2020’s Top 10

I needed a picture to sum up my writing in 2020. This one, of one of the first cell groups my wife and I were ever a part of, seems to fit the bill.

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.

Number #10 Post Read in 2020: A Chronic Would-Be Rescuer Confronts His False Self

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.

Number #9 Post Read in 2020: Better

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.

Number #8 Post Read in 2020: My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

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.

Number #7 Post Read in 2020: Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

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.

Number #6 Post Read in 2020: Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

You get music again. I give what I have to give, I guess. Rich Mullins still inspires me, and I hope this song of his plays at my funeral.

Number #5 Post Read in 2020: It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

I wrote this just before Christmas of 2020, riffing off Brennan Manning, and yes, Laird’s Into the Silent Land again.

Number #4 Post Read in 2020: Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

This is another early in the pandemic post from 2020, explaining why the way I encounter Jesus among the Circle of Hope continues to inspire me and captivate my theological imagination.

Number #3 Post Read in 2020: In Memoriam

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.”

Number #2 Post Read in 2020: Why I Keep Talking About…Alternativity, the Bruderhof, and Church of All Nations

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.

Number #1 Post Read in 2020: Buck Family 2020 Christmas Newsletter

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.

It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.

This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:

The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”

The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus

What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:

The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Manning goes on:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”

Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:

All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.

This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.

Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:

The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.

To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”

The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…

Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Stripped and Filled

I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.

The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”

“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”

This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”

I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.

Joy and Sorrow in the Circle of Hope

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?

Circle of Hope has been wrestling with this idea for at least a while now. As Rod White, Circle’s founding pastor wrote about Paul a few years ago:

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.

They add:

…the pathos that goes all the way down to the core of creation also goes all the way up the heart of God.

And:

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.

Better

The scene from my prayer cell this morning.

“It’s Hidden in my Heart”

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

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

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

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


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

I’m not the same

Your word has changed me

It is hidden in my heart

My life has a fresh start

 

I’m walking out freer

I’m walking out stronger

I’m walking out better

Better than when I came

 

Oh, it’s getting better

Oh, it’s getting better

Oh, it’s already better

Better than when I came

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

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

Some of Circle of Hope’s various musical offerings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

◉ Without worship, a person shrinks.

I’m Not the Same

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

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

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

 

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

The Ocean of My Soul

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

Jesu, guidance. Now I know what love is

Compass, Kindness, all that I need in You

 

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

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

the ocean of my soul, the ocean of my soul

 

Jesu, lightness, now I know what life is

Center, Likeness, all that I see is You

 

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

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.

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

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

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

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

If You Can’t See the Ocean You’re Swimming In, Open Your Eyes.

In the player above, skip ahead to track 3, “Buzzing of a Bee,” and give it a listen. Below is an early version of the lyrics of this song, courtesy of Circle of Hope in Philly and their partners, including the spoken word artist, Blew Kind. Here’s what they say about it:

CONFESSION
We are being honest about our mistakes, limits, and the brokenness of our world. Blew Kind wrote this spoken word piece preparing for the event in Fall of 2014 called “Peacemaking in an Era of Drone Warfare” put on by the Philadelphia Interfaith Network Against Drone Warfare, of which we are a contributing member along with The Brandywine Peace Community, Mennonite Central Committee (East Coast), Red Letter Christians, The Alternative Seminary, and American Friends Service Committee. The military plans on building and opening a US Drone War Command Center in Horsham, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. We first performed this piece at the coalition event with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and a viewing of the short documentary “Wounds of Waziristan” and then at a monthly peace vigil outside the Air Guard Station, the future home of the command center. Try to listen as she connects violence and white supremacy to drone warfare and calls into question its morality and our need to root ourselves in Jesus to fight against their propagation.

lyrics

Here are most of the lyrics, in a slightly earlier form

In search of men. Ages 18-48
That may resemble a “militant”
Why are you here?
I thought it was to help
Join the fight against ISIS, against terrorism
Whom are pushing people into exile for refusal to be
Their faith.

The creativity to be a refuge & fighter of the “free world”
As you say,
Is lacking and only gravitates towards
Maintaining the status of Violence.
There are 40,000 people hiding
in the mountains for their lives.

How dare you impose your system of violence
When our leaders insist you to stop, stating
“The use of drones is not only a
continual violation of our territorial integrity
but also detrimental to our resolve & efforts
at eliminating terrorism in our country”
Another states,
“These drones are illegal, in humane
violate the UN Charter of Human Rights
And constitutes as a War Crime. “
And all you can do is
“disagree”
from the mouths of pride & disillusioned power
contending “that the attacks
do not violate international law

(people in the audience start Buzzing..)
We call them “Bangadan”..buzzing of a bee
The hover
All day. Louder at night.
No war declared but you bomb my people…
I hold my babies tight
And hope we will see tomorrow together..
I hear the wailing of a monther, my neighbor
Lost their baby before their eyes.
All dust. No warning.
Wailing all day. Louder at night.
Tears find their home on my cheek.
Praying for my children, these precious souls
That birthed from my womb..
(stop buzzing..)

Will there ever be peace?
Will this madness never end?
The anxiety, the fear, the nightmares

Bzzzz…

“No identities needed, Vaguries around strike targets”
common English reports state.
2500 of my people
have been blown to die
from these buzzing drones
that have no face.
To stand on a mountain
Pointing guns & lazers
Bizzz Bzz..
Grinning, “you…weak one will fear me”
You.. hide when you hear me”
Because Fear to this
American militarized self seeking puppet
Is the fuel that
Cycles poverty
Cycles barbarism against those
Of the brown skin.
Old news, are you familiar?
Oh right, the American educational system and media neglect to educate
The truth of this madness, disgust, thick,
Stains of this lands forefathers, big business owners…
Or as Ida B Wells states in the 19th century,
“They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted by the press associations and the world without question or investigation. The sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done well in the broad day light.”
Oh! Ida B Wells. You had somethin goin on..
After 9/11 Fear has pushed the people
To accept ridiculous laws of control
Power in the hands of the government
Dictating Who is suspicious
Whose rights get torn away,
Private prisons of torture,
Radicalization of violence
All for the “Fight of Terror”

precise and affective.”
First:
Who are you to be a judge of international law/ethics/morals?
Rooted in a history of barbarism, greed, debt enslaving countries
Of families
Lynching stilling alive on your “God given blood stained soil”
Second:
If you are as affective as stated.
Why for every 1 “suspected” militant
10 innocent mothers, daughters, fathers, sons are killed
Deciding morality and viability of these
Destructive tactics using statistics is empty and corrupt
When human lives are your quantitative data
Or, lets use a more detached phrase of
“causalities”

These cycles of violence.
A “necessary evil”
Sewed into the deepest muck of
Racism this land of laws has ever known.
System based on fear.
Fear of the unknown
Un-colonized
Un-English
Un-White
So How ‘bout we adjust our view of what profit could actually mean.
What if maintaining the status of profit is actually
Maintaining the braid of families, children, culture, and hope.
Profit driven by a chain of hands
Linking in the presence of injustice.
Rooted in Jesus.

If you ask what the people want of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia
They sing that of the same note.
“No more killing of our people
No more funerals of our mothers, daughters, fathers, sons..”
Hear our wail
All day. Louder at night.
May our voice be heard
And the bows of the wicked broken.
Her our wail
Mother Justice of the great deep
Father Refuge in the shadow of your wings..
Hear our wail..
And hope
we will see tomorrow together..

Bzzzz…. Bzzz…
We call them Bangadan
Buzzing of a bee

All for the “Fight of Terror”
“If everything is Terrorism,
nothing is terrorism,”
states former FBI Special Agent
“[the watchlist system] is revving out of control”

Now is the time to rid ourselves of this old foundation,
The leaders of this country
As the “Defenders of the Free World”
As the leaders of Greed, Racism, Profit, and Civilization.
Now is the time to
Adapt a new foundation
Rooted in those of the Resistors, the Martyrs
Who voice forgiveness, compassion, peace
Who voice the cry of the needy
The cry of the oppressed
How can we be a part of the solution before
Tension escalates to wildness and blood?
Yes, Peace isn’t profitable
…especially in a country governed
by the big business of weaponry.
However, an old saying goes
“There is future for the men & women of peace
& their children will be blessed
But the future of the wicked will be cut off”

credits

from Finding Home, released December 4, 2015

No Rival

I’ve been spending my lunch break lately in Luther Seminary‘s (my alma mater) Chapel of the Cross, where this challenging-and-inspiring-all-at-once piece of art can be found.

Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:

This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.

As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of  being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.

Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.

All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.

Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.

The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?

If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?

A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:

I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects-  and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.

Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?

Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”

Amen.

God is With Us if We Are With Them, Especially When Your New Neighbor is Drunk and Lost

(Arguably the best part of this clip begins at the 4:47 mark; so skip ahead if you’re short on time.)

My new neighbor was drunk on a warm Sunday afternoon. It was just weeks after we moved into the Beltrami neighborhood of NE Minneapolis. Kirsten was gone loving and serving her mom in Coon Rapids; so the boys and I walked the few blocks from our new home down to the corner store (we have a neighborhood corner store!) to buy cheap candy (’cause that’s what you do at a corner store) and then we started walking about a block in the other direction toward the park. There were lots of people out on this bright, warm, late spring afternoon, including more than a few whizzing by on bikes (our home is located along one of Minneapolis’ many urban bike routes).

For some reason, she picked Sam and Nathan and I. She was maybe just out of her teens, though I doubt it. She was young, and looked younger. More than that, she was, as I said, drunk (I could smell it), and scared, and alone.

She came up to me and said she couldn’t find her way home. She didn’t know where she lived. No doubt the alcohol had something to do with it, but she had also apparently just moved into the neighborhood herself. We weren’t much help as she asked for directions, but she also wasn’t even sure of her own new address. We committed to help her, however. She said she had a phone that was dead that if she could just charge would enable her to look up her address. I suggested walking back to the corner store and asking if they would let her plug her phone in for a minute (she said she had her charger with her). Kirsten, the boys, and I had been in the corner store enough since moving in that we knew the folks who run the corner store “are really nice,” and indeed the guy who was working agreed to let her plug her phone in (I never caught my drunk neighbor’s name; things were a little awkward). She plugged it in, but that was useless as the screen was so cracked you couldn’t see anything on the screen. She had asked me to look up her address (somehow) on my phone, but I don’t have a smartphone any more, and so could not.

I had asked her who she lived with, if it was her parents, given how young she looked. She said they hate her, and she did not live with them. Maybe that’s where she moved from. Even so, given the situation, she borrowed my flip phone to call her dad, whom she spoke with, along with her mom. There was arguing and cursing, but someone agreed to text her new address to my phone, which they did, and we agreed to walk her there. It was a block away. We got to her new place, and with obvious relief but not a word to us, she disappeared around back.

Did I help her, I wonder? No doubt she left a bad situation with her parents, but did she leave it for a worse one? And what responsibility do I have now? I don’t know her name, but I know where she lives, and I have access to her parents, I suppose. Would she even remember what happened if we saw her again? Perhaps I assume too much to think I even have some responsibility to “help.” What help could I offer? Obviously she might be a little better off if her life wasn’t such that she found herself drunk and lost a block from her new home in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I can pray for her, to be sure. And perhaps as I and my family run, bike, and take walks in our new neighborhood we can be sure to go her way, just on the off-chance we might run into her again. This, I suppose, is part of the “art of neighboring.” It’s the next sermon series among the people of Mill City Church, and is based on the book of the same name. I’m praying it’s as useful as its promise portends.

I notice as I reflect and write about this experience that there’s something gratifying about it for me, and that troubles me. I wish that young woman hadn’t been drunk and lost, and therefore I wish I hadn’t had the opportunity to help her. I did, though, and I won’t deny that it brought a sense of confirmation that we were on the right path, the path my family and I have been on of late, as we try to follow Jesus more closely by getting “small” and hopefully getting just a little closer to being “under” vis-a-vis the powers that be rather than “over,” which is the position that our heritage and skin tone typically puts us in. I know this: while the ‘burb we came from likely has more than its fair share of drunk neighbors, there was something different about this experience in the city. I’ve written before, for example, about how much more densely populated our current neighborhood is compared to our old one. Thus, the streetscape here is simply much more conducive to precipitating the kind of interaction I write about above; whereas in our old suburban neighborhood the potential for such interaction is greatly diminished, if for no other reason than “white flight” motivated city planning.

My lack of altruism notwithstanding, I am glad that I was there to help her- however much “help” it really was- rather than someone else with less conflicted and more nefarious motives. And besides, if solidarity with the “least of these-” or in the case of this country- the “lesser of these” really does require proximity, as I keep learning it does, I’m glad to be just a little closer to the kind of folks Jesus spent most of his time with. That’s obviously a big part of why we made this move to NE Mpls. So here’s what we’re focusing on this summer:

Our Summer 2017 Family Focus: Trying to Go “Deep” as we “Get Small….”

If you can’t make it out very well, it says:

Phew! We’ve been learning about following Jesus, “that preacher of peace,” from “under,” not “over,” as we try to get “small.” Now it’s time to dig in and consolidate those gains. Let’s go deep and make these lessons ones that are learned and lived every day.

Learn: -Finish peacemaking books (I’ve read the first two of these: A Farewell to Mars, Free of Charge, The Politics of Jesus, & Nonviolent Action)  and complete the Mammon to Manna video series.

Pray: “God, you gave up your power and became small so that you could be close to the ‘least of these,’ our brothers and sisters. Help us to do the same so that we can meet you among them, and in ourselves as we become more like ‘them.’ Help us to decrease, so that you might increase. Amen.”

Do/Act: -Serve in the kitchen at Hope Ave. with our missional community and perfect “the art of neighboring.” Institute car sharing/biking to work.

Summer Family Memory Verse: “…Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” -John 3:29b-30. Background: Some thought John the Baptist was “the Christ.” John alluded to the Church being the bride of Christ and said he was a “friend of the bridegroom” who took joy at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. He then said the above, saying he (John) must get small so that Jesus could take center stage. We rich “white” people, denizens of the “American” empire, are trying to do the same.

Meanwhile we keep learning just how not only political, but economic, the way of Jesus is as we try ever more fully to live as citizens of God’s kingdom rather than the “little kingdoms of this world” and participants in God’s economy rather than unmitigated consumer (late) capitalism. Thus we’re dreaming up ways to share resources and looking for partners to join us, and we’re hopeful that God the giver is positioning us just where we need to be so that we can more fully live into our calling to be givers too. For my just passed 42nd birthday, I was glad to be able to give clean water to 1 person in Africa for life via Team World Vision, for whom I am- Lord willing- running the Twin Cities Marathon (more on that later). I tried to resist wanting any other presents in the form of material goods, but Kirsten and I did pick up a few very cheap secondhand books to continue our learning, which I’m excited about. They are:

We still have a lot to learn via The Powers That Be, Jesus and the Disinherited, God of the Oppressed, and “Say to This Mountain.”

If you’re reading this, whether near or far, might you consider joining our bit of rabble-rousing “foolishness?” We’re cashing in retirement plans to pay off debt and so to be sure not to “store up treasure on earth.” We’re giving stuff away and looking for neighbors to share cars and lives with as we try to take care of God’s good earth and limit the extent to which we live as consumers rather than Jesus-followers. We’re re-imagining savings accounts as generosity funds and conjuring up folks to be generous to. I know there must be others like us out there. After all, my old acquaintance Glenn, whom I know from youth and would call a friend in Jesus, posted this on FB tonight:

Screenshot 2017-06-12 at 11.22.08 PM
Occasionally something good comes from Facebook.

 

God is on the side of the oppressed, indeed. So often we want God to be with us in what we do, and He may well be, as Bono helpfully reminds at the end of the clip that starts this post. But whatever we believe, again as Bono says, we can be sure that:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums and 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.

Amen.

 

Rich Mullins Sings About the Secular Politics of Our Day

Hit play on the video above and give Rich a listen as he sings prophetically about the days we live in. All the words below are his, from his classic song While the Nations Rage, which draws from Psalm 2. Some of the pictures below show the church rising up in Jesus’ name to love and serve those around them. Some of them, sadly, juxtapose Rich’s words (“the church of God she will not bend her knees…”) with an image of the church doing just the opposite. I’ll let Rich take it from here…

 

"Why do the nations rage?  Why do they plot and scheme?"
“Why do the nations rage? 
Why do they plot and scheme?”

 

"Their bullets can't stop the prayers we pray  In the name of the Prince of Peace "
“Their bullets can’t stop the prayers we pray 
In the name of the Prince of Peace “

“We walk in faith and remember long ago
How they killed Him and then how on the third day He arose
Well, things may look bad
And things may look grim
But all these things must pass except the things that are of Him”

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But behold the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name..."
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But behold the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name…”

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But not so the love  He has given  No, it remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But not so the love 
He has given 
No, it remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage”

 

"The Lord in Heaven laughs  He knows what is to come  While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks  Against His anointed One"
“The Lord in Heaven laughs 
He knows what is to come 
While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks 
Against His anointed One”

 

"The Church of God she will not bend her knees"
“The Church of God she will not bend her knees

 

 

"To the gods of this world though they promise her peace"
“To the gods of this world though they promise her peace”

 

 

"She stands her ground  Stands firm on the Rock  Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love"
“She stands her ground 
Stands firm on the Rock 
Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love”

 

 

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But not so the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name"
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But not so the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name

 

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But behold the love  He has given  It remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage  While the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But behold the love 
He has given 
It remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage 
While the nations rage”

“Well, where are the nails that pierced His hands?
Well the nails have turned to rust
But behold the Man
He is risen
And He reigns
In the hearts of the children
Rising up in His name
Where are the thorns that drew His blood?
Well, the thorns have turned to dust
But not so the love
He has given
Oh, it remains
In the hearts of the children
Who will love”

 

"...while the nations rage..."
“…while the nations rage…”

 

Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

The Jordan River in Palestine (ht here)
The Jordan River in Palestine (picture courtesy of this site)

My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).

This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.

Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.

I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:

 

The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

CHORUS:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

 

I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:

The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)
The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)

The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:

– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)

– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)

– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)

– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)

 

What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:

In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).

 

Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”

The New Testament states that John the Baptist baptised unto repentance[10] in the Jordan (Matthew 3:56; Mark1:5; Luke 3:3; John1:28). These acts of Baptism are also reported as having taken place at Bethabara (John 1:28).

Jesus came to be baptised by him there (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21, 4:1). The Jordan is also where John the Baptist bore record of Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God (John 1:29–36).

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah which names the Jordan (Isaiah 9:1–2) is also reported in Matthew 4:15.

The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).

 

What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol.  So again Rich sings:

 

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

 

In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.

 

 Rich continues in the song:

 

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

 

Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

 

Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:

 

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.  

 

Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:

 

…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

 

Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.  

 

After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:

 

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

 

I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:

 

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

 

The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.

 

“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:

 

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

 

Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.

 

This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.

 

Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly,  I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.

 

Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

 

Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.

The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.