It’s hard to believe we’re almost a year into pandemic living, which for my family means mask wearing, social distancing, and quarantining as we are privileged enough to be able to work and learn from home. The reality for my family is that we’ve rarely left the house for the past 11 months or so. In that time, we’ve only bought gas a handful of times. As the pandemic started, we had just bought an old secondhand car so that we’d have two again. We gave it away just before Christmas after it sat idly in our driveway for the better part of a year. Though we now have some seemingly (mostly) safe vaccines and will all get them when we can, we know it will be some time yet before we even know what a new “normal” might be, let alone have any hope of moving into it. The Biden administration may never be able to make up for the year the Trump administration squandered, and now with emerging strains threatening the efficacy of vaccines and the ability of healthcare systems to keep up with more contagious and possibly more deadly mutations of the virus, the world feels more uncertain than ever.
The one bright spot in what feels like all this darkness over the past year has been our joyfully surprising reconnection with Circle of Hope, our faith community in Philly. I’ve written a fair bit about Circle over many years but especially over the past year, and as I’ve said recently, I’m often reminded of how tied up our story as a married couple is in their story as a community of faith. Circle began in 1996, which is the year we were married. Lord willing, we’ll celebrate 25 years of marriage this August. I might be tempted at this point to recount again just why the way I experience Jesus among the Circle of Hope is so meaningful, but if you’re so inclined, you can read about that here and here, for starters. This pandemic is terrible, and I pray daily for it to end. Nothing could be worth all the suffering it has caused, including in my own life as I recently lost my brother during the pandemic. His cause of death may not list “COVID-19” and he had many other health issues, but he had been diagnosed with the virus at one point, and it would be hard to conclude it wasn’t a contributing factor, if for no other reason than because of his experience in an enormously stressed-due-to-COVID healthcare system.
My Pastor Recently Called Me a “Joiner.” See Below.
Still, being immersed in the Circle of Hope again, even from a geographic distance, has brought much sweetness in otherwise bitter times. In September I became a Circle of Hope cell leader again for the first time in about fifteen years, and I continue to lead that cell of folks dispersed around the country. In October we had our “birthday” in the church again as we formally rejoined Circle’s covenant at the quarterly Love Feast. Since then I’ve joined the Circle of Peacemakerscompassion team, with whom I hope to learn much about how to do the work of peacemaking, wherever I happen to be. We attend Circle’s Sunday Meeting online each week; I gather for prayer with Circle folks over Zoom on Tuesday mornings; I read Circle’s Daily Prayer blog(s) each morning; I listen to the Resist and Restore and Color Correction podcasts; and the music of Circle of Hope continues to inspire and move me. In short, we are making every effort to be as immersed as possible in Circle’s cell multiplication movement, even from half a country away.
Nonetheless, we are keenly aware that this season of a big world made smaller by this terrible pandemic is just that, a season. While Circle’s Map for this year includes language about how to keep open the kind of connection that has been made possible for people geographically far away even when some kind of return to in-person gatherings has occurred, I know there’s no substitute for the embodied experience of being the church together (see what I did there?). We can still be a body together even when some of the bodies can’t be in the same physical space and are connecting through a screen, but I suppose for me it’s a little like the difference between seeing ice cream on TV and tasting it in my mouth. Something happens in my brain when I see the image of ice cream on a screen; I can imagine what it tastes like and that is an “experience” of it, in a way, but it’ll never be as sweet. Believe me; I’m not denigrating the virtual experience of community right now. It’s all we’ve got, for now, and that’s even true for the most part for everyone in Philly, but when the need for a virtual experience of the rich sweetness of our life together is over for everyone in Philly, I want it to be over for myself and my family too.
So more often than not over the past eleven months, there has been an ongoing conversation in our household about whether we should move back to Philly. Following Jesus as a part of Circle of Hope is a way of life that embodies alternativity. It means working toward an alternative economy, for example, as we resist the evils of capitalism by annihilating debt, giving away the goods that local babies and kids need, and creating “good” businesses like Circle Thrift that use capitalism to serve people, instead of the other way around. This can also be seen in all the people among Circle that share resources by merging households or creating childcare co-ops, etc. It means resisting the violence endemic to the larger culture too, whether through the Circle of Peacemakers or the Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter compassion teams, or simply through Circle’s historic ties to and immersion in the “peace churches” of the Anabaptist movement. One thorough reading of Circle’s proverbs, the lore and wisdom collected over the years, reveals a snapshot of this alternativity I’m describing, and I say all this because this way of life is meant to be lived…together. I call my blog Proximity, after all. Being close is at the core of the unity that Jesus keeps calling us to and literally embodies in his own person.
It was with more than a little hope and wonder, then, that we learned that our friends and cell members who currently live in Philly would be moving out of state this fall. They live in a neighborhood in Philly that is nothing like our current, mostly “white,” suburban context in MN. It’s an under-resourced neighborhood that is predominantly Black. Our friends’ kids are the only “white” kids at the local elementary school they go to. I’ve talked for years about valuing diversity and about the need to get “small” so that we could begin to experience life from the “under-“side of American empire rather than from our usual position of power “over” those less privileged than we are. Yet we’ve never managed to live out these values we supposedly aspire to. We keep buying houses in the suburbs. We keep racking up debt and maintaining our wage slavery as a result. We keep handing our kids lives in which the biggest problem they face is who got more screen time. I recently said about our current neighborhood that “…this suburban context of safety and comfort is the worst kind of at-risk neighborhood. It puts us at risk of not remembering we need saving, of not being proximate enough to our suffering neighbors to see our complicity in their suffering. Here, we feel very isolated and far from the beloved community.”
We certainly don’t want to make the mistake of glamorizing poverty or really making any kind of judgment, good or bad, about the lives of folks we hardly understand because we don’t know them. Still, I’m reminded of what Dr. King said about the reason why people fear and even hate each other:
“I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in remarks delivered to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa in 1962
We just can’t live separate any more, and so this chance to not only move to Philly and be immersed in Circle again but to live in a neighborhood and therefore in a way that much more closely aligns with the values we aspire to, seems like an opportunity not to be missed.
We keep trying to miss it, though, mostly out of fear. Moving across the country means selling our house, for starters. What if it doesn’t sell at a financially viable price, and in a timely manner? What about our jobs? We both do good, meaningful work for the most part. We both can work from home, and so we have great hope that our employers will allow us to work from home from Philly, but obviously there’s no guarantee. And of course there’s the kids and getting them set up in new schools in a new state in now much less than a year, during a pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, what about COVID? I currently check a lot of boxes for being at high risk for a bad reaction to it, and I’ll be honest, it makes me anxious. Our oldest son, a former micro-preemie born with lung damage (who is otherwise doing great at the age of 16 now, though) may be at high risk for a bad response to COVID too. What about all the exposure risk involved in selling our house, packing, and moving across the country? Will this move have been worth it if one of us dies after we get there? Obviously, of course not.
Yet, many people have moved, even moved across the country, during this pandemic. So, apparently it can be done. Yes, we could pick up COVID as a result of the move, and it might kill us. Then again, we could pick it up right here at home with the next careless package delivery or infrequent trip out into the community. And of course there’s the simple fact that a blood clot or heart attack or drive around the block could take any of us, at any time. None of our days are guaranteed, even from one day to the next. Each one is a gift. Certainly COVID has taught us this, hasn’t it?
Fathoming Our Fallings and Failures
What to do, then? We’ve been wrestling with this decision for a while now. We’ve made plenty of big decisions before, having repeatedly moved across the country. We’ve never been terribly discerning, though. And we’re really trying to, this time. We’ve talked about this with our friends who own the home in Philly. We’ve talked about it with their (somewhat close) neighbors, who are covenant members with Circle. We’ve talked to our pastor from Circle, Jonny. We’ve broached it with our cell, and I’ve talked about it with my therapist and with my Spiritual Director. My thinking about this has even been informed by the latest book I read, Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr’s book is worth (maybe more than) a whole post of its own, but I found it super helpful. Basically he posits that there at least can be “two halves” of life, a first half in which we work on building our “container,” establishing our identity and the like, and a second half of life, which Rohr says most people may not get to, in which we “fill” the container, in which we really live.
Early in the book he says: “When you get your ‘Who am I?’ question right, all the ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves.” Interestingly, not long before reading that, I had written in my journal about our discernment about whether to move or not. I said: “As I tried to meditate this morning, I wanted clarity about what to do, but I know that misses the point. If clarity comes, it will be about who I am, not what to do.” There’s so much great insight in Rohr’s book, but what I’ll focus on now is the part about “home and homesickness.” Rohr suggests that Odyseeus can finally go home at the end of his journey because he has “come home to his true and full self.” Rohr summarizes his writing in this chapter about home and homesickness by saying:
• We are created with an inner drive and necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self, whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line. • We are created with an inner restlessness and call that urges us on to the risks and promises of a second half to our life. There is a God-size hole in all of us, waiting to be filled. God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy. • We dare not try to fill our souls and minds with numbing addictions, diversionary tactics, or mindless distractions. The shape of evil is much more superficiality and blindness than the usually listed “hot sins.” God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church. • If we go to the depths of anything…we will move from “belief” to an actual inner knowing… especially… if we have ever loved deeply, accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, or stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time or beauty.
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, pp. 94-95
I’m struck of course by the notion of our journey looking for our True Self being in the shape of a “spiral and never a straight line.” We’re discerning whether to “spiral” back to Philly to be immersed in the Circle of Hope…for the third time. A spiral, indeed. For Rohr, it seems that “home” too is less about where you are than it is about who you are. Rohr has a lot more to say that I found really helpful, but again that’s fodder for another post maybe.
God’s a Better Parent Than I Am
So my cell met last night, and we heard someone’s story. This is an important part of how any cell forms, when intentional time is spent giving each person in the group extended time to tell their story of their discernment about who they are up to that point. The storyteller last night was talking about their own struggle with making decisions throughout life. As I understood her, she was asking questions like:
Why do we “have” to ask God for what we need or want when God already knows?
What if we ask for what we really want when God knows what we really need, and they’re not the same?
This all came to a head for me in a particularly insightful counseling session this morning. I resonated with my cell member’s questions about decision-making, in part because some time ago I realized that I had to agree with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Some think of the Sermon on the Mount as a “canon within the canon,” and I number myself among them. Like Shane Claiborne and so many others, I think Jesus probably meant what he said in this, his longest speech. I digress, though. For now, I want to focus on the preface to the “Golden Rule,” which, like so much else that Jesus calls us to, is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
After all the trauma in my own life and suffering in the history of the world, and in light of how so many would-be Christians throughout history have used their human-made doctrine of heaven and hell as a rod with which to beat anyone who didn’t tow the line of all their rules and regulations, I finally some years ago concluded that if I was to continue believing in God at all and trying to follow Jesus, I had to believe that God is a better parent than I am. Rohr actually has some great things to say about heaven and hell in Falling Upward, but again I digress. What I want to say here is that I agree with- I believe– Jesus in what he says above. If I know how to give good gifts to my kids, surely God does, and will, too. (Likewise, if I would never consciously torment my children forever because they never said the “sinner’s prayer,” then it’s inconceivable that God would.) God must be at least as good of a parent as I am, or the category of “parent,” let alone ”God,” is broken forever.
“Delight” Was a Hard Word to Say
So in my counseling session this morning we were working with my discernment about moving, and Rohr’s book, and my fellow cell member’s questions about asking God for what we want, and a few things became clear. So much of the impact of my complex childhood trauma has been about my perpetual quest to be “right” (to do no wrong, because doing wrong in my mother’s home was terribly dangerous). I realized this morning that there I was, approaching this decision about moving in the same way. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t want to let anybody down, not my current employer, not my wife or kids, not our friends in Philly whom I imagined might think we were failing to live up to our ideals if we didn’t move into their house, and least of all not myself. I was trying to get this decision “right,” in very “first half of life” fashion.
I realized then that a “second half of life” approach to this would be much less about making the “right” choice, as if that were even possible, and much more about simply wondering what I really want (even if I can’t fully know what I really need) and then wondering if I can remember that I’m a beloved child of God to whom God wants to give good gifts, if Jesus is to be believed. My therapist walked me into a very therapeutic trap when she asked me what it felt like as a father to give my kids what they ask me for. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they need. “Of course,” was my obvious answer. She asked me if I thought my kids deserved to be given what they ask me for, and again the answer was quick and obvious, “of course.” You can probably see where this is going as well as I could by then. I am a child of God, and was a child of very flawed parents. Nevertheless, as a child of a “good, good Father” and Mother in heaven, do I deserve what I need? Does God want to give me the good gifts I might ask him for?
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
I said above my therapist asked me what it felt like to give my own kids the good gifts they ask me for. I struggled to say the word, but the word that came to mind was delight. I delight in my children, and delight in giving to them. Immediately Psalm 37:4 came to mind, and it struck me like a punch in the gut:
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
This “desire of my heart,” being fully immersed in the Circle of Hope with my wife and boys in Philly, is evidence, I hope, of my delight in Jesus, and faith tells me that God the Father/Mother delights in giving this good gift to me. My therapy session ended with some reflection on what this session felt like for me, what I might be taking away from it. I talked about this notion that God delights in me even as I delight in God. I said that the possibility that a full “homecoming” to my Circle of Hope family in Philly could be a good gift that God wants to give me felt like a little seed of hope. It felt like a seed that had been lingering on rocky ground, but which had finally found its way into fertile soil, where it was beginning to take root and grow.
I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.
This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.
This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.
You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.
It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.
I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”
This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.
I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.
Note: I wrote this post almost four-and-a-half years ago. I was reminded of it the other day, and find that it’s as relevant as ever as Christmas in this pandemic year fast approaches. These days, I’m still choosing between consumption and community, between Mammon/Mars and Jesus. I’d like to think I’ll finally make my choice for good (no pun intended) and be done with it, but that may not be how it works. I suppose some days we’re more faithful, and some days less so. Thank God there’s very little, my own fate least of all, that’s really finally up to me. Meanwhile, beloved community beckons like a song, and a song rises in my heart in response. Together, may we join the heavenly chorus, the same chorus that greeted those shepherds so long ago to announce to the world that peace had finally come to earth. Peace be with you and yours this Christmas.
We were out on a hike yesterday in our old N. Minneapolis neighborhood. There’s an amazing trail there through the North Mississipi Regional Park. As we entered the Webber Park portion of the trail, which is across from our old apartment building, we came across this bridge where local artists had obviously been encouraged to decorate the bridge with positive words and images. Here are some pictures of the bridge and those words/images:
It’s a pretty cool bridge, encouraging us to “work to save planet earth” and to “imagine peace.” One panel, a larger view of which is at the top of this post, also has the words “community” and “one love.” Those who know me know that the pursuit of (meaningful and sometimes “intentional,” even occasionally “Christian”) community has been an enormous part of my adult life. I’ve written about this pursuit frequently on this blog before, but several formative experiences have served to root this ideal at the center of my yearnings for the kind of life I want to be a part of. I suppose my first experience of (something like) “real” community occurred as an undergraduate at Gordon College. This continued in a hyper intense setting during my Kingdomworks experience, and then, not much more than a year later, was cemented as I was immersed as a newlywed in the just started Circle of Hope.
It was through the teaching and more importantly, the experience of community through Circle of Hope that I first came to understand that the Christian life is a communal one, or it is no life at all. Shane Claiborne, peripherally connected to Circle of Hope in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly since its early days, would later pose the question in his seminal book, The Irresistible Revolution, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” It’s a basic, but powerful query that distills much of what I now strive for as someone who purports to follow Jesus. At 41, I’ve come to believe that I no longer have time to “mess around.” If following Jesus won’t make much of a difference to me as I live my life, much less to anyone else, I’m not interested because it’s simply too hard. And the thing is, I want it to be hard. I wrote about this years ago in both my undergraduate and graduate thesis, but it’s hard to put the energy into doing something that isn’t perceived as being worthwhile, and part of the perception of worth is wrapped up in notions of difficulty. I would hope I’m not naive or reductive enough to think that any hard thing is a thing worth doing; obviously there’s a little more to it than that. But if Jesus “really meant what he said,” what a life we’ve been invited to participate in and help create!
Jesus inaugurated his ministry by declaring the fulfillment of the proclamation of “good news to the poor.. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” of setting “the oppressed free” and of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this election year especially but in every year, who wouldn’t want good news for the poor to be a reality? Aside from the powerful corporations and politicians that benefit from the prison-industrial complex, who wouldn’t want prisoners and the oppressed in USAmerica and around the world to be set free? Who doesn’t want to see the blind recover their sight? This is a political platform and agenda for life that I can get behind. This is, of course, all about reconciliation. It’s about reconciling and pursuing right relationship not only with God but with one another and with the beautiful world God made. It’s about right relationship within our own broken hearts, with our own fractured selves. Thus, Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation, but this is a profoundly difficult task, and it was the experience of Christian community through Circle of Hope that taught me that in no small part because this is such a difficult task, it’s one that can only truly be undertaken together. As I came to learn, all those “you’s” in the Bible that address how we are to live as Jesus followers are largely plural; they’re addressed, to you, the community of Christ followers. If we are to have any hope of living a life devoted to delivering (tangible, practical) real good news for the poor and imprisoned and oppressed and blind in the world; if we are to have any real hope of living a reconciled life, we must attempt it together, because we need each other.
We need each other to resist the temptation to pursue the American dream. It’s an enticing dream, after all, one that has captivated the imagination of large swaths of the world. It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination can get you every(material)thing you want out of life. It’s tempting to think that material things are the best of what can be had in life, and even simply that having is what life is about. To the extent that the “American dream” (not to mention the USAmerican economy) whatever it once might have been or been about, has now been reduced to one centered on consumption and the acquisition of goods, it can rightly be said to be more of a nightmare. Don’t we all know by now that “money can’t buy you love,” after all, and isn’t love what we really want? Love requires work, though, and involves reconciliation. Thus, “stuff” can often be a tempting, if unsatisfying, substitute. The “American dream” is more of a nightmare, however, for many other reasons, including notably that it’s simply unsustainable. It’s not possible for all the world to live like middle class USAmericans, we who consume such disproportionate amounts of the world’s resources. The planet is already damaged, perhaps irreversibly so, now, in large part due to our exploitation of its resources so that we can afford our middle class lifestyle. If everyone lived as we do, there would be nothing left. I believe at some level the most powerful in our society know this, and care not a whit. So long as some can achieve this way of life, though largely as a result of the circumstances of their birth (too customarily as white USAmericans), then the allure of the “dream” can continue to be held out as a hope for all both here and abroad. Thus the system is perpetuated with a few (we white middle class USAmericans, largely) benefiting a little and fewer still (the much talked about “1%”) benefiting a lot, to the detriment of everyone else.
And yet even I find this “dream” all too captivating much of the time. Absent a community of like-minded (and “Spirited,” dare I say) Christ followers around me to help me live the life I know I’m called to- a life marked by the pursuit of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed, in short, a reconciled life- I fall too easily into the pursuit of that lesser “dream.” My Amazon cart is full of “saved for later” items I’m ready to purchase the moment I can, and for good measure I even have an Amazon “wish list” of (high-minded, how ironic) books I’d add to my cart and would buy if I could as well. The Ikea catalog adorns my bathroom shelf above the toilet, and I spent much of this past Sunday morning communing not with God and his church but with my own consumptive desires as I refined the list of items I want to buy when I can. This is the life the corporations that run our (consumption based) economy and largely our “democracy” want me to live. They even know I’m on to them and I suspect without a hint of irony play into this meager self-knowledge by subtitling that Ikea catalog with the words “designed for people, not consumers.” It’s only people-as-consumers that buy their products and keep them in business, however; so let’s be honest.
In my heart of hearts, though, I know I don’t want to merely consume; I want to commune. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want my life to matter to myself and, if it’s not too much to hope, to others, to the world. So we need each other to resist the promise of the lie that consumption brings happiness. We need each other too simply to do the work of a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. is rife with racial strife that has bubbled to the surface of the consciousness of white America. As I understand it as a white person, for people of color, that strife has always been at the surface because they’re daily confronted with the stress of institutional racism and oppression. It is only my privilege that literally affords me the opportunity not to think about this injustice on a daily basis, if I choose (not) to. Racial reconciliation, then, and the hard work of deconstructing racism and my own white privilege, is obviously very, very hard work. As W.E.B. Dubois said at the outset of the last century, “The problem of the…century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s likely true that this is no less the case for the 21st century than it was for the 20th, despite whatever progress may have been made in the last century. Again, we need each other to do this work.
I could go on, but I think the basic point has been made. As someone who wants to follow Jesus I believe that I and that all of us were made in and for love. We were created to exist in loving, right relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s good created order, the world. We are our best selves, I believe, when we live life with and for those around us, when we choose to serve one another, to esteem the other as better than ourselves, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” My family and I have experienced this type of community (or at least the meaningful, dedicated pursuit of it) most fully when we’ve been part of a larger faith community that puts this idea of love and peace with justice at the center of its understanding of what it means to have Jesus at the center of its identity. We hope to experience such community again soon, and will redouble our efforts to work at bringing it about.
I write as Pandora’s algorithms serve up a bittersweet tune on my “Christmas Choral Classics” station. I wonder what previous likes or dislikes, my input to the algorithm, has led to this outcome. The tune is instrumental. Maybe I am too. How much of my writing on this blog, intermittent and streaky as it may be, is marked by music? If I could write music, I would. If someone would teach me to play the guitar that sits idly in my bedroom, I might never put it down. Writing is in my blood, but who’s to say what my best expression of it might be? If I live long enough, maybe I’ll discover that I’m a songwriter. Wouldn’t that be something?
Today, though, you get this writing, and so do I. Reading is to writing as hearing is to speaking, and today I finally started in earnest to read Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh’s Romans Disarmed.
The back cover says it’s about “Reading the Bible from the underside of empire.” It comes highly recommended from the venerable Byron Borger, proprietor of Hearts and Minds Books. He’s a friend of the authors, from what I can tell, and is credited with reading the entire manuscript and giving feedback on it. He wrote effusively about it in a not too long ago edition of his Booknotes newsletter, which I highly recommend you subscribe to. I asked for and received it as a gift last year, I think, but it has been among the many books I have lying about that I think will be important, but haven’t made time to read yet.
I heard somewhere once (I can’t remember where) that “deeper than the part of me that can’t, is the part of me that doesn’t want to.” Whatever the original context, I apply it to reading this book because while I may have felt too busy or undisciplined or scattered to finally give it a go, I have deep suspicion that underneath all that can’t is a won’t. I think some of my reluctance to finally pick it up and dive in comes from a judgmental place within me. I have always felt like my own worst critic, and honestly, I do not yet know if that critical self is my shadow or true self. My mother is all mixed up in this, and in me. Strange- as I write this I’m reminded that I’m just a few days removed from the 22nd anniversary of her death. If COVID doesn’t claim me before this time next year, then I will have lived half my life with, and half my life without her, and yet she’s always with me whether I want her to be or acknowledge it or not. In any case, my ongoing work to be differentiated from my mother includes sorting out just whose voice is so judgmental inside me. Is it really mine, or is it hers? Or doesn’t it really matter, if perhaps I am a proverbial chip off the old block?
Back to Romans Disarmed then, I think part of my “won’t” about reading it has been some expected self-judgment about Keesmat and Walsh’s admirable life vs. my own. They live in a solar-powered farm in Canada that is heated by a wood fire which they also cook by, if I have all that right. They also happen to be PhD’s who have long had what I would now call a proper understanding of the “empire” we live in and the Jesus-follower’s place in contradistinction to it. I don’t know if I could, or would even truly want to, live the kind of life they do, but I sure admire it and feel no small amount of guilt about how my own life stacks up to it.
All that said, I know they have something to teach me, and I’m eager to learn. Perhaps, then, if I both can and will make time to do so, I’ll do some writing as I read Romans Disarmed, which at this moment I’ve only just begun. It has ten chapters. If I really want to wrestle with what they say, maybe I’ll try to write one post per chapter over the next month or two.
Light In The Darkness
It may be fortuitous, serendipitous, even providential, dare I say, that I begin reading (and writing!) with Advent and Christmas on the horizon. Circle of Hope, my faith community mostly located in Philly, is looking forward to Advent this year as a season in which to experience lament in the midst of hope. Here is how they frame the Advent journey this year:
Advent is all about the drama of hope — light in the darkness, presence in the midst of brutality, trust in the face of fear. We are choosing to go through the suffering rather than around it. We can trust God to be with us because so many years ago God was born as a tiny baby. Can we rejoice in the Lord, Jesus, even now?
We are following this description of hope from Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, “In the midst of suffering, hope takes the form of “arguing” and “wrestling” with God. Such lament is not merely a cry of pain—it is a way of mourning, protesting, and appealing to God.”
“In the midst of suffering” We are, indeed, suffering. Collectively, we are suffering more consciously than we have in recent memory. There is a mutuality God desires with us. God hushes in our disconsolate ears, and we hush back in the ears of the vulnerable baby God was. We are caring for the fragile way God shows up by caring for the fragile way we are showing up right now.
“Not merely a cry of pain” Entering our pain is an invitation into something new—a call from the future—rather than only rumination on the past.
“With God” God has been born into our lament already. The presence of the baby is already here. The STORY is already told. Advent tells our story in the light of God-with-us. This season, we will highlight the power of anticipation, and paint a picture of hope lived out in real life.
Somehow this framing of the Advent season seems especially appropriate this year. I write on the day after the U.S. earned yet another infamous record in its inexorable march toward the worst kind of exceptionalism, having passed 200,000 new coronavirus infections in a single day. Likewise, another day has passed without justice for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and so many others. Today is another day in what is hopefully the waning days of the Trump administration, but even if the government of the U.S. follows the obvious will of the voters and inaugurates Biden in January, Trumpism seems entrenched in a large minority of the populace, and it is hopefully obvious that Joe Biden will not save us from this or much of anything else. U.S. presidential administrations come and go, but the unfettered consumer capitalism and the violence with which it is inextricably linked, both hallmarks of the U.S. empire, remain.
So hope and lament seem inextricably bound too, so long as we wait for Jesus to fully and finally set all things to right. Keesmaat and Walsh seem to have something to say about this in the little I’ve read so far. They begin Romans Disarmed by setting the stage for their work of really seeking to understand the Apostle’s letter to the church in Rome in a new, but paradoxically very old, way. In saying it’s a “new” way, I reveal of course where I stand in relation to Paul’s writing. I may not understand it very well because I don’t stand under it at all. As a cisgender straight male of European descent, firmly ensconced in middle-class life in the middle of U.S. empire, my position is one of standing “over” those to whom Paul wrote, and those like them today. That Paul lived and worked in the midst of empire should be obvious. We name his sociohistorical location as such today- the Roman Empire. Of course, Rome’s ancient empire was secured and maintained by that Roman “peace” which was anything but peaceful, the Pax Romana. It may be somewhat less obvious that we live in such an empire that is secured by such a peace today. Nonetheless, that we are now in what may be the waning days of a Pax Americana should be fairly clear to the careful observer.
That context for Paul’s writing and our reading matters greatly. As Keesmaat and Walsh write:
What happens if we read Paul’s letter to the Christian house churches in Rome as something akin to a call to disarm the empire? What happens if we read this letter written to the heart of the empire from the perspective of the margins of that empire?
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
Those who wear “slavish shoes,” whether Paul’s and those to whom he writes on the margins of Roman empire, or their counterparts today on the margins of U.S. empire, know suffering and sorrow, and have reason to lament. Keesmaat and Walsh say:
Paul writes his epistle to the Romans from a place of “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). We suspect that you can’t really understand what Paul is up to in this ancient letter if you don’t have access to such a place.
They add, recognizing their own privilege as highly educated Canadians, that “if we have any access to the margins” (where they argue Paul’s epistle is best understood)…”it can only be through deep listening and shared tears.” This deep listening by the powerful to the powerless and sharing that brings tears can perhaps only come through the work of solidarity, which in turn requires proximity. We who inherit unearned privilege and power must give it away as best we can and get close to those who were marginalized so that we could be centered. We may not have been born on the margins, but if we want to really understand Paul, let alone Jesus, we might need to get there. Keesmaat and Walsh again:
There is a pathos to Paul’s writing that gets lost when interpretation gets too focused on the nature of the theological argument Paul is mounting.
…the pathos that goes all the way down to the core of creation also goes all the way up the heart of God.
Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans.
You Need a Great Capacity for Joy
So whether we were born on the margins or recognize our need to in some way get there so that we can better see Jesus in his slavish shoes, there is a question of how, then, to live. On the margins, resources can seem scarce. Healthcare can be hard to come by. Social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic may be impossible. There is, again, suffering and sorrow. Keesmaat and Walsh offer an answer, if not a solution:
You need a great capacity for joy if you are to sustain life in the midst of such sorrow. But any “joy” that averts its gaze from sorrow, any “joy” that will not embrace the grief and hurt at the heart of things, is cheap sentimentality at best, an emotional cover-up and lie at worst.
They add, reflecting Paul, that “We need joy…if we are to have hope.” I said above that Circle of Hope was “my faith community, mostly located in Philly.” I say “mostly,” because in the midst of the pandemic as Circle and so many other churches pivoted to offer everything they could online, my wife and I began to reconnect with them. We have deep roots among them, and I have written about those roots quite a bit on this blog. In any case, we began reconnecting with them during Lent and Easter, and it was with no great surprise that we found ourselves experiencing joy as we did so, for the first time in a long time. Since that time, that deepening connection has only grown and finally culminated in us rejoining their covenant at the recent quarterly Love Feast. Today, I even lead a Circle of Hope cell group of people dispersed all over the country.
We do not know what this means for us. Right now many Circle of Hope cell groups continue to meet online because of the pandemic. So mine is not much different. Right now Circle’s regular Sunday meeting(s) continue to happen online too. Of course, that will not always be so. So we have much discernment to engage in as we figure out what the new “normal” looks like in a world where it’s safer to meet in person again. That may mean that we need to move back to Philly again. The Circle of Hope pastors use a metaphor for their podcast that I keep coming back to. They say in the podcast that they’re “extending the table of their dialogue” through the podcast to wherever folks tune in to it. Right now that table comes all the way to Minneapolis and, through my cell, to Texas and Wisconsin and Illinois. I don’t yet know what the outcome of the dialogue will be, but I sure am glad to be part of the conversation.
Being a part of Circle again, even from a geographic distance, has helped me to find joy, and hope. It is, after all, a “circle of hope,” and I believe it will help me to sustain life in the midst of the sorrow of COVID, of racial oppression and economic disparity, and in the midst of endless war to maintain U.S. “homeland security.” Advent is about the drama of hope as we choose to go through suffering rather than around it. Jesus endured suffering on the cross of course, but in a larger way the promise of Christmas, of Immanuel, “God with us,” is a promise that God enters our suffering more broadly too. As Bono infamously said at that 2006 National Prayer Breakfast:
God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.
I might quibble with some of what Bono said. There is an “us” and a “them” that he describes, and he could be seen as being somewhat condescending to “them.” Nonetheless, he was addressing the powerful in his speech, and I know that I occupy a place of power in this society. So I have much work to do to relinquish as much of it as I can so that I can get closer to the margins where Jesus and Paul are, in their “slavish shoes.”
All of this is why I’m so looking forward to Advent this year. I’m glad to be walking in the Circle of Hope as we recognize the suffering around us and lament it, even as our joy sustains us and moves us to hope. Likewise, I know that Keesmaat and Walsh will be wise guides as they help me to more fully get into Paul’s slavish shoes in order to understand his letter to the Romans from the underside of empire. Lord, let it be so.
Before you read this, please watch the video above, which I hope is embedded in this post correctly, and then I’ll share a bit about my reflection on the questions my friend Julius asks us to meditate on. By the way, Julius would want me to be sure to credit the creator of the Wordplay Method, whom you can find here, and I obviously want to credit Julius for his generous gift in offering the chance for reflection above and inviting others to share it.
You’ll see that the questions he asks us to reflect on, as we mourn the murder of George Floyd and so many others, are:
What is making us mad? Why is this making us mad?
What makes us feel scared? Why do we feel scared?
How can we change this?
How can we live with dignity and preserve the dignity of others?
At first I thought this would be an opportunity for me, as a heterosexual cisgendered male of European descent, to increase my empathy. The first two questions were relatively easy to enter into. What am I mad at, and why does it make me mad? I’m angry that a police officer that looks like me assassinated George Floyd slowly, for the world to see, as George pleaded for his life and called for his mom, all about 10 miles from my home. I’m angry that I wasn’t angry enough about Philando Castile or Jamar Clark, also both murdered not far from where I am. I’m angry that nothing seems to change, because “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” Of course, there’s already a problem here. Do you see what I did? Julius asks what makes us mad, and why, and I took the us and made it an I. Of course I can’t really reflect on these questions much as an “us” without being part of a we, and then I have to wonder what we am I part of? By the way, this issue of individualism and singular vs. plural language is at the heart, as I’ve said before, of much of our difficulties with Scripture. Much of Scripture is written to “you,” and I’ll remind myself and all of “you” again, that the “you’s” in Scripture are often if not usually plural. Do you read it differently if you think it’s directed at a group you’re supposed to be a part of, and not just to you sitting by yourself in your house?
So, back to the matter at hand, when Julius is asking what is making us mad and why, it would be myopic evidence of my white privilege not to recognize that one obvious us– BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)- are angry because people who look like me won’t stop killing them. Likewise, I must admit that undoubtedly there is an us of people who do look like me who are angry right now about protests and property destruction, and are more upset about this than they are about the long line of people like George Floyd being murdered. They’re more upset about protests and property destruction here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul than they are about the fact that the Twin Cities rank near the top of measures for educational achievement, home ownership rate, household income, and employment rate- for “white” people, and simultaneously at or near the bottom of all those measure for BIPOC. Consequently, a recent report ranked the Twin Cities at 92nd out of 100 metros for racial equity. Hence, all the hand-wringing by local television anchors over protests and property destruction and calls for “peace” and evident delight when cops and protesters can hug it out (even though we “can’t hug our way out of this“) are just more evidence of white privilege and the desire to see white power reasserted. I pray that my “white” brothers and sisters will be “saved” from this point of view- this ideology, way of life, system, and “power-” that leads us down the wide path to destruction.
What Makes Us Feel Scared, and Why?
Then I got into the next two questions: what makes us feel scared, and why do we feel scared? And as I drummed along with Julius, it hit me, and the tears began. As much as I want to be different, better, etc., I know that I’m not. Truly critical self-reflection and awareness compels me to admit that, while I may be afraid of many things, one of them is black and brown bodies. Let’s get some semantics out of the way right here. Many terms get used in this struggle for justice for BIPOC and in the critical analysis of the power structures that got us here. They include racism, prejudice, whiteness, white privilege, white power, white supremacy, white nationalism, and more. I was ready here to relate my understanding of these terms and concepts currently, but instead I want to offer this amazing resource put out by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Seriously, if you’re a “white” person reading this, maybe your time is best spent not listening to anything else I have to say; rather, maybe it’s best spent simply reflecting with Julius above and then fully exploring that page I just linked to on “whiteness.” The page works through many of the terms above. There are videos to watch and great authors and leaders to learn from. It’s well, well worth your time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you fully explore that page and learn from it, it could save someone’s life. The page doesn’t talk about policing generally or the need to defund and abolish the police. However, maybe with a better understanding of whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, and white nationalism, you (fellow “white” person) and I will be less likely to “other” our BIPOC neighbors by fearing them and calling the police on them, which we all should know by now can get them killed (by the way, please click that link in the words “can get them killed,” and then weep with me that the story linked is 5 years old and so many more names can be added to the list of dead). Want a list? Here’s one, courtesy of Facebook and Star Tribune photographer Aaron Lavinsky:
So as I said above one thing that makes me feel scared is black and brown bodies. The next question is why? When I reflect on why I feel scared, I must confess that I’m certainly worried about my *life*, but obviously in a wholly irrational and inexcusable way (due to socialization into “whiteness,” no doubt) since black and brown bodies have endured 400+ years of abuse, oppression, and violence at the literal hands of people who look like me, not the other way around. Even more, though, my fear has to do with stuff- possessions and “property.” In short, there is an irrational fear rooted inside me that BIPOC will come and take “my” stuff. This is hard to admit, again, because I know better. I know that everything belongs to God, so nothing is actually mine. I have become and remain convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is the “canon within the canon.” I know how much Scripture as a whole, but especially the Sermon on the Mount and even the Lord’s Prayer, have to do with money and possessions. And I know that the witness of Scripture and the early church clearly contradicts the ideology of market economies, capitalism, and so on. It was three years ago that I expressed that “capitalism had me feeling sad and depressed because of my illicit taking and greedy cheating.” I know, in fact, how very, very rich I am. Back when globalrichlist.com was active (it appears to now be defunct; here is an updated calculator– please try it out to get a little perspective), my family’s results were:
Clearly, then, I am the “rich young ruler” (quite literally due to whiteness in this society) that turned away from following Jesus through the narrow door that leads to life because my wealth is so very great.
This is all the more distressing because at least for several years now I’ve known that capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand. I’ve said that you only have to pay attention and look with clear eyes, and where you see one (capitalism or violence), the other will be nearby. I can’t go much further here without again mentioning Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s seminal work God’s Economy, which I wrote quite a bit about here, and which I further reflected on here (if you only read one of these other links of mine, that last one might be the best choice). In God’s Economy, Wilson-Hartgrove says:
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.
Another favorite book of mine of late, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, has a little paragraph that touches on this in passing. It’s just one little sentence, in which Laird writes that a man’s “…face had the freshness and peace of those whose poverty had taught them they had nothing to defend.” That, right there, is why I keep seeing this connection between capitalism and violence, and now how they so completely intersect with whiteness and racism. BIPOC are far more likely than “white” people to be poor, and the opposite is true as well. Whiteness makes it so that even if I grew up in a trailer park, which I did, I am far more likely than BIPOC to have access to resources that dramatically increase my standard of living, even if much of it is debt-financed (because capitalism doesn’t want anyone, rich or poor, to be free of its grasp). So as I said above much of the reason for my irrational fear of black and brown bodies has to do with “my” wealth relative to their poverty and my desire that it be protected. Obviously, there is much heartbreaking irony and even gaslighting here, since I live on stolen Indigenous land and benefit from an economy only made possible by 400+ years of slavery and Jim Crow laws, redlining and the carceral state, etc. The case for reparations is clear and compelling. As 4th century Greek Bishop Basil the Great is reported to have once preached:
Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.
How Can We Change This?
All of this brings me to Julius’ next set of questions, which I think are related: How can we change this, and, how can we live with dignity and preserve the dignity of others? First, let’s just acknowledge again the “we” here. I obviously don’t think I can solve the problems of or defeat the “powers” of capitalism, violence, racism, whiteness, patriarchy, and so on. I don’t even think that we can. But I do believe again that these are “principalities and powers” that we are wrestling against. That passage from Ephesians that I just linked to gives you the King James Version language of “principalities and powers.” In the NIV, it’s translated “rulers” and “authorities” in addition to “powers,” and is again worth a quote:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
By the way, this passage is the famous one that talks about the “armor of God.” Sounds violent, right? It’s not. In any case, though our struggle is against the “rulers” and “authorities,” the “powers,” the truly good news is that Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God dwells, has already defeated them, as we read in Colossians 2:9-15:
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh[b] was put off when you were circumcised by[c] Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you[d] alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Obviously, we live in a world that doesn’t much look like these powers of capitalism, violence, whiteness, racism, and patriarchy are defeated; thus we still “wrestle” with them. Why? Of course I can’t say for sure, but my suspicion has to do with one potential we that could be inferred from Julius’ last set of questions. And this we is why I strive to be anti-racist and against capitalism, violence, and patriarchy. Likewise, I think this we has everything to do with changing things, living with dignity, and preserving the dignity of others.
How Can We Live With Dignity and Preserve the Dignity of Others?
First, a little more Scripture, from an often-returned-to passage, Ephesians 2:14-18:
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
To recap, the two groups are Jews and Gentiles, but we can insert any two groups here- Black/White, Straight/Gay, Cisgender/Transgender, etc. Remember from Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Likewise from our Ephesians passage above, it is also “in Christ” that the dividing wall of hostility has forever been put to death on the cross. So, on the cross:
Jesus receives the violence of humanity without retaliating, thereby ending the cycle of violence forever.
Jesus puts to death the dividing wall of hostility separating any group of humans from any other group.
Jesus defeats the powers, the rulers and authorities of this “dark” world (not “world” in the sense of God’s good created order, but “world” in the sense of the Domination System that has been set up in opposition to the inbreaking rule of God’s kingdom).
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a]2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (italics added).3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Likewise, Paul had already said in the previous chapter (I Corinthians 1:18) that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” This power of God, revealed on the cross and in Jesus’ resurrection, is saving us from a world of domination. It is the Domination System that makes it possible for me to live in a place like this:
…while so many live in a place like this:
These two images present a stark contrast. It’s tempting to think that the folks in the lower of the two images above need to be “saved,” and maybe I should have a part in it as I commute from my high place in the upper of the two images above. But just the opposite is true. The materially poor are often “poor” enough not to fear their neighbor. The materially poor are often “poor” enough to hold what they do have loosely enough to be generous with it. Statistics show that the materially poor are always much more generous than the materially rich, even if all the materially poor have is “a few cents.” God has a special concern for the materially poor. He draws near to them. They are blessed. It is the materially rich like me who need to be saved. The materially poor might teach me how.
This Power of God is Revealed on the Cross, but Displayed in the Church…
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Why were they of one heart and soul? Because on the cross the dividing wall of hostility between them had been torn down. Circle of Hope was talking about this again today on both of their Daily Prayer blogs. On the Wind blog they said:
They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.
More thoughts for meditation
This radical distribution the first church had a precedent. The Greek word used for “shared the money” is diamerizo, meaning “distributed among,” and it is used only one other time in Acts. In fact, the Pentecost chapter starts with it: “Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire diamerizo (was distributed among) each of them” (2:3). In other words, the Holy Spirit modeled an economy where everyone had enough and no one was left out, which caused the disciples to act out a similar economy with their “stuff”—where no one was out to fend for themselves, all were connected to a larger whole.
Sometimes the idea of sharing our property and possessions, taking only what we need, and trusting God to provide for our future needs can feel unrealistic or irresponsible. We may need the Holy Spirit to take the first step, again.
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
They reflected on this by saying:
Knowing God brings about a change in the knower. It is impossible to know joy without somehow becoming more joyful. It is impossible to know generosity without becoming generous. This I suppose was the problem for the workers in the parable. To accept the meal of generosity that the owner of the vineyard was offering would have required a change of heart on their part. They would have needed to stop eating the food their ego was giving them – all the stuff about what is deserved, what is fair, and what they ought to be getting. Those little self-consolatory morsels are so sweet that real Food tastes bland in comparison at first. Those morsels have no substance though and only leave us feeling sick. God gives us His own love as food, and it has real transforming power. It not only is good, but it makes us good and helps us see a world that holds a banquet of goodness.
In the past I’ve read this parable of workers in the vineyard as being a play in the theater of the absurd. One could read it such that the topsy-turvy nature of the last being first and first being last, if carried on indefinitely, would result in perpetual reversals of hierarchy. This reading has “worked” for me in the past because I saw it as indicating that the whole system of hierarchy was itself absurd. I still find this reading helpful. Today, though, what struck me was that the first worker received a day’s wages. He received his “daily bread.” He got enough. Though this worker who came first didn’t much like it, the worker who came last received a day’s wages too, because the giver was generous. The worker who came last also got “enough.” Though their “sharing” was forced, what they had was equality. If I and people like me, who have gathered so much more than “enough,” so much more than our daily bread, would sell our ill-gotten gain (remember: stolen land and an economy in America built by slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the carceral state) and begin to make reparations; if we would hold possessions loosely and in common among a not just racially but socioeconomically diverse church that is really going for this; if we would get “small,” then there might be no materially poor among us either.
Meanwhile, the materially poor still have much to teach us. They can teach us, if we would join them, that we have nothing to defend and therefore no enemies to fear. If we would align ourselves with the materially poor and become materially poor ourselves, like Jesus, our proximity would enable true solidarity, as my friend Jesse Curtis wrote on Twitter yesterday. Note below that he’s talking about proximity to and solidarity with Black people, while I have just now been talking about the materially poor, but the intersectionality here, because of the powers of whiteness and racism, is by now well established. He said:
Another old friend and pastor, and the person who actually introduced Jesse and I, talked about this too, I think in an email from many years ago. Duane Crabbs, who with his wife Lisa founded South Street Ministries in Akron, OH, wrote:
As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated…
I keep coming back to what Duane wrote me because I know he’s right. I just spent much of today in my head, thinking and writing about all this. Fortunately the day started slightly more embodied as I meditated with Circle of Hope’s Daily Prayer offerings and then drummed along with Julius. Still, Duane’s call to throw our lot in with the suffering and Jesse’s call to not treat whiteness as some kind of incurable disease and instead, through proximity and solidarity, experience actual harms that whiteness might inflict on those that don’t go along with it, are nothing short of God’s gospel word for me. Jesus binds us and all things together and makes us, united in him, embodied good news for the poor and suffering. Kirsten and I have a renewed sense of call to do this work- to sell or give away as reparations our possessions and find Jesus again, in his church among those who suffer, so that we can “learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity.” Our salvation may depend on it.
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:
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:
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7 If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 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.
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:
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:
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.
I’m still long overdue for a post of my own. Meanwhile, I came across this piece this morning by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review. It’s a powerful critique of the new Black Panther film. I confess that I’ve been tempted to see Black Panther, despite my ever challenging commitment to resist violence in all its forms, including and especially the way I choose to entertain myself. Violence is so utterly pervasive in our society, and the myth of redemptive violence so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is never given a first- let alone a second- thought (even/especially by would-be Jesus followers). Thus it is not surprising that a movie that purports to be at least in some way about black power would necessarily also be a movie about black violence. Unfortunately, Black Panther turns out to be a movie that reinforces tropes about black-on-black violence. Haven’t we had enough of those already?
Black Panther is, of course, a comic book/superhero movie, and thus could not exist without again reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. As Christopher Lebron says in the Boston Review piece linked above, “After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles?” I’ve read other reviews, such as this one in the NY Post, that inevitably compare T’Challa, the title character of Black Panther, to MLK, Jr. and Killmonger, the black villain, to Malcolm X. As the NY Post author says: “T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.” Missing here is any thoughtful nuance, such as the recognition that MLK, Jr. was no mere pacifist, but a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. This is a distinction with a monumental difference. Moreover, in the very next sentence, the Post author, Sara Stewart, writes: “Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown” (of Wakanda, the fictional African country that Black Panther calls home). If T’Challa were truly the Martin to Killmonger’s Malcolm, he would not have engaged in a brawl to get/maintain power. That’s violent resistance, not nonviolent resistance. But I digress. The Boston Review piece is really worth the read. I recommend it heartily.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
As some who know me personally and read this blog may know, I’m running the Twin Cities 10 Mile Race this weekend (tomorrow, in fact!). I actually signed up for the marathon, but “life happened,” and I had to adjust my goal race. The main goal, however, aside from learning, yet again, to be a runner, was to raise money for clean water in Africa. The stats, from World Vision, are devastating:
Every day, nearly 1,600 children under 5 die from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene.
About every minute, a child under 5 dies as a result of diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene.
Globally, 1 in 9 people lack access to clean water.
Worldwide, 748 million people lack access to clean water.
Women and children in sub-Saharan Africa spend 20 million hours collecting water each day.
I’ve talked incessantly on this blog over the past year especially about the need to “get small.” Part of the drive to do so is rooted in a recognition that for others to come up, I have to come down. When so many around the world still lack the most basic necessity of life- water that won’t kill them because it’s contaminated- while I enjoy not just clean water but coffee and soda and orange juice and too much (often unhealthy) food and piles of books and a car and so much “stuff” that some of it has to be stored even after giving a lot of it away, something has to change. First, I must repent of keeping far more than my “daily bread” while some starve, for keeping far more than two coats while my neighbor freezes. Remember, though, repentance is an act. It’s a “turning around.” And so, I must act. Every day Kirsten and I are learning how to get smaller, how to be generous, how to share what God has given us to pass on to others.
I admit that I’m suspicious of “charity,” especially the professional kind. Capitalism- inherent to which is a love of Mammon- infects everything. Every day in the news there’s a new scandal about some big corporation being evil, and all too often you can find such news about some big professional charity too. So I remain dubious about many of them. Giving money to a charity can be more about “throwing money at a problem” than about anything else, especially for we rich people of European descent. Much more than money is needed, of course. We all need to repent. We all need to get a little “smaller,” I would argue. Directing resources (often, money) toward a problem must be part of a lifestyle of repentance, a lifestyle of generosity. It must be rooted, I believe, in a commitment to give to those who ask of us, as Jesus directed.
All of that is not to say, however, that money is not needed, that it will not help. There is so much to be said about economic development in impoverished areas here in the U.S. and around the globe, but I’m not looking to address that now. Elsewhere, I’ve written about my questions about the “toxic charity” crowd, for example. What I’m pretty sure of, however, is that this is not an “either/or.” It’s a “both/and.” I believe that if as a rich European American one is seeking to live a life of devolution, of “getting small” by sharing the many blessings that God has given us, by seeking to be close to those on the margins so that we can be in solidarity with them and learn from, receive from, and be loved by them even as we seek to love and give to them, then part of that effort can and should involve giving money, as strategically as possible, to address extreme global poverty, including and especially the clean water crisis in Africa. Here’s a video from World Vision about how they are helping do just that:
Remember, then, that Kirsten and I are trying really hard to be people who are ready to “give to those who ask of us.” So when we were asked to run with Team World Vision to give clean water to folks in Africa who die for lack of access to it, we pretty much had to say yes. It’s been an interesting journey as we’ve done so. As it turns out, again, we’re not running the marathon tomorrow. 10 miles will feel a bit like a marathon to us. We’re just not there yet. That said, we’re in this for the long haul. The journey of “getting small” and being in solidarity with our poor neighbors around the block and around the world is a marathon for us, not a sprint. Last night was the “team dinner” for Team World Vision, and we’ve already committed to running with them next year (our goal race will be the half, not the full, marathon). We also committed to sponsoring two children, two girls from Rwanda. Any dubiousness on my part aside, I’ve been struck by the culture among Team World Vision. Those who get up and speak at meetings and the like clearly take what they’re doing very seriously. They may not (yet, Lord willing) share our views on Empire and capitalism itself and the like, but they’re obviously committed to a lifestyle of generosity as they understand what that means in their journey at this point. Most of the speakers I’ve heard not only run for clean water, but sponsor kids too, and many of them can tell stories and show pictures from meeting their sponsor children. You know what that means? That means there’s at least some proximity in play. They’ve looked their sponsor children in the eye, seen their meager (by our standards) homes, and are being shaped by their relationship with these kids they feel called to love tangibly. That matters.
So when we were invited to sponsor a child, and told that by doing so we would not only get to love on our sponsor kid(s) but would also get a credit to our Team World Vision fundraising pages, we knew we had to say yes, and we each sponsored a child, four and five year old girls from Rwanda. Of course it’s a bit of an accounting gimmick, but the reality is that anything we give, and anything you give because we invite you to, is a win. It all goes toward changing the lives of our extremely poor neighbors around the world, and to their credit World Vision works very hard to make it as relational as possible. We’re invited into the lives of our sponsor kids, and have the opportunity to invite them into ours. Thus, as I said, there’s some proximity involved, paradoxically even with an ocean between us.
So will you join us in giving? Will you help me reach my goal of giving clean water to 40 kids? Here’s some more info about “the water effect” from World Vision:
THE WATER EFFECT
Nearly 1,600 children under 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by dirty water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene. That’s why World Vision is providing a new person with clean water every 30 seconds as part of our full solution to poverty.
Water transforms. When you give clean water, you set off a chain reaction for good. Children are freed from deadly water-related diseases. People become healthier and more productive. Girls get to go to school rather than trek long distances to gather filthy water. Less money is spent on medicine, which means more savings and more investment in things like education. With better health and more time, parents can start small businesses—creating more jobs. Water promises a bright future, and a full life—the kind of life God intends.
The water effect is an outward spiral that positively transforms the entire community. And World Vision is there to support these solutions with programs that go well beyond water into every other aspect of human life—physical, emotional, and spiritual. That’s because we believe clean water and the love of Jesus are crucial elements in a full solution to poverty—a solution that includes food, education, healthcare, and more.
Our water projects are comprehensive, sustainable, and complex. World Vision’s projects engage the local community, local church, and local government. Staff and engineers choose from different types of water points depending on the geography and the needs of a community. Innovative projects like wells, solar-powered pumps, pipelines, dams, and rain catchments are implemented for human consumption, farm irrigation, livestock nourishment, and more.
World Vision’s water projects also focus on improved sanitation and hygiene solutions; this includes building latrines and organizing communities to implement good habits like hand-washing or repairing wells.
And here’s a bit about World Vision’s approach:
Will you give? God the giver made us to be givers too. Generosity is something God wants for us, not from us. Kirsten and I are sponsoring two girls from Rwanda. We’re running in this race tomorrow, and we’re trying to get as “small” as we can, all because we were invited to join God in giving. We were asked to be part of a literal circle of life. You’re invited too! Just $50 gives clean water to one person for life. Here’s another link to my fundraising page.