things to our kids, including a jar full of sea shells, some framed nondescript scenic background pictures, etc. This all led to a situation recently in which our Xbox owning, expensive YMCA summer program attending boys were arguing over who was getting which of grandma’s framed random scenic pictures; meanwhile, migrant 4-year-olds from Central America are sleeping in cages courtesy of the U.S. government and “my” taxpayer dollars, while their parents are on the fast track to deportation, all so that coal miners in W. Virginia can be distracted from learning the real reason for their declining job prospects, and my heart is ready to burst.

 

God, help us. Forgive us for all the times our actions make clear that we value things more than people. Forgive us for all the ways we continue to benefit from privilege afforded to us unjustly. Forgive us for how easily we fall back under the spell of Mammon, for how readily we accept a wealthy lifestyle afforded by capitalism and created and maintained by violence. Many, many times over the past year I spoke of capitalism/Mammon and violence as the two forces I saw most powerfully at work these days (and probably in all days) doing all they can to thwart and resist the ever coming kingdom of God. It’s actually kind of ironic. We who would resist the “new world order” are seen as just that, resisters working over and against the dominant forces in the world today. Confoundingly, in truth it is those who seek to maintain this brutal world order founded on that which is not God’s rule, that which is not God’s economy of Jubilee- it is they who are the resisters; they are the ones fighting an inevitably lost cause. It may not seem that way most days, but I don’t doubt for a second that it’s true. God’s kingdom of love and justice will come. God’s will, will be done on earth just as it is in heaven because heaven will come to earth and is doing so even now. We who would really follow Jesus then must be constantly reminded, and must remind ourselves as I hope I am doing now- that we are people from the future; we are a foretaste of the feast to come. We are to embody the new reality that God is birthing by being an alternative to what the sin-sick world has to offer.

 

Wake us up, Lord, and give us boldness to live with radical generosity and hospitality, with radical love and acceptance, in S. Texas, in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and in my own little home in the ‘burbs. Amen.

Proximity Redux- Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

 

Note: I wrote this post a year ago on Palm Sunday. I confess that I haven’t been feeling very free of late, and any dutiful reader of this blog is well aware that my writing has been sparse lately. I’m not a musician, but I can relate to the singer whose song has been taken from him. I will find my voice again soon, I pray. Meanwhile, this is as relevant as ever.

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.